What, in your opinion, are the most effective ways to communicate a complex history in a fictional gameworld? For instance, if you have had 2 factions at war for centuries, and you need to explain how this war started, got entrenched, and why one faction is poised to win now, what’s the best way to do this? In cutscenes? In documents? In conversation? I don’t want to take the player out of the game to read a lot of history by giving them supplemental text. Although there are games that have done this really well, it’s not the direction I want to go in.
What are some games that do a particularly good job of conveying fictional historical information without interrupting the gameplay too much?
One thing that can create diverging opinions on this matter is if the protagonist/player is supposed to be aware of the history or not. I think this is the most important question and the rest will fall into place after that.
1.) Exposition: I don’t like blatant exposition. Takes you out of the moment, but when done well is desirable. This is obviously the conversation/cutscene side of things you brought up.
2.) Documents/Evidence: This is great if the point of the game is to learn/research the events of the past. Otherwise, tell a story. Evidence is better though because it’s passive. Documents can be like blatant exposition if relied upon.
3.) Meta: I kind of like the “tool tip” approach for select prose in Twine, where you click on a highlighted word and get a little tidbit that doesn’t affect the story text whatsoever (think: tool tip). Then it’s completely optional. Not sure which IF format you’re using though.
That’s my take on your question. As much as possible… show, don’t tell.
I don’t think there is one best way to communicate worldbuilding, unless you include mixing all the ways
And it probably depends on the kind of game/setting you have (parser/choice will communicate things dfifferently).
To me, what works best is having the general lines about the history being told to the players in discussions, descriptions, or cutscenes, to give a quick overview of what’s what. Further details can be done in probing conversations (ask someone about a specific topic) or going through documents.
The answer is ‘yes’. All of those. Ideally to avoid the wall of text, you want to spread exposition into bits - and if possible don’t worry if the player doesn’t get all of it. A stack of letters from a soldier to his family the player can read all or some of, scenery: a map on the wall showing changing border lines being re-drawn. Political posters “Victory for Eastasia!” in key locations.
In my experience, the more you let the player put the story together themselves (or at least make them believe they’re doing so) the more they will feel invested and not like they’re just the trigger for expository monologues every time they go near another character.
If you’re tricky, you might also want to set variables keeping track of what important plot points the player has learned or at least viewed, and if you get to a moment that would really benefit from understanding the backstory, check the variable and if the player doesn’t know about the shipments to Oceania, a character can bark, “You look confused about what we’re doing, do you not understand the noble cause of delivering these ammo and food shipments to the homeland? Do you need me to regale you with glorious tales of the battle that led here? (Y/N?)”.
If you know the player has read the letter detailing all this, the character can skip that dialogue.
Including obstacles directly related to the worldbuilding without immediately explaining it, creates mystery and a sense of insight when the player later understands why.
Having someone join your party, but then being refused service at some merchants might be a tip off (like the bartender yelling at droids, “we don’t serve their kind here!”). Or having certain things not available or under high demand and the player has to use a convoluted black market to obtain them. (Like trying to get a replacement part for a broken steampunk machine. Perhaps it was produced in a country currently sanctioning the country you are in, making parts scarce.) Encountering bread lines or being arrested on unfounded suspicions and sent to prison on trumped up charges in an ad hoc kangaroo court (like Cassian Andor’s experience being arrested and tried). Maybe you can have your protagonist working a shift who is getting paid three times a day. They and their coworkers rush out each time and pass their pay off to their wives or loved ones, who immediately rush out to spend it, because the next time you are paid later in the same day, the money would be worth less. (Living through hyperinflation in the Weimar Republic, 1923.)
Alot of worldbuilding can done in few words when you explore the symptoms of your world’s status quo instead of infodumping that status quo. Starting your story with 10,000 words about the treaty of Versailles and war reparations will never be as effective as simply having the player living through the consequences of this reality. Just experiencing it will drive the player to seek answers for you.
For inspiration, just look at how larger historical events have impacted normal people in their day to day lives.
In my notes, I thought it would be ideal to start the game off with the history being known, since it’s all back story to the action, which presupposes that the PC/player knows what’s going on. But I suppose it might be better to start with a few short interactive scenes familiarizing the player with the history through more interactive means before getting down to business. That way I can convey the basic facts of the history in one short scene through every means I can wrangle, then fill in the details more slowly throughout the game.
Still wondering what games everyone thinks does this very well. I’d like to look through examples.
Honestly, it’s getting a little long in the tooth, but I think A Mind Forever Voyaging does a good job with making you feel the worldbuilding through personal experience instead of loredumps (although it has some of those too). Your son choosing to leave to join a cult, or the random woman walking by in the crowd, silently crying. The menu options and prices in the restaurant changing. It was a poignant game in terms of atmospheric worldbuilding. I give it an A+, especially when considering the space limitations at the time.
Someone who does alot of reviews (and thus plays alot of IF critically) can probably provide more examples. Thinking like Mathbrush or DeusIrae or Rovarsson or many others.
