The importance of world-building – in all genres, although particularly science-fiction, fantasy, and horror – can’t be understated. The world of your script isn’t something that should be designed separately from the story, but in tandem with it.
This is because the world of your script is, in itself, a way of telling the story.
This fact was driven home to me recently as I played THE OUTER WORLDS, the latest video-game from Obsidian Entertainment – which despite earnestly trying to create a vivid, interesting world, instead created one that clashed with its story.
THE OUTER WORLDS is a science-fiction game set in a star system that has been colonized in the future – by corporations rather than governments. When the ship the protagonist was travelling on malfunctioned on its way to the colony, it ends up abanoned in space, leaving all its passengers in cryosleep for 90 years.
Right up to the moment when a mad scientist wakes up the protagonist and, with their help, declares war on the corporations to get the materials needed to wake all the other passengers up.
There’s no denying it’s a neat concept. You could readily lift it from a video game script and drop it into film or television format instead, and people would still be intrigued. The potential is fantastic.
But after some time playing the game, I came to realize that the concept no longer excited me the way it had at the beginning. Something was wrong with it, and after a bit of thinking, I realized what it was.
It was contradicting itself. All the brilliant concepts behind the world-building were clashing with concepts behind the story. Instead of working together, they were working against one another.
THE OUTER WORLDS relies heavily, as much of science-fiction does, on trying to inspire a sense of wonder within us. It needs us to want to explore, to be amazed by all the alien planets and creatures and environments you encounter in this farflung star system. That is a key part of its story; it’s not just about saving the other passengers on the abandoned ship, it’s also about the process of exploration.
And that’s where the world-building becomes a problem. THE OUTER WORLDS presents us with a future run by corporations, and unsurprisingly it presents it with the maximum possible cynicism.
The corporations own everything in a total monopoly. They own worlds, settlements, and buildings. They own the food and the water. They even own the people. At one point we find out that they even force their employees to rent their own gravesites!
We’re constantly bombarded by images and messages of this corporate greed via advertisments in the old-school style from the early 1900s, something which is clearly borrowed from the BIOSHOCK series of games, which features similar concepts of corporate greed and practically identical advertisments.
In BIOSHOCK, this is extremely effective as we delved into the nightmare world of Rapture and a bloodsoaked, violent vision of the worst humanity has to offer. But then, BIOSHOCK is horror. It doesn’t want to inspire us to explore, it wants to make us dread what might be around the next corner.
And that’s where THE OUTER WORLDS falls down. Because how do you reconcile a story about exploring its world with an overwhelming cynicism about that world?
The answer, I think, is that you can’t. THE OUTER WORLDS tries to do it by making everything bright and colorful and zany, but ultimately this is just a fresh coat of paint that leaves the underlying issue untouched.
After some time, I found that the conceptual clash wore me down, and about halfway through the game, I started to get bored. I didn’t want to explore any more. There wasn’t enough joy in it, and that meant there wasn’t any real enjoyment.
This is a real lesson in script writing. You can’t simply create a world and then lay your story over the top of it, because the world is an inherent part of the story. If the two aren’t aligned, the whole thing starts to fall apart.
Did I like THE OUTER WORLDS? I’m still not sure. It has many positive qualities, and for a time, at least, I played it eagerly – until it all became too much. But without a world I could fall in love with, it gave me no reason to become invested.
Think your script has a great world that we could get invested in? Submit to the WriteMovies Winter 2020 Screenwriting Contest – we accept scripts for movies, television, and video games, as well as books!