After a short hiatus due to some health issues, I’m finally feeling up to writing again. As promised, let’s continue looking at the dangers of how much world building to reveal. Last time we saw how too much world-building can bog down an otherwise good story through Ready Player One. Now we’re going to talk about how too little world building can leave your audience frustrated and upset. For this, we’re going to leave books and head to the world of video games for The Last Guardian.
For those who have never played, The Last Guardian is basically a puzzle game with a few action-adventure features that involves your character, a boy of maybe 10-12, who is unnamed throughout the game, and a giant cat/bird creature he calls Trico. The boy and Trico must find their way out of a labyrinth of ruined buildings, caves, and other platform-style obstacles. Not too far into the game you find out that the boy is able to direct Trico to an extent with the help of a mystical shield.
And for a great long time, that is all of the story that you know. We receive a few tiny flashbacks, but nothing that can be put together into context and adequately be called a story. Now, in this I’ll be bringing in elements of storytelling because in this case the lack of world building explained to the player is so lacking that it directly impacts how the story is told and the two ideas can’t be easily separated.
In this case the story is told out of order, which can be a legitimate storytelling feature, but the rest of the world is so lacking, that it fails to support the backwards style. In fact, the two scenes that were necessary to turn the game’s world from a pretty backdrop to a place that exists and has a history and meaning are two of the last scenes in the entire game. If those two scenes were present much earlier, if not at the beginning, the meaning received while playing the game would have been drastically changed for the better.
Lacking any explanation for who the boy is, what the place he’s woken up is, what Trico is, how either of them got there, or any other of the many questions it introduces, the game gives no reason to care if the boy and Trico succeed in escaping. For a long time I wasn’t sure anyone else existed in the world and doubted any of the questions would ever be answered. The world they were in was little more than a landscape painting, beautiful but without context or meaning.
The game does have redeeming factors, they’re just not in the story or the world building. The relationship that develops between the boy and Trico is the central aspect of the game, and it does it so well, that I finished the game despite being frustrated by the lack of information. But I’ll never play it again, and I was never invested in the world they created to want to know more and play more in this world.
Without enough information, a world is hollow. You want your audience, whether that’s reader or player, to feel invested in the world as much as the characters, because the world is part of what shapes well-developed characters. Ultimately you know nothing about the boy and Trico, and no matter how much I love their relationship, they don’t feel real, because their world doesn’t feel real.
Information is a dangerous thing, and walking that tight rope between Ready Player One and The Last Guardian can be traitorous even for seasoned authors. That’s where a good reader or writing group can help keep you from falling one way or the other.