After nearly 100 episodes discussing game design, many questions have been filed in the recesses of my brain, occasionally popping up as random cameo appearances while discussing less important subjects like the current state of our society, the future of the human race and the meaning of life. And the one that keeps popping in for the most unexpected visits is:
HOW DO WE CHOOSE SETTINGS FOR GAMES?
Now, on the outset, this question seems as simple as myself. “Well that’s obvious Nathan,” the hypothetical response goes, “I chose a high fantasy setting because I like dragons and casting spells.”
“I see,” I hypothetically reply. “But couldn’t you have something eerily similar to dragons and spells set in a world akin to Star Wars, Doctor Who, Pirates of the Caribbean, The Matrix, Harry Potter, South Park or the Marvel Cinematic Universe?”
And this is where the hypothetical conversation would hypothetically end as I claim my Debating Trophy of Awesomeness (it counts as a +2 blunt weapon and doubles as a paperweight in a pinch).
But the question remains. Do we choose a setting because of the atmosphere we can build or the adventure we can tell? Do the mechanics and design of the game lend themselves toward scaling a mountain or fighting off killer teddy bears? Or is it the opposite, where mechanics are fleshed out because we know the world we are building?
Do we choose settings because of our own interests and personality? If we inject humor into our everyday lives, will we choose to build a game around a whimsical, almost tongue-in-cheek environment? If we are obsessed with ancient cartography, will we base our game around the monster-laden seas depicted on old maps? If we live in the desert, are we likely to set our game in a barren wasteland?
These things tend to bother me, because the breadth of questions around setting keep piling up. But it’s a rabbit hole worth going down. The setting of a game world can dictate the characters you meet, the threats you face and the stories you weave. After all this time, I feel the question is always on the tip of my tongue and yet never truly asked until now.
I am not a game designer, I just talk to them on a show I do. But, in a larger sense, this is not just about games. Storytelling as an art is reliant on good world building. The world you create is a place that others will ultimately explore. So where do you want them to go?