We all know about the background content in games, and how much of it is optional but how it helps flesh out a world or a space. The countless lore books in any Bethesda RPG, or the little details of of Control you could easily miss, or maybe all the comics of Assassin’s Creed that flesh out the conflict between Templar and Assassin. Its stuff that is worked by people who have no guarantee that it will matter to the player, knowing that many of them will just walk past these small details or completely ignore them. So, I figured we could celebrate some of our favorite cases of world building in games!
So, post some of your favorites!
One of mine is some of the recent world building done in Black Mesa:
(Careful playing this in some places. EAS broadcasts, even fake ones, can trigger weirdness in certain electronics.)
The EAS broadcast in Black Mesa is so clinical its terrifying. You can easily miss these broadcasts when you walk past the radios placed around the game. How the disaster spreads beyond Black Mesa to a point where the President is addressing the nation is really unsettling, and it added a new layer of horror to Half-Life’s lore that I just love.
The voicework for the HECU marines was also given a much needed upgrade:
(CW for realistic trauma voice acting)
Humanizing bad guys can always be a weird wire to cross, but I feel a lot of the dialogue the HECU Marines voice on the background radio chatter really reinforces how out of hand the Black Mesa disaster is getting. It goes from Sinister to panicked really quick, and it just layers on more horror. I love it.
Hell, it’s better than Duke Nukem himself yelling ALIEN ALERT
I loved Art Bell being in the original Prey. I used to listen to Coast to Coast AM because it was such an odd piece of Americana. In the game Bell takes calls from people reporting abductions and UFO sightings which you can hear through various radios that have been beamed onto the ship you are trapped on.
Supergiant’s games reliably pull off the neat trick of creating world that feel natural without being “realistic”. Bastion and Pyre’s world are clearly metaphorical but don’t feel forced. Somehow they make an abandoned shrine floating in the void feel more lived in than recreations of actual city streets in other games.
Bungie reliably creates worlds that are far more interesting than the stories they tell in them. I suspect a big part of that is how good they are at naming things. Pillar of Autumn is a really cool name for a ship, calling a secretive intelligence agency ONI is far too clever by half, and every legendary in Destiny has a wonderfully evocative name.
I’m just generally a big fan of multiple stories by the same creator being revealed to be in the same universe. It’s why I’m gonna finish Control and start Alan Wake after the DLC announcement.
Even something as little as a news story in Uncharted 3 about a deadly virus that scientists can’t control had me giddy.
Weird pick, but I adored the extra content in the franchise mode for Madden 2005. After every week of games there was a national and local newspaper for each team writing about what happened, records, etc. All clearly auto-generated by nonetheless nice have. You also got emails from players about position battles, or how happy they were. All that plus a bunch of regular radio stations you could play in the background. (The game had a great soundtrack you can find on Spotify, most notably introducing yours truly to American Idiot.)
In the off season you could change where your team was based, concession prices, stadium size and design. It was super awesome. I liked to fuck with uniforms and move teams to Mexico City. I don’t know how much of that they’ve kept in the newer ones. Always really loved the care put into '05. Just the other day I actually popped back into my old save file (the last time it was overwritten was 2010) to play some games. Got through six whole seasons over the course of all my playtime. Good times!
I still love Cave Johnson’s monologues
Speaking of JK Simmons being the master of world building, whoever did an impression of his JJ Jameson in Spider-Man deserves an award. His right wing shock jock podcast really helped to ground the game in our shitty reality, which for some reason was pretty neat to see.
Post-2016 Football Manager games have had to simulate the possible effects of Brexit which is so funny to me. Genuinely think Sports Interactive put more thought into the ramifications of Brexit than anyone involved in the Leave campaign or the Conservative governments ever have either.
Gone Home. All those little delicious details of the characters’ lives. Bonus points because said details aren’t there just to “flesh out” characters and setting, they’re all related to the themes in the story.
I feel like Tacoma did a great job with this too. I definitely learned the stories of the crew, but also I feel like I understood what capitalist hellscape the universe had come to in that setting.
Okay, let me tell you about Arknights. The story? Not good. But the character bios and the intricate, soap opera-like snarl of relationships formed by them? Great. Playing as a pharmaceutical corporation’s private military to provide a home and paramilitary job to medical researchers and chronic illness patients doesn’t feel very good, but learning that a character hasn’t paid their taxes in years and another one has bad social anxiety is fantastic.
I definitely have others, but I kinda want to just talk more about Black Mesa. The voicework and EAS broadcasts @GoldenJoel mentioned are fantastic bits of worldbuilding, as are a lot of the visual additions in the Earth section of that game. But there’s so much more too. Especially in Surface Tension, where they filled the sky with air battles between jets and those giant Xen manta ray things — it really gave a sense of the larger conflict in play in a way the original game just couldn’t. Questionable Ethics also leans so far into the sense of drifting through laboratories where truly monstrous and misguided shit had recently gone down.
And then the Xen chapters just dial that up to infinity. The initial chapter is full of these short sequences where you work through Antarctica-style research outposts and find headcrab zombies in HEV suits that — when you damage them — play the same audio cues as when you take critical damage and/or are killed. That tiny detail is incredibly eerie because it takes something extremely familiar at that point of the game and twists it around into horror. It succeeds in creating this sense of these scientists’ encroachment into something alien and wild, and the measures that ecosystem is taking to fight back against that invasion. The original game really kinda failed at turning that theme into anything evocative — not just because of technical limitations but because those chapters were short, gimmicky, rushed, and bad, but the Crowbar Collective devs turned it into something that blew me away.
Like at this point I honestly think Black Mesa may be my game of the year, largely on the strength of the Xen chapters. And I almost gave up on it an hour or so in, just to show how impactful that final act was.
All the whiteboard notes in the xen levels are so goooood