Three Worldbuilding Lessons from 2021
Happy new year (belatedly!)
It feels a little perfunctory to wish you all a happy new year, to ask about resolutions, or to encourage you to reflect on how we’ve changed and what we’ve learned. For so many reasons 2022 feels like it’s going to be a repeat of the previous year (at best) or a worse version of what we’ve already endured (at worst).
But if we don’t reflect now, when will we ever? And looking back, 2021 was a truly wacky year with some interesting lessons to impart. In that spirit, I’ve put together a little retrospective: here are three lessons 2021 has taught me about worldbuilding. I’m looking forward to bringing all of these forward in my projects next year and beyond.
Lesson 1: There is No Getting Over It
I distinctly remember New Year’s Eve of 2017. Seated around a big table, I asked my friends to summarize the year in one word or phrase, and after a long pause, my friend Rosalind referenced everyone’s favourite game of that year: “Getting Over It With Bennett Foddy.” The year felt uncannily like that game. For the unfamiliar, you play as a man sitting inside a large cauldron, and you use a janky, frustrating control system to propel him upwards across increasingly precarious piles of junk. It’s a deliberately, viscerally frustrating game — but it was also surprisingly intimate and optimistic. Looking back, 2017 felt that way for many of us: things were precarious and we were deeply angry, but we still felt like we might get out of it somehow, with the right combination of luck, gumption and human connection. Perhaps some of us even felt that way at the end of 2020.
By now, though, we know better. In 2020 we dreamed of what we would do “when this is all over,” as if there would be a moment when we could all emerge from our houses, embrace one another, and walk hand in hand back to the life we had before. 2021 taught us differently: even as many of us got vaccinated, returning to old life felt stressful and uncertain, and COVID didn’t disappear like we imagined it would. There are some things I would rather not return to at all.
Getting Over It ends with a triumphant moment: overcoming a final obstacle, the main character ascends into space and begins to float, no longer constrained by the gravitational pull that presumably outsmarted the player so many times before. Once, I thought this pandemic, this uncertainty might end with something like that. 2021 has taught me that it won’t. The best we can hope for is not to get over it but to get through it.
The Worldbuilding Lesson: Large-scale events — pandemics, wars, political uncertainty, environmental collapse — never disappear from the public consciousness, even if they result in a relatively positive outcome. Collective traumas are exponentially more difficult to repair than individual ones. It’s harder to help others when you’re in pain — and when everyone on the scale of a world is in pain, who is left to help?
Lesson 2: The Domino Effect
If you’ve been paying attention, 2021 was not the first year you noticed an outsized number of climate disasters. But for me, it was the first time that these disasters really illuminated the extent to which infrastructures, individual actions, and histories of political (in)action are interconnected. I think of the cold snap in Texas, when freezing temperatures brought an already strained power grid — a grid created by a policy of deregulation fuelled by an outdated and ill-advised ideology of self-sufficient individualistic independence — to a breaking point. I think of the fires in Colorado at the very end of the year, fires that were made substantially more likely by the convergence of warm winds and dry leaves. We have learned palpably this year how climate disasters tend to operate: climate change creates the conditions in which disasters are more likely to happen, and social structures and inequalities contribute further to those odds. It feels like we’re all playing a betting game, and the odds are only getting worse.
The Worldbuilding Lesson: Environmental, political and social factors pile on top of each other. Usually these piles feel chaotic and messy, but sometimes they converge, and when they do, the effects are intense and catastrophic. These factors might not individually cause disasters to happen, but they make it more likely — or they aggravate circumstances when something bad does come to pass.
Lesson 3: Sometimes things are very simple, actually
There was one 2021 disaster that I will always look back upon fondly.
Sure, the 2021 Suez Canal obstruction caused supply chain issues that lasted for months. I’m blissfully unaware of the extent of the problems it caused for people’s livelihoods the world over, but I’m sure that It Was Bad. But I can’t help but smile when I think back on those two weeks when we were all totally preoccupied by the most absurd drama to grace the global political stage:
how get boat unstuck???
This article by Sarah Gailey, still one of my favourite pieces of writing from this year, sums my feelings up perfectly.
Again, there's a vast and sprawling ecosystem of current and historical horrors that made this situation possible – but we can't say that it's a situation that could never occur in a just world, because even in just worlds, things get stuck. Ducklings get stuck. Winnie the Pooh gets stuck! And now, the big boat is stuck. And I like it. I like knowing that there can be a big problem that's caused by something as straightforward and comprehensible as a stuck boat.
(Incidentally, Gailey wrote a series of articles on worldbuilding that you should very much check out.)
The Worldbuilding Lesson: Even in complex, layered socio-political-environmental systems, simple things can still happen. Every world has at least one Ever Given: a random accident that threw things into disarray. And while many historical events are harrowing, depressing, mundane, ominous, or frustrating, others are simply, absurdly, funny.
Next week I’ll be sending an update on my upcoming game, The Archipelago. Keep an eye out for it!