Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

Guest Post: In Search of Sub-Creation

Posted by Rampant Coyote on May 9, 2011

And now time for a guest post – this time from Anthony Salter, AKA GameDevDad, of Viridian Games. He’s currently finishing up work on the upcoming indie RPG Inaria, which will hopefully see release very soon now. I hope you enjoy this article as much as I did. It speaks to the kind of detail – or at least implied detail – that has always been an inspiration to me when playing CRPGs. Enjoy:

“The impulse is being called reactionary now, but lovers
of Middle-Earth want to go there. I would myself, like a shot.”
– Peter S. Beagle

While writing his various books, J. R. R. Tolkien became acutely aware of the fact that he wasn’t just writing books – he was chronicling the history of a world. A world that never existed, and yet he seemed compelled to describe it in every detail. Languages, history, races, creatures, artifacts and how they all interacted became a near-obsession with him…perhaps because so few had done it before.

After much work, Tolkien coined the term sub-creation to describe the construction of an imaginary world. A devout man, he considered it a near-religious act – the member of a created world creating a world in turn.

And let’s be honest – what he did has resonated deeply with us. Even if you can’t stand Lord of the Rings, if you’re reading this blog the odds are very good that you’re a fan of the impact it had on
our society.

But I didn’t really come here to talk about Tolkien himself…just the trend he started.

“Unique among Science Fiction novels.. I know nothing comparable to it except The Lord of the Rings.”
– Arthur C. Clarke, about Dune

First off, a change in terminology. Rather than the term sub-creation, I’ve taken to using the word “verisimilitude” to describe this phenomenon in polite conversation. First, because it’s a fun word to say, and second, because it can actually be looked up in the dictionary.

Games have the ability to provide verisimilitude like almost nothing else…and yet all too often I feel that developers take the cheap and easy way out – f’rinstance, this trailer:

If you initially thought “Oh, wow, I’m going to get to explore a futuristic version of Kowloon!” and then got to :50 and was disappointed when the game became a fairly average first-person shooter then you know what I’m talking about.

If you arrived at the Citadel in Mass Effect 1 and was disappointed by how little of it you could visit, you know what I’m talking about.

If you’ve ever stared out the window at the high-tech city below you as everyone else deathmatched in Unreal Tournament 3 and wondered what the people down there were having for dinner, then you know what I’m talking about.

In the end, I think there are three questions that, if your game answers, means you have created a world, no matter how small.

What do the people there eat?

Where do the people there sleep?

What do the people there do all day?

Of course, there are games that provide wonderful verisimilitude – and they aren’t even all RPGs! Shenmue‘s sense of place was sublime. System Shock 2 did a great job of answering all three questions despite the fact that everyone is, well, dead.

And Japanese RPGs usually don’t even bother with verisimilitude; I recall playing Final Fantasy VII and being attacked by a house while walking Aeris home. A house. It stood up and attacked me.

A house.

That was the point at which I realized that while I was probably going to enjoy Final Fantasy VII, it wasn’t going to scratch my verisimilitude itch.

But RPGs do have the best shot at creating coherent worlds and YES WE ARE GOING TO TALK ABOUT ULTIMA VII AGAIN.

Ultima VII answered all three questions better than practically any other game I’ve ever played.

What do they eat? Grain grows in the fields, cows graze in their pens. Foodstuffs are plentiful and varied. You can even mill your own wheat and bake it into bread!

Where do they sleep? Every single NPC has a bed. They kind of have to, because of the answer to the next question…

What do they do all day? Every single NPC has a daily schedule, so just follow them around and find out! Following NPCs on their daily rounds can be quite fun, especially when you discover things like the fact that the mayor of Britain is getting a little somethin’-somethin’ on the side.

With just a bit more thought, a bit more detail, games could move to being worlds rather than just “arenas”. A lot of developers will say that it’s too much work, or overkill for the kind of game they are making.

But the truth is, most every fan of the Ultima series would like to visit Britannia. Most every fan of Morrowind would like to visit Vvardenfell, and most every fan of Oblivion would like to visit Cyrodiil.

I would myself, like a shot.

Wouldn’t you like your players to want to live in the worlds you create?

Filed Under: Design, Guest Posts - Comments: 18 Comments to Read

  • mk2net said,

    Not only do I want players to want to live there, I want their actions to have a discernable impact on the world. Otherwise, it doesn’t go far enough. As you explained so well, it takes a great deal of thought to create a believable world that players want to be a part of. On the same token, it takes a great deal of effort to make a world that the player can be an active participant in, rather than just the strangely all-powerful bystander.

