Tag Archives: worldbuilding

J. R. R. Tolkien

Started with a Map

“I wisely started with a map, and made the story fit.”

J. R. R. Tolkien


And what a map it was…

See the Sketches J.R.R. Tolkien Used to Build Middle-earth

The map above is one of Tolkien’s original sketches and is a part of the Bodleian Libraries collection at the University of Oxford. Tolkien was a prolific sketcher, and many more of his drawings can be seen in Ethan Gilsdorf’s 2015 Wired article aptly named: See the Sketches J.R.R. Tolkien Used to Build Middle-earth. It’s worth checking out.

Fallout 4 and and the Struggles of Consistent Worldbuilding

Fallout 4 and the Struggle of Consistent Worldbuilding

[!] Note: The following will contain minor spoilers for Bethesda Softworks’ Fallout 4. Consider yourself warned.


Last August I wrote an article exploring the masterful worldbuilding within George Miller’s post-apocalyptic thriller, Mad Max: Fury Road. [You can read it here.] It was easily my favorite film of 2015. There was a lot to love, both subtlety and nuance was scattered throughout the movie despite the fact that it was a two-hour action-packed car chase through a wasteland.

Well, this last fall the post-apocalyptic gods smiled on us twofold with the release of Fallout 4, Bethesda’s latest post-apocalyptic role-playing game. I’ve long been a fan of the series ever since I played the first Fallout on my PC as a kid. So I was excited. Heck, I even went out and bought a PS4 specifically to check it out. Now, before I start nitpicking, I need to preface that Fallout 4 is not a bad game. It’s a game I have been enjoying. It’s a game I would recommend. But, I think just like films, music, books, and art we can cast a critical eye at specific elements of a video game while still enjoying the game as a whole.

I was initially going to entitle this piece Fallout 4 and the Failures of Worldbuilding, but I retracted a bit. Mainly because that is both overly dramatic and clickbait garbage. Also, because in a lot of ways and in many places Fallout 4 has great worldbuilding, it’s just inconsistent. As a result, Fallout 4 continually pulls me out of the moment. Despite wanting you to engage with the world on a personal level, it doesn’t allow us to suspend our disbelief long enough to lose ourselves in its world. This makes it feel manufactured—it’s a post-apocalyptic Disneyland that is trying to be something more. A lot of that is because it falls short in one of the most important and fundamental principles of worldbuilding: it tells you one thing and then shows you something else.

Fallout 4 Intro: The Big One Hits

First, some backstory: Fallout 4 takes place in an alternate reality two-hundred years after a thermonuclear war nearly wipes out humanity, your character—a survivor who awakened from a state of suspended animation in an underground vault—is thrust into an unforgiving and often violent world in the search for a kidnapped child. Now, missing child aside, remember that established time frame: two-hundred years. It’s important.

The discrepancy between that origin story and the world I was playing in first hit me ten minutes into the game. Up until then, I assumed maybe forty to fifty years had passed. The world certainly seemed like it was emerging from disaster, but when your Mr. Handy unit, Codsworth, introduced the timespan a lot of the following worldbuilding began to fall apart.

Fallout4_002

“A bit over 210 actually, sir. Give or take a little for the Earth’s rotation and some minor dings to the ole’ chronometer.”

When the player first emerges from the Vault, you come across the remnants of people who didn’t survive. Piles of skeletons lay outside the gate to the Vault, skeletons still wearing the clothes they died in, which didn’t make much sense. Here they are exposed to the elements, and a corpse’s dress is still recognizable as a dress? This is seen in other things as well. Many structures still stand despite little or no maintenance. Some still have power. Often these sorts of niggling details are explained away using Ragnarok-Proofing, the concept that objects in the world (buildings, robots, heck, even clothes) are just made better. So metal doesn’t rust in the same way, clothing doesn’t wear regularly, and power sources last much longer, etc. And, some of that exists, the nuclear cells powering the Commonwealth’s robots are a good example, and if that was all I’d accept it and move on. But that isn’t all, it cascades from there.

Fallout 4: Remains of Boston

Two-hundred years is a long time. Two-hundred years ago my home city, Seattle, didn’t exist. My state, Washington, hadn’t even been conceived. Most of America lived on the East Coast and had no idea that in fifty years they were going to be in the midst of the Civil War. Yet, in Fallout 4’s world that two-hundred years doesn’t seem to have changed much of anything. If fact, it barely looks like any time has passed. Most of the world remains a burnt husk. Nothing “new” feels permanent. Most settlements are hastily constructed shantytowns, cobbled together from the remnants. What civilization does exist, happens to be a loose collection of scraped-together tribes with little or no regard for one another. Compare this to Mad Max: Fury Road, in the first ten minutes of the movie we saw societies, hierarchies, and civilization, we saw cities, small and large, and even trade routes.

