Sunday, July 23, 2017

The Secondary Importance of Setting

Of late, in my process of examining games, I have been seeing a lot of "worldbuilding" content directed at video gamers or story writing.  Here is a fairly typical article; here is a fairly typical video.  The goals of this content are direct: to explain that "worldbuilding" is important, that the way the "world" is conveyed matters, then to give a series of personally adored examples in which the details of said content is fondly discussed.

What this content does not do is explain how any of this is done.

"Worldbuilding" is a big, exciting word that sounds like it is something crucial to the narrative process, so important that videos describing worldbuilding spend a lot of time explaining how good exposition is made or how good characterization is accomplished or choreographical techniques as an attempt to hammer down a term that did not exist in the creator's standard lexicon ten years ago.  This is a recent amateur word that has lately developed as a cultural fad but is extraordinarily lacking in two regards.

First of all, in telling a story, I do not have to create an entire world.  This was demonstrated definitively in the mid-20th century by a series of minimalist masters such as Edward Albee, Eugene Ionesco and Harold Pinter, who used universally understood paradigms to discuss human behaviour at its core.  There was no need to build a "world" ~ the world already existed.  The attempt was to express it and explain it.

Secondly, a perfectly good word for the concept already exists, and has for thousands of years.  The word is "setting."

For fan boys, who are astounded at the immensity of setting for various science fiction, fantasy, meta-fiction or anime, this does not seem to be a word with enough scope, enough verve, enough dimension to satisfy the awe and stunned inadequacy they feel when experiencing settings of such creativity: and as such, they have invented their own word, a word that can bear the weight of their empathy and fetish.

Sadly, their own writing falls flat when attempting to explain how this building of worlds occurs.  Take this address:
"To begin your world, simply think of a blank canvas, ready for you to paint your picture upon. I find it useful to first think of one location which interests me. What does the terrain look like? Is it a mountain, riverbank, beach, valley, forest, desert or open plains? What type of people live there? In the mountain perhaps they are a mining town filled with many burly men. Or perhaps in a forest paradise with beautiful, slender people. Now we think of the culture and building style. What type of houses do they have? Wooden? Stone? Are they made with fine craftsmanship or do they look like they have been thrown together by novices?"

 This is it.  Having started, you're on your way to a lot of other questions that do not, in any way, suggest what the answers should be if you've chosen a mountainous forest paradise with slender people living in wooden houses they've only recently constructed.  But then, that isn't much to start on.  The problem with asking a would-be storyteller to answer a lot of random questions about who rules the place, how they communicate or what do they farm, is that we either get a hodgepodge of disconnected, unbelievable traits and cultural points of interest, or we get something very much like what the creator has experienced all their life: a typical farm, a typical city, a typical military structure or a typical dystopian fantasy.  None of which has any real insight, since this is a story that is going to be driven by its setting and not by its plot or its characters.

Consider this similar quote from another source:

"The first step to writing a setting is to brainstorm and make lists of various aspects of a setting.  Take about fifteen minutes and make a list similar to the following (time, place, environment):

  • late at night ... in a haunted house ... dark, damp, creepy and old.
  • in the future ... at Cape Canaveral ... heading for Mars.
  • in 1620, the Colonies ... stepping off the Mayflower ... cold, forested, rocky beach.
  • present day ... waking up high in a tree ... flat plains covered with snow.
  • evening ... deserted street in New York ... foggy, rainy and cool.
  • early morning ... at home, in your bed ... the house is empty.
"After brainstorming your list, choose the ideas you want to develop and write four settings (each one must be set in a different place and time).  After you have written your first four drafts, choose the one that is your favorite, then edit and revise the draft completely. If time remains, have a friend edit the draft and have him or her make suggestions."

Awful.  But more or less the same advice that can be found in a typical youtube video.  And the language of this later example is almost forgiveable, as it comes from a book called, Adventures in Writing, Grades 6-12.  It doesn't pretend that its not giving the most simplistic advice imaginable for impressionable young minds who, for the most part, are too simple to have read real books by the time they're in Junior High School.

(This book would have sickened me in Grade 8, about the time I was reading Wampeters, Foma and Granfalloons by Kurt Vonnegut and If the War Goes On... by Hermann Hesse ~ books in which the choice of writing by writers figures prominently).

Okay, let's have a look at something more relevant to the actual problem.  This is from Interactive Storytelling for Video Games, by Josiah Lebowitz and Chris Klug.  Lebowitz is a professor at the University of Hawaii and Klug might be Gerry Christopher Klug, a game designer and theatrical designer; I'm not certain about that.

