Deadly Designer Sins: Culture

This article is a part of our “Deadly Designer Sins” series.

ArchitectI tried to grasp culture in such a way that would make it easy for all of you to understand. The more I looked at it, the more I came to realise how many different elements a culture is composed of. There are many different factors that influence how a culture develops, what shaped it as it is today. The thought alone makes me want to jump into a shark pool. Yet, here we are, faced with the topic, which has been haunting me for some time now… “How to design your own culture”.

Rather than focusing on trying to explain what a “culture” is composed of, let us look at some games, and analyze how they tried to create their own cultures. Elder Scrolls: Oblivion is a good example of a game with a variety of cultures. Each city and town has a slightly different architecture, with different races being slightly more dominant. Some of the towns were built on older sites, such as the Capital City which was build around an Ayleid “ruin”. But, that is all that there is to it. Some races have unique greetings, and small differences, but nothing “outstanding”. Let us now look at Gothic 3. Here you have three dominant areas, which I call the Desert, Mountains and Generic Medieval. Although here again we see some clear differences between the different groups (including the Orcs which took most of it over), the differences are not that substantial. The Orcs differ to humans only in terms of slavery and some sense of “Honor”. The Mountain dwellers are hardy fellows, who have become experts in killing Orcs, and its hard not to think of them as “Barbarians”. Meanwhile the Desert people (at the time when you meet them) feel like dominantly assassins, of some sort, acting as the world’s slavers, more than anything else (so they get along nicely with the Orcs). The laws among all these groups are identical, and if not for the different ways how they dressed and architectural/geographical differences in location you would honestly not be able to tell them apart.

Mount & Blade: With Fire and Sword

Visiting Kiev in Mount & Blade: With Fire and Sword. Plenty of small houses, old churches... at least if you looked in this direction. Behind me are much more impressive buildings. Still, when compared to Warsaw this town feels smaller and somewhat backward.

Perhaps one of the clearest examples of culturesbeing pretty much identical, with token differences, can be found in Mount and Blade. Their towns look different, their units have different strengths and weaknesses, but apart from that it’s all the same. They have different names and titles, but honestly, that is not going very far. Among the given example we can pin-point a few recurring elements, when game designers make games. First of all, architecture. The best way to know you are somewhere else, is to make the buildings look different. Second, clothing. Just in case you have to tell who are the bad guys. Thirdly, fighting styles… though not always the case, some cultures will use different types of armour and weapons. Names/Titles will also often differ. Sometimes there will be a unique greeting, but among the many things that a culture could be composed of, it feels token.

Children of the Nile

Rome wasn't built in a day... let's be honest though, nothing "just" appears. Any civilization or culture starts off in wooden or clay huts.

Things you should look at, are possible cultures which influencedthe current one. Events which shaped it, whether “man caused” (war, civil war, an old ruler’s laws etc.) or natural (famine, climate change, flood, etc.). The easiest way to look look at it, is to ask “Why?” all in all. As long as you find your own answers satisfactory, you are going in the right direction. But if you ever do end up being unable to say why do people not wear clothes… that’s just plain lazy design.

Fallout 3

War might never change, but it brings change. In the case of the Fallout series, the downfall of one world, and the rise of another.

So, you have your “present”. You now know what happened before, and how it influenced your current culture. But, did you look at all the things that your culture could be composed of? Let us take a look at the “Checklist”.

Architecture and clothing come together for one reason.The people’s technological advancement is combined with maximum usefulness, and tradition. In your typical fantasy setting, people living in colder areas will often have furs to keep themselves warm. Meanwhile in moderate areas people would wear lighter cottons or silks, depending on how rich they were. In areas where the weather is much warmer houses would have no need for glass windows or perhaps even doors, so that air could travel through the building, bringing in some relative cool, if it was scorching outside. Meanwhile, in extremely cold areas, there would had been much fewer windows, most likely locked or covered with something, with some chimney at the top to let smoke out when preparing food or warming up the building. It’s little things like that. However, consider the impact of somebody travelling from these cold places to a moderate place, shocked by how lightly people dress and how differently their buildings look (with big concerns as to how they keep everything warm).


Trade is how you get new technologies, new goods. It is how people from all around the world can trade information, recipes, knowledge. It is also an opportunity for different cultural ideas and traditions to clash.

