The importance of worldbuilding in video games

By Alex Alusheff

When is the last time you played a game that sucked you into its world?

I’m not talking about just pretty graphics and landscapes. I’m talking about story, culture, lore, music, backstories, history, religion – in short, worldbuilding.

It’s a term often thrown around by fiction writers that basically means crafting a believable, imaginary world that isn’t cookie-cutter like most of the drek we see nowadays. Worldbuilding can make or break a book just as it can a video game.

And with the new console generation boasting fancy technological improvements like better graphics, ray tracing, and disguised loading screens, it can be easy for worldbuilding and story to fall by the wayside as we are dazzled by technobabble.

We’ve already seen this trade-off occur in games like Final Fantasy 15, Skyrim, and Mass Effect Andromeda. These games from storied developers that literally set the standard for quality in roleplaying games on consoles and PCs.

And because of disappointing games like Final Fantasy 15 and Andromeda, we’re seeing Square Enix and BioWare cash in on the nostalgia train with The Final Fantasy 7 Remake and the Mass Effect trilogy remaster. They know these well-established worlds will sell better than the half-baked worlds they come up with nowadays.

Putting Skyrim in this list may seem like a hot take, but hear me out before shitting on me.

Before consoles and PCs were technically capable of the graphical spectacles they are today, developers made up for it with pages of dialogue, backstory, and lore to help gamers imagine the world they were in. You’d be treated to descriptions of the characters, their facial expressions during dialogue, the small details of the pub where the crew was gathered, and so on. This is evident in classic RPGs like Baldur’s GatePlanescape Torment, and the obscure, yet fantastic Betrayal at Krondor.

Bethesda struck gold with Morrowind in 2002. Think of alien landscapes, the long-legged silt strider used as a fast-travel taxi, and all the books and menus to soak up information from. Oblivion took it up a notch and added NPCs that followed their own routines instead of just standing around waiting for you to talk to them so they could dole out a quest. For the first time, NPCs were going about their day and the world didn’t feel so static and hollow.

Yes, there were only a handful of voice actors for the entire population of Cyrodiil. And yes, one guy designed all the dungeons. But there were still tomes of books to read to flesh out what limitations the game had.

I remember going through a lore rabbit hole when I accepted a quest in Bruma called Lifting the Vale. The countess of Bruma asks you to retrieve the Draconian Madstone from an old Akaviri fort in the mountains that was used to stage invasions into Cyrodiil hundreds of years ago. You’re given a translated diary written by an Akaviri messenger long ago along with a hand-drawn map to help locate the fort on a mountainside. Once inside, you’d be battling undead skeletons and a ghost commander. After I completed the quest, I remember reading books in the game about the Akaviri invasions and becoming enthralled.

But as the years went on, developers leaned more on graphics and gameplay mechanics and less on worldbuilding.

Now Skyrim has all the elements I just praised the series for, but the game rested on the franchise’s laurels. Bethesda focused instead on streamlining the combat mechanics and leveling system compared to Oblivion and Morrowind. It was a much-needed and welcomed improvement, but worldbuilding was put to the side.

I know what you’re thinking. Are you nuts? Skyrim launched with 100 more hours of content compared to Oblivion. There were over 70 voice actors this time. And there were DRAGONS! FUS RO DAH!

*picks belongings up and places them back on the desk*

You’re not wrong. We were introduced to a whole new, cinematic world with Skyrim. But if you looked beyond all the spectacle, you realized everything else was pretty thin. Yes, there were more voice actors, but they really didn’t have much to say. Sure, there were books, but it was Reader’s Digest compared to previous games. The landscape was beautiful, but it doesn’t compare to the alien world of Morrowind, which is Skyrim’s next-door neighbor. It was generic Scandinavia.  And yes, there were dragons and werewolves, but that all felt like a distraction from what was missing.

Let me get my point across with a food analogy.

Morrowind is a turkey sandwich lovingly made by your grandmother. She uses smaller artisan bread with sesame seeds on the crust. The turkey is shaved fresh from the deli, not sliced and prepackaged. And you have all your fixings – lettuce, tomato, mayo, mustard, banana peppers. The presentation is a little sloppy because her hands don’t work like they used to, but you love it anyway, because you love your grandma.

Oblivion is a burger made at a fast-casual chain. They make better burgers than fast food places and you know whatever you get is going to be good. But they skimped out on the toppings this time, however, the secret sauce they put on it made up for that so you’re willing to look past it.

