Which Game Has Your Favorite Incidental/World-Building Writing?


#1

So I’ve been playing Octopath Traveler a bunch since it released last week, and while overall my feelings line up with Austin’s description on Monday’s Waypoint Radio, I’ve noticed one thing I haven’t seen discussed anywhere else yet.

In Octopath Traveler, every character has a Path Action, or a unique way to interact with NPCs. Two of your eight party members, Cyrus and Alfyn, can use their Path Actions (Scrutinize and Inquire, respectively) to gather information and backstory from NPCs to use in solving quests. Sometimes this also unlocks certain perks — a shop might start selling new gear, or you might get a discount on the town inn, or find the location of a hidden item.

But even if using Scrutinize/Inquire on an NPC doesn’t result in a quest flag or some other benefit, you still learn the character’s age, their name or other identifying description (ex: Scholarly Gentleman, Alluring Maiden, etc.), and a two- to four-sentence backstory on who they are and what they’re doing in the town or in life.

It’s not much, but I’ve found myself enjoying these little vignettes way more than the actual story threads of the eight party members. One favorite example involves a woman who still clings to a harpoon belonging to her dead husband…which you can then steal, if you have the thief Therion with you (and if you’re a complete bastard). Another, which I won’t spoil, involves a trio of guard dogs in Bolderfall.

JRPGs, especially of the 8- and 16-bit eras, often have a certain dissonance due to the juxtaposition of their epic, sprawling worlds and what seems like about 100 people total living in those worlds. And the total population in Octopath Traveler isn’t any different. But at least it seems a little more fleshed out, because every person has motivation and backstory, however brief and inconsequential it may be. And that has kept me going, even when the main story and lack of character interaction in the party bums me out.

What are some other examples of games with good written world-building — maybe even to the point that it outshines the main plot? I know some immersive sims do this well (I loved reading all the crew emails in Prey) and some strategy games like Stellaris or Crusader Kings II have interesting writing in their event flags. I’m all about this kind of thing right now, so I’d love to find more.


#2

I’ll second everything in here. I love all the details, and adding my own head canon to the characters and their interactions. I’ve never been one to do that, but really enjoy it here.


#3

I actually came here this morning planning to post in the Octopath thread that I found some of the “scrutinize/inquire” stories way more compelling than those of the main characters! :joy: If you can make the incidental NPCs stories so interesting, how did you not do the same for the folks we have to spend 50 hours with!

Another game that I think did this recently is Vampyr. You have all of these NPCs who are in no way significant to the main plot, but you can nonetheless learn their secrets and their motivations, etc. I think there are some stories there to uncover (particularly in the relationships between these NPCs) that are considerably more interesting than the main plot that ties everything together.


#4

Massive Chalice had absolutely fantastic world-building in the little audio snippets between missions and events. I don’t mean this in the sense that MC actually has a deep fascinating lore, but in the sense that they do a great job of evoking stories in one-off, dozen-word lines of banter.


#5

This all would have to go to Yasumi Matsuno games for me. Things like Final Fantasy Tactics, Vagrant Story, Tactics Ogre, and Final Fantasy XII. FFT has so much going in the background that the main campaign skips over Queen Louveria Atkascha, who is one of the key people who start the War of the Lions that you’re fighting in the game. You never meet her but she’s a probably a top 5 mover and shaker, who just disappears suddenly from the story. It’s all perfect detail porn for a fan of medieval European history.

FFXII has something like 100 thousand words of background details in the bestiary. You can discover things like how your summons are only half of a bigger pantheon of deities. You also can’t be sure how true any of what you’re reading is, since the main religion in FFXII is proven to be a sham and the real gods are evil light beings.


#6

Confession: I’ve played Final Fantasy games since the NES, but never played Tactics. I even own it on iOS! Need to make time for it.

Good call on FF XII for sure.


#7

Just gonna throw that Demon’s / Dark Souls 1 and Bloodborne mention in here if you don’t mind.
There’s plenty others but those are always ones that spring to mind, because almost everything is world building through characters and flavour text in those games, and they pull it off quite evocatively.

Other than that, I think Night in the Woods gives a lot of character to Possum Springs through in-passing dialogue, fliers and background art.
Destiny also does a good job of peppering the world with bits of details that hint at some bits of lore, they do a good job of making a space feel lived in, and you can scan some things to get some lore beyond the Grimoire stuff (which has some good stuff in it too).
Not to mention Nier: Automata, even though a lot of those environments are a bit too drab and flat to feel interesting to explore as a gameplay thing, it’s still a well realised setting that warrants further curiosity, which a lot of the side stories explore further, lots of good stuff in there besides the main story path.

I’m sure there are way more than I’m just not thinking of right now.


#8

Into the Breach is a recent favorite. The brief dialogue snippets from the environment when your pilots land (“They’re here!”, “What was that?”), and the pilots themselves (in response to reversing time one move: “Is that safe?”, or landing for the first mission: “I wonder if my brother is alive in this timeline…”) do a lot of heavy lifting about what the citizens and these pilots are going through. They largely impart a tone of uncertainty, bordering on despair, which is both a little unusual for sci-fi games (which tend to peddle in power fantasies) and artificially raises the stakes of an already high-stakes ‘roguelike’ experience. It’s great!


