This is the first post in a ten-part series about my ongoing workshop “Creating Consistent SF-Worlds” for the Game Design department at the Mediadesign Hochschule in Düsseldorf, Germany.
Part II | Part III | Part IV | Part V | Part VI
In this first session of the workshop, I started off with explaining what I mean by “consistent,” and how a consistent world is important for any story. Then we went over some of the basic astrophysical and cosmological facts that you should at least have heard of if you want to create consistent universes, solar systems, and planets that rock. Finally, we discussed how world-building can, and should, strengthen a story’s theme.
What Do I Mean by “Consistent”?
Consistency (German »Schlüssigkeit«) comprises three things: objective consistency, subjective consistency, and narrative consistency. Objective consistency refers to facts: will my world hold up to scrutiny if a gamer/reader happens to know something about this stuff, which many do? Of course we can bend the facts, ignore them, even trample on them if need be, but we should always know what we’re doing. If we get the really basic stuff wrong, then we’re leaving science fiction and enter the realm of science fantasy (“science fiction makes the implausible possible, while science fantasy makes the impossible plausible”). Subjective consistency, the second item on the list, is also pretty much what it says: regardless of whether I get my facts right or wrong, the world I create must be believable. (That’s one among numerous reasons why a “true story” rarely works as a story; reality is just too fantastic.) I can expect a certain amount of what Coleridge originally meant by suspension of disbelief, i. e., “poetic faith” in story elements that are not real and/or outright impossible, as long as these elements feel right (owing to, e. g., psychological processes, cultural frameworks, or simply genre expectations, to name a few factors.) Finally, there’s narrative consistency: beyond being an integral part of your story, it should be an integral part of your story’s theme, as should everything else. Now this is actually something I keep explaining at great length in my courses about dramatic and narrative structure; in a nutshell, one of the prerequisites for a complete story—or argument, in Dramatica parlance—is that everything works toward illuminating as many aspects of your theme as possible: dramatic structure, plot points, characters, dialogs, setting, sound, lighting, texture, interface, even certain aspects and features of the game engine. (Famous themes in that sense would be Love, Friendship, Desire, Betrayal, Honor, Growing Up, or Dying; but themes can be either more complex or more focused than these examples.) If an element seems consistent neither because it’s backed up by facts nor because it “feels true” subjectively, but primarily because it’s perceived as being part of the story’s thematic patterning and supporting the story’s overall argument, that’s what narrative consistency is about. A factor constituting narrative consistency which is particular to science fiction, moreover, is the difference between science fiction and skiffy, about which I wrote elsewhere: “‘Skiffy’ is what you have when the story’s central idea and all or most plot elements would work just fine in any other genre,” i. e., if it would work just as well in a Western or Caribbean setting, or any old exotic locale in general. Thus, your genre and the kind of world within which your story unfolds should also be an integral part of your theme, adding to narrative consistency.
Some Basics About How the Universe Works
As I can’t possibly go into detail here, I will only list the topics we touched upon during our workshop session and link to some wiki pages as starting points. Concerning cosmology, we mentioned the inflation model of the universe; the great turning point in 1998 when two independent teams confirmed that our universe not only expands, but continually expands faster; the multiverse hypothesis and the weak anthropic principle; and Lee Smolin’s theory of a multiverse in which universes that can produce observers (i. e., life) “evolve” by natural selection through the production of black holes. On a less grand scale, we talked about how it takes several generations of stars to form enough chemical elements so life can evolve (and how Population I protostars would make for a terrific setting); and how binary stars, which are much more numerous than single stars in our galaxy (and probably elsewhere), would affect the odds of having life-friendly planets. Then, we mentioned the types of stars, their magnitude and luminosity, their “colors” and electromagnetic spectra, and why a “red star” wouldn’t look red in the sky and a “blue star”—the hottest kind—wouldn’t be likely to give you a sunburn. Finally, we touched the ground and talked about the fact that planets are big places, and how their astrophysical setting—including their general location in the galaxy, the nature of their sun or suns, their rotational speed, axial tilt, and many other factors—would affect the planet itself, the life that would evolve on it (or wouldn’t), and the culture and belief systems sentient life forms on such planets would be likely to develop.
Designing a World According to Theme
In the last section of our first session, we singled out two themes, “Hopelessness” and “Escape,” and brainstormed ideas for cosmological/astrophysical settings which would support these themes and illuminate additional aspects, respectively.
Before we closed, I gave my students a handout compiled from different sources with tables and templates for world-building purposes (which I can’t put online for copyright reasons), among them some samples from the most terrific world-building rule system ever devised, GDW’s pen-&-paper roleplaying game 2300 AD. We will use that stuff to do some practical world-building exercises together in the second session of our workshop, all the way down from star selection to geodesic triangles and terrain maps. (I ordered large sheets of paper and colored pencils for that purpose.) But of course I expect my students to have already tried out a few things at home! With these worlds, then, we will go the other way round and brainstorm ideas how we can take advantage of their distincive features to enrich a game story.
Bonus: A Thought Experiment
Here’s a great example for how an astrophysical setting would most certainly have a huge cultural impact: what would our cultural practices and belief systems look like if Earth had a ring system like Saturn’s? Not faint rings like those around Uranus, Jupiter, or Neptune, but really grand, beautiful rings as a dominant feature in our sky? Roy Prol put together some impressive proof-of-concept images, and Phil Plait, the Bad Astronomer, provides further insights and an interesting discussion. Enjoy!
What Earth Would Look Like With Rings Like Saturn