We’ve been told it’s two-hundred years after a terrible event but we’re not shown that, or what we’re shown doesn’t line up to support that. Not in any conceivable fashion. These sort of inconsistencies with the details continue to appear throughout the game. We read terminal entries about daily struggles of survival, only to be shown the corpses of those who entered the logs were sitting on an arsenal. For whatever reason the citizens of Goodneighbor have the means to make custom and complex neon signs, but asking them to clean up two-hundred years worth of rubble around their residences is below their pay grade. We meet a girl with a strangely thick Irish accent, and together we stumbled across the remains of people who apparently died together during the middle of their twelve-step meeting despite being in a protected shelter. We read concerns over a raider’s kidnapped sister and an antagonistic raider band, but we never get to explore that narrative. Instead, we get to fight the raiders. The results of this action? Slightly different terminal entries and a [Cleared] tag. These sort of scenes happens frequently, and as I kept playing, I couldn’t shake the feeling that it was such unrealized potential. Minor discrepancies are noticeable, and because of this, the world of Fallout 4 often falls flat, it lacks the heart and soul that would make it feel alive.

Fallout4_003

It’s a disappointment because there are times where the world is rich. There are plenty of engaging characters (Valentine), and some fascinating locations (Salem, Covenant), and some interesting factions (The Railroad). Many times there are places where the game does shine. But those pieces are few and far between, and often they don’t seem to connect. Fallout 4 feels like it’s more concerned about being a first-person shooter than it is about fulfilling its pedigree of being a deep and multifaceted role-playing game. It’s more interested in creating small vignettes than a fully realized world. It wants you to strive for that next perk instead of that moment in its stories where you feel an emotional tug. It’s an amusement park ride that, while fun, still feels just like a ride.”


“…out-of-place accents, odd and contradictory vignettes, and bizarre behaviors all detract from the plausible post-apocalyptic world world Fallout 4 is wanting to create.”


These moments introduce questions in the world’s consistency. After all, consistent worlds are largely more believable worlds. In some cases, Fallout 4 is an improvement on its predecessor, Fallout 3. [See the Shandification of Fallout video.] It answers some of those big questions (What do they eat?) that were never answered in previous games. But strange out-of-place accents, odd and contradictory vignettes, and bizarre behaviors all detract from the plausible post-apocalyptic world Fallout 4 is wanting to create. They’re not asking open-ended questions that leave us wondering. Instead, they’re introducing concepts that pull us out of the moment.

Both Fallout and Mad Max are near and dear to me, and both have been influences in my own post-apocalyptic worldbuilding. Like both, my world of the Territories also takes place generations after an epic disaster. In fact, similar to Fallout 4, it has been so long since the apocalypse that the return of the Great Old Ones has faded into historical myth.

Within The Bell Forging Cycle civilizations have come and gone. Societies, religions, and nations have risen, expanded, and sometimes fallen. The scars of the disaster are there, and they’re clear and apparent to the people that inhabit the planet, but as Roland Deschain often says in The Dark Tower series, “the world has moved on.” Change has occurred, consistent change. There are certainly nods to post-apocalyptic tropes, in some places technology’s growth has been stymied, and people still use and seek out technology from the past. That’s part of the fun. Exploring the ideas inherent in survival after a catastrophe is one of the reasons why we read post-apocalyptic fiction. But, life hasn’t frozen. People have found other ways to solve their problems; nothing has remained static. Regression can only exist for so long; life is tenacious and robust, and when it comes to post-apocalyptic worlds (or any world for that matter), that’s a good thing for creators to remember.

Friday Link Pack 09/04/2015

Friday Link Pack — End of the Year Edition (2015)

Happy New Year! Well, we’re finally here, at the end of all things. Okay, not the end of all things, just the end of the Friday Link Pack. As I mentioned earlier in December, this will be the last Link Pack going forward. [Details Here.] We’ve reached number one-hundred, and it just so happens to be the official End of the Year Edition! [Previous years: 2014, 2013] In this, I compile the best-loved links I’ve shared over 2015 into one big post. As always, some of these I’ve mentioned on Twitter, if you’re not already following me there, please do! Even though the Link Pack is ending on the blog I’ll still continue to share stuff I find interesting on Twitter.

All right, let’s see which links you liked the most:

My Most Popular Posts Of 2015:

Map of the Known Territories
The official map to the Bell Forging Cycle has been getting a bunch of interest ever since I shared it in August. The biggest version of the map was also one of the most clicked images on the entire site. Glad everyone likes it so much. [Attn: map contains some minor Old Broken Road spoilers.]

The 2015 Lovecraft-Inspired Gift Guide
Put together this post in early December and every loved it. (Big thanks to everyone over on r/Lovecraft and r/Cthulhu.) Gifts for the Lovecraft fan on your list, or of course, yourself. A whole slew of books, music, games, and a lot more. If you’re looking for a place to spend some of that Christmas cash, look no further.

Mad Max and the Art of Worldbuilding
I’m happy to see how much everyone enjoyed my look at worldbuilding from the viewpoint of one of my favorite movies of the year, Mad Max: Fury Road. I have another article in the works following this up.


