Grand Theft Auto V has been out for around three weeks now. I’ve beat the campaign, I’ve become a rich playboy in the online, and it reminded me once more about why I loved the series of GTA.
I did not really love the series until GTA: San Andreas. In SA, they had an entire state, with three major cities and a few little towns. Each city was, to be honest, fairly small, but considering where sandbox games were at the time, this was an immense undertaking. Each city had its own flavor. One was to be LA, another San Francisco, and finally Las Vegas. On top of that, you could participate in activities that each city was fairly well known for. You Los Santos you fought in gang wars. In Las Venturas you could gamble. In San Fierro…you looked at pretty buildings and art? The iconic building of San Francisco was a zombie test facility with massive underground regions. Or so the diagram inside the building you are never forced to enter said. With the golden genetic material chandeliers hanging from the ceilings.
In GTA IV, you were an eastern European illegal immigrant. They had several stations for Liberty City, the largest mock up of NYC so far. The largest map they had created. Several were based on the Eastern European tastes of music, which were amazing. They had countless made up companies and clubs that you couldn’t even explore. They added real comedian routines you could watch which were hilarious. You didn’t have to, but it was there. Online dating existed, that you could ignore. It was the first time they created an entire internet, filled with bizarre sites that would hint towards future missions, places you could explore to find easter eggs, and just ridiculous takes on real life situations. They also introduced TV shows that mocked some of what was already on our actual stations. And you never had to sit down to watch TV, but it was just as rewarding as watching it at home.
They took a brief break from the flagship series to create Red Dead Redemption. Which was also an incredible and vast frontier with little nooks and crannies that you never had to look into, with newspapers filled with incredible ads based on exaggerations of the time, that you never had to buy. They created these beautiful, vast worlds over and over again, and the majority of it players would never even see.
Now look at GTA V. You can do yoga, tennis, golf, serf a fully realized internet, join several cults, learn about several more, watching several fully realized TV shows, each with about thirty minutes of programming and much of which spills over into the real world, phone numbers you can call for responses, a huge alien conspiracy, a major city, several small towns, numerous brands that exist which you will never purchase, and countless other little things that make their world real.
The world feels real because it is. It’s entirely realized. They have every building set up to have some level of a story that you will never know. There are clubs and strip clubs you aren’t allowed to visit, but there’s a reason they are named as they are. There are entire corporations which have backgrounds and you can trade for on the stock market, but at the end of the day they’re just one of the hundreds or thousands of buildings in the game. Do you give your setting that much attention?
It seems quite often that we don’t. Even if there’s a map included, the map is some blob without features. There are few cities, fewer physical landmarks, and at the end of the day we will likely hear about everything on that map. Why? Our adventurers won’t come close to exploring every nook and cranny of creation. If you look at Game of Thrones, GRRM had still had the Dornish planned out, even though they wouldn’t be obvious to us until later. In my own writings, I have created maps with rich histories, and the current novel I’m writing barely touches on it. But the map is still there. The enormity still exists. Because of that I can have people come from all corners of the world. I understand different traditions and trinkets my characters can run into.
You can always tell when a person has little concept of their setting. You know they have little concept of it because you as a reader have little concept of it. What are the buildings made out of? What are the people wearing? What season is it? How far away is one city or country from another and what is the most common form of travel? It happens in anime all the time, as well. You can really tell when the anime didn’t care about where it was because everything looks the same. There are no distinguishing marks. While it’s the same in novels, it’s just more obvious when there is a visual representation.
Make sure to give your setting detail. Give it life beyond what anyone is going to care about, because only then can you fully realize what you’re creating and where your characters live. Only then can they have the little mannerisms that are specific to that region or can they interact with the culture on the level they’re supposed to if the reader is to believe there is a culture. So create a setting, give it more detail than your reader will likely ever understand, and they will be immersed in your narrative because of it. They will live in your homes and castles. They will breathe the local air and feel the earth beneath their feet because they know it’s clay, moist, and soft. The air is flavored by the nearby sea, which is filled with salt and causes everything to have a layer of white encrusted on it. The houses made with teak wood are old and gray from wear, except the three new ones which are light in color, though will not be for much longer. The reader may never know about the local teak wood forest and how it consumed the coast until settlers came. But you will. And for that everything will be that much more alive.