J.R.R Tolkien, the author of The Hobbit (1937) and The Lord of the Rings (1954-1955) and creator of the Middle Earth, wrote extensively on his ideas regarding worldbuilding as a pursuit connected to but ultimately independent from fiction writing. Creating terminology that reflects his fervent Catholicism, he spoke of subcreation (the act of creating new worlds from within an already existing Creation), secondary worlds (imaginary universes built within our own, primary universe) and secondary belief (the belief that whatever happens inside a secondary, subcreated world is true for that world). Though all these terms can be legitimately criticised — such as subcreation presupposing a Creation which, in its turn, presupposes a Creator and thus overloads worldbuilding with religious connotations — I am particularly interested in the idea of secondary belief.
According to Mark J. P. Wolf in Building Imaginary Worlds, Tolkien created this term in opposition to what British poet and literary critic Samuel Taylor Coleridge called “a willing suspension of disbelief,” believing that, if an imaginary world was properly crafted, a reader would never even consider questioning the coherence or solidity of its internal logic: disbelief would never be triggered and thus there would be no need to suspend it in the first place. Secondary belief would, thus, be to a large extent similar to our own beliefs in the rules of the world we inhabit, but circumscribed to an imaginary, secondary world. It follows that Tolkien saw that a willing suspension of disbelief already meant at least a partial failure in the crafting of the imaginary universe, in the sense that whoever is experiencing it should not be in the situation where their disbelief is aroused. The worldbuilder’s goal is, then, sort of a conceptual trompe l’oeil in which the ultimate goal is to create an illusion so perfect that the imaginary world feels as solid as our known reality.
Though Tolkien and Coleridge spoke of universes that were to be experienced through written fiction, their discussions, as highlighted by Wolf, are readily applicable to other media such as film and videogames. No matter the medium, the end goal of Tolkien’s approach remains the same: to create worlds whose existence and rules are frictionlessly accepted by whoever is experiencing them. That said, videogame worldbuilding does differ from previous media in one very specific but far-reaching point: whilst texts describe a world verbally and a medium like cinema blends visual, verbal and aural elements, videogames must also simulate it to some extent. In other words, videogame worlds must not only create the sights and sounds of a reality, they must also create its inherent logic. This is necessitated by the fact that, although one can question whether any medium can be truly said to be consumed passively, videogames mandate that the world will meaningfully respond to player input — when a button is pressed, an army might be deployed or a character might jump and the world in which these things happen must respond in some manner. Perhaps due to this, immersive worlds that are propped up as increasingly indistinguishable from reality are one of the main points highlighted by marketing campaigns for many mainstream games, as most ads since the advent of the Sony Playstation show when emphasising polygon counts and ray-tracing capabilities as indicators of immersive worlds. Hyperbolic sales pitches notwithstanding, however, such immersiveness — such solid secondary belief — is as hard to achieve in one medium as it is in another.
One particular hurdle that videogames face is instructing the player on how to actually play. This is often handled via diegetic tutorials in which characters will refer to non-diegetic elements and actions, such as the village elder or a trusty friend urging the player character to press a button to interact with objects within the game. If on one hand it is easy to classify these moments as necessary if perhaps inelegant immersion-breaking evils that help new players get their bearings around the simulation they are partaking in, on the other I find myself more and more of the opinion that these are, in a certain manner, the quintessential element of videogame writing, embodying many of its qualities in their purest state. And part of that relates precisely to the fact they explicitly require ditching any pretence of secondary belief and embracing disbelief: the player must choose to ignore the fact that a character inside the game is referring to things that make no sense whatsoever inside the laws of their own world. There are other, subtler ways in which a game might struggle with sustaining secondary belief, however.
Serial Cleaner (2017), by Draw Distance (previously known as iFun4All), is a stealth game in which the player must enter a murder scene after the fact, remove evidence, clean-up the blood with a hoover and, finally, pick up the corpses before either getting rid of them in a fairly creative manner (a piranha fish tank, a meat grinder) or, more commonly, storing the cadavers in the trunk of the cleaner’s hearse. This is invariably done when the police has already arrived, forcing the player to avoid being spotted at all costs since being caught by a cop immediately resets the whole mission. The roughly 20 contracts that must be fulfilled to end the game follow a minimal storyline that sees the cleaner sinking in gambling debt and having to accept assignments not only from his usual “good” clients like the mafia, but also from a person who he eventually discovers is trying to protect a serial killer. The end of the game features the cleaner being stabbed in live television, after which event he somehow evades any charges and is free to move to another city and change his life (and, presumably, his line of work).