Note: I also got a lot of traffic to my Mysterious Package posts. However after some emails and not wanting to spoil things for others I elected to remove them from my site. That is why they aren’t featured on today’s list.


Most Clicked Writing Links Of 2015:

What I Get Paid For My Novels: Or, Why I’m Not Quitting My Day Job
Novelist Kameron Hurley opens up and shares how much she has made on each of her books. It’s a fantastic post. Awesome to see transparency like this. I think this is good info for every author, indie or traditional, it helps set the record straight.

Cognition as Ideology: A Dialectic of SF Theory
In January, I shared this wonderful talk from China Miéville regarding the importance of fantasy in our modern society. I highly recommend it to anyone who reads or writes speculative fiction.

Why Horror Is Good For You (And Even Better For Your Kids)
Artist Greg Ruth gives us six fantastic reasons why we should all read horror. I’m really happy this was so well received, it’s still one of my favorite articles I shared this year.

Neil Gaiman’s 8 Rules of Writing
I have long been a fan of writer’s personal lists of rules. It’s always good to glean what you can apply to your list (and yeah, we all have our personal list.) Neil Gaiman is no exception. (Note #5.)

10 Twenty-First Century Bestsellers People Tried to Ban (and Why)
The stories behind people trying to ban books are always fascinating to me. History has proven that when one tries to impose prohibition, the effect is usually opposite of the intent. What was it Mark Twain said? Oh yeah: “Nothing so needs reforming as other people’s habits. Fanatics will never learn that, though it be written in letters of gold across the sky. It is the prohibition that makes anything precious.”


Most Clicked Art Links Of 2015:

Kari-Lise Alexander Paints Nordic Beauties In “A Lovelorn Theft”
Kari-Lise’s latest solo show opened at Modern Eden Gallery in San Francisco at the end of September, and a lot of folks were interested in seeing her work. In this post, High Fructose highlighted many of the pieces from that show. After watching the series develop throughout 2015, I was excited to see it in the wild. I’m sure you’ll agree this series is gorgeous.

Women Trying To Sleep Unsuccessfully In Western Art History
For hundreds of years,  women in art have been trying to take a break and catch some Zs. For whatever reason no one wants to let them. Art is weird.

Korean Artist Beautifully Illustrates What Real Love Looks Like
I loved these sweet little illustrations by Puuung, and so did you. Small touching moments rendered beautifully. Each tells its own story. [Thanks again to Stalara for sharing.]

I See Music Because I Have Synesthesia, So I Decided To Paint What I Hear
Painter Melissa McCracken is a synesthete. When she hears music it comes to her in a variety of colors. Instead of trying to describe what she sees she has decided to paint it instead. The results are fascinating.


Most Clicked Random Links of 2015:

20 Maps That Never Happened
From war plans for the invasion of Canada to the fifty states redrawn with equal populations, Vox explores twenty imaginary maps. You know, I’d be cool living in the state of Rainer.

Abandoned Indonesian Church Shaped Like a Massive Clucking Chicken
Some people do strange things to get messages from God; things like building a strangely shaped church in the middle of the jungle. Apparently the builder had intended it to look like a dove, but it’s clearly a chicken.

Arcology: Cutaways Of The Future City-Hives That Never Were
The futurist idea of arcologies is a mainstay of science fiction. I even play with the concept in the Bell Forging books. So when I saw this post from Cory Doctorow about Paolo Soleri’s 1969 book: Arcology: The City in the Image of Man. It was something I was very interested in. The book sounds fascinating, but the images… you need to see the images. [Thanks again to Steve for sharing this.]

I Won A $5,000 Magic: The Gathering Tournament On Shrooms
I’ve never done shrooms, but this article is hilarious regardless. As my friend Rob pointed out, this is the Magic: The Gathering version of James Blagden’s Dock Ellis & The LSD No-No. [Thanks to Rob for sharing this.]


Most Clicked Weird Wikipedia Link of 2015:

After watching the video, I’d wager it’s safe to say that this is probably one of the more creepy Weird Wikipedia links in 2015. Check out the article and make sure to turn the captions on, makes it that much more effective.

Max Headroom Broadcast Signal Intrusion
“The Max Headroom broadcast signal intrusion was a television signal hijacking that occurred in Chicago, Illinois, United States on the evening of November 22, 1987. It is an example of what is known in the television business as broadcast signal intrusion. The intruder was successful in interrupting two broadcast television stations within the course of three hours. The hijackers were never identified.”

Make sure you watch the video as well:


Lovecraft Story Of The Year:

The Shadow over Innsmouth
Yay! My favorite Lovecraft story was also YOUR favorite. Happy to see this listed as the story of the year. It’s a good one. [Fun Fact: the Innsmouth folk served as the source of inspiration for the anur in my books.]


Animated GIF Of The Year:

I can't get enough GIFs of robot struggling to play soccer/football.