Thursday, August 16, 2012

One Dimensional Worlds

We've all heard of one dimensional characters. The cardboard cut outs of people that have zero depth to them. The meat head heavy hitter who exist only to be the dumb jock. The jerk who shoves the geek into a locker for no reason. The ditsy damsel in distress with all the personality of a balloon who exist solely to be rescued and fall in love with our protagonist.

Thankfully these characters have been fading from the public eye as genres have become more established and storytelling has evolved across multiple mediums. But what about one dimensional worlds? Not to be confused with single-biome worlds like Hoth or Dune that have only one terrain type. No, I'm talking about the worlds that feel thin, where you can see the seems that hold them together, like old western backlots that show storefront after storefront only to be held up by boards in the back.

Holy crap, they still make Clip Art?

Our worlds need just as much depth, if not more than our characters. For our world is a character, and in many ways the most important. You can have the best characters, the most interesting story, but if your world doesn't feel real no one will buy the rest. This isn't to say that you need dragons flying in the skies or mole people popping out from the sewers. Even our ever day, dull and boring world can be interesting and multidimensional with settings and characters that make it feel truly alive.

Video Games

Video games are one of the most captivating forms of entertainment because they have the ability to convey story to the audience every second of every moment of gameplay.With books you only have the words which the reader must visualize, with movies the viewer is limited to passively absorbing the material. In video games the player is interacting with the story through it's mechanics and it's world. The world is crafted from the ground up to convey the theme and story to the character at all times.

I had a discussion with a friend the other night about three popular video games and their worlds. Fallout 3 and Skyrim, made by Bethesda and Mass Effect by Bioware. Three very different games with different stories and characters. More importantly with very different styles of design. All are, in their own way "open world" allowing the player to go from area to area as they please and tackle the games missions in what order they like. All three games allow the player to add members to their team, either permanently as main characters or as backup in specific areas. Each game is in a different genre, being post apocalyptic, fantasy, and sci-fi respectively. Lastly, all three are critically acclaimed and regarded as excellent games and even masterpieces as well as personal favorites of mine.

It is however, undeniable that these games aren't perfect and some work better in some areas than others. I don't want to get into reviews of the games, that's not what this site is for and there are far better reviewers out there than me. What I do want to look at is their writing and world building.

Comparing Worlds

The Elder Scrolls series is one of my favorites of all time. I picked up Morrowind, the third in the series, in a bargain bin for around seven dollars. Dollar for dollar, probably the best purchase I ever made. The series has an open world unparallelled in it's freedom, a rich lore and a long history to draw from. The game even has books in it that you can open and read that contain in-universe stories.

So why is that this world can seem so thin at times? So one dimensional? Ask yourself how many characters you can remember from an Elder Scrolls game. In Skyrim you have Stormcloak (who for the record has one of the most awesome names of all time.) but how much can you tell me about his character, his motivations? We have Cicero, the crazy jester, he's memorable. How many more? That list get's thin pretty damn quick.

Now how many of you remember Three-Dog, the wild radio man of the Wasteland in Fallout 3? I'd bet every last one of you does. Here we have two games, from the same company, made by the same people. Remember Martin from Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion? The emperor's son. Can you tell me anything about his personality? I bet you could tell me about Three Dogs.

Those are characters, what about the setting? Fallout has some of the most iconic images in gaming. Everyone knows what the Vault Boy looks like. Can you describe me one thing from a poster or sign  in an Elder Scrolls game? On the other hand, the elder scrolls series has some of the best shop names I've ever come across.

Why are the miscellaneous characters you meet in one game memorable and those in the other are not? You can't say its the skill of the writers because they are made by the same people. I can remember quest after quest in Fallout 3. I'd be hard pressed to remember more than three from Skyrim. I loved both games, but why is one so memorable and the other so forgettable?

In Skyrim we have this beautiful breathtaking landscape where everywhere you look could be it's own painting. It's gorgeous, while the wasteland of Fallout is a field of brown rocks. Bland and utterly forgettable. Fallout's world should be the one dimensional backdrop of a world, while Skyrim's should be the multidimensional holy grail we all strive for, why isn't this the case?

