Against Worldbuilding, And Other Provocations by Alexis Kennedy – Book Review

I have passing knowledge of Alexis Kennedy, one of the two leaders at the head of game developer Weather Factory (the other being Lottie Bevan). I’ve spent several hours with Cultist Simulator, a game thoroughly disquieting and altogether too complex for me to get after three failed attempts. I’ve also heard enough about Fallen London and Sunless Sea to know that I would enjoy their worlds but not necessarily the mechanics that fuel their gameplay loops. That said, essays penned by the man behind such beloved works might well be worth reading, I thought–and I was right.

Against Worldbuilding, And Other Provocations: Essays on History, Narrative, and Game Design is a mouthful of a title and subtitle, so let’s stick to the first two words, shall we? Kennedy is an excellent writer–his thought flows from topic to topic with ease, pinpoints issues and topics of interest with mastery before dissecting them. There is a depth of knowledge about game design, and about writing for games that offered more than one opportunity for lessons worth retaining. Take for example the following:

So I’m going to go a bit further than ‘labyrinths are designed experiences’: I’m going to say that ‘a labyrinth is architecture that asks a question.’

From “The Labyrinth”.

Now, a statement like this, Kennedy develops in one way; but the beauty of the way he forms many of these is, not only can you appreciate his answers, you can find altogether new ways to respond to them. “Isn’t that how every question works?” You might ask, and to that I say, “Don’t be facetious, you get my point, you wretch…I’m sorry, I didn’t mean that.” Now, the definition Kennedy gives here immediately invites me, as a hobbyist DM, to reexamine my design of a dungeon, say, and improve it in ways I might’ve overlooked before.

A favourite part of this collection is a series of three reviews on games that do not exist – a bit of good-spirited satire, in effect, that made me chuckle. The author’s sense of humour tends to the self-deprecating often enough, and that, too, clicked with me.

As for the collection’s title? It’s named after a February 2017 essay published in GI.biz, and I love its opening paragraphs:

“Worldbuilding!” You read it all the time in reviews. “A triumph of worldbuilding.” “A masterpiece of worldbuilding.” “I’d like to see more of the worldbuilding.”
I wish we didn’t use the word. I’ve started to be suspicious of it, and I want to persuade you to be suspicious of it too. If you know anything about my work, that’ll seem perverse, I know. Half the reviews of Sunless Sea and Fallen London praised the worldbuilding (even when the reviewer wasn’t so keen on the game) and I’m off to work for BioWare next week. But my problem isn’t with the concept. It’s the word we’ve come to use for the activity of creating story settings. That word drags at the activity like a homicidal small child hanging on a steering wheel, until we swerve off the road into a snowbank.

All these essays are fueled by passion, love for the industry and a honest desire to recollect successes and failures alike, to draw lessons from both. It’s also didactic–as a writer, one piece was more valuable than all others: “Writhing Pithy Game Microtext: Dactylic Megaliths”. In this essay, Kennedy picks a 35-word description and unpacks it in some 2000 words, analyzing the entirety of his thought process while putting it together. This piece reminded me a little of those few pages Stephen King redacted in the final pages of his On Writing book, showing in practice what has been spoken about in theory up to this point. When I was reading that section, a lot of things clicked; so, too, here.

Here’s the microtext:

“The Unnumbered Stones: Megaliths placed in obsessive, inerrant rows by priest-castes long dead. Time has long erased the original blood-stains, but on moonless nights, the locals supplement what remains. Hidden chambers might guard hidden treasures.”

Here, the opening paragraphs to the explanation:

“The Unnumbered Stones. Megaliths placed in….” Megaliths is a great word anyway, but (i) I can’t say “The Unnumbered Stones. Stones placed by…” The repetition just sounds rank. (ii) I often like to start a sentence off with a dactyl – stressed syllable then two unstressed. It’s a nice dramatic cadence to start with, like rolling thunder.
“Megaliths placed in obsessive, inerrant…” and after a strong start I want to get a little crunchy. “obsessive rows” would be okay, but that focuses attention on the obsessive, and demeans the placers a bit. “Obsessive, inerrant” makes it clear they’ve done it properly, presumably according to some deeper schema; and “inerrant” is a crunchy enough word that it slows down the progress through the sentence, gives it a bit of ceremony. “rows by priest-castes long dead”. Two things here. Cadence first: I do that stressed-stressed stressed-stressed thing (double spondee, I think) at the end of a sentence all the time, and sorry, I’ve basically just ruined everything I ever write for you, once you hear it you can’t stop. Anyway dum-dum dumdum says “we”re done here but it’ll take a moment”. Ceremony again.

From “Writhing Pithy Game Microtext: Dactylic Megaliths”

In a few words, this collection was an absolute thrill to read. I stayed up until the little hours, reading piece after piece, enjoying

I should point out–plenty of these reviews were originally published as columns for Eurogamer and GI.biz; if you wanted to read any of them before committing, you could likely check with those sites.

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