worlds from home...

Why is world building important?

In Why?, Written by Thomas on April 4, 2011 at 5:47 pm

All great storytellers build worlds.

What’s interesting is that not all of those storytellers work in the same medium. Sure, calling it “storytelling” predisposes us to think of literature, but I don’t mean it that narrowly. I’d say that the video game BioShock and the movie Black Swan are two awesome non-literary examples of storytelling.

(Is it a coincidence that they both start with “b”? You decide.)

What these great stories do is create a world for you to get lost in. BioShock, for example, creates a 1960’s dystopia in the spirit of Ayn Rand. If you aren’t familiar with the game, the trailer sums things up pretty well:

(A warning: it’s fairly gruesome. If you’d rather, the Wikipedia article is also quite informative.)

What makes BioShock so awesome? In my opinion, the incredible atmosphere. The way that Rapture, the seafloor city where the game takes place, seems so chillingly real. I’m not sure that plausible is the right word, but maybe believable is. When you play, you get the intuitive sense that there is more than what you’re seeing. For me at least, that desire to explore is a major motivator. I want to know more about what else is there; I want to know the history, the geography, the culture of this unsettling once-paradise.

And BioShock delivers beautifully. There aren’t any plot-dumps, no encyclopedia entries that I’ll never read. Instead, there’s only story. You learn through individual narratives how the desire for ADAM, a genetic substance that allows humans to modify their own DNA, gave rise at first to incredible prosperity, then to degeneration and civil war. You see first hand the hopeless Splicers, addicted to ADAM, who are willing to murder the Little Sisters that carry it. And you come to know the fear that surges up when you encounter one of the huge, armored Big Daddies that guard them.

What’s remarkable about the game is that it communicates to your intuition, not your intellect. I think, broadly speaking, there are two ways of understanding things: Your intellect relies on explicit logical movements from point A to B. Your intuition does not. Intuitive understanding comes from experience and doesn’t need explicit justifications. Playing BioShock teaches your intuition about the world of Rapture, so that by the end of the game that place is, in a small way, a part of who you are.

Black Swan builds a world just as convincingly as BioShock, but there’s a twist. The world the film explores is not a place, but a state of mind.

The physical settings are treated impressionistically: an apartment, a club. Even the dance studio where the main character spends much of her time is never “explained” to the viewer; by the end of the movie, you have only an idea of what is in the studio, not really where it is.

But that’s no problem, because the movie’s main drama occurs in the obsessive dedication that Nina, the protagonist, gives to her work. The quintessential goody-goody (and I’m not criticizing; I’d probably put myself in that category, too), Nina is forced to choose between her self and her art. The pinnacle of her career would be to play the Swan Queen in Swan Lake, but doing so would entail being able to embody two dramatically different characters: the black swan, seductive and ruled by passion, and the white swan, disciplined and pure. Nina already plays a convincing white swan. The conflict of the movie comes when she sacrifices her identity to become the black swan as well.

Natalie Portman as Nina, Black Swan's protagonist, in a moment of delirium

So how does this involve world building? The director, Darren Aronofsky, invites the viewer not only to watch Nina’s descent, but to join her. In order to give the piece its impact, he brings the audience into Nina’s microcosm of hallucination and paranoia, where the magician that cursed the white swan lives in the eaves of the dance studio. Where she begins to grow tiny black quills from her shoulders, and murders her rival with a piece of broken glass, only to find that she has actually stabbed herself.

Coming out of that movie is like surfacing from the bottom of a lake. I was speechless, silent the whole night. It wasn’t until the next morning that I felt whole and normal again. And this was precisely because Aronofsky is such an incredible world builder. First he lures you in with a likable, hardworking character. And then, just when you start to feel comfortable, he locks the door behind you and you’re in for the ride as Nina loses it.

That’s why world building is worth looking at as its own art form. Because it is potent. Because if it’s good, I will actively seek out your work to learn about your world. Because it can silence me for a whole night or captivate me for a month.

And I want to do that to people.


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