My love for Attack on Titan can’t be overstated. That show was a masterpiece and my first real dip into anime as a meta genre. There’s just so much to love about it but from a worldbuilding perspective in particular I think you’ll agree it’s a triumph. Spoilers abound, if you haven’t seen it yet I recommend going back and watching all three seasons, you know, because they’re great.
You see, Attack on Titan begins with a world that is very very small. We are given very few facts about it, we know only that the world is inhabited by humans of a given time period (essentially late era medieval with a blush of steam punk) and that these people live behind a big ole wall (actually 3 concentric walls) for fear of giants called titans that live beyond. We are told that the world beyond the wall was ravaged by these giants and the only humans live inside in relative safety here. Then the walls are smashed by Titans we’ve never seen, a colossal titan and an armored titan who, unlike the other titans do not appear to be mindless but singularly focused even intelligent. As quickly as they arrive they disappear and the remaining titans charge in through the hole devastating the home village of Eren, Mikasa and Armin (the central characters of the show). At this stage in the story Eren is a child and we know about as much as a child can know, fear manifested in burning anger.
There’s a lot we can also deduce from the story, there are tons of secrets and hints given early on about some great mystery, but that’s the basic synopsis. What I want to talk about today is the slow expansion of this world we’re seeing, because Attack on Titan does a great job with this. When Eren is training for the Scout Regiment we begin to see the beginnings of the military structure of the kingdom how the scouts are looked down upon and derided but are some of the most skilled soldiers. When Eren’s nature as an intelligent titan is discovered (by Eren as much as everyone else) we witness the intricacies of the court and some elements of politics and decision making. As the situations continue to change the characters are forced to adapt to the world, mercenaries are sent to hunt them, agents from beyond the wall are unmasked (and their prior actions are reframed and understood), the king makes an appearance, his heir is discovered, the titans within the walls (yup) are found. The show builds, jostles and expands throughout and it does it slowly, piece by piece.
As the worldview of the lead characters changes when they get new information (a central theme in the show’s narrative) the characters even begin to see past events in a different light. This is mostly the product of a solid and compelling narrative but what I think might be even more crucial is that the writers and artists who created this show felt no compulsion to put their entire world on display from the get go. As writers it is often tempting to showcase your worlds, take your audience on a tour of them as soon as you’re able, to show them the zaniest or most interesting parts of it, to view the parts you don’t show as great secrets or mysteries. This compulsion is totally understandable but Attack on Titan eschews this by making the governance of the kingdom opaque and shadowy, the motivations of different factions obscure, there are great mysteries to be sure but even factions and characters that we know well have their reasons and motivations played close to the vest. When you’ve invested in creating something really cool you just want to share it, you want to talk about its implications and build upon them. Attack on Titan shows us that creating powerful media is sometimes about restraining our urge to show the best of what we’ve made instead allowing it to unfold gradually as the narrative has need of it.
Stay tuned for more writing from the WorldCraft Club as we explore worldbuilding and the crafting of fictional settings to inspire your creativity.
James wrote this! James is a host on the Worldcraft Club Podcast. He loves tabletop rpgs, running and drinking too much coffee. He lives with his wife and young son somewhere in Central Pennsylvania.
We’re happy to host guest blogs on here whenever we can, it gives James a break and let’s other people contribute their ideas. Let us know if you have a worldbuilding concept or strategy to get off your chest, we’d love to hear it.