Worlds by Design

A lot of the time it’s a good idea to come up with the mechanics of a game first and the worldbuilding second- after all, inventing mechanics has a tangible end point. Worldbuilding just goes on and on and on and before you know it you have a 100,000+ word document detailing the languages and currencies and intricate societal systems of your world with no game to show for it. I’d like to argue that it’s possible (and worthwhile) to do the opposite: create game mechanics born through the narrative design of a world. That’s something I’m attempting to do through my Quintalis tabletop roleplaying project. Full disclaimer: no one is paying me to finish that project and the only deadlines are any upcoming games I run to test new ideas and polish mechanics. In other words, I have all the time in the world to do this and that’s just about enough to get anywhere with this approach.

First comes the world.

At this point, there is no game. Ask, what is this world? What does this world mean? I wanted to create a blank canvas that I can expand on. Something inspired by the Final Fantasy worlds as a whole. Something inspired by books I grew up on, like the Edge Chronicles by Paul Stewart and Chris Riddell or Walter Moers’ collection of novels set in Zamonia. Moers himself said that in his first Zamonia novel, The 13½ Lives of Captain Bluebear the hero isn’t Captain Bluebear- it’s the world. That’s something that really resonates with me. Any one of my projects is often more about the world and what happens in it, how it works and how it’s alive, rather than the characters through whose eyes the player/reader sees the world. It’s about the themes the world explores. In the case of Quintalis, I think that might be bioconservative versus technoprogressive transhumanism but like, magic. It’s about the question of how far a person’s life can blend with technology (and magic) without losing its humanity. To be honest though, I have no idea and I’m still trying to figure out what’s at the core of that world.

Then comes some sort of game.

Quintalis is a tabletop game and not a video game, for good reason. In a tabletop game (especially a pen and paper one), rules can be changed and experimented with a lot more easily than in a video game that’s so much more complex to assemble. At the core it’s in the same kind of vein as D&D or Pathfinder. The game is run by a game master with some players who have their custom characters. Players do a thing, game master decides the outcome. The point is, making a game like that is a great candidate for this approach of worldbuilding first. The time it takes to prototype a mechanic here is a fraction of the time it would take to prototype them in a digital game, especially when you’re doing the project on your own. Now that you have a world, creating the game is as easy as transferring the themes and events of your world into actionable mechanics. That is to say, not very easy at all.

Noncommittal summaries aside, here’s an actual actionable example of what I’m trying to say. One of the overall themes of Quintalis is obviously transhumanism. The enhancement of one’s body and mind through the use of (in this case) some sort of magic/technology hybrid. Characters in Quintalis can become Espers through surgically inserting magical constructs into their bodies, which allows them to use a variety of abilities loosely based on classic sci-fi tropes like lasers and force fields and what not. So how do you reflect these things in your game mechanics? One way that I found is through the way the game treats player advancement. Instead of being awarded experience points, players absorb blessings given to them for doing cool stuff. They can then exchange those blessings for the right price at a teacher NPC who can gradually improve one of their four stats or bestow them with new abilities. Those improvements can come at a price though – every time there’s a blessings transaction, there’s a small chance (decided by dice roll) that the character loses some of their self. This could be a treasured memory, stat points or a complete loss of self (that last one only works for people who are super comfortable with roleplaying, for obvious reasons).

So there’s just one example of a mechanic created from a narrative. It piggybacks off the themes the world is built around, establishes a narrative rule of how things work in this world and channels that into a systematic rule that impacts the game is played, compared to other similar games in that kind of genre. This is just another way of creating mechanics and coming up with ideas, but it’s one I quite like as it absolutely ties the game and the world together in a way that deciding to go with a normal experience-level up system doesn’t quite achieve. The narrative is the game and the game is the narrative.

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Worldbuilding Reflection

The year is coming to an end¹ and with that so is the world design course. It’s been a fun ride and I can honestly say that I’ve learned a good deal. With that said, even though it has been my favourite class of the entire degree, it’s been really difficult juggling all the different blogs, projects and assignments so I didn’t get to dig into it as much as I wanted². I’ll probably take some time after this is all wrapped up and revisit everything that’s been covered and really spend some time looking into level design, environment art and architecture.

One of my favourite parts were the practical tutorials that covered really useful tricks that have helped me a whole lot. Not only was there handy techniques that let me block out ideas really quickly (the lego blog post comes to mind), it’s also cemented for me that environment art, technical art and worldbuilding are by far my favourite aspects of game development. That’s quite useful for me because I’ve been at a complete loss of how to approach finding work next year.

One outcome of this class that I really didn’t expect was how much I’ve learned about architecture. To be fair, the topic is still a dense jungle to me but it’s given me a few jumping off points to go and look into it more. As it turns out, it’s not as dry and boring as I used to think and becomes really fascinating going into the realm of inventing fictional architectural styles.

In regards to my own approach to worldbuilding, much has changed. I’ve moved from endlessly writing entire wikis without getting anything done to making things and trying to tie stories based on sections in those wikis into them in a meaningful way. That might not sound like much of a difference but to me that’s the difference between notes that no one will ever want to read and projects that people might actually want to engage with.

I don’t think I’ll be able to get this one to 500 words and still have time to get Buto ready for Armageddon, so I’ll take that as another lesson in scoping and preparation and sign off with that.

It’s been good. So long and thanks for the memes.


