A realization that has come to me lately as I reflected about worldbuilding is that, at least to a certain extent, usually an imaginary world that has been well-received by the public is centered around a core metaphysical or meta-narrative idea. You can quickly examine many of the big worlds in entertainment and see a red thread crossing the entirety, or the main elements, of a setting.
I would like to pose some initial examples through a look to the medium where this core concept is easier to see, because it is the center of the experience: videogames.
There are two things around which games usualy revolve: the solving of conflict and the struggle for power. Both concepts are the two pillars of gameplay that provide the engagement and fun players seek and that bring them to enjoy the experience for hours.
Now, in successful videogames, usually, the world is built on an adjacent basis. You would argue that, since the plot must adhere strictly to the gameplay and serve its purpose, it makes sense that the world has to follow the same path. It is true, but on the other hand it is generally agreeable that keeping himself tightly attached to a core theme and experience allows a writer to focus on what matters to the light of the actual product he is working on. That can be a videogame, a novel, a comic, whatever.
Worldbuilding is not a product or a work of art. It’s just the idea of an imaginary world, written down so that others may picture it. The stories that are set between its boundaries are the real deal, and many people have been fooled into forgetting or ignoring this basic truth. I know that there are books, in particular, where an extensive and pervasive worldbuilding, detailed even beyond what is necessary, is in fact a good part of the experience. I do not mean to dunk on them, especially since I hardly read any of those. In my personal experience, this trend is very similar to most avant-garde movements that, after a brief moment of glory, fell into partial oblivion due to the fact that they were revealed as unsuccessful experiments. I do not believe people under 25 years old ever read this kind of books. They may have been a nice artistic experiment, and I do not prevent anyone from remembering it fondly, but it never went beyond that. The point of worldbuilding was and still is to provide a setting.
That trend is not enduring because the reason people love imaginary world is that you can set the wildest stories inside their boundaries. What makes you love Middle Earth is not Middle Earth per se. Your opinion of it would be “this feels like history but pointless because it is imaginary” if Tolkien had not written the stories we love so much.
Changing subject to books gives me a chance to say another thing. While in videogames it is easier to see this criteria at work, books are where this red thread can get the most elaborate: the fight of Law and Chaos in Elric is to me a perfect example, as this is the central axis of Elric’s world(s). In general, the medium of narrative prose confers the most creative freedom in this regard, and this is something I want to underline given that videogames are for sure stricter in what your possibilities are.
Most people who wish to write a book fail even to subconsciously grasp what the importance of worldbuilding is, and that is, again, to provide a setting that is more than time and place, but is also a general narrative. So you can witness how stale and repetitive and samey their creations are, adding to the fact that already, for cultural and political reason, products tend to look the same. The problem is that often these people are not even working under the wing of a major corporation, they are just creating a setting for a series of books which at that point may or may not be actually written. You can imagine how harmful is to conceive something that offers nothing different or particular before even reaching the hands of corporate editors.
This is often due to a fundamental misunderstanding of Tolkien’s work, caused by something that is common among “nerds” or “fandom”, as you may call it. That is, The Lord of the Rings is often more watched as a movie trilogy than read as a book. Usually, in the minds of these people the content of the movies overlaps that of the books, and generate a failure to understand all the basic elements of the story or the core narrative of the world itself.
The fact is that the red thread traversing Arda is philology, and many other important elements stem from it. The average nerd, instead, believes that the setting is centered around Elves and Dwarves, epic battles, etc., hence his attempt at writing his own Lord of the Rings sinks when worldbuilding becomes a confused ocean of notes and maps without a clear purpose, almost all of them destined to be useless regardless of the writer actually writing the real story.
I believe it important for us to think profoundly about the nature and the meta-narrative of the world we are to build up, if we want to keep things clear and easy for both ourselves and the reader. I confess that I am stating this as a critic and not as a writer, given that I have yet to venture into a journey as hard as the creation of an entire fantasy world; nonetheless I think that the conditions in which the indipendent artist has to operate today require him at least a minimum amount of smart thinking. Stating a clear narrative pervading the whole world is to me a smart tactic for someone who wishes to provide an extended world to his story without losing focus on what matters.
What do you think?