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Storytelling Tips: World-Building Needs Closed Doors
by Guy Hasson on 05/15/11 01:36:00 pm   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


Our minds work in mysterious ways.

They don't accept this world and move on. They catalogue it, characterize it, identify it, and constantly re-affirm it as 'a world'. When a player is faced with another world, his subconscious mind springs into action and either identifies it as a believable world, or identifies it as false, and then feels it's 'wrong'.

As designers we need to find the characteristics under which our minds catalogue 'a world'. We need to make sure that the world we build fits those characteristics. If it fits – we've built a believable world. If it doesn't – we've built a world that will not be accepted by most players.

In the next few weeks, this Storytelling Tips column is going to cover the various characteristics that the players' minds recognize as real. There are actually surprisingly few.

We'll begin with the simplest of them all: Worlds need doors that never open.

'Doors' in this case are metaphoric. Every world you create needs something that can't be solved, can't be seen, or can't be understood. It can be a story that isn't told, a door that never opens, a window you can't see through, a window you can see through but shows you a place you can never be in, an alley that wasn't taken, a person that remains a mystery, a mystery that remains unsolved, or anything else that is unexplored, unopened, or unknown even if you explore the entire game through and through.

Our subconscious minds recognize this world as always having 'more': more to see, more to discover, more to know, more places to go to, etc. Our subconscious minds see all around paths that will never be taken, horizons that will never be traveled to, people we will never talk to, doors that will never open, and avenues that won't be taken. All these fall into the metaphoric definition of 'closed doors'. Our minds subconsciously catalogue 'a world' as something that has many closed doors.

The second our minds, after having played a beautiful game with a beautiful world, resolve everything and opens the last door to be opened - at that second the game's world will lose its beauty and believability.

(Note that the rules of storytelling are different from the rules of world-building. When you solve all the avenues you've opened in storytelling, the player gets a feeling of perfection. However, the world the story takes place in must have some avenues, even avenues hinted at, that can never be closed – that lends that world a feeling of perfection.)

When creating a world in a game, it's tempting to reward the players who pass everything and explore every corner with little nuggets that show what's behind every unexplored door. Yes, it's very rewarding to players to know they've achieved what few will and to learn a secret. But even these players will feel cheated and not know why if there are no doors whatsoever (even ones only hinted at) that remain closed.

Even for expert players you must leave at least one thing that they couldn't do or couldn't touch or couldn't solve – shuttered windows, a criminal that was never caught but only hinted at, etc. etc. etc.

Do that, and your world will be believable.

Next week we'll tackle more criteria our subconscious minds require for believable worlds.

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Lex Allen
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I did this in my last game and people went crazy. They became really obsessed with a statue, a stick with a skull on it, and a cave that you couldn't reach. During testing, they refused to leave these items alone and were convinced that they must be relevant or accessible somehow.

I thought that these elements would leave some mystery and wonder, but I think it caused more frustration than anything.

The funny thing is, in my current game, people ended up having the same complaints about various things and it was completely unintentional! So, I think that sometimes you don't have to intentionally design hidden content because people will find unanswered questions and such anyway.

Guy Hasson
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Well, Lex, when you make a game you have to decide where to put the closed doors. If you put them in plain sight, the players will automatically assume it's something you want them to solve/interact with. And if they can't, they'll get frustrated. Depending on how you do that, they can either enjoy their frustration or hate you for it. When crating closed doors, for the sake of the believability of the game's world, you have to usually make sure they're really really small, maybe even seen only by the back of our minds.

Sting Newman
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The problem with what you suggest is that you also force experienced gamers to feel that the game is unfinished many of those 'unreachable places' become fodder for 'developer who did not finish their game'.

Quite frankly adding stuff to a game that makes gamers think they are part of the game world and there is a secret to be found means they will waste a lot of time on nothing. My biggest pet peeve is that there aren't enough 'secrets' that are well developed. Think of diablo 2 secret cow level. In diablo 1 a rumor was started about the secret cow level and in diablo 2 they went and made a secret cow level!

Game developers have long since lost the ability to really have fun with their games and add a lot of 'meat' to the core game. Many of todays AAA games are over-pretty lifeless wastelands of lifeless noninteractivity.

Rory Ball
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I think World of Warcraft did this very well when it was originally released. One of the areas that best represents this was a giant door along the side of a mountain in the desert of Tanaris. At first glance it looks like someone tried to break into the door, you can see damage on it, and weapon marks around a long crack.

But a more careful look opens up the question, “maybe something was trying to get out…” A Dwarven quest sends you to the door to investigate. You do learn that it’s an ancient site laboratory for the “Titans”, a powerful race of creatures that created the world. However, what kind of experiments and what their purpose for was left unknown. The quest ends with the revelation that the Titans are set to return to Azeroth on a future date, when exactly and why, is not explained.