    That’s a major reason why I couldn’t stay interested in the Elder Scrolls games. They scratched the Explorer itch for a while (and I still have fond memories of just running around Morrowind checking the place out), but the NPC interaction just wasn’t there, which to me is a primary component in RPG’s.

    The other part of many RPG’s that irks me (like Bioware’s RPG’s) is the presence of a “relationship bar” that tracks “how you two are doing.” This level of gamesmanship really destroys the experience for me. I much prefer having to weigh what possible consequences my responses could have on a character’s relationship than have an icon that cues me in on what the consequence is without any thought required. It’s not really roleplaying if you know what the outcome of your actions will be at all times…because your character sure doesn’t.

    Anyhow, that got off-topic real quick, but I am very much in favor of meaningful NPC interaction to do what you support: building believable, worthwhile worlds.

  • skavenhorde said,

    I love The Witcher and it scratched that โ€œverisimilitudeโ€ itch quite nicely. I don’t think I realized why until I read this post.

    That game has mostly everything you mentioned for Ultima 7 and you could affect the world you lived in. People had jobs or daily activities, you knew where they slept and ate. When it was night go visit a pub and it was packed, during the day you could find them out and about around town. When it rained they ran for cover (I got a kick out of that the first time I saw it) and even the monsters made some kind of sense in a food chain sort of way. Most of them anyways.

    BTW, I’ve found the 40 hour Inaria at your blog and did a search for the one your working on. That brought up a lot of entries, but could you give a brief summary about what it will be about. I don’t have the time to read all the blog entries ๐Ÿ˜€

  • WhineAboutGames said,

    mk2net: Relationship gauges are a tricky subject, because the LACK of them can be pretty obnoxious for people trying to explore that aspect of the game on replay to see what the other possibilities are. It’s like the old hitpoints and other visible data argument. ๐Ÿ™‚ Realism doesn’t always make good gameplay.

    For me the worst part of having a “relationship bar” is that it indicates that the relationship is being written on a single axis. And that, just like the single good/bad karma meter in some games, sucks IMO.

  • Chance said,

    This is an excellent article! I’ve been writing a game, and I just realized how beneficial it would be to run through Morrowind, because I WOULD like to visit it. A big thing that really made Vvardenfell come alive for me was the lore. When you can pick up a book and read a lesson from a god, a biography of a notable character, and a schlocky romantic tale called “The Naughty Argonian Housemaid” (I’m paraphrasing the title, I think), you get the sense that this isn’t a world created for you; if you feel at home and welcome here, then that’s great! But this world feels like it was created for the NPCs, and for the sake of the world; if you never showed up, they’d still talk, and read, and go about their lives.

    Again, great article. I’m ready to see great things from Inaria.

  • Menigal said,

    A good read. I wish more designers felt this way! It’s been ages since I played a game with a well thought out world. I suppose that would be money and development time taken away from cutscene development, though.

    Now I’ve got to continue fighting down the urge to reinstall Morrowind. /me wanders off to find his copy of the Lusty Argonian Maid.

  • Andy_Panthro said,

    When I hear about Skyrim and their attempts to make “radiant AI” again, I do get the hope that we will finally see something that will beat Ultima VII.

    It may not be Skyrim, but I am hopeful that there will be a game that has the quality of NPC and environmental behaviours and interactions that people like me crave.

    “We create Worlds” was Origin’s tagline, and I really want to see that level of ambition again.

  • tcstyle said,

    I recommend that post on this topic:
    (Yeah, quite long)
    It’s a good read about living and “verisimilitudelistic” worlds for a single player gaming experience. Indeed more theory than realistically an implementable approach but some good ideas nevertheless. I just found it today and was quite impressed by the ideas.

  • Chevluh said,

    FF7’s Hell House gets a bad rap but it’s not actually any more incongruous than, say, the headless monsters in Ultima. It’s consistent with the setting as it’s one of many strange rogue automatons (its robotic internals are revealed once it takes enough damage) you can encounter in the lower, ruined parts of Midgar. The only inconsistency is you’d wonder where all those crazed robots come from, but we come back to Ultima’s headless that have no explanation beyond a “a mage did it”, essentially making FF7’s “Mako leaks did it” fair game.

