Words: 1893 Approximate Reading Time: 13-17 minutes
Imagination is a wonderful tool that we can use to create all sorts of fantastic and fantastical things. We can build cities, make creatures, design new modes of travel. Really just about anything that can or could potentially exist can be imagined. So it is really no surprise that we so often see the products of imagination in all forms of art.
But using our imagination comes at a cost. Namely, the cost of conveying our vision to an audience. New things – worlds, cities, creatures – that are going to be strange to the audience often require some form of explanation. And yet, the desire to explain can get in the way of good storytelling.
Hence why it is also fairly common to see stories set within the real world. Even when dealing with superheroes protecting fictional cities, the ability for the audience to be keyed in to all of these background details without need for explanation gives much more freedom to the story. You don’t need to explain how the city was created, or how society works, or how people get around. So much of that is effectively already known. And so we are able to focus on the story in front of us, rather than the details surrounding it.
But when we do have a brand new world, those things that the audience does not know will demand some level of explanation. Finding the exact right amount is a complicated question. Yet it is definitely possible to explain too much. Let us call this “overload” for the sake of simplicity, although this will ultimately be a narrow component of a broader concept. Just as it is possible to provide players with too much information about the basic mechanics of a game, or to feed too much information through a plot, so too is it possible for the basic worldbuilding dialogue in a game to stretch to a point that the player feels overwhelmed.
The premise of avoiding this specific form of worldbuilding overload is understanding what needs to be explained. I use the term “explain” here to refer to actually telling a player what something is, why it exists, how it works, and so on. You may be familiar with the phrase “show, don’t tell” as a rule of storytelling, where elements of a narrative are directly shown to the audience rather than just telling the audience that something is true or happened. Within this context, the purpose of “showing” is to give the player some kind of “first-hand” insight into the world they’re exploring, rather than the second-hand insight that comes from an NPC stating what happened.
Overloading the Player
Imagine a brand new world, populated by all sorts of strange beings. The world itself should look and feel strange. There can be elements that somewhat resemble our world, but even those resemblances need to be passing, practically superficial. The world’s inhabitants might look humanoid or resemble everyday animals, but should operate on fundamentally different rules.
Now that you have those things in mind, how does everything work?
Crafting a brand new world is difficult. Each component should ultimately rely on other components. If the civilized inhabitants of the world don’t need to worry about food, how would that impact the kinds of societies that they build? If the planet is going to be extremely dangerous, how would that change the life forms that we encounter? If cities are going to look incredibly cool and futuristic, how did those cities get built and what is the purpose of their designs?
Sometimes these things are done thoughtlessly. Sometimes we encounter the products of imagination where the end goal was to make something that felt interesting without care for what it would mean. The exact proportion of this thoughtless worldbuilding is unknown, and really isn’t the point. It’s obviously something to be avoided, but our focus is on when thought is put into these products.
A common component of bad writing is “jargon”: unique terms that are created for a specific purpose, and require someone to be “in the know” to understand what those words mean. Jargon is sometimes necessary, and so is not abstractly terrible. But the problem comes when we end up using jargon where perfectly suitable normal words would accomplish the same task. You could, for instance, have your characters wield weapons like swords and guns, and then come up with cool-sounding names for those weapons. But once you introduce those new terms, the immediate thought of the player is going to be “So it’s a gun…why not just call it a gun?” If there’s a strong reason to stick to that jargon, one that can be not merely explained in-universe, but is an important component to the game’s themes or narrative, then it’s fine to stick to the jargon. But jargon for jargon’s sake (i.e. “we needed to call it something”) or for the sake of “coolness” serves no use and just confuses the player.
But even if you are using standard terminology for the elements of your game, there gets to be a point where there can just be too much going on. Namely, too much being described to the player. Your world may have a fascinating backstory, and so you may want to tell that backstory to the player. And so you have all of these characters spending paragraphs explaining the history and the terms and what those terms mean and how it all fits into the quest the player is being given.