And that’s all. The doors had no other relevance to any quest in WoW. They didn’t tie into the overall story arc of the Horde or Alliance, and it didn’t lead to any dungeons or raid encounters.

Of course, the place was finally revealed in the Cataclysm expansion, and, in my opinion didn’t really hold up to the suspense that was built up around it. It’s unfortunate because with the redesign of the world in Cataclysm, we’ve lost a lot of “closed doors” without new ones being introduced.

Lewis Pulsipher
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If players treat the game as an interactive puzzle, similar to most single-player video games, then they'll be frustrated if there are things they cannot solve, because solving everything is how you end the experience of a puzzle.

If they treat it as a single story, then they'll also want all the loose ends tied up but will understand that the designer may leave things unexplained "for the sequel".

If they treat the game as a world to roam in, then closed doors will be fine, because every real world has closed doors, no one can live long enough to try them all even if there IS a way through.

Matt Chambers
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Guy, how do you balance a players' disbelief caused by not being able to go where they want (where they would be able to IRL) with disbelief caused by having seen or done everything that there is to see or do?

Guy Hasson
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Matt, in answer to your question (and, I guess, to others' questions as well), about how not to create trouble with players while creating closed doors. I think you're taking 'closed doors' too literally. A closed door can be a grate in the road in a game that doesn't show the sewers. A closed door can be a snake eating a mouse in the desert in a game that doesn't show you their holes (both animals must have other rats or snakes, a place to hole up in, etc.). A closed door can be a poster about a band that's coming to town next month. A closed door can be a plane flying up in the clouds in a game that remains close to the earth in one town. A closed door can be evidence of a hurricane that was here last month.

The common denominator of all these is that they tell of a greater world out there, something the player will not see, but something that sells the believability of the world. Another common denominator is that most of these will not cause the player any annoyance.

The trick in creating closed doors is to train your mind to look for something that is both small and the existence of which won't cause the player to actually do something about it. There are many many ways to go about it. It's just a matter of practice.

Matt Chambers
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Ah, your examples on the temporal axis make much more sense to me. Having a sense that the world existed before you got there and will continue exist after you leave does seem very important. Is that enough? Or are 'closed doors' in space necessary as well? We might as well look at the literal case of closed and locked doors. I recently played Magicka and it made a joke of having hundreds of locked doors. :)

Guy Hasson
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Usually, it's preferrable to do it in both time and space. But that also depends on how you build the space of your world. At the end of the day, it's what you feel. If you feel doing it only in time is enough, hopefully it is. If you don't, find a way to do it in space, too, in a way that makes you feel like the player won't feel cheated.

There are also other factors in world-building, which also depend on time and space. I'm going to cover them in the next few weeks. We're doing them one at a time.

John Krajewski
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Nice article, and I think some of the people commenting dont realize these 'closed doors' shouldnt make the player think you can interact with them; if the player thinks that you're doing it wrong.

I'm reminded of Tolkien's answer to the question "Why didnt you tell the story of the civilizations in the distant mountains you named in passing in your books?" , "I could tell you about those distant mountains, except then I would have to create distant mountains for those distant mountains."

Dolgion Chuluunbaatar
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Nice quote. I was also reminded of Tolkien by this article. I always felt fascinated with the way the necromancer was mentioned in "the hobbit". It really didn't serve any real purpose for the story, but it created a sense of mystery. Of course, it turned out to be the regenerating Sauron, but that didn't matter in "the hobbit"

David Serrano
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Closed doors was the premise for the X-Files... correct? Mulder and Scully searched for "the truth" but the answer was never fully revealed. I think it was also the theme of J.J. Abrams' mystery box speech at TED, which btw... should be required viewing for all designers:

Mark Kotlyar
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In the Tiberian lore of the Command & Conquer series, there's the main... antagonist character - Kane.

No one knows who he really is, or what he really his. And though you are constantly interacting with him, his plans are never fully revealed or explained.

That, I believe, constitutes a good Closed Door, as it doesn't distract from the main narrative, and in fact encourages and compliments it. Drives it, even, by driving the player's curiosity.

Gary Dahl
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Great article Guy, and great series too! I've been going through the archive reading missed posts about writing dialog and telling stories. I just re-read this one which is still my favorite. It's been stuck in the back of my head since it was first posted. "Creating a mystery within a mystery in 7 steps" is also quickly becoming a favorite (and thanks David Serrano for the Abrams TED talk, also very good). Really looking forward to reading the rest of these world building articles. Thanks for and please continue this great work!