What I will call very roughly, as the Economy. You do not expect to travel all around the world to find the same things you have back home (though, it would certainly make for an interesting twist). What “a people” produce (and would be good at making) is dependent on localy available resources. If people did not have Iron, and were forced to use only wood, they might become experts in becoming wood workers (with severe limitations, lacking iron tools). A group which lives near the plains, with an abundance of horses, would train these beasts of burden for numerous activities. It might seem obvious, but consider the opposite, what is there little of? If there was an ever present shortage of food, how is somebody who eats too much viewed? Perhaps the afore mentioned horse trainers would consider the animals sacred in some way, and any wrong handling would be seen as a crime? With this comes trade with other civilisations. Obtaining new technologies, tools and resources which might had not been available. Think how they could influence a group/culture, how much good or bad it might had made. Do not always assume anything brought into a culture is “bad” (or “good” for the matter). Think how big an influence it could really have.

Japanese culture

Feudal Japan is an excellent example of how different an entire culture is. For many, it might just feel like a "copy" of the Western medieval "Knight and Kings". When you forget everything about the West however, and read into the details, you find a world, almost entirely different from our own.

To give you a more festive example, look at Christmas.I can see three separate influences into this holiday. Firstly, Christmas itself is celebrating the birth of Christ (who was born in the Middle East), but we buy ourselves Christmas trees and decorate them (most likely a tradition with pagan origins) and promote Santa Claus (who is a purely a “Capitalist/Consumerist” creation). I think we had strayed a bit off the original idea, of what Christmas was meant to be about… though do not ask me how it is *meant* to look.

Mount & Blade

Comparison of two unit types in M&B: With Fire and Sword. On the right the Janissary (Crimean Khanate), and on the right, Gentleman at Arms (Sweden). Uniforms are not always practical. Sometimes it's all based around tradition.

Since we are on the topic of fighting let us look at “War”.Perhaps the clearest way to see how a culture wages war, is to look at their Economy, surroundings and in part, tradition. A nation which has very few natural resources might be highly pacifist, but also hungrily expansionist, since they might feel they deserve the resources other nations stole from them. The resources available also influence what weapons and equipment soldiers have at their disposal. In a region with plenty of horses and cloth, but little metals you could find plenty of horsemen in hardened leather, using pikes and bows. Meanwhile if there was an abundance of heavier metals, there could be heavier armours and weapons, but lacking wood, there might be few polearms. Tactics and strategy also differ. Take a look at the 2nd World War, where each nation in essence had its own Grand Strategy. The Axis had their initial brilliant Blitzkrieg. The Soviets fought their wars en-mass, and were prepared to lose territory for time. Unlike the Axis, the Allies did not have any “Super Heavy” tanks, due to the need of cheap, fast and reliable production. Nations and cultures might had used, overall, very similar “units”, strategies and tactics but there was always something, that made them distinct from each other. Including the look of uniforms and style of weapons used. Even the shape of the helmet can say something about the nation’s needs, for a specific shape and utility.

Rome: Total War

My Gaul army leader charging in, with his bodyguard, into Britton chariots. Brittons are the only "Northern" faction in Rome: Total War which uses chariots. The Egyptians, are the other.

Often overlooked by many, Laws. Law seems pretty clear to us, and that is already the first mistake. In the vast majority of games, the laws present from nation to nation, from town to town, are identical. Stealing will be considered as harsh, no matter what was stolen. Drawing out your weapon and assault, will also be viewed in a similar light. What happened to variety? Or rather, what happened to *actual* laws? I can see, that in a “civilised” city, somebody walking around with their weapon drawn would be suspicious. But in a “Barbaric” setting, nobody would give you so much as a glance. How about, we combine a bit of Tradition with law? Bowing to a superior could be considered a tradition, but also if somebody does not do that, it could be breaking the law. The Samurai had the right to kill any peasant, who did not show them respect. In a computer game it might seem staggering, to make each town have its own laws, but you do not have to create a separate Law Book for each location, merely consider the culture itself, and how some unique or strange laws would end up being used within it.

That is all I have for you today. But expect more, next week, Religion. But if you missed something do take a look at the general announcement here.

Alex “WriterX” Bielski

About The Author

Aleksander "WriterX" Bielski
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Student of Psychology, he was identified as a Nut-Job even before he started the course. Having done some small work as a Modder for a number of titles, and worked as a Game Designer part-time, Alex now writes in third person. As Co-Owner and Editor of he aims high, while being armed only with a sling. In the future, he hopes to become a fully qualified Newspaper Editor, and purchase Google.

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