Understanding Worldbuilding Through Runeterra
Even when playing games that are not story-driven, I often seek to construct narratives within the character and environmental design, mechanics, and interactions with other players.
Zero is an independently-made art book that examines the interplay between the built environment and storytelling through the actualization of the Contellis, a novel universe largely inspired by Runeterra in the League of Legends lore. The text includes both descriptions of the world in addition to the theory, procedures, and personal anecdotes behind its genesis.
July 2020 — September 2020
Though created alone, Zero is dedicated to an assemblage of artists, professors, developers, and friends with whom my journey has been made tangible.
On the Linearity of Time
"Suppose time takes the form of seven identical spirals, arranged neatly in a circle. Time bends over precisely and repeatedly, never interlocking with itself. Now and then, some cosmic disturbance will arise from the splitting of neighboring spirals. These events are called Centralities, and they allow for the passage of souls between the Seven Worlds of Contellis."
- Zero, opening lines of Introduction
Linearity has been the dominant format for new media narratives since the inception of the motion picture in the late 1890s. The kinetoscope, one of the earliest motion picture exhibition devices, featured a conveying strip of film that displayed sequential images until it reached the end of the strip. Though advances in digital cameras and computer animations have enabled more involved narratives than the short, silent films of the 1890s, linearity in new media remains one of the most prominent relics of the motion picture alive today.
But, why should we recycle this piece of media archeology? Authors and game developers have pioneered nonlinear storytelling through choose-your-our adventure books and restart buttons. The physicality of time in the Contellis was inspired by Einstein’s Dreams, a collection of vignettes written by Alan Lightman. In each chapter, time operates unexpectedly—in reverse, in cycles, scaling with respect to altitude, multi-linearly. For me, Zero is an exercise in thinking through every element of my characters’ existence, even their experience of time and space.
Language & Vocabulary
"In this universe, there exists one planet, in which seven realities coexist at once. Each soul may choose one of seven identical bodies to inhabit, forever separated in space. Uninhabited bodies are easy to identify: they murmur indistinct words and bear a blank visage, living only at the bare minimum of survival.
Though most choose to remain in their birth world, gifted scholars of time have discovered a method of displacing their souls to other worlds. During Centralities, Seers pull their souls from their bodies and release them through the Halflight, the interstellar region within the Constellis. Ciphers learn to split their souls and scatter the pieces across divergent streams of time. The remainder of their fragmented soul is filled by Gossamer, residual existences of vengeful spirits residing in the Halflight."
- Zero, Introduction
Fantasy affords the opportunity to recreate a system of vocabulary and names to better describe our built environment. Because the narrative of Zero adopted the form of vignettes, I chose to read poetry—particularly Langston Hughes and William Blake—to understand how to maximize poignancy with few words. To the right, I have outlined the inspiration behind the names of the seven worlds.
Contellis Language 101
Named after the Greek legislator Draco; signifies oppression
Named after the intoxicating aroma of Hyacinth flowers; inspired by Bandle City in Runeterra
Originally named Jannah for the Arabic word for paradise; inspired by Jaffar, the sultan in Prince of Persia
Derived from the Thai word for elder; signifies wisdom and guidance
Inspired by The Void in Runeterra; ominous and dark
Named after the former CEO of Walt Disney Studios, Michael Eiser; signifies imposing, yet enchanting nature
Derived from the Italian fable Sole, Luna, e Talia that inspired The Sleeping Beauty
Building Worlds as Characters
Gamers, avid readers, and movie fanatics alike become emotionally invested in characters. Why don't we feel the same way about their universes? In other words, what can we learn about the appeal of characters that we may apply to worldbuilding?
We can gauge the appeal of a character through the kinds of aspiration they garner, manifested through cosplay, fanfiction, or frequent selection of that character in a game. Two hyper-aspirational characters that stand out in Runeterra are Lux (left) and Jinx (right). Primarily, the design of these characters executes a stereotypical archetype with a few twists to best suit them for the themes in the game. Lux represents a fairly typical execution of the angelic, healer archetype but has adopted a mecha appearance to adapt to the visual design of League of Legends. Jinx may be interpreted as an embodiment of the Harlequin archetype—a manic character with subtle vulnerabilities that allow them to operate at will under the guise of redeemability (sounds familiar, DC fans?).
By leveraging archetypes as a method of identification, we can create aspirational worlds in the same way we create aspiration characters. The world Xayu leans into the healer archetype through a muted, white color palette and language that conveys safety. Eisermight offers a similar fantasy to Jinx: a chaotic blend of fragility and liberty. Treating worlds as characters allows me to inject human attributes at the foundation of the overarching narrative.
Imagine a world of eternal winter. Imagine a thick sheet of snow adorning rooftops and walkways. Imagine icicles clinging firmly to the branches of bare trees.
