Whenever I get into a fictional universe, be it books, movies, TV shows, or video games, I dig deep. Those characters with shady or mysterious pasts are the most intriguing; we want to know how they became the person we know now. If you’ve read (and enjoyed) The Symphony of Ages series by Elizabeth Haydon, you probably want to know Achmed’s full backstory more than anything else. We get tantalizing hints, but no more. Tolkien’s book The Silmarillion explores the history of the elves and Middle-Earth in almost excruciating detail. People clamored so much for more stories about Drizzt Do’Urden that R.A. Salvatore gave them the drow ranger’s backstory in the form of The Dark Elf Trilogy. Amazing RPGs like Mass Effect and Dragon Age cover the history of their worlds, the aspects of the places explored there, and the characters you encounter. And isn’t that what a lot of modern RPGs are all about? Exploration? How was this world created? What happened before the story that we see? A good origin story is a fascinating and rewarding journey.
Of course, the key word here is “good.” Not knowing parts of a universe’s history or the origins of a character leads to all kinds of juicy speculation, head canon, and fan fiction. Sometimes the creators even deign to answer those burning questions for us. That’s fine and dandy, but there is a dark side to it. No matter how much I may want to know, “What happened?!” a part of me is always a bit wary when official works drop in to fill the gaps.
DISCLAIMER:This entry is onlyathoughtexercise! I am not proposing that one stance is better than the other, nor do I condone extreme positions either for or against the diversification or homogenization of any culture(s).
Project Orion: one of the coolest ships that was never built. (Artwork by Adrian Mann)
I recently read an article about NASA testing equipment and programs that will theoretically carry humans to Mars. Part of me was really happy about it, but at the same time, I was also disappointed because the federal space program is pretty much dead due to lack of funds. NASA is getting just enough to play around with ideas and reinvent the wheel, but not enough to actually do anything substantial. The private sector may yet succeed with companies like SpaceX, but the lack of interest in space exploration is so discouraging that I sometimes fear we’ll never reach beyond our planet before the next great extinction.
Constructing a new world filled with interesting climates, cultures, and characters is a lot of fun, but it also requires a great deal of work. There are so many details to attend to in order to keep everything fresh and interesting. One of those many details is the societal values of your various cultures.
This is something that has always been prevalent in sci-fi and fantasy, but it really didn’t hit me until I started playing Mass Effect. Each of the alien races have a certain defining characteristic, a societal value that defines them as a culture and/or species. For the turians, honor and responsibility. For the asari, it’s diplomacy and psychic awareness. For the salarians, it’s scientific achievement and espionage. For the krogan, battle and conquest. Granted, part of this distinctness comes from being nonhuman; many such races have an overarching characteristic that gives people a starting point in order to relate to them. But even human cultures and societies can have a defining value or values.