Howdy buckaroos, welcome to The World Unbuilt. This is a series of essays on worldbuilding, and in particular on a fictional world I created for a computer role-playing game. Unfortunately, due to the disappearance of a crucial investor, my time on the project was cut short. Since I could not be paid for my work, I took it with me when I left the project. I was determined not to let my efforts go completely to waste, so I decided to do this with it instead. I will not be writing about my experiences working on the game, at least not any more than is absolutely necessary, nor will I be discussing the perils of small team shoestring budget game development. What I will be talking about are the places, peoples, religions, histories, mythologies, and whatever else it occurs to me to talk about that is at least semi-relevant to the topic at hand, that I invented to provide the broader contextual framework for the game’s action.
Officially, I was the writer and composer for the project. A friend had come to me in September of 2015 to ask if I would be willing to compose the soundtrack for the game, which was to be a new attempt at realising a project we had failed to get off the ground some years prior. At the time I was without a suitable work computer, and so I said that I would be happy to compose music, but was not presently able, offering instead to help out with writing. For a long time I had had an interest in fantasy worlds and their creation, and had in fact previously attempted to create my own JRPG (Japanese RPG, as in the Final Fantasy franchise) style game, which eventually ended up—once I realised that opportunities for player driven action were constantly being reduced at an untenable rate by virtue of what I felt was excessive unskippable dialogue—turning into a novel manuscript that will probably never be finished. In particular I had a fondness for fantasy and science fiction role playing games like the Fallout series, particularly the way in which those games grounded what was on some level pure fantasy with detailed histories, cultures, organisations, and characters. When Bethesda took over the series and put out the massively popular Fallout 3, I was not best pleased with their efforts, which seemed half-hearted and born of laziness and misunderstanding of the source material, but it wasn’t until I played Skyrim, from Bethesda’s own original series The Elder Scrolls, that I realised just how many things I disliked about the way their writers handled lore, narrative, culture and all the things that make a fantasy world what it is.
I was determined to address those issues in my own work for the game. I decided that I would write books of lore, similar to what one would expect to find in an Elder Scrolls game, but do it differently. For a start, I would very strongly consider questions of authorship and perspective, of the evolution of language over time, how culture and religion and time and place influence such things, and in doing so build a literary framework in which the sum total of perspectives on my fictional world could be contained. I wanted it to be contradictory, to have a line in one book call into question the very fabric of another, and vice versa, and furthermore to have all or most of it be testable against the player’s own experience of the worldspace. I used what I knew of real world literature, mostly Western literature, not only because that is what I know best of any tradition, but because my goal of populating the world with books demanded a literary culture, something that had grown up with the written word, as the European and Anglophone have from Ancient Greece and the Homeric epics. I could not take the oral tradition of a pre-colonial Africa or South America, where histories are passed down through the air, or through pictorial records. (Incidentally, readers interested in how European colonialism has impacted upon oral tradition could do a lot worse than checking out Patrick Chamoiseau’s novel Solibo Magnificent). That said, I did take inspiration from outside the west, in particular the Tao Te Ching and Ezra Pound’s Cathay—this a book English translations of High Tang Chinese poetry by Li Bai (he transliterated the name by a Japanese scheme as “Rihaku”), though Pound’s intuitive approach to translation, based largely on the notes of Ernest Fenollosa, is argued by some to have resulted in the creation, in effect, of new, thus Western, poetry—in writing the couple of books that come from Gephala.
In planning the lore, the nation of Thoria was one of the first things I came up with. Initially it was just a name. The game was to take place entirely in a Thorian city called Eenwyck, and would deal with the player fighting to save the city, and thus the country itself, from invasion by undead/demonic forces. Eventually, and apparently this was my fault, the project director felt that this simpler approach would not serve the piles of potential content I was producing, even though I thought then and still think that a densely layered game taking place in a smaller space would be far more interesting than a typical open world type deal. That “potential content” was never intended to be content, but context, a suggestion of the moreness of what lay beyond Eenwyck’s city walls, and perhaps even the sky above. I wanted players who were curious enough to stop and talk to every NPC and read every text they could find to feel like Oedipa Maas: totally overwhelmed, unsure of who to trust, led to find patterns hinting at conspiracy but possibly amounting to nothing at all, a superfluity of narratives whirling about them from every direction. I wanted to write something dense but tightly contained. Alas, creeping bloat put paid to that. So Thoria had to be fleshed out, and it would therefore be necessary to establish geography, history, religion, government etc.—all the things which previously could have been hinted at now had to be made vivid in detail. Thus this series.
Up front it should be noted that this is not a documentary piece. I cannot recall every stage of the development of the world of the game, much less the order that those stages came in. Ideas came to me in the form of bits and pieces, a name, a concept, an event. I made for myself a jigsaw puzzle of many many pieces, but these were pieces which spawned other pieces, so that the puzzle was built out from side to side and top to bottom, could be viewed in two, three, even four dimensions. The thing with building a world is that every time you come up with something, you imply or reveal ten more things which must also be explained, and those things will beget more things as you explain them, and so on. Like the real world it is endless, unlike the real world it must be contained, limited, ultimately fathomable. In our daily lives we use systems of filtration to pare the world down to as close to a manageable size as it is possible for the world to be. Such systems may be external or internal, and the purposes of each may be different but their functions are the same. Generally we use both kinds at the same time. Take an article in a news publication. All news articles have as their fundamental source a situation, but beyond that they have a writer, who is answerable to the editor of the publication, who is answerable to the company that owns the publication, and this chain of subordination is a system of filters by which a composite political perspective renders the situation in print. When we read the article we receive a reduction of the source information to which we apply our own perspective, further filtering and reducing that information to personally salient points. We see what we are shown of what there is the way we would like to see it.
What the player was to be shown of what there was of Thoria was everything immediate in time and space, and something more remote, but these would be delivered by way of those filtration systems, the latter to a greater extreme for reasons which either are or will become obvious. In discussing with an NPC a particular situation, what the player receives is perspective, not facts. So too in reading a book of lore, or even witnessing a situation first-hand. Perspectives on the world are part of the world, all except the player’s own, which has the added bonus of being changeable through the sorting of information and thinking, the forming of connections. Obviously, the world the player sees has been sorted and thought about by the worldbuilder, but the worldbuilder’s perspective, which is the world itself, is set in stone, near enough, once the player is permitted access. For simplicity’s sake I am not going to add to this the question of the distribution model, which was not a factor in my approach to worldbuilding, but yes: if the world is made available via a game in early access, the worldbuilder can react to the player’s perceptions, and the world itself can change as a result.
For better or worse, my world did not ever get the chance to change under the pressure of external influences (would I have been too stubborn to let it?) but in writing this series I have been forced to clarify details and to deal with the facts behind the intentional fictions that would have been presented in game, so it has had to undergo some small transformations anyway. Some of the essays to follow will be on general topics, a country or character, while others may deal with historical figures and events, or more general topics like language. In each case whatever relevant materials I had written to appear in the game will be presented for the reader’s perusal, in the prototype book format I had designed as a proof of concept. I will also be going over, in some kind of a list format, a number of points which are too small to write full pieces about, but which are worth talking about nonetheless. I will not, however, be making available the extensive notes that were compiled over the course of development, for the simple reason that most of it is only valuable insofar as it helps me to remember, where it is relevant to do so, the order in which things were put together, and bears little resemblance to the world and its contents as will be presented in this series. While I would ultimately like to collect the texts I write for this series into some kind of order, possibly in ebook or PDF format, the release order for this initial publication will largely follow the order in which they were written.
Saddle up. Here we go.