How to build worlds that feel real

A world-building Rift

I experienced an Oculus Rift the other day. It was sensational – in a sense.

I’d never worn a virtual reality headset. I lowered myself into a bolted-together driving seat, complete with plastic steering wheel with gear paddles, a wobbly shift stick and a full complement of pedals at my feet. The room I was in was a small, dimly lit box-room office, and my friends stood behind me as I lowered the headset over my eyes.

Suddenly, I was sat in a Ferrari in the pit lane at Silverstone. Hands that were slightly too small to be mine gripped a pixelated steering wheel in front of me with a functioning dashboard behind it. I looked to my right and saw my rear view mirror, my friends ominously absent in its reflection, despite the sound of their merriment at my apparent open-mouthed glee.

As I turned my head further, I found an empty passenger seat. In fact, I could turn my entire body and look through the rear windshield, at the track pits behind me, with the viewing stands looming off to the left. Meanwhile, ahead of me, a poorly rendered man held a sign on a pole that said “Stop”. He shuffled impatiently, apparently waiting for me to stop gawping and drive the bloody car.

It was amazing, and I hadn’t even pulled out onto the track yet.

Thirty seconds later, after I’d smashed the car into a crash barrier, spun the vehicle hopelessly round in the gravel for a while, and finally given up, I removed the helmet to find my familiar world returned, in greater clarity than ever, with all the mundane detail I habitually disregarded, manifest in all its minutiae.

It occurred to me later how poor the resolution was in the kit – a developer’s low-res headset. Everything was rendered to a mid-1990s 480p (imagine a totally immersive world rendered on a classic Playstation), yet the fluidity and perspective were so beguiling, it mattered not a jot.

It made me think about world-building: is it necessary to describe every detail in your world to achieve full reader-immersion? Probably not.

In fact, over-description might lower your reader’s framerate – so to speak – jarring the flow of the story with unnecessary clarity, like a high-res YouTube video stuttering over a poor internet connection.

What I’m saying is: flow and immersion are more important than descriptive detail.

Yet some details were important: the rearview mirror, the empty passenger seat, the dashboard – all details I hadn’t expected, but found lifelike by their very inclusion.

Similarly, the headset cannot simulate smell, or touch, or taste. These are as familiar to us as sight and sound, and often can convey an environment with more clarity than either of the latter.

There’s clearly a sweet spot – mention the things the narrator might notice, things that catch your character’s eye, but leave out anything that jars the tempo.

What do you think? Is detail paramount to an immersive world, or is the character’s perceptions that bring that world to life?

2 thoughts on “A world-building Rift”

  1. Interesting thought-I defintiely lean towards the less is more approach, both in my writing and reading. But saying that, have you read any of the Gormenghast books? ‘Cause Mervyn Peake goes completely in the opposite direction, cramming so much description into the text that it’s staggering and it works beautifully. I think he’s a bit of a genius though.

    I’m dying to have a go on an Occulus!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’ve not, but I’ll give them a try. Thanks for the recommendation!

      Funny you commented on this post – I’ve just finished reading Ready Player One, which has more virtual reality than reality. Kind of put me off it actually!


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