Make It So: Experiential Games And Worldbuilding

bridge forest trees

Lately I’ve been trying to shake up my gaming interests, try out new video games beyond my usual (which is a mix of Rougelike, RPG, and occasional tactical and action). Gaming can often get “samey,” with similar ideas and mechanics cycled over and over again. Most AAA titles bore me, and there’s only so much faceless minion shooting I can give a damn about.

(OK I do love TF2 but in that case it’s just plain fun and you’re shooting other people’s characters. Or in my case setting them on fire or blowing them up with automated turrets.)

I’ve been on a huge Indie kick lately, which has been rewarding, spending time with Sanctuary RPG: Black, Darkest Dungeon, and of course my continuing love affair with Dungeonmans. Most of those are, of course, in my usual genre/mechanic wheelhouse. All of these have fighting monsters as a core part of their mechanical. I figured it was time to explore more.

I discovered two experiential games that intrigued me – games where the goal is to have an experience over manipulation of the environment.

  • Drizzlepath. This is a simple game of hiking up a mountain, and as you do so you see cool things, encounter new mood music, and experience a disturbingly poetic beat narration that hints at a plot. It’s like someone made a musical/poetic montage of a mountain climb, and for five bucks it was interesting and artistic. Kind of like paying five bucks to go to an indie art film, so really a bargain.
  • Proteus. Imagine a game of walking through a child’s drawing while a Prog Rock jam occurred. This game sticks you on a procedurally generated island and what you encounter as you wander creates the soundtrack. A relaxing experience, best experienced with headphones, I use it now and then to chill out.

There are plenty of others out there – “Dear Esther” is one oft recommended – but these two little games made me think about games whose goal is not to be “played” (that is at least partially controlled) but explored and experienced. As you may guess I’m the guy who’d wander around randomly in Skyrim for an hour, so these games push my buttons.

Experiential games like the above got me thinking about world building. Of course, many things do, but in this case I had a very interesting idea of what to do with fictional worlds we build . . .

All That Lovely Information

When we build worlds for our games and stories, we build a lot of settings and characters and history. We often build more than people see – after all the working watch doesn’t need to show you it’s gears. There’s just so much in our creations that’s amazing and interesting, yet rarely seen by our audiences.

Most people who like games and fictions and their worlds enjoy, in part, the wandering and the lore, especially in world-centric RPGs. If you’ve ever seen people get into a debate about a fictional setting, or discuss its minute, you know what I mean. If you’ve ever sat at your game console or computer or stared at an amazing vista,¬†you understand.

One of the fun of good world building is experiencing it. Not playing it. Not looking at stats. Being there.

You probably see where I’m going with this.

The Experiential Game As Spinoff and Partner

So I’ll get to the core of my idea, having led you here so blatantly – world builders should consider releasing experiential games (or game mods) of their worlds so people can just get to know them.

Imagine being able to wander around your favorite fictional city or kingdom (as is oft done in Minecraft, where people will build anything). Imagine an interactive map and history of a world that you can play around in. Imagine just being able to walk around and talk and watch and read your favorite world for awhile. No monster mashing or drama or economics, just being there.

I’m not proposing a “full” AAA game of just poking around, more a kind of tie-in or freebie to go with a larger work. Something cheaper or free to act as a compliment to a greater project to give people a new way to experience the setting they love.

Worldbuilders usually have a bunch of notes and stats and maps. Why not put them to use.

Think of all the ways this could be done . . .

Different Forms For the World Experience Game

As I’ve analyzed this, I can see several ways to pull off the “experiential game” for world builders. here’s just a handful of ideas to get you started.

  • The simple wander. Just build familiar settings in existing tools or even games so people can poke around and enjoy. If you’ve got enough fans they probably are already doing this.
  • The interactive wander. A bit more than the above, have part of your setting but with minority interactive elements that provide lore, dialogue, etc.
  • The library or map. Create a game that’s a bit of a library or map that shows different times in history, character profiles, and more. Done with a good art style you could make it a fun, immersive experience – perhaps even creating new narrative characters like a librarian to talk to.
  • The chat. Building on the above idea, what if you did a visual novel like game of just chatting to characters. You could even build a mini plot around it where you play the historian or historian’s apprentice, gathering information.
  • The buddy system. Take the idea of the chat-game above, and release mini games focused on individual characters. In each game you get to pal around or talk to one of the characters. People can pick and choose which ones to download or buy. It might even provide some interesting feedback when you see who most wants to talk to whom!

I’m sure you can come up with many other ways to do this. Considering all the tools out there, I’m sure with the right time and effort, non-programers could do some of the simpler mechanics proposed. That’s not even going and bugging your friends for help.

Meanwhile, if you’re paid enough as an author/creator/worldbuilder, I bet you could pitch one of the above ideas to the right people.

Let’s Take The World Farther

I’m enamored of this idea of “experiential world game.” It builds on the desire for knowledge, for wanderlust, and makes a great way to experience a media anew. It uses gaming as a way to enrich media and our ways to make it and tell it. It’s also a damn fun idea from what I can tell.

Maybe if people try this a trend can happen. I’d not be adverse to a world where a TV series spins off a free interactive game or cheap interactive game. I’d love to see past famous works put into experiential games as a way to see them anew.

And I’m sure you have ideas to go even farther – let’s hear them . . .


– Steven Savage