All fiction tries to create the illusion of depth. Describing a world in great detail takes too long, and long-form exposition is boring. So authors use tricks.

Part of the the attraction of the [Lord of the Rings] is, I think, due to the glimpses of a large history in the background: an attraction like that of viewing far off an unvisited island, or seeing the towers of a distant city gleaming in a sunlit mist. To go there is to destroy the magic, unless new unattainable vistas are again revealed.

—J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter 257

When Dr. Watson casually drops the name of a Sherlock Holmes case that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle never wrote or published, Conan Doyle is telling us “These characters continue to act when they are out of your view.” We catch only glimpses through the windows as the living world revolves.

The Lord of the Rings treats historical time in a similar way. Although characters are constantly dealing with the repercussions of past actions, history is usually referenced obliquely, and often only half-remembered. We get the impression of a long and internally consistent history without having to sit through a numbing recitation of the details.

You write The Silmarillion so that no one ever has to read it.

Parallax scrolling

Parallax scrolling in Super Mario Bros. 3

Parallax scrolling in Super Mario Bros. 3. Image from an article on parallax scrolling as a web design trend. Which please don’t do.

Video games also use tricks to convey depth, but in games this illusion is sometimes quite literal. Consider parallax scrolling, a trick commonly used to suggest a three-dimensional world where none exists.

Skyboxes

Good storytellers making games have access to techniques that simulate spatial as well as narrative depth. Some mechanics accomplish both effects at once.

Skyboxes allow artists to present a world beyond what the player can directly explore. They are the literal “towers of a distant city” Tolkien describes above.

The cliffs in the background are a static "skybox" image, not 3D geometry. Image courtesy PC Gamer.

A skybox in Dark Souls II. The cliffs in the background are a static image, not 3D geometry. Image via PC Gamer.

Skyboxes great and… maybe great?

Skybox geometry is usually not reachable in game—it’s just window dressing. Dark Souls was notable because it would often offer brief glimpses of glorious vistas which players could later reach, only to see something further and stranger still in the distance.

Sequel Dark Souls II initially seemed to fall short of this high standard, with many more unreachable skyboxes. There were also bizarre geographical inconsistencies between what skyboxes showed (locations in relation to each other; apparent distances) and what players experienced when they actually ran around the world. Some players still malign Dark Souls II‘s “elevator to nowhere,” but others have found an elegant story-based explanation: the player character is an unreliable narrator. The loss of memory and identity are strong themes in the game, and the idea that you are no longer able to accurately interpret your own experiences aligns nicely with them.

World maps

World maps like those used in RPGs also alter the player’s perception of space. NeoGaf user FryHole explains how world maps use symbols to create the illusion of greater expansiveness while limiting the time needed to explore these world-scale spaces:

[B]y reducing your character to an obvious avatar and representing the world in a more abstract form, [the world map] manages to pull off the excellent feat of compressing both distance and time in a way that doesn’t feel cheap… A big city you’ve just left is a tiny icon now, giving scale to the map so each pace is clearly a mile or more, and so, logically, a few minutes of walking is a great distance over a time period of days or weeks. We see all this, and instinctively grasp what is conveyed.

—FryHole, Time Compression and Authorial Distance

As FryHole notes in his post, Jason Schreier has also written about this at Kotaku:

There are always rules to these maps, of course. Your character can never walk over mountains or bodies of water… Terrain is structured not to make geographical sense, but to get you where the story-teller wants you to go.

—Jason Schreier, Give Me More World Maps in My RPGs

Image from Final Fantasy IV courtesy Overworld Map, now part of Tilting at Pixels.

Image from Final Fantasy IV via Overworld Map, now part of Tilting at Pixels.

Lore

Lore describes that subset of plot elements which add depth and texture to a fictional world without directly impacting the narrative. Lore is backstory that is exposed to the player (as opposed to, say, kept as a “story bible” by developers to ensure internal consistency).

Lore can be conveyed to the player in a variety of ways. This taxonomy is not exhaustive:

  • Channel: audio, text, graphical environment
  • Externality to game world: diegetic, non-diegetic
  • Mode(s) of discourse: exposition, narrative, description
Channel Externality to game Mode(s) of Discourse Notes
Books in The Elder Scrolls series Text Diegetic Exposition Leaving books lying around is one way to convey lore to the player. The Elder Scrolls Wiki has a complete list of books organized by game, including full text.
Item descriptions in Dark Souls Text Unknown Exposition Conveyed to the player through the game’s inventory interface. Unclear how or whether this information is conveyed to the player character.
Audio diaries in BioShock Audio Diegetic Exposition, Narration Similar in concept to the books in The Elder Scrolls. Can be narrative if it’s a recording of someone describing what is happening to them. Audio recordings don’t interrupt gameplay in the same way that books do, but they can break immersion when overused (because they’re so implausible). See this post for more on storytelling through audio logs and spoken dialog.
Voiceover in Dear Esther Audio Unknown Exposition, Narration The source and nature of the voiceover are ambiguous. Much of what makes the game interesting comes from the resulting tension between the player character, environment, speaker and story being told.
The Witch in Left 4 Dead Audio Diegetic Description The behavior of the Witch is conveyed to the player as something that is currently happening, which is why I categorize it as description rather than exposition (backstory) or narration (direct storytelling).
The island in Goldeneye 007 Graphical environment Diegetic Description A literal “unvisited island” and “unattainable vista.” I wrote about this a recent post on ruins. I mark this example as diegetic because it appears in the game, but who knows whether the developers meant it to tantalize players to quite the degree it did.
The fate of New Londo in Dark Souls Graphical environment Diegetic Exposition, Description The events that turned “New Londo” into “New Londo Ruins” are conveyed through NPC dialogue and item descriptions (exposition). It wasn’t until I saw the graphic evidence for myself that I comprehended the magnitude and horror of what happened.

Tolkien posits that the most important thing about the illusion of depth is that we never reach the far-off vista. If that’s true, then how games communicate lore matters less than when they stop telling the story. The magic of a fully-realized world comes precisely from the incompleteness of our knowledge. Anything could be over that next hill—anything—but only as long as we never cross the hill.

This runs counter to human nature. We want to show off what we’ve built. We want to inhabit our favorite worlds completely, and see everything there is to see.

Up close, everything is prosaic: the textures are blurry; we smell the horseshit.

Further reading

If you’re interested in reading more about the ways that games, novels, films and other media handle space and time, check out “Online Games: Literature, New Media, and Narrative,” a free course taught through Coursera by Jay Clayton of Vanderbilt University. You can find a transcription of the relevant lecture here. I also strongly recommend checking out Worlds of Wordcraft, an earlier course co-taught at Vanderbilt by Jay and Matthew Jett Hall. The blog/syllabus for the current iteration is here, and you can get recordings of the 2008 iteration here. Listening to these sessions helped me form a deeper understanding of how games could be used in serious ways.