The first year of Shared Worlds game designer Will Hindmarch drove from Atlanta to Spartanburg, hopped out of his car, and taught a four-hour, impromptu class on game design and world-building. Will was supposed to grab a bite to eat, get settled in his room, and rest up for the next day. Instead, he gathered the students and went wild.
Jeff VanderMeer and I weren’t the only ones blown away by Will’s dynamic, story-based teaching style. The students loved it, too. Will has an uncanny ability to see the big picture and the small, to gather large amounts of information and identify the patterns, to hear what everyone in the room is saying and sort through the chaos for the golden nuggets… and to dazzle everyone with great stories.
When Jeff and I were developing the Shared Worlds curriculum, we wanted someone who could connect the worlds of game design and fiction writing. As the developer for 2004-2007 of the World of Darkness Storytelling Game, Vampire: The Requiem for White Wolf and as a fiction writer, Will seemed like a good fit with the approach we use at Shared Worlds. He turned out to be a perfect fit for the program.
“Will Hindmarch has an innate understanding of the interplay between narrative structure and gameplay,” said novelist and designer Matt Forbeck. “Many designers just make things up as we go, trusting our skills and instincts to bring us through. Will takes the time to examine those skills, to study those instincts, and to formulate and test theories about how and why they work. He’s the next generation of designer, and with time and luck he’ll outshine us all.”
Will co-founded the company Gameplaywright with Jeff Tidball. Among other projects they’ve produced two outstanding titles, Things We Think about Games and The Bones: Us & Our Dice.
Below, Will and I talk, briefly, about world-building in preparation for a lecture I’ll be giving on the first day of Shared Worlds.
What’s the best part about building a world?
Will Hindmarch: The part I enjoy the most is either the escapism or the power trip. Honestly, I suppose they’re the same thing. The point of creating a new world is that you have the authorial power to cast things just so. Aspects of your world may be terrible or sickening, but only the right things will be. It’s an excitement that’s akin to traveling, getting out and seeing new places, with an added dose of freedom and the thrill of being an authority on something. I don’t know much about anything other than the stuff I make up.
Where does building a world begin for you?
Will Hindmarch: Oh, man. It can begin down in the dirt, with a handful of red clay dug out of the ground, or it can start with a telling map full of nonsense names and provocative empty spaces, dug out of an antique drawer. It can start with a line of dialogue coming out of the dark, or the sight of a naked planet hovering in space. Sometimes you zoom in from far away and sometimes you look up, shield your eyes against the sun, and realize where you are.
For my purposes, anyway, world-building can cover the creation of any cogent but unreal place, whether it’s a planet or a pub. Some projects call for the creation of a small space that makes up the whole world for the purposes of a story, like a ship adrift at sea or a motel room in Hell, while others call for vast and regulated continents, like the fantasyland of an MMORPG. Sometimes you start out with the inspiration for a world, hide those ideas under rocks in your brain, and dig them up when you have the right project.
All of that is a too-dramatic way of saying that it varies. Probably it varies because I don’t have much of a plan.
What role does collaboration play in world-building?
Will Hindmarch: The actual degree of collaboration varies based on the kinds of projects the world is meant to support—novels, a TV series, games, whatever—but collaboration at some level is vital. A novelist depends on a reader to fill in details she chooses not to, even if it’s just by drawing imagery from the reader’s own experiences to form a mental image for the “blue car” or “smokestack” the writer has mentioned. An RPG designer, in comparison, is handing a great deal of authorial power over to game-masters and players, who create characters to inhabit (and, in part, to define) the world.
The MMORPG player who gives his character a silly name and sends that avatar jumping around in its underpants is, on one hand, probably not cooperating with the game designers, but he is collaborating—he’s adding his input to the tone and style of the game world. Collaboration involves compromise.
What is at the heart of a good world for you?
Will Hindmarch: Detail. But you can go too far. It’s one thing to offer up the kind of tactile features that make verisimilitude. It’s another thing to obsess over minutiae. Details, if conveyed well, quietly spawn other details and characteristics of the fictional world. They evoke. The sound of a party next door can suggest a lot of particulars. The smell of a room can hint at what’s happened there before you showed up.
A complete condition report of all the furniture in the joint is too much. A well-built world feels real, but isn’t as boring as an inventory. For me, a good world has texture and odor and things to do, and is a chance to explore somebody else’s imagination.
Jeremy L. C. Jones is a freelance writer, editor, and part-time professor. Jones is a frequent contributor to Clarkesworld Magazine. He is also the director of Shared Worlds, a creative writing and world-building camp for teenagers that he and Jeff VanderMeer designed in 2006.