#9

One that immediately comes to mind is the object descriptions in Pikmin 2, which are framed as Olimar and Co. attempting to understand the consumer refuse of a long-dead alien civilization (which is basically Earth) and trying to figure out how they can use them in their attempt to save their failing company. There’s the Olimar’s Journal bit, then a “Sales Pitch” from the president of the company. The Ship’s AI assigns each object a name based on analysis like “insect Condo” for an apple, or “Vorpal Platter” for an aluminum can lid. It’s really clever and charming stuff and some of my favorite writing in a Nintendo game.


#10

So I’m not sure if this is exactly what you mean, but I know probably no-one else will mention it if I don’t. I really loved the writing and world-building of last year’s Heat Signature. All four of the factions have these really neat backstories. Sovereign, the most straight-forward one, is just a massive corporation that owns dozens of planets (but a character gives you a really fascinating theory about it’s methodology). The Glitchers are a faction of scavengers that literally just teleport everywhere they can (and you learn about the fucked-up nature of teleportation). Offworld Security refuses to kill anyone ever, never ever in a million years (but torture is totally okay). And then Foundry is a faction of miners and engineers that were abandoned by Sovereign and just kept building as they drifted through space.

The dialogue and characters this information is shown through were actually really entertaining and clever, and the kind of world Suspicious Developments made was really engaging and fun to explore. Honestly, one of my biggest disappointments in Heat Signature was that there wasn’t more of it!


#11

Gonna be thinking about this for literal hours, I’ll come back to it.


#12

The Shadowlands BBS in Shadowrun Dragonfall/Hong Kong. It’s just a delight.

Also, FF9 with the ATE system and the constant shifting of perspective between party members did probably the best job of making the world seem populated, and your party feel like just some people living in that world and not super special protagonists, out of anything I can think of off the top of my head.


#13

I’ll say the one I hate, every time Assassin’s Creed goes really far on atheism to justify it’s precursor species. Let Bayek have his cool Egyptian gods without the dramatic irony of the player knowing it’s just precursor crap, let Ezio grappel how he wants to deal his own Catholicism in this time of corruption instead of just having the out of instantly believing that every trace of god was in fact precursors.

Or maybe I’m missing what this thread is supposed to be about.

Ish’s whole saga from The Last of Us was pretty good. Oh, and I’m pretty sure the brilliantly written Cultist Simulator is more incidental/deliberately obtuse world building than not.


#14

My recent replay of Technobabylon has cemented my opinion that it has some of the best world building ever. It rarely gives an info dump, instead having characters discuss sci-fi concepts with grounded terms the average player can recognize from real world sciences. It jumps a few decades in the future and approaches things like we’re building on what we currently have, so every new concept has a familiar base we can use to form our own context.

Even the slang is better thought out than in other sci-fi and cyberpunk stories, like people using “nuke” like the f-bomb gives you an early hint about the use of nuclear warfare in the world at large.


#15

While I am not the biggest VA-11 HALL-A fan, the game is pretty much entirely world building. It was pretty cool playing a nobody in a cyberpunk world, and the perspective it provides felt truly novel. It allows the writers to build out the world in such a way that simply isn’t possible if the player character carries a gun. Plus, it helps that the characters you come across are so very interesting.


#16

i know I literally never shut up about DrakenNier, but those games have the best worldbuilding both because it’s usually really weird fairytales and word-of-mouth legend about people dying in horrible ways and also because all of it is canon, even the stuff that contradicts other stuff, because that franchise just doesn’t care.

Also Final Fantasy 14 does a good job of making you actually care about that world (even if they keep forgetting about duskwights)


#17

This sounds amazing! I’ve never played a Pikmin game, but this is exactly the kind of stuff I was hoping for.


#18

Morrowind for sure. Every Elder Scrolls game places importance on books to some degree (well I’ve never played Arena, Daggerfall, Redguard, or Battlespire; a cursory search tells me they are present at least). But this importance was really codified in Morrowind.

They span a decent range of genres: from cookbooks, to multi-part romance novels, to dry and dusty lore tomes about almost every aspect of the backstory of Nirn (the world of the Elder Scrolls series). There are multiple libraries, including one that is only open during certain times of the in-game day/night cycle. And although many merchants sell them there is also a rare book vendor, named Jobasha, that a few quests have you interact with. His cramped and crammed store is so richly evocative of odds and ends botiques that it has been enshrined in my brain forever.


#19

I mean, I definitely thought of all the books in the Elder Scrolls games, and I’ve always appreciated that that stuff is there, but there’s so much of it that it gets overwhelming. And I’m not sure how much of it is actually “good,” you know? (Although maybe that’s a point in its favor; it gives a world a certain verisimilitude when not every book is a riveting read.) Maybe it was better in Morrowind (which I never played) than in Oblivion or Skyrim.

I love the idea of doing quests for a book-seller, though. That sounds like my jam! (And it’s why I picked Cyrus first in Octopath.)


#20

Hey, hi, Destiny has an amazing collection of short fiction that explores the world it’s in through hundreds of view points and ideas. I’m a staunch defender of the Grimoire (an out of game library of the fiction you collect through achievements and finding collectibles), and I do think that Destiny 2 has taken a step back by only tying pieces of lore to items, Bungie’s creative team consistently hits emotional moments, interesting ideas, and fun action in almost anything they do.

I think the biggest reason I like this type of storytelling is that it’s always a small story. It’s not just a piece of an encyclopedia, like in Dark Souls. Sometimes it’s Lord Shaxx, the big mean Titan who oversees the PvP portion of the game, teaching children how to win at dodgeball.