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A sprawling city, a host of tropical islands dotted around a vast blue archipelago, a high school full of clubs and constant development – this is world building at its most basic. Every work of fiction has world building to some extent. It could be a society with its own futuristic laws and culture or a vast police force with its own internal structure and conflict.
No matter the setting, world building is pivotal to any narrative. It gives viewers a sense of place and understanding. We need to be able to feel the world that our characters inhabit. This doesn’t have to be physical locations but it has to be an extension of the story. It must be something that our characters can blend with or rebel against. How do the best cartoons build a believable solid world?
The best world building comes from development within and outside the story. The perfect example is that of anime great One Piece. This island hopping, pirate adventure takes us from one place to another, each new setting giving our cast a new set of challenges and politics to deal with.
Some islands have developed to have kings, others have gods. Some are feudal in aesthetic while others are deserted. We see rebellions, intrigue, different weather systems and various distinct customs. What enhances this is that the world outside of each arc develops too. We see the character of Ace, our protagonist’s brother, go through his own struggles to get to the point of the Whitebeard War and we see the world reel in its aftermath. Everything, even the tiniest detail, leads to larger implications down the line. It is the Butterfly Effect personified.
The way that the greatest world building works is in being able to show and not tell. The key is to convey information through action rather than spelling it out to viewers. Stories simply flow better this way. We need to be able to look at the world and feel like we are there.
Hey Arnold, for example, combines elements of a number of cities in order to create a realistic take on urban life for many people. The show’s setting is grimy and often unclean but it feels real and helps build an engrossing concrete jungle for our cast of characters to explore. Weaving pieces of the setting – like the vast array of minor characters that inhabit it or the type of graffiti on the neighborhood walls – into the world of Arnold and co is what gives the series depth.
The mood of an animation, the depth of its setting and the latter’s societal impact on characters are what draw audiences into a story. Take, for example, the playground setting of Recess, the Disney series which boasts some of the best insulated world building ever. The plot rarely leaves the confines of the central school yard. Yet, it is the urban legends, rumours, stereotypes and playground politics that add layer upon layer to the world of the narrative. Compare Recess with the short-lived Detention animated series, and we see the latter falls flat in building anything audiences could dive into.
Even if we are familiar with a setting, such as an inner city, viewer interest is built through the little details. Another example is Pokémon where familiarities are blended with fantasy to build an explorable fascinating but tangible place.
An animated world should be more than just a setting, it should be a character in itself. We need to see our heroes not just inhabit an environment but live it.