What’s In A Story: The Function of a World

Two weeks ago I deviated from my game development series and began a mini-series on what goes into a story. In the first article of this mini-series, I distinguished between story and plot, outlining the nature and purpose of storytelling. In this article I wish to continue that train of thought. Here I’ll delineate some ways in which storytelling in video games is an invitation to experience another world.

First, a word on imagination. Imagination is a creative process. Like any form of art, it works in limits. Therefore, imagination is limited to what is before it; namely, the real world. Imagination cannot create something out of nothing; it must work with pre-existing materials to make something new. A griffon, for instance, is a marvelous creature, but we recognize its parts: it is a lion and an eagle, both of which existed prior to the griffon.

World and Story

Stories, too, are imaginative products. Someone creates a world with certain properties and characteristics, inhabited by certain kinds of people, who behave a certain way by themselves and with other kinds of people. This world could be 21st century New York, USA or 1873 London, England or 30XX on dystopian Mercury. Regardless of which world, it must be enough like the real world to meet us and enough unlike it to entice us. If some world were too unlike ours, we would lose interest and we couldn’t relate. If some world is too much like ours, we’ll assume it is the real world and think nothing of it.

The world of a story, then, should be enough like and unlike ours to draw us out of ours and into itself. Given this, what is the function of other worlds? What do they do to us? Why do we go to Narnia, the Mushroom Kingdom, or Cortana? I can think of two reasons.

World and Worldview

First, we visit other worlds to have our worldview challenged. Everyone has a worldview, or a way they see the world and their role in it. Beliefs, desires, ideas, hopes compose different parts of one’s worldview. Moreover, other worlds challenge our worldview by providing a world in which fewer people share our beliefs. Confronted with such situations, one must test their worldview. For example, if I believe human happiness is the goal of life, what happens when other people disagree on what happiness is and how to get it? In this respect, video games are prolonged thought experiments. The player, then, in going to other worlds, is given an opportunity to have his worldview challenged, to see whether they really believe what they believe.

Second, we visit other worlds to meet new people. This may seem like a moot point to some, but two important things stem from meeting new people. People have personalities. And those personalities can both differ and relate to ours. Differing personalities can sharpen ours. Confronted with conflicting temperaments and beliefs, the player in this other world must listen to people who disagree with them—a lesson in humility. What of similar personalities? We usually befriend people like us. Friends in other worlds help us feel less alone. For we have enough in common with these characters that we experience a meaningful connection with them. They connect us to their world simply by dint of their friendship.

Story with New World

In sum, stories are imaginative products in which we can meet new people and have our worldviews tested. When playing almost any video game, we are invited to experience a world both like and unlike ours in one or more important ways. For we are foreigners to the characters in our games. They must teach us their ways, teach us what it’s like to live in their worlds. And we may be better off in our world having lived but a moment in theirs.

Ryan Shields

Ryan Shields

A young, thoughtful, amateur ludologist, who enjoys philosophy and what philosophy can teach us about gaming. Whether it's Aristotle and the latest RPG release or Lyotard and the future of VR, I'm eager to see how and what video games today assist us into living well together.

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