The Illusion of the Small


Tell me, when was the last time you played a game that really drew you into its world? My game experience is probably more limited than yours, but I’ve found that the Elder Scrolls series does an incredible job. Its world has enough complexity to make it feel so real that people never run out of stuff to do, places to explore, and so on, but for most games this is well outside their budget.

Ernest Hemmingway came up with what he called the iceberg theory. In case you haven’t heard if before, it just says that a writer needs to have much more about their world developed than they ever intend to use, kind of like the bulk of the iceberg being invisible under the surface of the water. This is the Elder Scrolls strateiceberggy since chances are you aren’t going to visit every single dungeon in Skyrim.

And this is where we sneaky writers tap our fingers against red velvet armchairs giggling maniacally. We don’t HAVE to do all this; we just have to make the audience THINK we are.

This technique I call the illusion of the small. Basically, it amounts to making a reference to something completely outside the scope of the story and pretending you’re the expert on it. The player (knowing virtually nothing about a game coming in) has to take your word for it. It gives your world the illusion of depth, and perception is really all that matters.

(Disclaimer: I can’t tell if these examples use illusion or actual depth. The point being that it doesn’t matter)

In the Star Wars Knights of the Old Republic series, many characters make references to the battle of Malachor V in the Mandalorian War. The game doesn’t include the battle, and all we really know about it (unless you’re a total Star Wars junkie (meant with all due respect)) is that it was some horrible battle, tons of people died, and so on. However, we don’t NEED to see it because its importance comes from its impact on the characters’ psyches. An illusion of a battle not included in the game gives realism to the world and characterization.

Back to the Elder Scrolls, I have one word: books. I don’t know about the rest of you guys, but I love reading the books to get the backstory, mythology, politics, etc. of the world. Most of these books, however, are very short, nowhere near the length of what they would be if Tamriel were real, but we don’t care. Once again, it’s the illusion of their world. Now, skyrim-bookthere’s no point in denying it, I’m sure there’s some of you who just pick up the book, get a level, and then drop it (I’m guilty of this myself). The act of knowing the book exists and NOT reading it, however, has this same effect. The game designers hint that there’s a piece of the world that your missing, and you don’t care what it is other than knowing that it exists. Once again, illusion.

And honestly, how long do you think it takes a person to write one of those books?

Another big example of this is Aperture Science from the Portal series. At the beginning of the first Portal, you run through these ‘tests,’ and that’s all you see of the facility until later in the game. The ratman lairs, for example, constantly hint that there’s more to Aperture than just these tests, and that “the cake is a lie.” These hints reinforce the mystery in the player’s mind and give them incentive to keep going until the end. In Portal 2, we actually get to see pieces of Aperture, and it’s enormous! However, you never get to go through much of this area, but simply seeing it reinforces that depth.


Now let’s look at something that didn’t work quite as well, The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword. Now this is one of the rare moments I’ll hate on Zelda since I love the series, but I feel their newest platform release failed to capture the idea of an immense world. This comic summarizes my feeling about the game:

So what did that game do wrong? They never mention things outside the scope of the game. Anything they mention, you can do, and due to technical limitations, that isn’t a whole lot in the grand scheme of things.

Now for the warning: this can easily be overdone. If you throw too much at the player at once, they’ll get scared, think they’ll never figure it all out, and some might quit.

So what can we learn here? Little details, small references to pieces of the world you may not have actually built make the world feel more real. Not to mention the possibility that these teasers can later come back as plot elements. Make your illusions strong enough that people don’t care that they’re being tricked.

And just remember: “Pants are an illusion.”



2 thoughts on “The Illusion of the Small

  1. Awesome post, and not just for the Avatar pants reference, but because it’s true. Context is so dang important in a story, and it usually doesn’t matter if the context actually exists. As long as it seems as if it does.

    Right now I’m doing some research into a “Game Master” approach to telling stories. I did a challenge where I gave myself 1 hour of preparation before running a “Lone Wolf” pen-and-paper campaign with my wife. Because I only had an hour, I made a ton of great context and hinted at all these parts of the world and culture that in actually I hadn’t fleshed out yet. But it worked. She felt like she was in an immersive, fully fleshed out world.

    Now when she decided to actually go to one of those “contextual” places, there were problems 🙂 Illusion is everything, at least until they start poking around.

    Great use of examples, pgibby.

    • That would be the challenge: making sure either that players can’t go to the parts you haven’t created or create them as they do. With some things, such as historical events, that’s pretty easy. As long as the player can’t interrogate too thoroughly about the event, there’s no problem. With locations or objects or characters that players may actually have the possibility of encountering, however, that can be trickier. The idea is spot on, though. That context gives a story much more believability.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s