So, I’ve bashed a lot of Bethesda’s worldbuilding lately. Not really intentionally to throw shade at them as I’m a rabid consumer of their games. I mean, I’ve been playing them since Morrowind (no not the expansion pack to the online game) and I just love them. I suppose the reason why I beat them up is that I sense decay in their work over time. They’ve had so many successes and then Fallout 76 fell totally flat. The failure of that game, though, was in part because of Bethesda’s success in the past. Let me explain.
I heard this interview with Todd Howard once (though I’ve never been able to find it again so maybe it was a fever dream) where he was explaining what Fallout 76 was going to be like. The teaser trailers had been released and excitement was mounting. He said that the best responses he got from players of Fallout 4 were related to the environmental situations they found themselves in caused by some of the random encounters the game generates. You’re wandering through a patch of wasteland when you hear the whir of inbound vertibird and the gravelly report of a mounted minigun. In response you hear the crackle of scattered gun fire from a nearby super mutant outpost. Chaos ensues, the player is delighted. This is totally valid, it does sound fun. I’ve had a ton of these experiences myself. What’s more I think most folks playing Fallout and the Elder Scrolls series would find that the worlds were lovingly crafted with deep and rich history which leads to hours upon hours of exploration. That’s ultimately what these games are and it’s what makes them great. They create a world, you as the player explore it.
I still remember time after time wandering through the wilderness in Boston, Capital Wasteland, Skyrim or Cyrodil and finding fascinating stories hidden in the world around me. Investigate an unnerving shrine I can see on that cliffside? Sure! Pursue a series of mysterious notes I’ve found scattered on the bodies of raiders? Why not? Dive into the horrifying history of nefarious corporation. And how! This is what makes Bethesda games great. Their worlds are full of rich detail in the margins, great mini stories where the player puts together the connective tissue from breadcrumbs left by the game designers and writers. If only their main narratives had that quality. Once upon a time they really did.
I think what has happened to Bethesda is that they became a victim of their own success. They made rich and enticing worlds with stories in the margins that absorbed our interest. I think the games gradually tilted in this direction. Created an ‘open world’ experience that left as much as possible in the hands of the player until they came full circle. Their core narratives became increasingly weak, the worldbuilding surrounding their core features became shallow and eventually upon the release of Fallout 76 it collapsed under the weight.
One of the things Seth and I talk about constantly on the podcast is the difference between dense and sparse worlds (we sometimes say thick and thin). Some worlds are very dense because the narrative requires it and the audience has the interest, other worlds are very sparse for the same reasons. Harry Potter for a popular example is a very sparse world, it’s rich in details but the details are not fully explored, they serve as great window dressing and fun mysteries with the narrative holding it together. In open world story telling you need a somewhat sparse world because your players have to fill in the details, not every concept needs fully explored, not every element of the world requires depth but Bethesda’s constructs are not only open world, they also have a heroic narrative. In Harry Potter we may not have full details on how Hagrid can perform advanced transfiguration spells using a broken wand and 3 years of instruction at Hogwarts but we think it’s hilarious that he gave Dudley a tail for a one off gag (which is actually pretty dark when you think about it) but we know a whole lot about Severus Snape’s motivations and history.
We need that depth for the core narrative, everything else can be thin as eggshell. This is where Bethesda fell over. Highly immersive lightly detailed very broad worlds without the gradations of depth needed for a strong narrative.
Stay tuned for more writing from the WorldCraft Club as we explore worldbuilding and the crafting of fictional settings to inspire your creativity.
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.