And it’s all rather dull.
There is no exact ratio that is “perfect.” It’s not as though a game that goes one word too long is overloading the player and thus terrible. Instead, this overload is simply a product of constantly explaining concepts of the game’s world and narrative that either don’t need to be explained, or are explained using too much jargon, or simply overexplained.
As an example, imagine that you want to designate an important place for a player to go. Let’s imagine it as a tower that houses an important quest object. An overloaded explanation would begin by laying out what this tower is, when it was built, it’s importance, and so on. All of this dialogue could take several minutes to get through, and would merely end with the player knowing they need to go to the tower. It serves no purpose at that point to know this backstory about the tower, and in fact the more you try to explain it, the less interested a player is likely to become.
Conversely, imagine that you construct the world in such a way that the player can see the tower: it takes on a prominent place in the background of the world or the game’s skyline. You then have someone tell the player that they need to go to the tower to collect the before-mentioned key item. The player – and the player character – doesn’t need to know the history of this tower to know where to find it. So already the player has a clear objective, which helps to provide them with something to care about.
But of course, there is a story behind this tower, and wouldn’t it be nice to convey that story to the player? In these cases, we want to think about the phrase of “show, don’t tell.” If the tower has an important history, how can that history be conveyed visually? If the tower has been damaged by attacks over countless years, maybe design the tower in ways to show it having been clearly patched up over time. If the tower is supposed to be a place of cultural relevance – like a religious site – then make that part of the culture clear: have people engaged in worship or other religious services in or around the tower. If the tower is supposed to be an important part of the world – it houses a valuable artifact – then it should probably be protected. So make sure that there are guards and walls and other defensive measures in place.
Why do all of this? For the sake of simplicity, there are going to be two types of players: players who care about the world and want to learn about it, and players who don’t care and just want to go through the game.
For the players who don’t care, all of the time you spend explaining the world and how it works will just serve to turn them off from the game. It doesn’t really matter how interesting your world may be, because they are going in with the intent of just playing the game itself. If you instead remove much of the explanation through dialogue and focus on visual storytelling, you remove an important barrier for these players while also creating a potential source of intrigue which could get them to care about the world and start to learn about it.
For players who do care and want to learn, the time spent explaining will not necessarily go to waste. However, it will ultimately feel patronizing. Players often enjoy the process of discovery and piecing things together, because it allows them to think for themselves. So using visual storytelling instead gives them an opportunity to learn through this process of discovery, and also a reason to stick with the world – there might be some detail that was missed, or which might make more sense upon replaying, and so spending more time with the game is worthwhile from the player’s perspective, rather than just as a demand from the game itself.
We might imagine the process of explaining through dialogue as a form of attempting to make players care about the world. But when you’re trying to impose importance, you’re usually beginning from the standpoint that the player doesn’t care yet should (which will be unappealing to the former group and insulting to the latter).
And the more explanatory dialogue forced upon the player, the more tuned out the player will become over time. Why should I care about background details if everything important is going to be explained to me? Why should I care about those explanations if it’s all going to boil down to “go here and get this thing”? If the player’s reason for caring about the world is the game saying “You should care about this world,” then the player will generally end up not caring.
A common complaint about bad writing is that it can tend to repeat things that were already clearly stated or overexplain things that don’t need explanation. The rejoinder then becomes that the author is treating the audience like they are too dumb to follow the story and remember basic details, and so need those long explanations and constant reminders.
It’s useful to keep this complaint in mind, because whatever the reason why an author repeats information or overloads the player with information, the outcome ends up being the same. Members of the audience feel like they are being treated as children who must be spoon-fed every detail for fear of getting lost. While individual stories can end up being fine and enjoyed that veer towards this overloading tendency, it is the stories that allow the audience to figure things out for themselves – the stories that treat the audience like adults – that tend to withstand the test of time.