Author Topic: Worldbuilding vs. Storytelling  (Read 3919 times)


  • Beside Pacific
« on: April 05, 2016, 10:01:04 PM »
I have been thinking about how these two things meet or make up for each other or eclipse each other. I want to have an open-ended discussion about this and what you think

This is sort of relevant because the thing that gets me thinking about this is Paper Mario. Because what Paper Mario used to be and what everyone's complaining it no longer is, is delivering great storytelling in the context of a world that had already been built...

Because good worldbuilding can make up for a lousy story. Pokémon's best story is Black & White and even that is just kind of okayish, but tell me you've never thought about what kind of trainer you'd be if they existed, or what kinds would be readily available in the area surrounding where you live. Star Wars didn't have the best acting or the most bulletproof story even in the original trilogy alone, but you want to know how blasters and lightsabers work, you wanted to know what the Jedi were like (before the prequels revealed they were mostly a bunch of boring old guys who sat around in a room talking about nothing). Harry Potter; just, Harry Potter.

I feel like worldbuilding is at its most compelling when it is strong and the story kinda sucks, because everyone likes to patch up plot holes, make up headcanons, or outright make up their version of the story. You don't want the worldbuilding to go to waste.

But something weird happens when the story is really good, at least for me. I kinda just stop caring about the worldbuilding a little. Chrono Trigger should by all means have worldbuilding worth talking about. Prehistory was a fight for survival between humans and lizard people. What was the industrial revolution like? In 1000 AD people have refrigerators and running water but no cars or trains, and none of these things existed in 600 AD. Monsters, a post-apocalypse populated by robots Zeal--holy crap, Zeal. And yet... I never think about that stuff. I dug up what I just said on the spot to talk about how good the world is, but when I think about the game that's not what I think of. I remember the characters and the moments and the bosses. I haven't played Cross because I don't feel like I want more of the world, and the story tied itself up well enough. The worldbuilding didn't go to waste.

Going back to Paper Mario, I wonder what people would think of Thousand-Year Door without any prior Mario games existing at all. Some kind of flying thing delivers a letter to the player character... a stretched-out green version of the player character reads it to him and before you know it you're at a port populated by some kind of walking blue balls with bandannas, and talking to a pink blob thing with a mining helmet and fighting a god-knows-what. Imagine what the Glitz Pit would be like. A huge amount of what's great about Paper Mario is seeing a believable living world made out of the elements in the main series, seeing Goombas who aren't just Goombas. But you know they are Goombas.

It's a unique feeling because it's practically all story made out of worldbuilding that had already been done... and I wonder if one game could create the same feeling. You can see the partner Yoshi and never see the standard ones in Paper Mario 2, and you don't think "what an odd-looking fellow" and assume it's a one-off character design like Wonky or Dazzle. You know it's a Yoshi. That's the feeling I'm talking about. That feeling is the core of what I want to figure out by talking about this. Why it's so cool to see the creatures of an already established world applied to a good story/good characters, and why it doesn't feel the same when the good story and characters are there from the beginning. Undertale has a ton of monster designs but since it's doing the worldbuilding and making characters for the story at the same time, monsters of a given appearance come off as one-of-a-kind. Undyne comes across as more like Undyne The Fish Person rather than Undyne, a fish person. The cast of Homestar Runner is a great example of that--they don't look like a bunch of different races, they look like a bunch of character designs probably unique to the individual. There's more people like Pom Pom out there, but the Brothers Strong look nothing alike and are directly related.

My thoughts about all this are clearly not all in order. That's why I want to talk about it.
All your dreeeeeeams begiiin to shatterrrrrr~
It's YOUR problem!


  • Ridiculously relevant
« Reply #1 on: April 06, 2016, 01:06:43 PM »
An intriguing argument! I'm not sure if it's the story being lame (or, at least, I don't think that's required) so much as being *vague*, or at least suggestive of a larger community/society that isn't one-note windowdressing or so clearly delineated that you couldn't imagine yourself as part of it. That is indeed definitely why the earlier Paper Mario games (and, by essentially parodying the Mushroom Kingdom as a whole, Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga) succeed: they take a world that, Super Mario RPG aside, had never been particularly nuanced or self-aware, and let the characters diversify and, well, breathe.
"Mario is your oyster." ~The Chef

« Reply #2 on: April 06, 2016, 04:22:40 PM »
The thing about worldbuilding is that it develops over the course of a series, while a story is usually self-contained to an extent. As mentioned, SMRPG and the first two PMs took mostly familiar races like Koopas and gave them unique looks and personalities. This would be far less noteworthy if we hadn't been acquainted with Goombas, Koopas, etc. or ten or fifteen years prior. How cool would it have been if the X-Nauts had been introduced as basic enemies back in Super Mario Land or something?
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  • Beside Pacific
« Reply #3 on: April 06, 2016, 04:44:32 PM »
Less, because them being an original thing against the established things makes them stand out and immediately tells you they're of unknown origin. Did they come from the moon? If not, how did they get there and build a fortress? Many mysteries.

Worldbuilding doesn't have to take an entire series to do. It didn't take more than Red & Blue to have everybody sucked into Pokémon's world, that's the whole reason it was successful enough to get a series. Kids have talked about what type their gym would be since then.
All your dreeeeeeams begiiin to shatterrrrrr~
It's YOUR problem!


  • Tortuga
« Reply #4 on: April 06, 2016, 05:20:34 PM »
Super interesting to point out - and I think I mostly agree - that what we see as good world building and good storytelling share an inverse relationship. 

In the same vein, I'd personally bring up Metroid Prime and even the whole series to which it belongs.  It's not my favorite Nintendo franchise because it tells the story par excellence (I'd argue that that's also true though, relative to its siblings); it's my favorite because it's got a structure to it, a sort of logic.  Where Mario just tries to have fun with it all, and Zelda operates more on mythology, Metroid is pure chronology, cold and hard.  Prime keeps you grounded at all times in why you and all the other elements are there: items, monsters, log entries, right down to what the rock formations are made of.  The world is yours to learn, which has been at the heart of the series since day one, with the graph paper maps.  It just wouldn't work as well without that sense of structure.  It's a built world, and was before Samus got there.  She - and you as the player - just stepped into it one day.  And it also works because of its implicit nature.  The same lore would be dry and boring and no fun at all if revealed through exposition.  It's almost like good world building is its own kind of storytelling, especially in the absence of an explicit form of the latter.

Of course, I think there are a couple of exceptions.  Deep Space Nine builds up an incredible universe over its seven-season run but it's also known for contributing more than a few of Trek's best stories to the franchise.  Of course, it has the luxury of hours upon hours of content in which to do this, so perhaps it's not so surprising.

I think the supreme example of world building without sacrificing storytelling, though, would have to be Tolkien's Legendarium, collectively.  It's, like, my favorite work of fiction.  Ever.  It's not just impressive "for something created by one guy," it's impressive even without such qualifications.  What a huge mythology.  Comic books, as much as I love them, only wish they could've built a story so poignant and a world so cohesive, and they've had twice as long to do it at this point.  The fact that there's an extensive history surrounding the Silmarils and Morgoth doesn't make "The Tale of Beren and Lúthien" any less of a great story - it still would be in a vacuum.  Likewise, that Lord of the Rings causes you to be so invested in the characters' struggles does not at all diminish the fact that there are extensive maps, languages, and apocrypha backing up the whole narrative. 

Just, wow.  I wish anything I could ever write or create would have even a fraction of that kind of shine.  I think how much it stands out makes it the exception that proves the rule, though.
"It'll say life is sacred and so is death
but death is life and so we move on"