Skyrim is a baguette someone sliced longways and started slapping on peanut butter and jelly. That’s a big sandwich and a lot of bread to eat. It’s going to take you a while to eat that entire sandwich and it will definitely make you full. But along the way, you’re going to notice the peanut butter and jelly is clumped in certain places and thin in others.

At certain points in Skyrim, you can almost pull back the curtain and see Todd Howard huddled in a corner, jerking off onto Fallout 76.

I may be coming off like a hard-to-please RPG purist, but you can have it all.

Enter The Witcher 3.

Here’s what blew me away in the first three hours of playing the game in terms of worldbuilding. You start off in White Orchard tracking down Yennefer a few days behind the frontlines of a war for global domination by Nilfgaard. I took a random side quest called Devil by the Well from the bulletin board before starting the main quest.

I went to a farmhouse where this man’s daughter has become ill from drinking the river water, which has become contaminated with dead bodies from a battle that took place upstream a few days ago.

Boom. These random side quest people have already been woven into the main story, giving weight to their lives with real world problems that make them believable.

The farmer sends you to a well in an abandoned village up the road to drive off a noonwraith that haunts it and prevents people from drinking the fresh water. I go to the abandoned village and have a brief encounter with this wretched wraith. When she disappears, Geralt turns into a detective and starts to piece together the tragic events that justify this place becoming haunted.

You get bits and pieces by going through the wreckage and discover a woman’s diary about her upcoming wedding day. Bad things happened shortly after and you find the woman’s skeleton hanging in the well. Geralt explains that the only way to get rid of a wraith is to find the personal belonging that’s tethering them to this place and burn it along with the remains.

Boom. We just learned a little about the backstory of this village and this wraith that used to be a real person. We also learned about one of the monsters of this world and the rituals needed to kill it.

I find the personal item, kill the wraith, and collect my reward. I thought it was over, but I asked the farmer about the woman who died in that village. He tells me to speak with the herbalist.

I haven’t started the griffin quest so I can’t see her yet. I start it and go right to the herbalist. After getting the griffin mumbo jumbo out of the way, I asked her about the dead woman, Claer. She tells Geralt she was friends with her and that her family moved out there because of a feud with the manor lord. His posse tried to convince them to come back to White Orchard, but it turned nasty. Insults were hurled, and Claire said something about the lord’s son, which got her killed.

I was satisfied with that ending. And here was another random character, who was there to help Geralt on the main quest, fleshing out the story of the abandoned village and this poor dead woman, bringing this world to life.

But it wasn’t over. I track down the hunter next as part of the griffin quest. We kill some wolves. After that, I started conversing with the hunter and I found out he had a fall from grace recently. Geralt thinks he’s a werewolf.

No. Turns out, he was gay and in love with the manor lord’s son. When the affair was discovered, the lord’s son hung himself.

Boom. While I got the backstory on the hunter, I got the final tidbit of info I needed to know about Clear to wrap up her story. It can be assumed that she said something about the lord’s son being gay when her family was asked to return to White Orchard and that’s how she met her untimely end.

That is some masterful worldbuilding in the first two hours of the game. By picking up a random side quest, I learned about the problems of the villagers, the tragic backstory surrounding a seemingly insignificant wraith battle, a culture that isn’t accepting of gay people, and everything I need to know about noonwraiths.

One side quest fleshed out one section of this world so well that it didn’t even feel like I was playing a game. It felt like I was reading a Robert Jordan novel or watching a really good television show. You don’t really expect that much from a video game.

Morrowind and the ensuing Elder Scrolls games may have laid the foundation for the modern RPG, but The Witcher 3 built the walls and roof.

Yes, the Witcher games derive from books so CD Projekt Red had a lot of source material to pull from. But so does Bethesda. Both The Elder Scrolls: Arena and Andrzej Sapowksi’s Blood of Elves were released in 1994.

I have to acknowledge that The Witcher 3 came out four years after Skyrim and on a new console generation to give some credit to Bethesda. But both games cost roughly $80 million to produce. 

And since The Elder Scrolls 6 will be coming out on the new generation of consoles, there’s a whole new set of expectations for it to live up to.

Now that Triple A games take years and tens of millions of dollars to produce, is there really an excuse to not have it loaded with amazing graphics, gameplay, story, and setting? If not, then what are they spending all that money on? Ray tracing?

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