“I can’t tell you what it really is, I can only tell you what it feels like” says Eminem at the opening of his duet with Rihanna “Love the Way You Lie”. At a philosophical extreme this is known as solipsism: the idea that the only thing we can ever know, and be sure of, is what our mind senses. It’s also close to experientialism: that the foundation of knowledge is what we experience.
What does all this have to do with world building? It’s about understanding how people think. How people know what they know. How people construct their realities. Which is called epistemology, if you want to look that up. Epistemology is fundamental to game design and to fiction, because it ties into psychology. And everything we do is about psychology: art and games are about how we make people feel. And so one of the ways we can build better worlds – worlds that feel more interesting, more exciting, more evocative, and more real – is by understanding how the real world makes us feel. How we know where we are, and what that means.
The problem goes back to Tolkein. Although he was great at evoking some sense of place, albeit with an over-emphasis on botany, Tolkein wrote his Lord of the Rings books through the lens of being a student and professor of history. The world begins with maps and a timeline, and not the mysterious coded map of The Hobbit, something with a very clear sense of modern cartography. In the other end of the spectrum there is the appeal of Star Trek and other detailed sci-fi: written by and advised by engineers, there is the same pleasure of adding a scientific and engineering perspective to the universe. Hyperspace doesn’t just exist because of space magic, things didn’t just happen once upon a time, but rather there are solid concrete ideas about history and technology.
And these elements are part of the feel, don’t get me wrong. And the feel of the setting to the audience is part of world building. And part of Star Trek’s construction is that the characters WITHIN the world also know these things, they are smart, technologically-savvy people. But that is the heart of what can really make world building, what I’m slowly circling towards: what matters the most is what the characters in the world see, and hear and feel and think.
Too often, we apply the Tolkein approach to everything, at the cost of everything else. Ask someone about their favourite fantasy world and – if they’re a nerd – they’ll often start with the history and geography. And again, the nature of that can inform the feel of the setting – the Great A’Tuin and the four elephants helps suggest the comical, fantastic nature of Discworld – but often these are just talismans to us, signals that we are in the world that work as religious icons: that is to say they have significance only as signals. They aren’t actually part of how the world is communicated by feel. Discworld’s feel comes from its comedy and parody and its sense of what it feels like to be in it. The river Ankh smells and bubbles with pollution and effluent. The streets are filled with people like Cut-My-Own-Throat Dibbler. The Mended Drum was once the Broken Drum. Nobby Nobbs is on patrol, scratching his crotch. These are elements of feel, at a character level. They set the tone, not through a vast lens of geography or history, not through establishing principles of physics and magical rules, but by focusing on the personal, the intimate, and the sensual.
As much as our science-literate world allows us to see our planet as a globe in space we know where we are each morning by the smell that wafts in our windows. Our world is defined by the coffee we grab on the way to work, the crowds of rush hour, the cubicles and the social media we browse when not working. To live where I live, in Sydney, means cool breezes from the eastern sea, the glistening harbour, and the dark cut-throat shadow of money, the life centered around living on or within the view of that harbour. It’s less about how the harbour was settled by white colonialists in 1788 and more about how that inch of history makes Sydney the historical centre of Australia, the place where that founding matters the most, hence museums abound and didactic panels are everywhere you go. Being the site of where that colonialism began its slaughter of the indigenous inhabitants, it is also a centre of where reparations are being made and race issues come to the fore. Aboriginal art and statues are also common, and the tension between the two is a visible reminder of the stain on Australia’s conscience. Yet it is easy to turn away and lose yourself in the corporate world, the shiny towers of capitalism, for Sydney is also Beverly Hills and Hong Kong and the City of London; money is its blood and its oxygen and history, law and culture, will always bend to serve that hungry god.
Again, note that the history, geography and politics aren’t unimportant, but the key part is turning those things into what they feel like. Striking tone, striking feel, and striking the personal. As Dickens said in Hard Times, when describing Coketown, “let us first strike the keynote”. Pratchett’s work is heavily influenced by Dickens; both are excellent examples of how to write cities like they are characters – so familiar, so real, so characterful that you can see them right in front of you. That they feel like an old friend.
This rule is particularly important in settings that aren’t in our modern day. The people of the past didn’t view the world as something that could be mapped in a book or broken down by scientific principles and analysis. They didn’t view creatures as having ecologies or a place in the food chain; what matters is whether the wolves ate the deer because the deer were the food for winter. The same is true even if they’re spacewolves or dragondeer; people understanding things by what they mean in their lives, and the nature of their beliefs and world views. Transport matters in Sydney because in our world we are all slaves to capitalism, rushing to offices and rushing back. It’s not about what the transport IS, it’s about what it feels like.
When I tell you of a city or a community, as I did with Praag in Realm of the Ice Queen, as I did of Magritta and Bilbali in Swords of the South, as I did in Freeholds of Nar and Weight of the Underworld, I do want to tell you how it is, but much more importantly I want to tell you what it feels like. To be there, and walk it, to see it, smell it, and feel it. And most importantly, how you think about it. How you know it. How you can tell you are there. And I’ve won awards and praise for it, so I seem to be doing it well.
Go, then, and do likewise.