What's the Difference Between a Good Setting and Pointless World-Building?

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This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at https://waypoint.vice.com/en_us/article/kzpqdm/whats-the-difference-between-a-good-setting-and-pointless-world-building

So there’s this comic book, King City by Brandon Graham, that I think about a lot. And I don’t think it’s very good actually. But I don’t know. Maybe it’s great? I pick it up and flip through it like once a month. I’ve read the collection cover to cover twice, maybe three times now, and I don’t actually know what’s happening in the story most of the time. There is a great deal of world building, and none of it means much or goes anywhere I feel like. But I keep thinking about it and revisiting it because like… fucking look at this. Look at this shit.

A bunch of images

There is so much stuff on each page of King City, and all of it hints at this vibrant world. I want a whole mini series just telling me about the dudes from Killadelphia. But like I say, I feel like when I actually read the book none of this actually means anything. So ultimately it is a book that I pick up and stare at for a bit every now and then, like it’s a collection of concept art for my favorite RPG that doesn’t exist.


The difference between a good setting and pointless world-building is entirely dependent on how the characters interact with each has to be modified based on with the rules introduced by the high concept to explore themes in a novel way. Conversely, if the story is entirely made up of the characters just procedurally figuring out the puzzle box introduced by The Rules, it makes me wonder why I should care.

Anime is full of great (and terrible) examples high concept fiction. Death Note introduces a pretty dumb concept (a book that gives you the power to kill by writing someones name and cause of death) and uses that as a jumping off place for a silly but, none the less, tense and fun game of cat an mouse between its 3 main (human) characters. I think this is also why things like The Walking Dead are so popular. It’s a show with a pretty played out concept but it is enough to disrupt expectations and preconceptions of what would otherwise be just a soap opera between the characters.

A show that’s airing in the present winter anime season, Kokkoku, is really toeing the line between a high concept spurring drama between relatable characters and people just sitting around talking about The Rules. It isn’t a bad show (however, CW for sex assault danger) but it’s an example of a show that’s maybe too interested in describing their clever system rather than fleshing out the people in the story.

It is different in games, however. Since the outcome of a particular instance of play isn’t predetermined (more or less), you can more heavily lean on just pure high concept problem solving to carry a session. This kind of problem solving and exploration is heightened in multiplayer (and especially pvp games). I think that’s why PUBG is so popular (and so maddening); the possibility space of the concepts of PUBG are so vast and interlinked with the actions of the other players that it’s impossible for the game to be entirely “known”, yet the frame of story being told by a session is immediately understandable (especially in a post Hunger Games world).

I literally just bought The City and the City so thank you for explaining the general vibe. It’s helping me settle in more easily as I was unsure exactly what they were meaning by Breach and when the main detective spots a woman across the street and immediately panics.


I love King City, and it’s entirely possible that I agree with you about the story not feeling like it goes anywhere (it’s been a few years since I read it) but I don’t think I care, because I’m so head over heels for its weird, dense, pun-obsessed city.

King City is, to my mind, the comic book equivalent of a “hangout movie” - a story that’s less about the story and more about the people in it and the places they occupy, in life, in space, in time. It doesn’t strike me as pointless worldbuilding, because the worldbuilding is evocative enough that it lives in my head, larger and more detailed and more intricate than any of the glimpses we get of it on the page.

I’ve only read the first couple of trade paperbacks, but the same seems true, to some degree, for Prophet, the space barbarian comic series/Rob Liefeld reboot Graham headed up with Image from 2012-2014. Its universe is rich with ideas and potential, and I know only a fraction of it will ever be explored in the story, but I’m ok with that because the slice of it we get to see is brain fuel enough.


I actually just finished China Miéville’s The Scar, and came away thinking it did a great job of building a fantastical world and story in that world, but a less good job of keeping the main characters engaging and involved in that story. A lot of the book was taken up with the characters being affected by the larger powers in play and not being able to affect them in turn. On the other hand, I’ve also read Railsea, Kraken, and Perdito Street Station (the precursor to The Scar), and I remember those being more engaging. It definitely seems like creating and describing interesting worlds is his strength as a writer, but his ability to make me care about the people in those worlds varies.

The comic Lazarus is my favorite example of world building that never makes you care more about the world than the characters but still encourages you to learn as much about the world as possible.
On of the crazy things about the series is that in the second arc I felt like the story was going in the wrong direction in a way. I wanted more about the world, not some new family! But the storytelling by the whole creative team pushes you into this place where now all you want is three series all built around different parts of this hellish world.
Then, of course, we have the back matter and the sourcebooks and the story gets into more worldbuilding later, but it isn’t the focus.
It’s a horrible story told in a beautiful way.

