Worldbuilding and the Okapi’s Butt

So as I’ve been raving about on Twitter for a few days now, I’ve been working with the StoryNexus game engine to create a browser game. It’s set in the stuffed animal world of Pludwump and Quippet and Rough Seams, which is sort of Ice Age Europe rendered in plush. (I firmly maintain that this idea is so stupid that it’s almost high concept.)

(And a big shout out to my dear Kevin and my buddy Tango for playtesting!)

And now, a few thoughts…

First of all, I’ve had to do a lot of tearing out and re-treading because I didn’t know what I was doing. I don’t feel this was wasted time, because it’s not like there’s any other way to learn, but if I were doing a second game, there’s some planning I’d do in advance. (All of which is technical and related specifically to the engine in question–if you’re also fiddling with it and want to talk about it, leave a comment, I’ll happily expand.)

Second, and more important for our purposes…goddamn, world-building.

Up until sometime early last week, I had a great deal of confidence in my world-building skills. There’s a trick to it, more or less, and that trick is that you can paint an exotic city on a curtain in about five lines and readers will fill in all the rest themselves.

The best example I can come up with here is from China Mieville’s book The Scar, where they encounter a race of sentient mosquito-people, and he includes a few throwaway lines about an empire in the distant past called the Malarial Queendom.

He doesn’t tell you how it worked. In fact, one of the characters actively wonders “How the hell did that work, anyway?” He doesn’t go into detail. I think the words Malarial Queendom are mentioned maybe three times. You don’t learn anything about them, except one line saying that once upon a time, they ruled this particular coast with an iron fist, and wow, that was bad.

And that’s it. A whole empire with a history built out of three lines. Does he know the entire history of the Queendom? Does he know the rank of every mosquito functionary?

Eh, it’s Mieville, so he might, but if it was me, I wouldn’t. I’d write the three lines, grin, go “Damn, that’s cool,” and go on. If I needed to come up with more detail—if I was on a panel at a con and somebody demanded I recount the entire history of the Malarial Queendom RIGHT NOW—I’d be confident that I could come up with something, but honestly, it’s not germane to the plot. The important thing is that the reader get a sense of vast, uncanny history and weird things happening just out of sight. You don’t want to drag the world in and put it on the dissecting table—that way lies Silmarillion-esque prologues—you just want them to catch a glimpse of it, like an okapi’s butt in the rainforest, and go “Whoa. There’s a really big animal over there, isn’t there?” while it glides away into the shadows.

It’s a form of writer’s sleight-of-hand. It’s making it look like of course you know all about this, and the reason you’re not going into it is because it’s not really relevant and you don’t want to bore people, not that the whole of the Malarial Queendom is (possibly) no more than three lines of text in a book two inches thick.

Probably there’s a skill involved—knowing what makes an alluring okapi-butt—but that all happens down at the not-really-conscious level for me, so I can’t talk much about it, except that I just assume if I find it interesting, the rest of you weirdos do too. And the truth, of course, is that for me (and I’d guess for many of us) there’s no okapi there at all, it’s basically a big striped butt on a stick that the writer is waving through the undergrowth. Possibly while making “Woooooooo!” noises because none of us actually know what an okapi sounds like.

However.

If you wish to then write a game where people are wandering around in—to use a completely and totally random example—an Ice Age plush world, suddenly you need the whole okapi. Butt-on-a-stick won’t cut it. The reader is actively picking cards (StoryNexus is a card-based RPG sort of thing, kind of like a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure crossed with Zork) and reading them and exploring the world and you have to keep them entertained and you want them to feel like there’s a whole lot of stuff there.

There’s a hunting function in this game I’m making. Your little Ice Age hunter goes out to hunt the mighty woolen mammoth and other creatures of the Patchwork Steppes. This is a grindable skill. And I don’t know about you, but I get very bored with grinding something if all I’m reading is “You go kill a thing. Woo! Stuffing steaks for everybody!” eighty million times. So I sat down to write a whole bunch of different things you could hunt with your trusty Pointy Stick, which would be different difficulties and give you different rewards, and interesting things that could happen while hunting in this area and so on and so forth. (The game designers recommend at least twelve cards or “storylets” per area so that people don’t get too bored with the repetitions on random draws.)

Oh. My. God.

Twenty cards, including various quest chains. Each card needs failures and successes, sometimes multiple ones depending on what skills you use and whether you get the rare lucky success or the rare unlucky failure. It took days. And insomuch as any person on earth was ever designed to write short little blurbs with punchlines for various little scenarios involving killing and eating stuffed animals, I am that person. (It’s like writing short descriptions under art, really…) But I had to build the entire goddamn okapi, from the hooves up, instead of just a quickly sketched illusion.

So now you can hunt burlap boars and terrycloth giant hamsters and corduroy aurochs. You can follow silken condors. You can harvest mushrooms off mammoth dung. You can choose not to hunt some of the animals and try to befriend them instead. You can do a whole bunch of stuff that you’d presumably be able to do if you were a little Ice Age hunting plush. And this is only one damn area.

I’m pleased. I’m hopeful that when, in a few months, I’m ready to have people play it, they will have fun and it will feel much more immersive than just saying “Yeah, they’re off hunting mammoth over there. Neat, huh? Now do this thing to move the plot along!” I hope it will feel like a world, and that people will be able to construct their own mental narratives, which is what makes a game a game instead of a book.

And I hope all this knowing that people will read the card descriptions once, possibly twice, then skip immediately to the clicking bits. *grin*

But goddamn, that was hard. I never have to build okapis. My mental studio has a whole closet full of striped butts-on-sticks. I won’t say it’s a different skill set, exactly, but it’s as if you come up with a great throwaway world-building line and then somebody says “You’re right! That was a great line! Now put your money where your mouth is and given me the entire backstory behind it, smart guy!”

…and now I have to do that whole thing again, only with Quippet and Pludwump and Pludwump’s bodyguard, the Burly Blue Ram. And a lot of other characters I’ve had to pull out of thin air so that the world has individuals in it, not just vague masses.

And it’s cool.

But lord, it’s much harder than expected.