Nothing captures our imagination quite like made-up worlds.
Remember Richard Scarry’s Busy Town? Those books were our first hint to our 3-year-old brains that there was a WHOLE LOT going on outside our front door.
Then, as we got older, we discovered Narnia…and Themyscira…and Hogwarts…and Middle Earth…🤩
And then along came video games! Anybody who’s spent hours in Black Mesa or Rapture or Hyrule knows how extremely badass a game world can be.
Imagine having the chance to CREATE a whole new world for your players!
Building an entire world…it’s a lot.
At first it’s just fun. Most worldbuilding starts with a whole lot of daydreaming and brainstorming. “Wouldn’t it be cool if…?” Yes! It WOULD be cool! Whee!! Write it all down!
Eventually you’ve got a dozen notebooks and multiple whiteboards and a lot of brains full of ideas for the world you could build.
And at some point you’ve got to start shaping it into something.
How do you make it happen? How do you take those ideas and turn them into something great?
That’s what we’re going to talk about today.
This advice may not be what you normally hear about worldbuilding, but it’s worked for me and my hope is that it works for you, too.
One of the best places you can start is by turning the invisible, visible.
Here’s what I mean.
The power of conflict
Most games are all about challenges (otherwise, what’s the point?). Most stories are rooted in some kind of conflict, too - again, without conflict, what’s the point?.
So our fictional worlds need conflict and challenge, too.
Ideally, there’s going to be some kind of ENDURING conflict…the kind that is deep seated and almost impossible to resolve. (As humans, we want life to be easy; as writers and game developers, we want our worlds to be full of chaos.)
The deepest conflicts are rooted in a clash of VALUES.
As in, “these two groups cannot coexist. Something’s gotta give.”
A perfect example is the Empire versus the resistance in Star Wars. The Galactic Empire stood for totalitarian order and rigid control of society and singular rule over all things. The resistance stood for the opposite of all that! And both sides believed deeply in their cause, so they were willing to fight til the bitter end.
Which is why we’ve seen so many stories come out of this world.
So let’s build conflict into YOUR world! Here’s how.
Step One: Figure out what the conflict is REALLY about
So one of the first things you want to think about for your world is, “Where is the conflict? Where is the fight? And what is the fight ABOUT?” In other words, what values are being challenged here?
In Lord of the Rings, the conflict was the battle over Middle-Earth - whether people would live free, or live as slaves under The Eye Of Sauron. They're fighting over SOMETHING. What, exactly? It may take a second to really define it clearly. Think of it in terms of values. What was important to the Fellowship? What did Sauron desire?
In Game of Thrones, there are deep conflicts between ALL the houses over control of The Iron Throne, and therefore Westeros. You can ask yourself the same question here: What did these different people value? What was important to them? What were they willing to fight and die for?
In Rapture, the conflict was about competing worldviews. Andrew Ryan wanted to create an intellectual’s paradise…Frank Fontaine was a grifter who wanted to take the place for all it was worth.
These conflicts are all about two warring factions battling over who will have final dominion over the land. And there is no middle ground between these groups, no room for compromise. Great! This is ripe material for a great story, and a great game.
So give some thought to what people could stand for in your world. What drives them? What matters most?
And how can you make these groups as different from each other as humanly possible?
Once you’ve got an idea about the values your characters hold dear, you’re ready to move on to:
Step Two: Make the conflict visible in the world
How could you SHOW those conflicting values to the player? How can you build out different parts of your world in such a way that conflict is inevitable?
Look at Game of Thrones. On that show, we traveled up and down Westeros - from the icy lands of the Free Folk to the lush capital of King’s Landing to the dusty steppes of the Dothraki. These groups are shaped by the world they know, and they have almost nothing in common. You know they are destined to fight, because there’s no way they can peacefully coexist. They’re just too different from one another.
We can see that conflict everywhere in the world - both in the natural and man-made environments. The clashes are baked in.
Step Three: Throw the player in the middle of it
This step involves your designer, and your whole team really because this is all about the player experience.
Odds are, the player isn’t going to have a strong opinion about anything people stand for in this world, because for the player, it’s just a game. The good news is, you don’t have to work to persuade them to care. Just let the player be the player!
Try just dropping them into the world, either as a low-level character (a stormtrooper, instead of Darth Vader, for example) or a faceless voiceless character (Jack in BioShock) and let them discover the conflict for themselves. Let them choose sides - or choose no side. It’s up to them.
You can spend months or years or even decades creating all the details of this world, but I hope this simple three-step process helps you lay down a solid foundation for all the fun worldbuilding work to come.
Write great scripts with this free guide
Want to improve your writing skills? We can help. We've created an easy 5-step guide you can use to write scripts your players will love.
Best of all, it's free. Just click the button below!
Susan’s first job as a game writer was for “a slumber party game - for girls!” She’s gone on to work on over 25 projects, including award-winning titles in the BioShock, Far Cry and Tomb Raider . Titles in her portfolio have sold over 30 million copies and generated over $500 million in sales. She is an adjunct professor at UT Austin, where she teaches a course on writing for games. A long time ago, she founded the Game Narrative Summit at GDC. Now, she partners with studios, publishers, and writers to help teams ship great games with great stories. She is dedicated to supporting creatives in the games industry so that they can do their best work.