I’m starting a new blog series about worldbuilding. I’m going to use examples of good and bad worldbuilding to teach you how to make better worlds in your own writing. And since I’ve recently been on a Skyrim high, we’re going to start there.
Skyrim’s intro gets a lot of flack from the gaming community – and it does have its faults. It takes too long, for one: it can be an hour or more before you’re actually running around the world under your own steam. It’s not too bad the first time, but having to go through it every time you make a new character? No wonder its become an internet joke.
But the thing is, Skyrim is a very complex game. There’s over 500 hours of content in there, and two main storylines. (SPOILERS AHEAD. LIKE, NEXT SENTENCE.) On the one hand you have the civil war between the imperial Empire and the nationalist Stormcloaks, and on the other you have the return of the dragons, who want to eat the world.
The game’s writers had to introduce the setting, these two main conflicts, and the major players all in one scene. Doing this stops the player feeling as though important new information is dropped on them later on – and since the player can play the game for literally a hundred hours or more before they do the first quest in either storyline, they had to get it all in at the start.
And they did it.
Let’s think about it. You’re in a carriage, being taken to an execution. There are men around you who are panicking. Talking about some kind of war, these people called the Stormcloaks, and apparently this guy sitting next to you is really important. But there’s also an element of personal danger to the player: hold on, I’m in this carriage too. Am I about to be executed? How do I get out of this?
This might seem like it has nothing to do with writing fiction as opposed to playing it, but it’s actually closely linked. See, good worldbuilding drip-feeds information to the reader. You could easily turn this opening scene into the first page of a novel. Turn the player into the protagonist. Have the people around them mention the war and the Stormcloaks, and then narrate the protagonist’s escape from the execution and how they barely escape with their life. In the moment, the reader will only care about the escape, because the character’s life is in immediate danger. But later on, when we bring the Stormcloaks back into it, the reader will remember that first mention and will want to learn more.
This is where you can, technically, if you have to, do a tiny bit of infodumping. Ideally not, but at least the reader is actively interested in who the Stormcloaks are now. If the opening scene was just the protagonist listening to some guys ramble on about a rebellion (infodump-hidden-in-dialogue) and then going on with their daily life, it wouldn’t make them more invested in either the character or the rebellion. You have to mention important worldbuilding concepts subtly, ideally in a scene where there is a more conventional, immediate and interesting conflict for the protagonist to confront. The complex stuff can come later.
So, while the player is being hauled to the chopping block and our adrenaline is shooting up, what else do we see in the opening scenes of Skyrim? Well, we get to learn more about the personalities of the Empire and the Stormcloaks. As one Stormcloak is dragged to be executed, another says: “Empire loves their damn lists.” The Empire is a bureaucratic machine they’re fighting against.
Another says: “My ancestors are smiling at me, Imperials. Can you say the same?” Again, we get an idea that the Stormcloaks are motivated by resistance to authority. An adherence to an emotional ideal rather than a logical, organised one. Finally, another key line: “I go to Sovngarde.” A crucial insight into the Stormcloak spirituality and the way they view the world: to die honourably is ideal, they get to go to an afterlife. Of course, the player doesn’t think about any of this while it’s happening, but we remember it later. Or we notice it on our second playthrough and smile to ourselves. “Ah, all this was laid out from the start. Very clever.”
We want our readers to say that when they read our book a second time.
What else have we got? We meet all the characters who are important to the story. We meet Hadvar and Ralof, the player’s future sidekicks. We meet Ulfric Stormcloak, the leader of the Stormcloaks. We meet General Tullius, the leader of the Empire’s army in Skyrim. And we meet the leader of the dragons, Alduin, who surprises us all when he turns up to burn the whole fort – and everyone in it – to the ground. All the major players in the story are brought together in one place and introduced to the character at once – so when we meet them later, they don’t feel like they’ve been shoe-horned into the story, deux ex machina style.
Thinking of this like a novel again, we can see why the player is the protagonist. He was at Helgen. He was one of the the few people who saw the first dragon attack in centuries and survived. There are stakes now: his fate is tied to that of Skyrim, because he saw the dragon attack. He has a duty to inform the rest of the world about the dragons returning, and acting on this duty drags him further into the many problems plaguing Skyrim. If he hadn’t been at that attack, there would have been nothing tying the main character to the game’s plot.
I’m sure I don’t need to explain how a protagonist escaping from execution because a dragon turned up and burned everybody would make an engaging, interesting first scene. But while we’re going through all that action, the game’s writers have laid out the base for all the game’s major conflicts to come. We know the stakes, we know the general personalities of the sides, we know the characters – and we know what the dragons can do if we don’t stop them. We learned all that and we barely noticed.
It’s a pretty decent way to start a video game.