So it’s been a while since I’ve written much that spans into the world of literature… but that ends today! Today I want to spotlight something that is so often overlooked, and rarely given the credit it deserves. Good worldbuilding can turn a mediocre experience into something fantastic.
So, here I will discuss my favourite worlds from gaming, anime, or literature – any fantasy world is fair game here, and only the best will make the cut. (Warning: Spoilers may be present within this post for a variety of books, shows, and games)
6. Velgarth (Mercedes Lackey’s Valdemar Saga)
The Heralds of Valdemar was one of the first series that really got me hooked on fantasy. It was the Companions… the thought of having a magical animal friend(in this case a Horse) that was a human-level intelligence and could communicate psychically really appealed to the lonely little nerd I was at that age. But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve begun to appreciate other elements of this series… since, ya know… I’m not lonely or little anymore.
But I’m still interested in this world. The world of Velgarth has a vast variety of nations with varying cultures and philosophies that make sense given their history and location. From the deeply religious Karsites to the atheistic Empire and the isolationist Tayledras… each culture has its own deep story to build off of. And the variety of magical sentient creatures – from the aforementioned Companions to Gryphons and Bondbirds, etc – just help to make the world feel both more fantastic and also, in some strange way, more believable. Each has their own place in the world too.
5. Azeroth (Warcraft)
Warcraft holds a special place in my heart. Warcraft 1 was my first RTS, World of Warcraft my first MMO, and it is one of the most influential series in gaming. And Azeroth itself is the heart of all of that. Home to a vast number of interesting species, a storied history, and enough variety to ensure a never-ending variety of gorgeous vistas.
What really makes Azeroth so fascinating to me is just the sheer number of fantastic stories available to tell. So much within the world is kind of left vague thus far. Aspects like the origin of the ‘Old Gods’ and the Titans, like the connection between the Night Elves and the Trolls, like Elune… so many things are hinted at but never really told. Sometimes world design is more than just making things beautiful… sometimes the best part of a world is what hasn’t been told.
That is what makes Azeroth measure up and find a position on this list. It has so much history, and also so much that we just don’t know that leaves room to think and room to imagine. Fantasize, as you will.
4. Aincrad (Sword Art Online)
Bridging the gap between anime and gaming, we have Sword Art Online. An anime about a virtual MMORPG called ‘Sword Art Online’. And the gameworld used is the floating castle ‘Aincrad’, a 100-floor superstructure that really is so much more than just a simple castle. Aincrad features some of the most gorgeous scenery around, but what makes Aincrad so distinct is the fact that it presents some truly unique and intriguing ideas.
It takes the concept of an MMORPG and throws it to the next level. You have a world that feels believable, that feels living. Where people are making a living doing nothing but crafting, where there are children, with people living and dying… yet somehow still feels like a game. It’s a fascinating dichotomy, one that I have never seen successfully created anywhere else. After viewing the incredibly organic nature of this artificial world, it’s hard for me to find appreciation to the same extent within any MMO world, because this set the bar so high.
I think it is most apparent during the brief segment where Asuna and Kirito buy a house and retire from the ‘front lines’ of Sword Art Online, living together in a now-peaceful part of this world. The simple fact that this gameworld… this prison for so many people… contains the possibility for such a beautiful environment, and contains people who are just living their lives… made me look at it not as a deathgame, but as a ‘lifegame’ so to speak. And that is strongly to Aincrad’s credit.
3. Carna (Jim Butcher’s Codex Alera)
The Codex Alera was made when Jim Butcher was challenged by a member of the Delray Online Writer’s Workshop: to combine two ‘lame ideas’ provided to him and create a good story out of them. The ideas provided were “Pokemon” and a “Lost Roman Legion”. And he succeeded, with Carna being the world that resulted out of this. Carna is a brutal and unforgiving world, with a variety of truly fascinating cultures. The ‘Lost Roman Legion’ mentioned above created Alera, a civilization that is the bulk of the world featured within the books, although in reality it only covers a small portion of the world. The other cultures include the Marat, a species of more adaptive tribal humanoids who form bonds with various types of animals, an extremely tall and long-lived wolf-like species known as the Canim who are long-time enemies of the Alerans and inhabit a massive continent elsewhere in Carna, and a mysterious and mostly-unknown race who lives in the frozen North.