  • LateWhiteRabbit said,

    The Elder Scrolls games usually scratch this itch for me, but I’m annoyed at how often the games conflict with their own lore – even lore that is written in books in the same game! I would write it off as “extra verisimilitude” from the book author’s not quite getting it right, but nearly ALL of them are wrong at this point.

    Oh, and the religious texts in the Elder Scrolls games annoy me, but then again, the religious texts in most fantasy settings annoy me. They are always purposefully confusing and twisted and as nonsensical as they can be without becoming farce. I realize they are trying to emulate real world religious texts, but real world texts like that aren’t confusing because they were written that way, they are confusing because they were written in different languages thousands of years ago from a different frame of reference. I’d expect the religious texts of a world where the gods still grant miracles and make personal appearances to be a good deal more clear and clarified. Just a personal pet peeve that the Elder Scrolls games ramp up to 1000%.

    Oh, I’m also one of those people you mentioned that can’t stand Lord of the Rings. Not as a story, mind you, but the books themselves. I admire Tolkien quite a bit – the Hobbit was the first fantasy novel I read as a child and it hooked me on fantasy – but the LOTR trilogy needed an editor to slice and dice it like Peter Jackson did for the movies. And the reason I loathe the books so much is because of the verisimilitude or sub-creation that Tolkien engaged in with wild abandon.

    He went too far. I agree with Orson Scott Card and many other authors – YOU as the AUTHOR should know all these things, because they should inform the story and characters’ actions, but the READER doesn’t need to know how tobacco is farmed by hobbits or the bazillion different names Tolkien loved giving everyone unless they INFORM THE STORY and PLOT.

    Take the “verisimilitude creation” too far and mysteries are eliminated and the world is just as familiar as our own, making everything just as mundane.

    Maybe its just me and my personality – I’m an explorer, or a “tourist-type” gamer. I like to explore new places and discover new things – your world should make me want to do that, to learn everything about it, to experience it all – but you shouldn’t let me. Because when I have seen it all, when it becomes mundane, when I know about the man behind the curtain – I’ll leave. I’ll be done, and I’ll never look at your world again. BUT – if you only tell me as much about the world as is required to tell each story, I’ll keep coming back, hoping to gain new insight each time.

    P.S. I might also be annoyed at LOTR’s world building because I keep finding myself in that world because fantasy authors rip whole sections off wholesale and repackage it to me as new. As an “explorer-type” nothing ticks me off more than signing on to a new tour, only to discover it is an old one painted over with a new color.

  • Viridian said,

    Wow, I can’t believe how positive the response to this article was…I thought I barely got my point across.

    skavenhorde: Forgot all about the Witcher, probably because I only played through the intro. I’ve got the whole game, I just need to find time to get back into it.

    As for my game…well, I’m a big fat hypocrite, because Inaria is deliberately styled after older games that don’t have that sense of place (it’s awfully difficult for one person to do…is my excuse). Instead, it’s a classical RPG in the vein of Ultima’s 3-5, with enough newfangledness to make it easier to play. I’m currently doing some final balancing (sorry, Coyote, but players outstripping their enemies at level 5 or so IS a problem) and revamping some of the dungeons to make them more interesting. It WILL be out by the end of May at the latest and will be $4.99. (Yes, gasp, I’m charging for the game. I know, I’m evil.)

    And heck, the beta is still going on. What in? Email me at anthony.salter@gmail.com and make sure you put “Inaria Beta Test” in the header. The game is nice and stable at this point and you’ll get a good feel for what the finished product will be like.

  • » I finally wrote a nice, long, meaty post… GameDevDad said,

    […] And he published it. Head on over to read it. […]

  • skavenhorde said,

    @Viridian For any oldschool rpg I’d gladly pay than have it freeware. RPGs are by far a pain to make and anyone crazy enough to spend their time doing so should be paid for their efforts. Plus it’s far more likely you’ll make another if you get some money for your time.I know I would. ๐Ÿ˜‰

    As for your game it sounds great so far. Ultima 5 was by far my favorite out of all of them (yes, even more than 7), but don’t balance it too much. I prefer to get my butt kicked every now and then so I get to try out different tactics. ๐Ÿ˜€

    In any case, if you ever get some free time then pop in The Witcher. I promise you won’t be disappointed. You may not be able to bake your own bread, but the world feels alive and you actually have some effect on it.

    I hear The Witcher 2 has taken C&C to the next level where the choices you make determine who and what you will encounter later. So on top of all that verisimilitude goodness you have the ability to actually affect this world.