Serial Cleaner is, as the above paragraph might have hinted, not a game that takes itself particularly seriously. By most standards the cleaner is terrible at his job: one would expect the murder scene to be clean before the cops have arrived and catalogued the evidence. Also, it’s nothing short of absurd that all policemen seem to have no concept of object permanence and stop pursuing the cleaner the moment he hides inside a bush or closet, even when he did so right in front of them. These same policemen are likewise very nonchalant about the disappearance of corpses and evidence, spending a few confused seconds looking around themselves before quickly returning to their usual patrol route, as if crucial elements of a criminal investigation did not go missing. It is difficult to overstate how immersion-breaking all of these details are, especially when taking in consideration our tendency to assume that, except where explicitly stated, a fictional world follows the same rules as ours — we expect a pursuer not to completely lose track of our whereabouts the moment we close a door and thus expect the cops in Serial Cleaner to catch us when we enter a wardrobe in front of them. The more we interact with Serial Cleaner‘s world, the more it shocks us with how unrealistic it is. Or, rather, the more clearly it asks us to suspend our disbelief, as if saying “this world makes no sense, but bear with us.”
My proposal here is to see suspension of disbelief not as a flaw in the world creator’s part, but as an integral element of the imaginary universe — and an element that is as legitimate as any other. The fact cops have no concept of object permanence is at least to some extent a detail necessitated by the mechanics of the game but which, narratively, can and perhaps should be celebrated. Cognitively-challenged policemen are an element of Serial Cleaner‘s world. Can this world be extended almost indefinitely into a trans-autorial multimedia franchise before it collapses under the weight of its own inconsistencies? Probably not. Is this a believable world? Hardly. But does it matter that we actually believe in it? Is even our so-called primary world believable?
The fact is that videogames are, above all, games. They are not and should not be perfect simulations of reality — instead, they simulate imaginary realities with their own logic that is both necessitated by technological constraints and shaped by the goals of the game designers. Whenever this logic clashes against the narrative a game might be trying construct, one legitimate option is to hide it, to use techniques that smooth out the discrepancy with what we would expect in our reality. Another, which is what we see in Serial Cleaner, is precisely the opposite: to show that incongruence without any attempt to conceal it. A book asks no excuses for its limitation in conveying meaning mostly via text (except, perhaps, as a rhetorical device); a modern painting is not ashamed of not portraying reality perfectly — indeed, the moment photography became widespread, painting was set free from the obligation of representing reality as faithfully as possible and to explore its own specificity in a wild and rich manner.
Likewise, imaginary worlds are created, at least to some extent, precisely because they are not the world in which we live. Fictional worlds that are manufactured so their workings feel natural and immersion is completely frictionless are of course legitimate, but surely do not hold a monopoly in this type of legitimacy. Nor are they necessarily the most interesting: encumbered by the constant effort towards the perfect craftsmanship required by enforcing completeness, immersiveness and consistency, these worlds cannot always reach the same places as frail, inconsistent, collapsing worlds that might fall apart two days later.
In The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas, Ursula K. Le Guin speaks about a city whose unbounded happiness depends on the cruel torture of a miserable child. There is no answer as to why it is so; it is simply a stated fact, transparent to all those who live in the city. There is nothing in the whole piece that makes even the most feeble attempt at giving the reader a reason to believe in it — and is undeniably more intriguing because of that. Omelas begs no belief, but offers a sublime world to those who suspend their disbelief.
Serial Cleaner is hardly a work as deep and brilliant as Omelas, nor it ever promises to be anything besides a somewhat fun game with nice illustrations. Yet, its flimsy, frail and frankly unbelievable world would have lost something of its verve without cognitively-challenged cops and questionable professional practices.
- Dick, P. K. (1995). How to Build a Universe That Doesn’t Fall Apart Two Days Later. In L. Sutin (Ed.), The Shifting Realities of Philip K. Dick: Selected Literary and Philosophical Writings. Vintage Books. https://urbigenous.net/library/how_to_build.html
- Wolf, M. J. P. (2014). Building Imaginary Worlds: The Theory and History of Subcreation. Routledge.
- Le Guin, U. K. (1993). The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas. Creative Education.