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Fundamentals of Game Design: Game Worlds

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This chapter defines a game world and introduces the various dimensions that describe a game world: the physical, temporal, environmental, emotional, and ethical dimensions, as well as a quality called realism.

Games entertain through gameplay, but many also entertain by taking the player away to an imaginary place—a game world. (This book uses the terms world, setting, and game setting interchangeably with game world.) In fact, the gameplay in most single-player video games appears to the player as interactions between himself and the game world. This chapter defines a game world and introduces the various dimensions that describe a game world: the physical, temporal, environmental, emotional, and ethical dimensions, as well as a quality called realism.

What Is a Game World?

A game world is an artificial universe, an imaginary place in which the events of the game occur. When the player enters the magic circle and pretends to be somewhere else, the game world is the place she pretends to be.

Not all games have a game world. A football game takes place in a real location, not an imaginary one. Playing football still requires pretending because the players assign an artificial importance to otherwise trivial actions, but the pretending doesn't create a game world. Many abstract games, such as tic-tac-toe, have a board but not a world—there is no imaginary element in playing the game. Chess has only a hint of a world; although the board and the moves are abstract, the names of the pieces suggest a medieval court with its king and queen, knights and bishops. Stratego has a slightly more elaborate world: The board is printed to look like a landscape, and the pieces are illustrated with little pictures, encouraging us to pretend that they are colonels, sergeants, and scouts in an army. Stratego could be played entirely abstractly, using only numbers and a bare grid for a board, but the setting makes it more interesting.

Most video games present their game world with pictures and sound: art, animation, music, and audio effects. Not all game worlds have a visible or audible component, however. In a text adventure, the player creates the images and sounds of the world in his imagination when he reads the text on the screen. Designing such a world is a matter of using your literary skills to describe it in words.

Game worlds are much more than the sum of the pictures and sounds that portray them. A game world can have a culture, an aesthetic, a set of moral values, and other dimensions that you'll look at in this chapter. The game world also has a relationship to reality, whether it is highly abstract, with little connection to the world of everyday things, or highly representational, attempting to be as similar to the real world as possible.

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