One of the most fun aspects of designing a game is the creation of a brand new world. Continents become canvases - there are mountain ranges to mould, peoples to shape and history to write. You rarely have such freedom as when creating a world from scratch. But before getting started on the detail, your world needs a framework - the idea which gives the world its reason for being.
I'm not talking about some huge, grand concept such as "Imagine a world created by serpentine gods!", or "Imagine a world in which elves exist!" - these are good starts, but it can be something much smaller. Your world exists to tell a story. In a video game, the story consists largely of the actions that the player performs, so give them a cool context in which to perform those actions - something that inspires you and will inspire others; that ties into what you want them to do or experience. Your framework is the foundation on which the player experience is forged. From there, you can expand to fill in the bigger details as well as the minutiae.
A real fungus that can mind control ants and then gruesomely burst out of their heads: Fantastic!
"Imagine a world in which elves exist!" - so what? How's that going to affect the way I play the game? If elves are just NPCs with bows who all sound like they've dropped out of A Midsummer Night's Dream, it probably wont change the way I play.
So add some more detail: "Imagine a world in which elves ruthlessly hunt down any human who trespasses in a forest". Then imagine that the player is a logger's son, forced to venture into the forest to retrieve his father's body. You see how a simple framework of hostile elves can create space for a story.
The trouble with elves, though, is that they've been done. They've been good, bad, evil, aloof, blue, chummy, persecuted and whatnot 'til the cows come home. We've had space elves, wood elves, city elves, night elves, dark elves, octopus elves, giant elves, tiny elves… I bet they've even been done without pointy ears!
You can do better than more bloody elves. For your own sake, step away from the elves - as well as the orcs, the buzz cut space marines, the elder gods and all the other tropes - with your arms in the air, where I can see them.
In two words: look without! Look at the world; not other books, nor other games. When I sit down to form a fictional world, I like to start from an idea or ideology I've seen in the real world. It doesn't even have to seem that important. For example, some time ago, a BBC wildlife program introduced me - and about a million other repulsed viewers - to Cordyceps fungus.
Cordyceps is a fungus that infects the brain of an ant. An infected ant behaves oddly (oddly for an ant, that is). It shakes oddly, it moves oddly, it is clearly sick in a very odd way. The sick ant, seemingly controlled by the fungus, scales a nearby plant. When the ant has reached as high as it can, it latches onto the plant with its pincers, fixing itself tightly to the stem - then, slowly, and dreadfully, the fungus cracks out of the insect's skull, erupting into a bloom from which spores are released. These spores fall from the plant onto other ants, which become infected in turn, and the cycle continues.
The fungus bursts out of the
back of his skull - poof!
A real fungus that can mind control ants and then gruesomely burst out of their heads: Fantastic! - Imagine if that could happen to humans!
So, let's imagine. Sticking with the source material: the spores are airborne, the infected climb to the top of some local peak to ensure the spores disseminate over as wide an area as possible, and the bloom bursts out of the back of the skull:
An infected human staggers out of a service door on the roof of a multi story building. Shivering and shaking, he steps towards the edge of the roof. There we see the city, and we can distantly make out similar figures on other rooftops. The fungus bursts out of the back of his skull - poof! - then slowly and gracefully it grows, covering his body in a blanket of bloom. And now we know: the city is doomed. The thousands breathing in the spores will, within hours, be filled with a feverish desire to climb as high as they can…
How would that world look? A single infected individual could wipe out a city before anyone realised, so the cities all fall into dense clouds of spore smog: bloom covering buildings, creating alien landscapes out of the familiar.
The survivors would live in the country, normally out of the reach of the spores. But the wind can still blow spores a long distance: even in the country, the survivors would live in fear. The slightest fever would see them under lock and guard until recovery. Rangers would patrol the surrounding land, looking for signs of infection in the local wildlife.
And who would be given the task of ranger? Why, our player! The orphan - the only one who had no one to speak on his behalf in the community - is given the most dangerous job: keep the community safe.
So there you go, a simple world: the mind-controlling fungus has forced the player's people to live a rural existence, in constant fear of infection.
Okay, okay, I know: it's a post-apocalyptic setting - hardly the most underused context for a game. The end of the world by some natural or unnatural cause and the trials of those who survive is hardly virgin territory. But it's the journey that counts.
You see, I could have set out with the drive to create a sinister, post-apocalyptic horror story - but instead, it started with nothing more sinister than a wildlife documentary and grew from there. I believe that, though both paths may have reaped similar results, the route beginning with an understanding of the source inspiration is always a richer and more versatile one.