After seeing an interesting Youtube video about the concept of hard and soft worldbuilding in cinema, I began thinking about it in a game context and I wanted to write a few words about how it can be applied to worldbuilding for games. This article is based on the video and reflects my own thoughts on the subject. My own brief research determined that there is no framework or set of rules for this concept.
In hard worldbuilding the creators often explain everything from how the universe works to technology and culture, to justify the world, the story and the gameplay, so the player knows what to expect. They use specific rules, consistency, transparency, details and realism to create the immersion. Everything needs to make sense within the logic of the world.
Sometimes the creators dig themselves into a hole when trying to explain the background story. You see this when a sci-fi story might get drawn out because of the need to explain every detail for the world to make sense. That can translate into way too long intro-sequences, cinematics or tutorials.
Good game design can build the world understanding into the game flow, by letting everything slowly unfold and it can become a great feature and help immerse the players as they are eager to learn more. As long as the unfolding of events follows the logic of the world, there’s no problem, but the more content the creators add, the more they must keep track of to make sure it all fits together.
An example of a game with hard worldbuilding is Red Dead Redemption by Rockstar Games. It’s full-on realism based on the cowboy tropes we know and love, so even though the gameplay is interesting, you are never surprised by the actions you do or how the world looks and feels. You can find a number of side-activities to do, all realistic and fitting within a cowboy story
In soft worldbuilding the creators explain only enough to carry the story, and then let the players fill in the blanks, there is no need to justify anything. The immersion comes from the unknown, flexible rules, mystery, imaginative involvement, magic and otherworldliness. Much of the world building comes from the players themselves. This leaves room for possibility, the creators can do whatever they want without explaining it.
Soft world building can be better for character development as the creators can shape the whole world to fit the viewpoint of the main character who drives the story. The world can be a representation of the protagonist’s world view, state of mind or feelings. This method can be good for creating a closed narrative, which then in turn can make it harder to continue the story later in a second game.
An example of a game with soft worldbuilding is Control by Remedy Entertainment. The story and the rules are somewhat abstract and the creators were free to do whatever they wanted in the game – a possessed fridge, why not? The player never knows what to expect and will be playing in various dimensions and with magical powers that contrast the brutalist office building. The player never gets a clear explanation of what is going on in the world and how it works, but doesn’t need it to play on.
In general hard and soft worldbuilding should not be viewed as the only two options, but more like the two extremes on a spectrum. The “hard” approach is good at giving the players tools to manipulate the world, creating systemic games and bigger worlds. The “soft” approach is good at telling a story, presenting the world as a metaphor, and creating small intimate worlds that don’t need explaining.
If you are in the process of building your own game world, consider if you are leaning more to one side or the other and what that can mean for your game and your development process. You might be spending too much time considering details, which does not matter to the player, if the world is generally “soft”. Or you might think players will fill in the blanks in your “hard” world, and then later find out through testing they don’t know what’s going on.