Posted by Rampant Coyote on February 17, 2011
Stories rooted in the modern world or familiar historical periods are (relatively) easy to explain to audiences. You can slap a year and location on the screen, and you are done. “Hong Kong, 1928.” Boom. Not many people playing a game were ever in Hong Kong in 1928, but most of us are familiar enough with the era and geography and historical events that we can build a working mental model of the setting with that short line, with blanks ready to be filled in by game / movie / book / whatever.
If we know we’re playing a superhero game, or reading an urban fantasy book, we expect some major ahistorical elements to be introduced. But we’ve got our foundation built in precious few words. Likewise, a familiar setting set in the not-too-distant future isn’t hard to keep up with. London 2015, Chiba City 2058 – the player can simply take what we currently know of the location and extrapolate changes based on current trends. The nearer the future date, the more comfortable we feel with the setting and less exposition we know we’ll require to understand what’s going on. I really don’t expect London in 2015 to be that strikingly different from London today.
But how about, “Khevegas City, Year 168 of the Fourth Age?”
We’ve got nothing. Or almost nothing. Maybe we know it’s a city (… of mutant lobsters?) and can formulate some questions about what the first three ages were all about. But as an audience, we’re immediately lost at sea. Fantasy games not based on the real world are pretty dang alien.
With any storytelling medium, creators need to understand that their audience is only going to give them a limited window of attention with which to establish the setting and make the audience feel comfortable moving on to the more important stuff… character and plot. That window of attention may vary from individual to individual, but it’s never unlimited.
Any experienced, successful game developer (or writer) will tell you that you do NOT want your player to spend their first several minutes of a game being bombarded with exposition. That will use up the attention window in a hurry. Very few players want to spend fifteen minutes at the beginning of a game hearing backstory. It’s certainly possible to make a game for the niche that represents the exception to the rule, but most players want a minimum of exposition before getting to the good stuff (which, contrary to popular belief, doesn’t necessarily mean either action or some kind of tutorial).
For me, as a player, I want just enough background at the outset to know why I should care. The rest I can take in as I need it. The world should not be one that requires a massive info-dump at the outset.
Tolkienesque or D&D-style fantasy worlds have had decades to simmer in the popular geek culture’s mythology. That makes it very easy to use as a foundation for a setting and provide shortcuts to the player’s understanding. With just a few visuals or lines of exposition, you can effectively say, “Medieval fantasy world. Elves. Dragons. The orcs are named ‘borks’ but are functionally identical. We’ll tell you more later.” Done. You can then explain the critical importance of the annual Bork Pride Parade in the capital city of Sniffleheim at some point prior to the player needing this information.
It’s really hard to present a really unique fantasy world to players. Quite honestly, we tend to lose interest early on because it’s hard to construct that new mental model of the setting. This is why we keep falling back to variants on this traditional setting.
It can be and has been done. One of the most strikingly original (non-RPG) worlds I’ve ever enjoyed (until it beat me too often and I quit playing) was the game Out of This World (AKA Another World) by Eric Chahi. The solution with that game was to put the player in the shoes of a character just as mystified by the alienness of another dimension as the player. I have always felt that Final Fantasy VII offered a fantastic introduction for the player into an unusual world that mixed mid-20th-century industrialized civilization (which players had an immediate understanding of) with a magical, strange one with a bizarre history. While it stumbled a lot in late game exposition, in the beginning the details were provided as the player needed them, and there were enough familiar metaphors for modern life that we never felt too lost. And I’m looking forward to the upcoming indie RPG Age of Decadence, which has adopted a world based on ancient Rome rather than medieval Europe. It is a historical location that should still be familiar enough to most gamers that they can understand the setting without requiring too much explanation.
I applaud the efforts to go beyond orcs, elves, and dragons. But I’m also fairly comfortable in those worlds, so I won’t hold the games that stay there in contempt or anything. But please, designers, just because it’s a perfectly reasonable starting point and foundation for a setting, it’s not a setting by itself. It’s only a starting point.
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