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.

  • reply Tami ,

    FYI, I shall continue to stand here in the rain with fists of cash ready to assist in Kickstartering this project until such time as you provide me a link.

    • reply girdtmom ,

      {Queuing up next to Tami, cash in hand, and offering to share umbrella.}

      • reply Escher ,

        Count me in. I’m serious; you need to get paid for doing a thing like this, and all of us who love Digger and Dragonbreath and Celadon Toadstool are standing around with our virtual checkbooks out, looking for a paypal link.

        • reply Wolf Lahti ,

          World building is tough but fun and ultimately rewarding. Try designing your own *language* some time.

          I knew it would be hard, but *lawzy* – once I got beyond the subject-verb-object simplicity of grammatical constructions and had to deal with things like full sentences acting as modifying clauses and predicate adjectives and tenses, aspects, and moods of verbs and making a vocabulary where every word doesn’t sound the same but has to sound like it’s from the same language and dealing with orthography and morphology and syntax and phonology and semantics….

          It quickly becomes tempting to throw all your notes in the air and merely *hint* in the novel at the fact that these aliens do not speak English by tossing in an odd interjection now and then, such as Rää or Fu or Olää; which is the verbal equivalent of Okapi butt on a stick.

          And that may work best after all.

          (I just know that “okapi butt on a stick” is a phrase that will be with me till my dying days. In fact, if I can manage it, I’ll make that my last words and let historians try to figure out what deep and mystical meaning it suggests, much like Thoreau’s utterance of “Moose… Indian…”, which I think I can now say I comprehend fully.)

          • reply Linky comes bearing gifts and huddling away from the cold | Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea ,

            […] Vernon on Worldbuilding and the Okapi’s Butt: The important thing is that the reader get a sense of vast, uncanny history and weird things […]

            • reply Hazel ,

              Now I’m wondering what would happen if someone tried to make a deer-butt head with an okapi butt instead.

              I’d like to hear some of the elaboration on the engine; I’ve been fiddling around with it as well and it is amazing how much work it actually takes. I’ve been mostly winging things, and wondering if I should be planning better. Ah well, we’ll see in the future.

              • reply Brigid Keely ,

                This sounds like SO much fun, for the player if not for you. 😀

                I love Fallen London & pretty regularly “echo” something to my journal because it’s a great bit of world building/story. There’s a LOT of players who WILL notice your work and love it to pieces.

                • reply Lounalune ,

                  I will love you to pieces if you finish this. And am lining up to throw some cash your way. Btw, would it be possible to know your Fallen London user name?

                  • reply Al the K ,

                    If the game engine is in beta, why not ask the writers to build features or tools you think need to be added or refined? (he naively said) If they’re worth their salt, they’ll consider it. If they say “No, it can’t be programmed that way” and they give no reason why, you send the plush Viking berserkers after them. That said, you might not want to incorporate said features until Mark 2 or for some kind of expansion module.

                    You could sketch out the earliest encountered parts of the world and make things progressively richer. It’ll keep players’ interest by moving things along early. We know you set the bar high, but the ol’ milk-snorted-out-of-the-nose test after reading one of your scenarios would be perfect.

                    And would that be calico mushrooms growing on yucky brown microsuede mammoth dung? Thought so.

                    • reply Jeanette ,

                      I am very excited to play this game!

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                        • reply Miss Kitt ,

                          Okay, I already thought Ursula was one of the most amazingly cool people in the world, but using okapi butts to make a point?!

                          Most people don’t even know what an okapi IS! I have a shirt with an okapi on it — a photographic image — and I have had people ask me, “Which game is that from?”

                          I might have to start a religion or something…

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