Worldbuilding in Game Design

This post is about an essay by M. John Harrison, which unfortunately does not exist as a published document, but can be found on various online platforms and forums. Here is the essay on [1]:

A short essay by the great sci-fi author M. John Harrison about why storytelling must take precedence over worldbuilding. from writing

I truly enjoyed reading the text and I agree with all arguments brought forth. Especially the argument that we actually already live in a fantasy world, constructed by corporate ads and branding, and they those fantasies are the truly successful fantasies of our day. Our world as a “secondary creation” and gaming as an antidote is a brilliant way of formulating the different levels and ways of living fantasies. Also the point that virtual worlds allow us more and more to ignore what is going on in the actual, physical world around us. We live in so many layers of fantasies and narratives that it is hard, and sometimes almost impossible, to get back to the bottom of reality. And most of the time, that’s not what we want. The world is much too complex for individual humans to understand and so we have always been building fictional worlds and stories in order to simplify it. I think the reason why people have a desire to build worlds is because it gives the feeling of having control and agency, which we lack in the actual world. Worldbuilders as described by Harrison want to have control and to feel god-like, having the powers to create. Readers of these prefabricated worlds want to consume rather than actually “read”. They are happy not having to imagine the world themselves, because this is what they are doing the whole day in the actual world. In order to organise our lives, we are constantly telling stories and inventing possible realities. Every time I make a decision, I invent possible realities, from which I have to choose one. This can be tiring, so being able to just consume without thinking and not having to “play games” with the text is welcome by many.


After reading the text, I want to give the players of my game as much freedom to imagine the game’s world themselves as possible. In order to explain my ideas, I have to explain one more feature of my game, which came to my mind recently. I’ve always wanted to design a board game, as I am not much of a video game player. But to add the digital element to it and incorporate modern technology, I want to design a digitally enhanced board game, meaning that there will be a complementary App with the game.

The App will make it easier for players to get into the world of the game, as it will provide short videos at different stages of the game. Most importantly, the App will provide information to enhance the flow of the game.

With that in mind, the task is to balance the analog and digital content, and, in terms of my game’s world, provide enough hints and cues for the players to get immersed in the fantasy world, but not taking the responsibility of imagination from them. As Harrison writes, the should be a transaction between the reverend the text – in this case a transaction between the game and the player.

The introduction into the game’s world will be told on the App in the form of a shot video in comic style. After that, players will be able to draw mission cards by using the App and it will show a short video explanation of the mission.


I really like the concept of Dunwall, Dishonored, where the background of what happened is never explicitly explained but discovered by the players bit by bit through interaction with NPCs and objects. I have the background story of my game in my head, so I’m playing with the idea of not making it explicit but rather having the characters that players meet when on their missions hint at what happened.


The background story is that in the face of humans threatening to destroy the planet with their irresponsible actions, the rabbits on planet earth plotted against them and eventually managed to take control. Humans were subordinated and all technological inventions taken from them. Humans realised how much easier it is to be governed by cute little rabbits and they are now living a happy life in tune with nature, while the rabbits took over all responsibility for the planet. But not everything went as planned and there was disagreement among different rabbit groups so that they split up into four countries. As the rabbit population is now growing uncontrollably, four rabbits, one representative of each country, were sent into space to look for alternative planets to settle on. They took off in their spaceships, but instead of collaborating it became a race at the end of which they eventually crashed on a lonely planet.


On the planet itself, the setting of the situation right after the crash is where the game starts. The broken spaceships, debris all around, a lonely planet with nothing but rocks, sand, and toxic rivers. The only useful and intact gadget the rabbits have left are their time traveling watches, which they now use jump through times in order to gather replacement parts of their spaceships so they can get back to planet earth. As they only have enough fuel for one spaceship to take off, it is a race against each other and the first rabbit to repair their spaceship will win.


The more complicated and important part of the game world will be the times through which the characters travel. As most technological inventions were done by humans before the rabbits took over, the rabbits will travel into the human past and interact with human characters. The game will not explain how rabbits and humans understand each other or what the times look like. Everything will be told through interactions with characters, so the players have to imagine the settings and what the places look like.

In the beginning, I was thinking of an introductory video to explain the background story and get the players immersed into the game’s world. But now I’m planning to go more for the style of Dishonored and let the characters in the game tell the story bit by bit. With the help of the complimentary App, this will be easier, as the App can show virtual representations of the NPCs that the rabbits meet on the way. Because the game is mostly about time traveling, the different times will give different information on the history of planet earth, mixing real historic facts and imaginary facts about the rabbit’s history.


By laying out the game’s board before the game starts, the players build the physical world of their game themselves, and because the story of the game won’t be known to players from the start, it is important that the world is comprehensive in the beginning so players will find their way around. As it is a board game and not a video game, the play time will be shorter and it has to stay interesting when playing it several times. For this purpose, there will be more missions than can be played in one game session,so that players will still discover new facts about the game world when playing game a second or third time.


Where to draw the line between storytelling and worldbuilding


My most important task as designer of the game and its “writer” is to provide enough information for the players to get immersed in the game world and understand what their tasks are. The background story has to be coherent enough to make it easy for the “readers” to engage with it, but has to leave enough room for imagination. The world I introduce the players to has to fit to the story and provide stimulation for the players to engage with it.

It is probably not possible to draw a distinct line between storytelling and worldbuilding, but i think the most important difference is that storytelling is about a narrative, about “telling” while worldbuilding is about “showing”. As Harrison wrote, the writer or storyteller interacts with the audience by letting the readers construct the meaning, while the worldbuilder creates something unquestionable and fixed.

No matter how critically Harrison thinks of worldbuilding, I think it is necessary for games, because unlike novels, games have to define rules and give structure. So the game designer has to build a fixed world as the foundation often gameplay in which the players interact creatively with the game world. The storytelling is what helps the players immerse themselves into the world of the game. So I would say that worldbuilding provides the structure and physical laws, while storytelling acts as the gateway into the game’s world and enables creative interaction with it.

[1] u/Biomancer 2014. A short essay by the great sci-fi author M. John Harrison about why storytelling must take precedence over worldbuilding.

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