Opinion: On the Importance of Worldbuilding

There’s a very key element to whether or not I enjoy something that I’ve only recently been able to pinpoint, and it’s this: how much time the creator spent building out the world. I know that may sound silly, but bear with me here a minute and let me explain myself.

Put simply, I’m talking about worldbuilding, which I find to be a very important part of the creative process. Now, full disclosure, I am actually working full time right specifically on building out the world of a show that will be available next year (for contractual reasons, I’m not allowed to divulge what show or any other details – sorry, but rest assured you’ll be hearing from me as soon as I can).

Okay, so this is important to you because it’s your job?

Actually, honestly, the other way around. I found that world building was something super important to me, and that’s how I sort of ended up gravitating towards this work when I was put into a creative position on this project.

The way I see it, no matter what it is you’re creating, you should spend some time building out the world of that story. Doesn’t matter if it’s a big project with a lot of people on it (dedicate one or two people to the worldbuilding) or just something you’re doing by yourself.

Wait, what exactly do you mean when you say “world building?”

A very good question, we should define what I’m talking about before I go any further. So when I say “worldbuilding,” I mean working on stories and narratives that aren’t necessarily integral to the plot. Oftentimes these are aspects that most of the audience will never even be privy to.

Guillermo Del Toro is a master at this. If you saw Crimson Peak, you should know what I’m talking about. Without spoiling anything – if you watch that movie you’ll notice that each of the ghosts has a very unique design that clearly has some kind of story behind it. Yet, for most of them you don’t actually get to see that story.

Another great example, in the video game world, is just about anything Bethesda makes, but especially the Elder Scrolls series. There are tons of books and runes and other things in Oblivion and Skyrim that you can read if you want more information on this fictional world, but you can also just not read if you want to just run at dragons with two swords in your hands.

Okay, if no one ever gets to or needs see this stuff, then what’s the point?

Because even if you don’t get to see the details, it will influence the story you’re telling and make the universe feel real and alive, rather than just a vehicle for whatever story you want to tell. I don’t know exactly what happened to those ghosts in Crimson Peak, but they all feel more vibrant and real to me because of those extra little details.

It’s sort of the same reason that massive armies in older movies like Lawrence of Arabia feel more real than the cookie-cutter CGI armies of The Hobbit trilogy. Because each extra in that film is bringing their own inherent backstory to that role (even if they’re not trying), while the same soldier CGI’d over and over again is the same story – which just isn’t realistic.

Beyond that, though, why bother?

In addition to fleshing out the world of the narrative, it also creates possibility space. I don’t know about you, but I’ve definitely been excited to hear about a comic or video game or book tie-in to a movie I liked or was excited for – only to have that excitement dashed when I learned it would be a straight adaptation.

You know what’s more interesting than reading a book version of the movie I like? Reading a book set in the same world, maybe with the same characters, but telling a new story! You know what that requires? You guessed it, world building.

I see now. But does this really apply to every kind of entertainment?

Now here’s where I feel like I might lose some people, because I say yes. One of my favorite films this year was It Follows (and I’m going to keep bringing it up until people go see it). That’s a movie that I don’t feel needs a comic book tie-in or anything like that, but it has a great sense of worldbuilding.

I don’t want to spoil the film too much, but for all intents and purposes it takes place in “our world” (ie. It doesn’t take place on Tatooine, where you can make up jobs like moisture farmer). The aspects of it that are different, though, have such a well-defined set of rules to them that at no point do you ever actually get them specifically explained to you, and yet anyone who’s seen that film can tell you what they are.

That’s the power of worldbuilding, baby, and it makes sure that, in every scene of that film, you know exactly what the stakes are and what the parameters for success and failure are. It’s a great movie, go see it.

Alright, so what’s the point of all this? What are you trying to say?

I mean, I’m really just trying to say that world building is important. It fleshes out a story, it can help set up a tale to go further, and it makes for stronger entertainment. If you’re a creator, remember how powerful worldbuilding is.

If you’re purely a consumer, support creators who utilize strong worldbuilding, because it means they actually give a damn about what they’re making and aren’t just doing it to suck the money out of your wallet. And I’m totally not just saying that because it’s my job to worldbuild, I swear.

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