The intriguing cultures that inhabit this world are enough to keep me enthralled, but the Furies are what give Carna the edge it needs to make my top three. Furies are natural spirits embodying the elements(and not just the traditional ‘four elements’, but Wood and Metal as well), that form bonds with Alerans and grant them magical powers depending on the type of Fury. These Furies can also manifest themselves in a physical form and assist the one they’re bonded to in a variety of ways. While many aspects of the ‘Furycrafting’ magic are clearly defined, certain elements are also left as a mystery – and nothing helps a world like a good layer of mystery.
This is far from the only element that will leave you guessing, as many little tidbits are thrown to you along the course of this series – enough that should Butcher ever decide to revisit he’d have a plethora of stories waiting to be told. And, quite simply, I hope he does because I cannot get enough of this world.
2. Arda (J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings)
You can’t truly discuss fantasy without referencing Tolkien, often called the ‘father of modern fantasy’. Tolkien laid the foundations for many things that I love today… and although he was unable to finish the work before his unfortunate passing, his son took his notes and made sure that fans like me were able to get more and more of Arda, quite possibly the most detailed fantasy world ever made. With over 8000 years of ‘recorded’ history, Arda is certainly one of the most storied worlds out there. The Lord of the Rings just skims the surface of all that is waiting to be discovered within this world, stretching all the way back to its creation in the Ainulindale and spanning nearly everything to happen between in books such as the Silmarillion and the Histories of Middle Earth.
And that really touches on what makes this world so fascinating… how many worlds do you get the opportunity to find out the entire history of the world – even before sentient life first inhabited it. The Ainulindale features the God of this world, known as Illuvatar, quite literally creating the world… and much is even known about the end of the world as well. And yet… despite the sheer quantity of information… people still find new facets of the world to question, new concepts to discuss, new stories to wonder about. Even in a world where we know so much… there is still mystery.
But probably my favourite part of Arda… the languages. It is extremely rare that we see a language in a book that isn’t English(or whatever language you happen to be reading the book in), it is even more rare when that language has a pattern or a form… yet Arda features at least 3 made up languages that are defined enough to be written in(possibly more since several other languages are featured at various points, and there are a number of runic variants for writing in these languages…). The real shocker; however, is that one of these languages is actually conversable. It is a fully functioning language complete with syntax, structure, and all of the components necessary to make the language work in written and verbal form. There are people who know enough of the language to actually hold a conversation.
1. The World (L.E. Modesitt’s Saga of Recluce)
No, this series doesn’t take place on our world, although the planet it does take place on is never given any name other than the world. And, despite the fact that it doesn’t have a fancy name or crazy races… this world has a sense of structure I’ve not seen anywhere else… a sense of logic that makes sense but is unique to it. This logic is the one true thread of connection between this series’ books, which take place spanning thousands of years of time. It is the driving force behind the world and what happens within, although not always in an apparent way.
The Balance, as it is called, is a logical, mechanical force that works behind the scenes to ensure that neither of the world’s magical forces, order or chaos, can ever attain domination over the other. The really intriguing thing about this is trying to see behind the story to see how the world is ‘acting'(so to speak, it isn’t sentient) to maintain this. The interplay between the various peoples of the world, these natural forces, and the balance never fails to leave you wondering. That isn’t to say the books feel incomplete, because the stories within are some of the most detailed and complete I’ve read… but the people of the world understand so little of it, with a few exceptions, that you never really get a deep understanding of it either.
This might sound like a bad thing… but in this case it works. A large part of the appeal to the series is building a sense of understanding with the characters which makes the mysteries of the world all that more impactful and curious since you’re sharing these mysteries with the characters. The level of involvement this gives helps to make the world feel just that much more real… that much more important.
Additionally, the huge span of time seen within this series allows you to see all of the both natural and unnatural forces that change a world over time… with entire countries disappearing or being annexed, the ruins of ancient civilizations, new ones named after characters from older books, mountains growing or shrinking, desserts becoming lush and grasslands becoming desserts… all of these can be seen… the sense of history is really overwhelming. It’s a fantastic feeling, and it all adds up to why the world highlighted within Modesitt’s Recluce series is, in my opinion, the best fantasy world ever created.