  • Calibrator said,

    World creation is perhaps the single discipline where CRPGs *can* outshine any other games genre. If the publishers/designers want to, that is.
    The examples that have been given – essentially boiling all down to the works of Origin and Bethesda – are striking and I often wondered why the games weren’t even greater hits. The answer is easy, I think: Many gamers don’t want to get too involved with a single game.
    Of course there are gamers like myself who sink more than 200 hours in titles like Morrowind, Oblivion and Fallout 3 but not all gamers care for game worlds that are as large and detailed. They want a tighter storyline and continuous missions. Hence successful games like Dungeon Siege with tunnel-like game worlds.

    As I’m playing Fallout 3 at the moment (or rather “living it”…) I came to the conclusion that it offers a better game world than Oblivion, which was a clear improvement over Morrowind in a technical sense but appeared a bit too Tolkien-esk to fans of Morrowind, i.e. less creative. (We had this discussion recently here)
    Well, F3 offers a post-nuclear future and this is usually a generic affair also but the game shows us places we haven’t seen before and in brutal, funny and whimsical ways. The progress lies in the even better camouflaging the structure of the building blocks the world is comprised off, which is much less visible than in Oblivion (except perhaps in the “dungeons”).
    In my opinion this is very important: A game world that appears not only to be filled with believable NPCs (sleeping, eating, working etc.) but also features a landscape that has no apparent breaks (except the old indoors/outdoors separation of the Bethesda engine) and doesn’t feature a “blocks-re-used-to-death appeal” enhances the feeling to be in a unique and interesting place.

    What F3 also does very well: The whole radio station system. Not only are the deeds of the player announced on a regular basis but you get a selection of music and some tips for beginners. This is a bit like the GTA games where the radio stations also immerse the players, even though they remain totally optional. AFAIK F3 creates a better “feedback” by integrating one particular radio station into the plot and introducing the D.J. as a likeable NPC. And what a kick I got when I found Herbert “Daring” Dashwood in Tenpenny Tower (who now has ghulish neighbours, by the way ;-)!

    The net effect is that “media broadcasts” like these radio stations, newspapers or the already mentioned books are a powerful tool to enlarge and enrich a game world without actually creating levels, NPCs etc. and having to playtest all of this. Of course paying an actor to speak all these radio lines and licensing music isn’t exactly cheap either but you get my point.
    Things like this should be studied by any budding games designer, IMHO.

  • mk2net said,

    @whineaboutgames: I agree – “relationships” in RPG’s are typically of the like/dislike variety, which makes them even more immersion-breaking than if they weren’t there to begin with. BG2 didn’t have a romance option. If you chose the right option, you started a romance. If not, it never took off (I screwed up with Kashira, so things never really materialized, though I was trying…). Having romance as a sub-game adds no value to games, in my opinion. The type of system I envision that would make more sense would incorporate at least three variables (trust, respect, affection) to determine how a person reacts and the type of dialogue presented. Of course, this gets into the inevitable feature creep, and, “how much dialogue can you write.” But that’s the price you pay for making a game more immersive. Morrowind (and all Elder Scrolls games, really) pay for their immersion on the NPC interactivity side (dialogue), while making up for it with the number of other immersive elements (a whole island to explore, all unique locations, etc.). To incorporate a suitable NPC relationship system would require many more tens of thousands (if not hundreds, depending on the game) of words of dialogue if it were to be pulled off successfully. Until then, we’ll still have relatively static game worlds in which the player has an extremely limited impact on the outcome of events (or at the very least, a very limited number of opportunities to impact the outcome).

  • mk2net said,

    I realized after-the-fact that my statement that “BG2 didn’t have a romance option” might give off the wrong impression. I mean to say that BG2 did not have a slider to show you what your relationship was, or a “love button” to give you a visual cue on what your relationship status with another character is. The Witcher (amazing game) didn’t have those either. I consider both of those games to be superior in the role-playing aspect to any of Bioware’s most recent offerings (in other aspects, Bioware’s recent titles continue to be of higher quality).

  • skavenhorde said,


    Bioware’s recent titles are of higher quality if you enjoy interactive movies ๐Ÿ˜‰

  • Irwin1138 said,

    And also please don’t forget about the Gothic games (Piranha Bytes) =)

  • Quick Preview: Inaria said,

    […] style music is really what kicks it in high gear.ย  I told the author, Anthony Salter (who wrote this great guest post the other day) that it really invokes the old Ultima III vibe for […]