My friend theorized it was just that, the settings caused the creators to act differently toward their world. With Skyrim they had a beautiful land with creatures and weather patterns and town after town of people. Of course it will feel real, how could it not? But they filled that world with forgettable, empty people. Animatronics with simple gears and per-programed sound bits to spits out as you passed them by like relics from an old theme park. The bleak landscapes of the wasteland however forced them to put more life into their people. The shop keeper in Megaton is more memorable than all the bartenders in Skyrim combined. The Thanes are forgettable and replaceable while the ghouls and Tenpenny stick in our memories. The people of Skyrim drift through life. They chop wood and hunt animals and go about their lives but they never seem to care about anything. They're props, as meaningless as the trees and bunnies we pass. The people of the wasteland however have real desires and needs. They care about things and so we care right along with them. They might be trying to take back a city or find a lost loved one or even collect some Nuka Cola bottles. The point is they want something, they need something. If you turned off the game they'd still be there, trying to find those special edition bottles. Sure the people in Skyrim want things. A trinket here or a lost sword in a cave there but they never really seem to give that much of a damn. You leave their sword to rust and they'll keep going about their lives, making sure to give the same canned response every time you visit.

Both games have the same mechanic, both will give you the same lines of pre-written dialog. The characters in the wasteland feel more alive because they were given more personality, more depth because the creators knew the setting wasn't going to be able to carry any of that weight. In Skyrim conversely they didn't have to give it as much attention, letting the pretty snow physics do the work of making their world real.

You can spend three pages writing about how pretty this field is or how unique each blade of grass is (God knows Tolkien does) but it won't amount to anything if the world is only one layer deep. You can have the best painting backdrop in the world, it won't matter to your audience if that's all there is. It takes more than one element to make a world work.

Mass Effect

Which brings me to Bioware. If you removed all the story, all the writing and characters of the Mass Effect games and were left with just the gameplay, they would not be very good games. I love this series, it is one of my favorites of all time, across any medium. But the moment to moment gameplay, of shooting from behind cover, or trying to drive the Mako, is certainly not what masterpieces are made of.

The reason why people have loved the series so much is because it has a brilliantly realized world with interesting characters that have real personalities. I took Garrus on almost every mission across all three games because I cared what he had to say. I want to let that sink in for a moment. I cared what he had to say. A fictional character. Someone who doesn't exist. His personality was so interesting to me, so vivid, with a clear outlook that I wanted to know how he perceived a situation. I wanted his advice when encountering a new threat. Compare that to the companions in Skyrim, utterly forgettable puppets that immediately fade from memory. When a companion in Skyrim dies my only thoughts are "were they holding any good equipment," and "should I reload my last save, how important were they really?" In Skyrim I was more pissed off when someone killed my horse than I was when a companion died. Put that up against Mordin, who's death I will remember for the rest of my life.

If you didn't have tears in your eyes at this moment,
you have no soul.
It's not just the "main characters" either. Picture the Citadel, how about Tuchanka? Now picture Winterhaven or White Run. Hell I had to Google those to make sure I had the names right, I didn't have to for the first two. You spend, what, and hour in Tuchanka but you remember it. It may be a "world" in the lore, but it acts a town to gather quest like in any other game. That world had more character and story than any town in an Elder Scrolls world ever has. Even the random characters you meet like the Turian trying to sleep with the Quarian who's been hurt one to many times or the Hanar preacher in the Presidium are far more memorable than the people you come across in the mountains of Skyrim. The only quest that stand out in that game usually deal with the Daedra Princes, and that's because they have personality.

This guy has more personality than butterflies, a Fox, a severed head, and cheese.

Multidimensional Worlds

This leaves us with the question of how to make words that have the same depth as out characters. The easy answer is to say that we give them the same attention that we give our characters, that we put in as much effort in their creation and polish as we would with anything in our story, be it the plot or the people. The real answer lay somewhere deeper. It isn't simply the characters, or the back drops or the worlds. It's everything, all the time. In Mass Effect every single thing in the game builds to a greater whole. Every location in the game not only has it's own personality and story to tell, it's one that fits in to the larger narrative. Each character, big and small is going about their life and dealing with the crises that matter to them. They may not be trying to save the galaxy but they are trying to talk to that pretty girl and that's just as challenging for them. The people in the Wasteland may not be trying to rebuild civilization, but they are trying to scrape by with what they have, to live one more day.

The trick is to make your worlds live and breathe, with everything building on one another. The world of Fallout is stuck in a pseudo 50's reality and the people reflect that in their speech and charm. Mass Effect may be a story of intergalactic war and Nihilistic struggle but it's a universe filled with real people and real lives that gives us something to fight for and make us care if we don't succeed. They make the hero's sacrifice worth it, and in the process sweep the reader along and make them feel as if their time is worth it.

By having worlds as real as our characters we give added weight to our story. It's what give us that feeling of the story and struggles truly hitting home, because if the world doesn't feel real we won't care about the people within it.

I hope I haven't rambled too much in this one, I have to admit it went a little longer than planned. I hope you enjoyed it. Now stop slacking off and get back to writing.

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