So I recently got a Nintendo Switch, and with it the flagship release game The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. I’ve been playing it a lot lately, but I haven’t really been doing much of the main quest. Or even too many of the side quests, for that matter. Mostly what I’ve been doing is plain exploring– unlocking shrines, activating towers, expanding the map. Breath of the Wild has one of the most free open worlds of the franchise since the original, and one of the largest maps of any game in any franchise. The map doesn’t feel empty, though, which can be a problem with an open world like that. Part of that is due to the sheer amount of stuff in the world, beyond the waypoints and major locations. All of this “extra” stuff that only seems to exist just to exist is a part of a necessary element of fiction and particularly speculative fiction called worldbuilding.
Worldbuilding exists in all kinds of fiction, not just speculative (Sci-Fi and Fantasy) fiction. Because all fiction is made up, the writer has to create a world where this fiction would make sense. Some of the greatest worldbuilders include Jane Austen and Charles Dickens– not because they were creating worlds whole-cloth, but because they captured the worlds that already existed and that they lived in like a time capsule. Some fiction even has that as its goal. Victor Hugo’s Notre-Dame du Paris, better known in the Anglophone world as The Hunchback of Notre Dame, was originally written to advocate for the restoration and preservation of the Notre Dame cathedral after decades of disuse and abuse. But there’s also the classic cases like J.R.R. Tolkien, the master worldbuilder, who at times seemed to write his Legendarium less to tell the stories of Middle Earth and more to justify all of the work he put in to building the languages of Middle Earth. There’s a reason that all modern Fantasy owes a debt to Tolkien– he practically prefabricated several generations worth of settings already.
But different types of fiction require different types and levels of worldbuilding. Some are more extensive than others, but when done very well, they all require the same level of commitment and effort.