Welcome back frendos.
Yes, another two weeks have passed and it’s time for us to put on our metaphorical hard hats and get to the business of constructing worlds of fiction!
The topic of this installment can be a little controversial at the moment. But as writers of fiction or creators of games, it’s something our worlds simply can’t exist without.
I’m talking about culture, of course.
It’s a sensitive subject, and one I’ve been mulling over for a long time. I find many of my own opinions have been more eloquently expressed by published novelists. So I don’t want to delve into that argument in this post.
Instead, I want to look at some examples of wholly fictional cultures from different narratives and mediums, look at where the creators drew their inspiration from, and how their ideas took shape in the end.
Yevon and Al Bhed
If you know me at all, you’ll know I’m a sucker for the Final Fantasy series. (Especially the installments that Kazushige Nojima worked on.) One of the things I’ve always enjoyed about the Final Fantasy series is the subtle critique of our world you can find in every game. FFVII grapples with environmental issues, but Final Fantasy X grappled with something entirely different. The dangers of xenophobia, and the willingness of institutions to use racial or cultural conflict to further their own agendas.
If you’ve played the game, then you no doubt are familiar with the Fayth and Yevon. If you’ve never played the game then Yevon is the name of the largest religion in the world of Spira. It’s a sprawling hierarchy of priests, summoners, guardians, and churches. To create Yevon and the Fayth, Nojima and the team drew heavily from real-world religions. They took inspiration from Shintoism, incorporating Shinto temples and practices into the daily lives of Yevonites. They also borrowed iconography and rituals from Buddhism, pilgrimages from Judaism and Islam, then they used the rigidity of Catholicism and it’s hierarchical structure as the final touch to bring everything together. The end result was a culture that was both familiar and unique.
But what’s a world with only one culture?
Spira is not just populated by the faithful of Yevon. It’s also home to the Al Bhed. The Al Bhed themselves are quite a unique addition to a roleplaying game. Generally, we see fantasy races with drastic differences. Humans, Elves, Orcs, Dwarves. But the Al Bhed are human, just like the Yevonites. It’s not just the varying appearances, different language and opposing belief systems that make the cultures of Yevon and Al Bhed feel so real. It’s the role they play for one another. The Al Bhed refused to accept the teaching of Yevon, which means they’re considered heretics by the Yevonites. If Yevon was inspired by the religions of our world, then the Al Bhed were inspired by philosophical concepts – and it shows in their attitudes. Just look at this in-game exchange between Wakka, a Yevonite and Rikku, an Al Bhed;
Wakka:But you Al Bhed use the forbidden machina! You know what that means? Sin was born because people who used machina!
Rikku:You got proof? Show me proof!
Wakka: It’s in Yevon’s teachings! Not that you’d know!
Rikku:That’s not good enough! Yevon says this, Yevon says that. Can’t you think for yourself?
FFX might be the first roleplay game I ever played which didn’t shy away from difficult real-world issues like racism and xenophobia. The cultural differences between the Al Bhed and the Yevonites form an integral part of the game’s story. Their difference in appearance, mannerisms, and approaches are made obvious to the player thanks to both Yevonites and Al Bhed forming part of the ragtag team they put together to save the world. Watching the characters learn about, and come to accept each other’s differences is part of what makes playing FFX so great. Spira isn’t a perfect world. It’s flawed and faces many of the same problems we face in our world every day. The Al Bhed culture and the religion of Yevon provide players with an opportunity to see cultures and religions in our world in a new light, and encourage us to think critically about how we interact with, and react to, different cultures ourselves.
If you’ve never read Raymond E. Feist’s Riftwar Saga, then let me be the first to recommend it to you! While I have my fair share of criticisms about Feist’s work and characters, the series is undeniably enjoyable. One of the things I found most enjoyable about it, was the rich and detailed picture that Feist paints for us of the people on the other side of the rift.
The Tsurani have a feudal system of government, as well as a caste system. In the Empire of Tsuranuanni you’re born into your station. If you’re born a slave, then you’re a slave for life, (unless you happen to have some magical talent and are selected to follow the Great Path and become a magician that is.)
Feist has been pretty candid about where he drew his inspiration from for the Tsurani. It’s a blending of Asian cultures. We see Japanese influence in the structure of families and clans. The political institutions and central government draw a great deal from Chinese dynasties, while architecture and art include Korean and even Aztec influences. There’s even a touch of Zulu in there.
Rather than feeling like a cobbled together cliché however, the Tsurani are a vivid and detailed culture, with plenty of flavour and customs which are unique and well-developed, and which provide an interesting source of conflict in their clash against the more European-style, medieval fantasy of the Kingdom of Midkemia where the story begins. Feist gives plenty of material here to help readers empathize with the main character, Pug, as he struggles to understand the strange culture of the Tsurani, and his place as an outsider within a foreign Empire.
Through Pug’s story, Feist shows how we appreciate the differences in cultures, find the similarities, and how we can share in another’s culture without losing our own.
The cultures we’ve discussed so far have been humans, like us. But what about taking inspiration from the cultures of our world and weaving them into something entirely alien?
That’s exactly what Jim and John Thomas did when they originally created the Predator. When they began creating the extraterrestrial for the movie, they turned to their knowledge of creatures from Mythology, as well as classic literature like Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. The Thomas brothers blended together an array of different cultural traditions to create the Predator of the 1987 film. And since then the concept has been refined and developed more by subsequent directors and writers as the franchise has extended into other mediums.
Designer Alec Gillis, who worked on the original Predator, describes the residents of Yautja Prime as a tribal, warrior culture.
Predators, engage in ritualistic hunts against dangerous prey to prove their honour and enter adulthood, a tradition we can see in Native American tribes, as well as African tribes. There’s also a great deal of emphasis placed on the shame of a warrior’s defeat, a cultural mannerism we can find in the tradition of the Samurai and Japanese culture. Predator’s also mark themselves after their successful hunt, branding themselves visibly. Not unlike the Maori and other Polynesian and Islander tribes.
To create the perfect hunter, the Thomas brothers and those that followed borrowed liberally from the cultures and traditions they found in the world around them and gave us an iconic character that has persisted in popularity for three decades.
Establishing clear and unique cultures enriches a narrative, as a creator you should never be afraid to try and experiment with what inspires you. As long as you have a respect for the source, and avoid tired stereotypes, you’ll avoid offending your audience.
There are plenty of resources out there to help too. Even for those writing fantasy or science fiction, I still recommend Writing The Other by Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward. A book I’ve found helpful across all the genres I dabble with. Author Alyssa Hollingsworth also has a great post on her blog surrounding the subject of creating cultures.
I hope this post has helped you find the confidence to start playing with culture in your own world.
Until next time, happy world building!