Let me set the scene. You are about to play a new game and when your character gets dropped into the game world, you look around that world for the first time. Does it feel real? If so, what about the world around you makes it seem like the other characters in the background are going about their lives? Is there a history behind all of the people and places that you encounter? Is each new location unique in some way?
While there are lots of games that take place in the realm of our own world, this is a series about game lore. A game that creates its own lore typically does so to establish a fantasy setting that differs from our own, or modifies our own world in some way. In creating any imaginary setting, the first thing the creator probably wants to think about is exactly who lives there. I would argue that you learn the most about a world from the people who live in it. After all, culture is what makes us distinct. As such, developing cultures and in game races is a vital aspect of world-building. It is the tool within the game that will teach players about the world, history, struggles, and morality. A vast and varied landscape makes for an exciting game environment, but it’s also a great framework for determining and developing the races and cultures that inhabit it.
Based on the landscape, how do these people live? The area might be a parsley populated with farms, or it could be a budding metropolis of merchants. Maybe the land is rough and not suitable for extended habitation, and they need to move with their food supply. Do they need to be well adapted to the hot or cold? Perhaps they live by the sea, and are adept at fishing and sailing. From there, the cracks are filled in. This is where imagination is just as important as logical framework. It’s good to fully develop this aspect of the world, as so much in game nuance comes from it. Detail here is key. Culture is made up of many part, and the more a world selves into those parts, the better. What they look like might be important for how they’ve biologically adapted to their homes, but what do they eat, who do they worship, and what do they do for fun? Give them music and art, give them jobs and services, and give them traditions. The experience of each character will be based, at least partially, on what their culture dictates as the “way things are”.
For example, the Altmer in the Elder Scrolls games highly value intelligence and magical prowess. They see themselves as a superior race because they are one of the oldest. As such, much of their culture is based on their pride and arrogance. This is reflected in the game world through the attitudes and actions of individual characters. An immersive game world is important, particularly in role playing games. You want to feel like your character is actually a part of the world, and by extension you are as well. Any story needs a setting, and it also needs characters. Culture plays into both of those aspects.
So now that we understand why establishing culture is important for world building, what do culture and race specifically add to video games? Games with worlds people feel excited about are the ones that will really stick with the players. I’m excited about Skyrim, so much so that I find myself thinking about the world even when I haven’t played it in weeks. Both the people and places give us the ability to insert ourselves into the games we play, which for many of us is a big reason why we want to play in the first place. Culture gives us a way to connect with the characters, even if it’s just nameless faces in the background. If we feel connected, there is an emotional investment that transcends just playing the game and moves into the real world.
Even more enjoyable games are the ones where the player is given opportunities to connect their character to the culture. This can be through decisions, factions, or coming up with a past; but is often achieved through in-game race. Fantasy worlds often have a variety of mythical races to choose from, including the typical elves and dwarves. In worldbuilding, it is often easy to assign a totally different race to a culture or an area in order to differentiate one from another. Many have become tropes within the fantasy world, as they are a formula many aren’t willing to meddle with. Dwarves are miners and live underground. Elves live in trees. It’s a cookie-cutter way to add culture and connect the characters to their world. What it does is give distinction and framework. Within the game, elves and dwarves will be expected to live in and interact with the world from different cultural perspectives. A player character who is an elf will have a different experience than a dwarf, and so on. Games that actually show those connections really go above and beyond to make an immersive experience.
Many games create original races and cultures (or ones that are modified from what exists in the real world). There are a few that have done particularly well in building not just a world that seems real and diverse, but a world that effectively tells difficult stories through those races and cultures. One example I want to highlight is Dragon Age. Firstly, for the way the game allows the choice of character race to impact the interactions of the player and those around them. NPCs will ask the payer questions about their past, or their people, and the player is given a chance to choose how they fit in with their own culture. Those cultural and racial differences also come out more subtly. A dalish elf is treated differently and experiences aspects of the game much differently than a human character. Similarly, a Qunari Inquisitor in Dragon Age Inquisition often experiences prejudices and downright racist attitudes from many of the characters; but also interacts with those willing and interested to learn more about their people. The stories told through these races and cultures are also handled well to some degree. The stories of the city elves and the way they are mistreated paint a very heartbreaking picture that is a relatable struggle for many in the real world. While the city elves suffer, the Dalish elves fight to preserve their traditions. Games often use the way characters of certain cultures and races act, or treat one another, to make us think. For example, in the Witcher universe, there are a number of races that are shown to be incredibly intelligent, but are treated in the game as nothing more than monsters or beasts. Interestingly enough, the player character Geralt is also often thought of as a monster, and treated poorly by many of the other character within the game world. This is not only a reflection of Geralt’s own struggles, but a picture of the cultural attitude of those around him who are unwilling to accept anyone that is different.
However, there are also many games that have fallen a bit short. It’s too easy with race and culture to build societies based on our own prejudices, or to copy too closely and fall into a pattern of stereotypes. This sadly has become so typical in fantasy that it is built into the traditions of the genre at this point. The Redguards in Skyrim are one glaring example of this. As the darkest skinned human race in the game, one of their racial traits is having lower intelligence. The Khajit are another that seem to rely on insulting stereotypes, as they are a travelling merchant people who are essentially portrayed as thieves. The biggest problem of all when it comes to game race is often the lack of actual racial diversity. I want to be able to play a game and connect with the characters and the worlds. I enjoy playing as elves, dwarves, orcs etc, but I also have the privilege of picking up a game and it being highly likely I will find a character race that looks like me. That can’t be said for everyone, and that’s a problem. Even in games where we can be aliens, mythical creatures, or monsters, we should also be able to find ourselves, and not just the stereotypical versions. Imagination is our only limit when it comes to world building, so let’s imagine a world that includes all of us.
Games give us the opportunity to live in other worlds, and see things from a different perspective. Good worldbuilding makes those perspectives interesting, immersive, and developed enough that we connect to the game in a meaningful way. When done well, culture and race can help a game tell an impactful story we keep coming back to. Finally, as we participate in and experience these stories, we need to remember that everyone deserves to be a part of them.