Wii U, I look just like Buddy Holly
You’ve been here before. This place is new: with a new name, new maps, and new dangers at every corner. You can’t shake off this deja vu.
In the first 10 minutes, you smell the cloying stench of corruption. The floors are littered with unmentionables—dead rats perhaps, or used syringes. Mysterious slabs of meat and rotting things. You’re surrounded, hounded to the ends of the earth by a battalion of crazy-eyed zealots. It’s like a nightmare. You’ve got to escape.
This place. Let’s call it Rapture. Or Dunwall, if you like. Or Racoon City, or Silent Hill. The name doesn’t matter. This place is a staple of any horror-survival action game. In this game, this city is your whole world and your whole world has gone to shit.
[This is the first piece of a three-part essay.]
Worldbuilding is a frequently unsung art form. In literature, film, and video games, worldbuilding takes a backseat to the story because it is the backdrop of the story. It is the canvas on which the story is painted on. It’s easy to overlook.
But it takes great skill to build a world. When done right, worldbuilding not only make the story shine, it suggests the possibility of other stories set in that world, stories that have not yet been written.
Middle Earth is one such world. Tolkien was a master craftsman who not only described each country’s rich history and culture, he added folklore in his world. Hell, he even made an entirely new language with a working oral and written system for Elves.
Because of this, Middle Earth moves and lives like an actual world. Close the book and this world will continue to turn because the cogwheels and spokes that make it up fit so seamlessly. Without Bilbo Baggins’ accidental adventure that triggers the entirety of Tolken’s tale, it is still easy to imagine Middle Earth in motion. Ents will sleep, Elves will gallop through forests like gazelle, Dwarves will play beer pong and braid their beards, and Hobbits will eat shrooms and smoke the Halfling’s leaf all day, errday, every damn day.
The same could be said of the world in The Matrix. The Wachowski brothers’ story about everyday-chump-turned-savior-of-the-techno-world follows Joseph Campbell’s story template in The Hero’s Journey. Grind him to his bones and Neo is just another Luke Skywalker/ Harry Potter/ Odysseus. A generic hero.
What makes Neo (and Luke, Harry, Odysseus, and a myriad of other protagonists) stand out is the world they live in. Heroes are defined by the obstacles they overcome, and to a certain type of hero, the whole world is out to get them.
Neo lives in a virtual world where all of us are slaves to machines (Imagine that!). He fights soulless replicating bots capable of spinning any incredibly convincing illusion. Neo fights to free us all.
The devil is always in the details. The comprehensive back story provides the pulse of The Matrix universe. The machine uprising that led to total human enslavement lurked behind Neo’s story, even if it wasn’t discussed in the films. At the end of the trilogy, Neo’s story may have ended, but the world endures.
(The world of the Matrix was too compelling, too good to leave alone that the direct-to-video animated film collection, Animatrix, had nine solid stories set in the same universe– all of which were punch-to-the-gut good.)
Worldbuilding then is not about setting the parameters of the story. It doesn’t frame the story but puts it in context. It shouldn’t limit the story. Really effective worldbuilding is when the audience feels deep in their base chakra that there is more here than what meets the eye.
In video games, it’s easy to overlook the worlds laid out at our feet. We’re too busy being the powerful hero, looking at the amazing graphics, and marveling at our kills. Who can blame us?
In my mind, two games in particular had a bigger story to tell than that of their protagonists: 2K Games’ Bioshock (2007) and Arkane Studios’ Dishonored (2012). Above and beyond the fish-out-of-water story of Jack and the betrayed-bodyguard-turned-avenging-rogue Corvo Attano is the story of their doomed cities Rapture and Dunwall, respectively.
Both games had certain karma systems at play, wherein the player’s decisions informed and influenced the game endings for both heroes. There is a “good ending” where the players emerge triumphant and the game pats them on the back for a job well done. And there is a “bad ending” where the cities are brought to their knees and horrible, horrible things happen at the wake of the player’s run.
Are bad endings necessarily bad? They can be less satisfying for player who believes that he is the hero, that they should defeat the bad guys, get the girl, and save the day. But there is a bigger story here than that of the hero. In the story of their respective worlds, sometimes bad endings are the proper endings, the conclusions that the world deserves.
This essay is the first of three parts.