One of my all time favourite fictional settings is Acadamy City from the A Certain Magical Index/A Certain Scientific Railgun series(Moreso the latter, shared universe thing). In brief, it’s basically “Xavier’s School For The Gifted But It’s An Entire City”. In less Brief, it’s a city where roughly 80% of it’s residents are students attending various high schools and universities, that’s also vastly more technologically advanced than the rest of the world because of the sheer number of scientific institutes set up there. Railgun’s well worth watching, but apparantly I’m way too tired to actually articulate why, right now? You’ll have to trust me I guess. I’m off to bed.

Miéville is freakishly skilled at using outlandish world building to good effect.

The City and The City, Perdido Street Station, and Kraken all showcase his talent, and I think the common thread among those three really outlines what’s essential to his take on world building that’s narratively useful.

All three of those novels have a core conceit that’s essential to the plot that you’d call world building, but more than that they’re all set by and large in the context of a built environment: they happen in cities. Beszel and Ul Qoma, New Corbazon, and the unseen margins of London respectively.

Cities are quite literally “built worlds,” and people who enjoy them can tell you about the energy, and the sense of history submerged just under the surface of any given space. They’re both lived in, and vibrant and alive.While the layout of a city may seem accidental, it’s actually an aggregate of many different intentions, and that means earlier stories. And I think the best world building tries to establish that same sense for people who will interact with the media.

A good setting establishes a sense of place, and provides a story with context. I think that this is because any real-world story will have these things as well. Where you are when a story happens, usually matters. And why that location matters is the result of a whole other set of narratives. For a fourth Miéville example, look at October, his history of the Russian Revolution. Palaces, train stations, bridges, and apartments are all both set dressing, and influential aspects of the setting.

However, it’s important for that world building to weigh only as much as is needed to improve a scene or impart information. If it gets in the way of the plot, or does not tell a sufficiently interesting story on its own, it needs trimming.


Dunno about anyone else, but I’m more curious about what people think are popular examples of the latter: pointless world-building. The things that come to mind off the top of my head are the faux-high concept explainy bits of John Wick 2 and any time the meta-narrative of Assassin’s Creed gets (undeserved) air time. Does anyone have other examples of the bullshit insufferable kind of worldbuilding?

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I agree with almost everything you are saying but I’m not quite sure where all of the insane incidental details he piles on fit within your last paragraph.

Part of what really floored me about all his Bas Lag books is just how many wild ideas he brings up that do anything but streamline the story. Perdido Street Station seems like a about 75% tangent when I look back on the main narrative thread amidst all the other events. It’s almost like that old Simpsons joke about Mr. Burns having all diseases at once, he crams so much worldbuilding into each book that instead of overpowering the story it lends history or complications to everything.

Check out the Godzilla movie that recently got added to Netflix. 90% exposition of the world and technology, 5% characterization, 5% action.


And of that 5% characterization I’d say 4% were bad.


To clarify, does this mean 96% of characterization was good, or 80% was bad?

I think it’s that 1% of the characterization was good. Which I’d agree with.

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Two comic book series that immediately come to mind when thinking about worldbuilding are The Wicked + The Divine and Monstress. The first time through what’s out of both of these series it’s a slog of characters, places, and rules. However, once you get them down, they’re both amazing series. I would say Monstress can get to be too much sometimes, but the art really keeps me engaged even with the paragraph-long word bubbles.

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Whenever I try to world-build in my own fiction, I find myself too paralyzed by possibility and too excited about it. I get all these ideas burbling up, and then they all get gridlocked before they get on paper like ball bearings in a funnel. I’ve developed a weird kind of respect for good world-building because of this.

Provided the 1% is referring to Godzilla stomping around and breathing atomic fire at the shitty, awful human characters (and maybe the one alien dude who is Horny For Godzilla, but I more found that funny than particularly good), then yes this is correct.


Monstrous looks and feels like a dream you’ve just remembered. I don’t know how or why, but the aesthetic has always felt to me (and a friend) like it’s always existed even though I’ve never known another book that quite like it.

I’m not sure I totally agree with you on Wicked and the Divine. I love it, but I think it’s more of a “What if?” than a world, if that makes sense…? It’s an exploration of a facet of life rather than the whole jewel.

It’s surprisingly hard to come up with examples–maybe those that do it poorly tend to be boring?

I’ll always be annoyed at how a good 1/3 of the third Eragon book was spent on the most interminable dwarf politics. But this was a series with a lot of issues as it went on.
Most of the other examples I can think of are middling shonen and comic book series. For some reason, it’s really easy to tell when a comic book world just feels empty.

Here’s a potentially controversial one: BBC Sherlock. Beautiful series, fun acting, but his wins felt more like luck rather than intelligence. There’s a fine line between “intriguing machinations” and “bullshit pulled out of a hat”, and the later seasons tended towards the second more than they should have, I think.