How to use games for world building

Screenshot of Commander Keen – Marooned on Mars

World building. There are tons of places to find inspiration for your fictional landscapes, cultures, and conflicts in your story. New writers are told to read what you want to write, not to copy, but to emulate. Books, movies, current events — they’re all fair game.

But some of the most influential slices of entertainment in my formative years were video games. I spent hours hovering over my brother’s shoulder as “we” played Tomb Raider (I helped figure out the puzzles, though probably not as much as I think I did). He introduced me to the misadventures of Roger Wilco, made me be quiet while he dodged the AI in Thief, and we zapped aliens in Commander Keen.

Most importantly, he taught me how to load up Sid Meier’s Colonization in DOS. Now that I’m thinking about it, it might have been so I would leave him alone to play his games in peace. These games are kind of interactive novels and they all fueled my appreciation for world building, even before I’d heard the actual term.

Google, “how to use video games for world building,” and I predict your search results will yield more along the lines of, “world building for video games,” or, “which video games have the best world building.” And maybe that’s the right thing to pop up. After all, if you’re building a world, it needs to be based on your imagination and your ideas, not someone else’s. Otherwise, you’re probably creating fan fiction rather than an original novel.

But if we’re being told to read books that we want to emulate, who’s to say that it’s not okay to use the experiences you’ve had while gaming? Everything is fodder, as long as we use concepts and make them our own.

1. Pay attention to cause and effect

When you’re playing a game, you’re usually given a goal to work toward. And unless you’re playing Myst, you’ve probably got a good idea of what steps you need to take to achieve that goal. Game designers are experts at building in that sort of “choose your own adventure” mechanic and more games are incorporating a responsive effect to take the player’s experience deeper in the game. So you know when you say something mean to an in-game character, chances are, it will come back to bite you. It’s the same with your characters and their social interactions.

Star Wars: The Old Republic — Light side vs. Dark side decisions

Make sure that the responses between characters and governments match with the type of unique culture they each represent. Otherwise the tension in your story may lack the ebb and flow that keeps readers turning pages.

Choosing to take certain actions (like in Bioshock and SW:TOR) will affect the kind of character you become in-game. Similarly, the decisions your characters make will shape their worlds and perspectives.

2. Use video game soundtracks

Music is powerful. I still get chills when I hear the song, Lament of the Highborne, from the popular MMORPG World of Warcraft. Originally in the game, a player would only hear this haunting melody when they completed a particular quest in a certain area. To hear it was special, a one-time thing. It’s based on the tragic story of an elven general who is brutally murdered by her enemy, then brought back as a banshee, enslaved to do his bidding. She eventually breaks free and become a great leader.

Inspirational, right? So what is that spine-chilling soundtrack for you? Do you get all hyped up when you hear the Captain America march? Are you inspired when you rock out to your favorite band?

Find that tune that makes you want to bask in it and motivates you to capture that feeling in a chapter.

Bioshock and The Last of Us will take you on an emotional ride. The soundtracks to Assassin’s Creed and the 2013 version of Tomb Raider offer more of an action sound. One of my favorite soundtracks has got to be Borderlands 2 (although the game itself is definitely irreverent and rated M for good reason). The music is funky, with touches of grunge and a good beat that helps keeps me focused.

3. Look inside the box

When we host game nights at our home we usually play physical board games, not the video games listed above. Favorites include Munchkin and Catan. My husband is currently obsessed with the Star Wars X-Wing Miniatures table top game. Games don’t have to be high-tech to give me ideas for scenes and conflicts (Clue, anyone?). And while it seems obvious to use certain things like establishing cities and creating characters for world building, you can also take into account the people playing with you.

Is everyone a good sport? How cutthroat do they get? If you’re playing a game where alliances are part of the strategy, how does each person’s play style affect the game? It might be great inspiration for how to deal with cultural clashes in your world.

So, here’s where I ask: What’s your favorite game — video or otherwise?

What game soundtracks inspire you?


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1 Comment

  • Morgan L. Busse Posted March 7, 2017 9:26 am

    Glad to know I’m not the only one who finds inspiration in video games. I remember when I first heard Lament of the Highborne or looked over Skyrim from a mountaintop!

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