I have been dinged for wordy prologues before. I’m prone to them, and I rather like them, but I thought I’d try to do it differently this time since a lot of people don’t like them. It will stretch my writing muscles to do it without a big prologue.
Amanda, as you already know, gaining gameworld history and lore IS the main objective of my major WIP, so the use of documents/evidence is a part, the other is the meta, often subtly delivered in gradual changes in description, reflecting the improvement of PC’s understanding of the strange environment.
on top of it… being Italian, I know from cover to cover Dante’s Commedia, and of course the two main NPC have a Virgilian role… so the device of discussions with NPC in delivering history and lore, is, to put it mildly, “natural” for me…
There are a lot of ways to approach this, but in the abstract I think a good mental exercise (even if you don’t do this for the final game) is:
Create your outline/story bible/whatever with whatever details you can think of, go wild, don’t censor yourself, over-write
Use this to build the narrative/game, adding and removing stuff as needed as you go
When you’re done, go through the narrative and start yanking out everything that isn’t absolutely essential for the narrative/game to work. Keep this up until you break something and suddenly the story doesn’t make sense
Add just enough detail so it does make sense again
Now go back through and look for the places where you want to add “extra” stuff…for flavor, for the fans who read all the lore books, whatever. Just generally stick this stuff outside the “critical path” through the game that players have to take…so all the “pure worldbuilding” stuff is stuff that players can find if they go looking for it, but you’re not beating them over the head with it if they’re “just trying to play the game” or whatever
In a lot of cases you don’t want to be this stingy about the worldbuilding stuff: if it’s a crunchy period piece you usually throw in stuff for flavor; a lot of genre fans want/expect a lot of “explanation”-type worldbuilding/lore stuff; and sometimes figuring out the lore is a core element of the game design. So I’m not proposing this as a be-all/end-all of design.
But I think it’s a useful conceptual exercise, just because I think the natural tendency is to come up with too many incidental ideas and then try to stuff them all in when they’re not really necessary and/or just end up being a distraction.
Agreed. Get as detailed as you can when planning the world, but do not actually explain anything that doesn’t come up naturally.
The details you put in the setting will inform how you write the core plot elements, and players will pick up on these details and what they imply about their surroundings.
Worldbuilding can inform things like city structure, community structure/norms, construction materials, crafts, what is valuable, slang, common mundane tools and items, relationships, publicly-visible texts like advertisements and notices, music (or lack thereof), surrounding geography, and more. None of these would be things would need to explicitly explain, and with enough clues buried in these, the player will be able to realize what’s going on.
Have you considered a sidekick? Doesn’t have to be your friendly neighbourhood robot, could just as well be an annoyingly clingy talking rodent, a haughty sentient crystal, an overly chatty flower,… Or even that Evilest Cat from that doggy game…
You could have it *ping* for attention when the PC is at an important point for the plot, while at the same time being available for open questions about the history of people or locations or objects the PC encounters while playing.
It could have a dumpload of backstory if the player wishes to read through all that, or just give necessary information when needed.
Once you have that covered, the sidekick could also double as an in-game hint system.
I think a lot can be accomplished with small details or narrative garnishes. A lot depends on narrative voice, I guess.
The frob is made of black, lacquered wood harvested from the forests of Miznia. You haven't seen one in such pristine condition since the invasion of 668.
Another option for doing this involves conditional/first time stuff that prints an extra sentence. I think basing things around examine is a good strategy, since players will be examining everything anyway. You could even have text applying to a kind when examined, just to reduce the chances of a player missing something important.
lab is a room.
nautical stuff is a kind of thing.
[items with descriptions]
after examining nautical stuff for the first time:
say "The [noun] reminds you of the great naval battles of 680 GUE.".
It might be beneficial, instead of printing a lot of text up front, to create a text based on what the player has found. Players might want to refer back to historical information they have uncovered, for instance. I think using Hanon’s suggestion about keeping track is a good idea for multiple reasons.
Drew, pls NOT induce in temptation an actual Naval historian!!
seriously, creating (as in adaptive prose) text based on what players find can allow a gradual buildup of knowledge base. On top of it, keeping track is easy with examined objects, practically every IF language and/or library has an “this obj is examined” flag, ready to be mixed and matched with AND, OR and whatNOT…
You’ve probably got more than enough advice already. I’ve probably used some of all of these techniques in my WIP.
Maybe what I can add last is that project scale controls a lot. You can always prepare or think if as much world detail as you want, but how much will you be able to use? In a sense, knowing the shape of story, or the kind of situations likely to be in the game, will guide you to appropriate methods of info-dispensing - and what info you actually need.
I think it’s a ‘push from both ends’ element of the design. You have to prepare something, then you have to start making, then you have to massage the something in response to what you’ve made. Eventually the two movements intertwine in some satisfactory place, congress of the bee style, and try to start dictating their own forms. I’m in year 4 of a game and this is a tough area of it.