¹[terrified screaming in distance]

²Sorry about the rushed level design and a few half-assed blog posts in here

The Map of Labyrinth Land

marc-loths-labyrinth-landf.jpg

This here is Labyrinth Land, a small section of the continent Arstidur in the world Quintalis. It’s done in the traditional fantasy map style complete with a couple of nations. The map was made in photoshop with a whole mountain of blending layers while all the mountains and forests are all drawn individually. The aim with this map was to create a setting for a Game of Thrones inspired campaign of Dungeons & Dragons.

The Atmosphere of Abzu

Abzu is a beautiful game by the makers of Journey, set underwater, in which players explore the ocean. The game has an amazing atmosphere, which is created using many different techniques.

One of the most pertinent features are of course the god rays and the volumetric effect of the water. One way of achieving this look might be by using a global volumetric fog effect, like the one Unreal Engine has added recently. A cheaper performing way might also be to just use particle systems or image planes to fake the effect.

Another very impressive effect is the amount of fish that are in the game, often visible in large schools. Animating these would be very, very expensive to do, so the creators of Abzu used a shader instead that uses vertex offset to make the fish appear as if they are moving. This way, all the fishies’ animations are handled directly by the shader in one pass and the game doesn’t have to do any work on moving bones around.

The colours of the game are another draw, especially when paired with the beautiful lighting. Different areas have distinct and unique colour schemes that are meticulously designed, evoking a different atmosphere every time. In combination with refractions, reflections and a subtle bloom, this makes for a very pretty game.

Stardew Valley’s Farmbuilding

It’s open topic night, so we’ll be going with the topic of worldbuilding in Stardew Valley. While Stardew Valley is a game that wouldn’t seem to have much grand worldbuilding lore behind it, there’s a lot of small scale detailing that would have gone into the world of Pelican Town.

The whole town has 42 residents without counting the player character, each with their own distinct personalities, histories, likes and dislikes. Most characters’ homes are also accessible, which means that the player has a way to peek into their personal lives if they desire. On top of the character design, the world also has its own lore and history. Scattered throughout the game, hidden in many cases, is hints of ancient cultures, faraway wars, magic and multinational corporations outside of Pelican Town. Even though Stardew Valley takes the tip of the iceberg approach of worldbuilding, showing little and alluding at much more, this world may well be extended soon enough as ConcernedApe, the developer of Stardew Valley, has confirmed that he is currently working on a game set in the same world as Stardew Valley.

The architecture of Stardew Valley is in a very rustic, wholesome style. Many of the buildings are made of wood, a material that is found locally in abundance with the exception of the Joja mart. Joja is a huge corporation with no regard to people or the environment, so it would make sense that their building is the only one in the town made of concrete. The style of the buildings is quite reminiscent of what one might find in woodland areas of Northern US and Canada.

Over the course of the game, players will meet characters that are somewhat different from the average citizen of Pelican Town. Take for example the wizard who lives secluded in a tower or the dwarf hiding in the mines or Krobus, a shadow creature who lives in the sewers underneath the town. All of these characters serve to bring a greater sense of mystery and depth to the world, with the wizard dabbling in ancient magic and taking on the player character as a quasi apprentice or the storyline in which the player character must calm tensions between the dwarf and Krobus, whose people have been at war for centuries.

While all these little nods to deeper backstories in regards to both the world and its inhabitants are relatively small and minor, they all serve to greatly enhance the experience of a game that would otherwise not have a great narrative draw. Stardew Valley is a great example of how worldbuilding can enrich any game, far beyond anything in the standard fantasy or sci-fi genres that are normally associated with deep worldbuilding and lore.

The Open World of Final Fantasy XV

Final Fantasy XV is a game set on a huge open world continent where almost every area is accessible by either foot, car or chocobo. With that, there’s some really great opportunities for worldbuilding. Everything in the game, from small props to the gigantic structures scattered across the world tells a story of its own and adds to the overall world. Many major locations are huge signposts that can be both visited and used for navigation. From the Hammerhead mountain of Leide over the Disk of Cauthess in Duscae to the Rock of Ravatogh in Cleigne, every location has a major signpost that is visible from anywhere in the world that is also  part of the story of the astral war, a narrative backdrop that the overarching plot of Final Fantasy XV revolves around.

Most, if not all locations in the game are also based on different real world counterparts. The city of Lestallum is heavily inspired by Cuba while the city of Insomnia, the main character Noctis’ home, is inspired by Japanese metropolises. While there are influences of the American mainland and the art nouveau movement all over Lucis and Niflheim respectively, the city of Altissia on the continent Tenebrae stands out in particular as a spectacular rendition of a fantasy equivalent of Venice.

In contrast to previous installations in the Final Fantasy series, battles in Final Fantasy XV don’t happen in their own instances but instead in the open world. While they are still area restricted in the way that if you leave the battle zone, the battle ends, the transition is seamless, doing away with what used to be a major source of ludonarrative disconnect.

Another mechanic that makes it easier to play the game as an open world affair is the introduction of the Regalia, a car that the player can use at most times. Unlike many other games, the player can’t veer off the road (at least not without modifications), so the car’s function is primarily to get from point to point.

 

The Good Bake

bake

Here’s a quick light bake in Unity done with supplied assets. I actually tried to bake out a scene from Buto, but there was a few issues with that. Namely, Unity doesn’t bake toon shaders very well¹ and my scene is so large that the project just corrupts when I try to bake it. As much as I love Unity, the lighting system really does leave something to be desired compared to Unreal.


¹took me a week to solve that, ended up having to replace the built in standard fallback shader to trick the engine into rendering realtime toon shading on top of baked AO