Now, remove the snow. Remove the warm reflections of streetlights on wet ground. Remove the children turning their faces towards the sky to capture snowflakes on their tongue. Remove the swirling scents of cinnamon and peppermint wafting from a nearby coffee shop. Remove the cold winds’ bite on your red nose. Leave only the white.
This color defines Xayu. The monks who inhabit this world are bestowed with the duty of praying for the collective soul of the Contellis. They need not identify each other, for they look only to the Halflight for judgment and bear pristine hooded robes to conceal their faces. They forfeit the delights of the senses; they consume only the most gossamer foods, they nip the buds of orchids before they release their sweet aroma, and they step lightly—nearly gliding over the marble temples—to preserve the deafening silence of white noise.
At the cusp of sunset, a monk lifts his eyes to admire the faintest lavender hue that has embraced the visage of his temple. He smiles gently, then lowers his head. He has duties to attend.
President Eiser stood silently at a window, tracing the paths of raindrops with his eyes. He had, in fact, called for this meeting, but showed no interest in the matter at hand. His back was turned on a table of six councilmen representing each of the worlds, summoned to discuss Eisermight's recovery. Zero’s reign had slowed technological progress throughout the Contellis, but this world seemed to have stopped altogether.
Eiser knew that the meeting would end with a request of his abdication. He had nothing to offer that would appease the council; his farmlands grew arid, his soldiers retired, his oil reserves ran dry. At last, he spoke.
More than a century later, neon-lined streets peer through the sooty clouds rising from city workshops and factories. Loosely governed by a handful of serial entrepreneurs, Eisermight represents a haven for invention, shielded from man’s hubris and desire to control, flirting with the brink of anarchy.
For a world without laws, crime is low—disappointingly low for the endless variety of ways to kill and thieve. Currency has all but lost value, and young tinkers trade their lapidary creations for food. People and technology live nomadically and indistinguishably. A young woman and her clone walk side-by-side, with bronze plates lining their temples leading to a pair of bioluminescent irises. Three children—triplets, and likely survivors of the human medical trials—zipline across the lattice of electrical wires that hem the dark sky, baring speckled feathers that adorn their forearms and cheeks. An aristocratic couple turns a corner, headed towards a clinic for cochlear implants. One gentleman holds an umbrella for his partner; the other limps gently, the click of his bionic leg masked by the rhythmic tapping of raindrops on copper rooftops.
They will be safe after the rain.
SEEING MYSELF AS A DESIGNER
I've copied a section of Zero's afterword that I wrote exactly one year ago. I'm looking back on these words while on vacation in California, having just wrapped up an internship working on VR haptics and eagerly counting down the days before my first title launches. When I started college, I remember how easy it was to self-identify as a pre-medical aspirant, and I perhaps remember more vividly the poignant pain of divorcing myself from that label on my nineteenth birthday. I knew I wanted to be a designer, but the designers at Riot Games who I looked up to—Paul Kwon, Katie De Sousa, Ryan Scott—seemed closer to background ambitions rather than tangible goals. I have a bit more credibility behind my newfound identity as a designer, but each time I visit this afterword, I'm struck by my volition—volition that I possessed far before I had the luxury of seeing my name on a published title.
"So why? Why are games worthwhile for someone like me? Why, after everything the industry has done to hurt minorities, do I still feel compelled to not only support them, but join them?
Because my realities don’t define me. Because becoming a doctor won’t change the fact that I will never see a just future in my lifetime. Because despite my realities, I deserve to feel empowered—regardless of which world I happen to be born into.
For me, games are the opposite of escapism. They represent a medium for questioning and reinventing the systems and realities of our world. What if we lived in a society that achieved police abolition? What if our money lost value over time, such that generation wealth was eradicated? What if young women are afforded joy from the moment of their birth? In choosing to pursue a career in game design, I did not forfeit a life of meaning for triviality. I opened a possibility space for defining a reality on my terms. When I join the gaming industry, I hope to advance inclusion beyond the baseline of accessibility and towards a future that leverages games as a remedy for the injustices of our world. And when I look back on how far I’ve come in a decade, I hope to reflect on Zero as the first step in my journey."
In these words, I recognize the pains of shedding old skin, (thankfully) accompanied by an equal amount of hope. But I also recognize anger—anger with my identity, anger with feeling robbed of empowerment in the real world. Zero has taught me that designers often inject themselves into their worlds. I question the kinds of empowerment I can offer to my players if I cannot separate myself from that sense of loss.
Ethan Radd, the creative lead of Virtuoso Neomedia, stated "I want my art to come from a place of love, not pain. Purer fuel burns hotter." Over the next year, I want to establish a different relationship with my passion—one where I can recognize the motivations that led me to design without the pain of feeling displaced.