"Defining features of open-ended storytelling include expansive worlds that the player is free to explore for most of the game and an extremely large number of optional quests and activities he or she can take part in.  Because of how much time and attention are spent developing the setting and optional content, the main plot is often deemphasized, with most open-ended stories having relatively short and simple main plots featuring generic player-created heroes.  Some games, such as Grand Theft Auto IV, go against this trend, offering deeper plots and well-defined heroes, though doing so sacrifices a considerable amount of the player control and freedom found in other less plot-focused games like Fable II and The Elder Scrolls 3: Morrowind. Which of these approaches is best is a matter that's frequently debated . . . but as a general rule, the more freedom that is given to the player, the less emphasis can be placed on creating a deep, structured, and emotional main plot, and vice versa."

I want to unpack that specifically in terms of the setting, which is clearly not as important as videos and articles would have us believe.  The real concern is player engagement and player agency; and the reader will find a similar point of view if searching for discussions of setting with relation to theater or film.  "Setting" is the backdrop in which the action takes place.  The backdrop must be believable; it must be serviceable; it must not detract from the experience and it should be addressed with care and alacrity.  But it is NOT the most important element of the story telling experience and it is not what makes a work great.

We have drifted into a mindset where, having been fed great graphics through a heightened sense of film mechanics and technology, we're prone to deluding ourselves with giving these things more substance than they actually possess.  We're also prone to convincing ourselves, with special words to describe the setting, into believing that "everything" falls under the purview of the "world" we've created for our characters ... when in fact that world isn't actually very important to the plot or the characters.

Rather than preaching examples of how an immense and awesome setting has made some movies remarkable and worthy (which they are because plot and character were given the attention they deserved), we ought to consider how an immense and awesome setting has absolutely failed to support an appallingly bad plot or character arc.  Jupiter Ascending comes to mind, as does John Carter, the 2011 Conan the Barbarian abortion, Warcraft, Tomorrowland, 47 Ronin and the greatly disappointing and forgettable 9, which created a multi-layered setting of magnificent proportions, only to face-plant spectacularly as the characterization turned out to be wholly uninspiring.

The world you make for your RPG game, your video game or your novel/play should be good, yes; but the time you spend on it will greatly undermine the time you ought to be spending on your characters, their motivation and the goals they are seeking.  A setting won't save you if those things aren't in place . . . which is part of the reason why so many DMs can sustain themselves in long-running campaigns that are built on setting design that is absolutely shit of the first order.


  1. Wow, I never thought to consider "worldbuilding" in contrast to Absurdist theatre, but that's a great point to bring up. Maybe the next adventure my players will go on will end in a room full of expanding corpses or multiplying furniture, or with a missing cheese roll and marital infidelity.

    I remember once asking an author-playwright I met why he thought so few plays every tried to create big sci-fi epics: his thoughts were, very roughly, that plays didn't have the time or even interest in all the exposition that books and movies often use to set sci-fi, and that ultimately most of those details were superfluous to the main focus of much of good theatre, which is the discussion of human behaviour.

    I wouldn't expect most DMs to be comfortable being told that they need to focus more on discussing human behaviour ("that sounds hard!") but you've essentially done so anyway the moment you create an adventure if you don't just have a shooting gallery of stock characters but intelligent beings capable of making choices.

    Hm, or maybe I'll just tell them to crib something other than the Top 10 Books Every Nerd Reads In High School.

  2. One of the reasons I use pre-existing material to compile a setting together. From my perspective it looks like a Frankenstein monster. From the players' view, they see people and towns and dungeons and wilderness and monsters... all of which fits into their perspective of the setting.

  3. Sorry. I've been busy and am only now taking the time to catch up on my blog reading.

    I just want a point of clarification here: you are throwing around words like "plot" and "storytelling" pretty loosely, considering (I believe) that you are writing regarding role-playing (i.e. the play of a game). I'm grokking what you;re saying, and (I think) I'm in agreement, but I just want to make sure you're talking about role-playing AND (or NOT) novel writing/storytelling.

    Not JUST the telling of a story ("But is is NOT the most important element of the story telling experience..." or "...that world isn't actually very important to the plot..." etc.). Because I'm not an author of fantasy so I don't give a shit about storytelling or plot in my gaming. At least, that's not what I'm coming here to read.

    [sorry...don't mean to sound antagonistic. As said, I'm just asking for clarification]

  4. JB,

    I did start this post talking about creating worlds for video gamers and story writing. I did feel that was a specific cue to the direction and content of the post. I have been talking about worldbuilding in RPGs, that's true ~ but here I was sidestepping to make a comment on a generalization I was seeing in other content, as story "worldbuilding" content is something I keep tripping over.

    It was in my head so I wrote the post. So in regards to the subject above, I was talking specifically of stories and plot.

    D&D worldbuilding is a different notion. But since I was in the ballpark, I decided to finish up with an argument that too much concentration on the setting for an RPG can overlook the more important motifs of conflict and user motivation. I can see where the shift was confusing. Sorry about that.

    The later post, Mindfulness, adds more of my thinking on this matter; I know you've read it, because you wrote a comment to that post as well.


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