By: Alicia Palmer
Coming up with unique and interesting cultures to populate any fictional word is hard. You want something more than Generic Vaguely Middle Ages European Fantasy World #532908 but let’s face it, coming up with a whole new civilization from scratch is tough. You’re no Tolkien, spending time between class lectures frittering away at the genealogies and grammar structure of kind of sort of racist fantasy races. You don’t have time to come up with new languages and family trees and histories, you just want to make a game!
Well fear not, intrepid yet also-focused-on-getting-this-stupid-game-to-just-work-already developer! You too can follow in the fine European tradition of Stealing Interesting Things From Other Cultures! And today we’re going to talk about how to get started doing that. Don’t worry, it’s a lot more interesting than you think.
Religion, history, language, architecture, food, all of these are resources you can draw inspiration from when building your own worlds, things you can use to make your world stand out and be different, be unique. It’s important to catch the attention of your potential audience, and while you can’t necessarily put Non-Generic Fantasy Culture! in your features list, it’s something that will show up in your art, in your character design, even the names of your characters. While I will never call Europe boring, the Western European Fantasy is done pretty well to death.
Since you’re drawing from actual, real world cultures, you must, must, must remember to respect them. One of the best ways to do this is to Do Your Research. You know that frustration you feel when a TV show or movie gets a very important thing wrong about something you love, or worse, presents a group you belong to in an insulting manner? Make sure you don’t do that to someone else. Yes, this is just a game, but that’s not an excuse.
Figure out where the potential pitfalls are, and then make sure to step around them as carefully as possible. If you know someone that’s from the culture you want to borrow (and you probably do, the internet is a vast place with lots of different kinds of people) talk to them, ask them questions, find out what they recommend for sources.
Once you start looking for things in history and other cultures, sometimes the plots will seem to write themselves. There are epic plots and tales everywhere, from mythology to history, Journey to the West, Norse sagas, folk tales, mythology, you can take inspiration from literally anywhere. Follow it as loosely or tightly as you want, whatever works best for your story, especially with mythology and fairy tales, don’t be afraid to think of new ways to look at old stories.
Don’t be afraid to mix and match, but also ask yourself why this group has this sort of culture. A culture doesn’t just burst fully formed from the head of Zeus, it develops based on the area of the world that the people who are a part of that culture come from, their needs, what they see, and how they experience the world around them. A culture located far away from the water isn’t going to have seafood as part of their traditional diet, or have a sea-faring tradition, just like a culture from an extremely cold part of your world isn’t going to run around in loincloths and do a lot of farming.
Go digging, learn something new, find something fascinating and then bring it back to use in your game. Give it some new flavor that it might not have had before, something that will make it stand out. Even if it doesn’t make it into this particular game, you’ve hopefully learned something you didn’t know before that you can use for a future project. Reality is often stranger than fiction, so use that to your advantage.
And always. Always, remember to respect the culture you are borrowing from.
Do you use any real world cultural or historical inspiration in your game? Have some advice for people looking to do the same? Join us in the comments section below.