Building Worlds Means Empty Rooms

There’s a lot to be said about setting, that indefinite art of world building that so many people stake a claim to. It’s a phrase that we have all heard a million times over – “our world building”, “the sense of place within the game”, etc. In the end it all comes down to immersion, and the degree with which the player can immerse themselves in that universe. A lot of developers simply put this down to shiny graphics and voice acting. The smart ones will actually build a world that has back story, maybe litter the environment with readable books that have nothing to do with the main quest.

I’m here today to tell you that I believe these people are wrong. World building is not about building a world. This is something the very smart have discovered. It’s about having worlds that have already been lived in.

You can argue that by having a back story a world is, almost by definition, already lived in. Unfortunately, no matter how rich it is, having a history doesn’t automatically shape the world. This can be seen in games like Dishonored. There is a fantastically rich history, and when the game gets going it can become incredibly immersive. But there’s always a disconnect between the world we read about and the world. The world we are given always has a feel that it was designed and built as a game world, not as an actual feasible place. Everything is too convenient, everything has a purpose. Not a single room is empty, and this is a problem.

A world is more than the environments, it’s the purpose behind it

That game was dripping in back story and world history. There were books about the made up past that fleshed out the world and characters, and they were both completely optional and had no real impact on the main storyline. Yet the physical world itself was designed to serve a very specific purpose – to be playable. Let me expand. When I say playable in this sense I don’t mean playable as in can be played, but playable as in exists to be played. A room is not just a room, its a piece of meticulously designed level and serves a purpose to that end. If you can enter a room in Dishonored it’s because it has something in it relevant to the task at hand, whether that be something to collect or a hint about how to approach the target or even as an alternate path. That room exists solely as a piece of level, it just might also happen to have some bonus back story hidden in it.

If you can enter a room in Dishonored it’s because it has something in it relevant to the task at hand, whether that be something to collect or a hint about how to approach the target or even as an alternate path.

The Last of Us, on the other hand, is full of empty rooms, and by ‘empty rooms’ I do literally mean empty rooms. Rooms bereft of content. Spaces which serve no purpose to the game, have no value to the player, and for all intents and purposes could have been cut with zero detriment to the game itself. They exist simply as evidence of a feasible, exist-able world. This empty room, by existing and being empty, is in fact back story itself.

Now I admit, I may be slightly romanticising this whole thing. It may simply be a case, as with Goldeneye back on the N64, of the maps being built before the scenario. This led to interesting spaces, and meant that the objectives could be built to fit in these places instead of places being moulded to cover a set-piece; the obvious advantage of the map before mission route is a sense of non-linearity. The multiple objectives and semi-open mission areas from Goldeneye 007 are still eminently playable to this day, while the corridor shooting of Call of Duty tends to only be good for a certain frame of mind.

To go back to The Last of Us, it’s a beautifully realised world. The notes from other survivors you find littered throughout the environments, with one particularly exceptional set telling a story of a group of survivors in reverse, from their final stand in the sewers to their first encounter at a neighbourhood a couple of hours further into the game, to the idle chatter between characters. Even Joel having a glance at his inoperable watch fleshes out the world. However, every time you enter a building only to discover nothing of any worth, the world just takes on a whole new level. This is a world that has been lived in – it’s no longer just a map for the game, it’s a physical place that others in the game’s history have passed through. Things of any worth, if there were any to begin with, have already been taken.

last of us
Let’s be honest, the apocalypse is going to be full of empty rooms

It isn’t just the world building that benefits from these empty rooms either. I would argue that the entire experience benefits. Look at something like Dead Space, your standard A to B with branching paths game. There’s the path you have to take to the next objective, and the path you’re going to take because you know there’s going to be an item down that path. In a survival horror this lessens the tension, because you know your risk will have a reward. The Last of Us, with its empty rooms, has the threat of the reward not being there. This suddenly ups the tension and survival aspects of the game. You now have to wonder whether or not going back to search the hotel rooms you skipped will be worth the combat encounter because it’s a very real possibility that you’ll use more supplies than you’ll find.

The books and novels and collectables and conversations and everything are all well and good. I love to come across a new piece of history in a game. Wolfenstein The New Order, for example, has its fascinating look at alternate history with newspaper clippings and alt-history music albums. It’s a fascinating insight to the world of the game, but that’s all it is, it’s a world built for a game. Even the upcoming Destiny looks like it might suffer (in the context of this article) from this. There seems to be a rich history, with lore being doled out through grimoire cards etc, but everything designed thus far seems to serve a purpose. There is no sense of an actual place, just a feeling that we are playing on a game map. Rather than the remnants of Old Russia, here we are playing a level designed around a Russian landscape, with every tunnel, nook and cranny having been designed to be played.

And that comes back to my main point. World building should not be about building a world for something, it should be about having that world already been built and lived in before we ever come to it.

There should be empty rooms as evidence of people that have passed through before us.



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One response to “Building Worlds Means Empty Rooms”

  1. djrdan6 avatar

    Good point, I had never considered it in this way before. Games often make the mistake of rewarding exploration with an assortment of ammo or narrative items, and often this just leads to further frustration when these things are missing. The feeling of “what? Why are there no shotgun shells in this room? I just followed a cookie-cutter ‘filler’ corridor!” Sometimes you can almost feel the invisible hand beckoning you forth. However, when done right, even empty rooms can be rewarding, as it adds an intrinsic sense of place for the player. Hopefully devs get even better at this as games move forward as a medium.

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