The Fictional World of One Piece
So I was recently catching up on One Piece having just reached the Dressrosa Arc where Luffy had entered the tournament at the Corrida Colosseum. When the contestants were being revealed both through the announcements and during the backstage drama something dawned on me. I don’t know if “dawned” is the right word because I have always known this deep down but it really “clicked” this time round. Maybe it was the long break from watching the series that made this realisation ever more clear or possibly the way this was presented to me in these episodes. Either way Oda has built one of the most expansive fictional worlds in existence.
This is probably both a sweeping and ignorant statement and I’m aware that this is not area of expertise but I play RPGs regularly enough, read books and watch shows based in fantasy worlds and I’m convinced it’s up there with the Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter and War Hammer series’. Those who are not familiar with One Piece would disagree but those who are would understand why this is the biggest anime universe (and best). And that’s because of the characters. Oda builds his fantasy world through characters.
Poor Pacing or World Building?
I realised this when became frustrated with the (well-known) pacing of the episodes. As each gladiator was being introduced, I sat there thinking why the hell is still taking so long? I was questioning the how necessary all these side characters were in the grander scheme of things. A common rule in storytelling is making sure you only include information that matters. This is something One Piece’s creator seems not bothered about on the other hand this may be what makes this story great. Because side characters and minor acquaintances do matter. Each person that enters the screen or graces the manga panel is a seed. Whether that be a potential ally or enemy, a new obstacle for the Straw Hats to overcome or a conflict that our characters must address for them to grow further.
On top of side characters with their own agendas, the series has continued to add layers to the world. Originally you believed it was just Pirates vs Navy. Then you find out there are secret organisations, revolutionaries, actual islands and countries with their own kind of warriors. And alien species who hold grudges against each other and even other worlds (think Fishmen Island and Skypiea). This means more possible outcomes, threads, possibilities, conflicts alliances, enemies. This is something the likes of Naruto and Dragonball Z failed to do, the side characters eventually faded into irrelevance – it became all about Jinchurikis and Saiyans. The creators of these great series funneled their own creations and shrunk their potentials.
Every character matters
In One Piece, you don’t know whether a new character is simply another cameo or someone who will play a bigger role later on. We never anticipated how or whether Bellamy, Laboon or Coby would re-appear. The way the universe has been set up we don’t know who or what will impact the trajectory of this adventure. The world is filled to the brim with characters so maybe we are mistaking poor pacing with world building. This theory rather resonated with me upon reflection.
Necessities are things like gladiators in Dressrosa arc. They seem irrelevant and filler at first, but in reality are allies and future army that will aid Luffy either during a fight with yonko or during the final war. It’s something that has to happen and, for better or worse, is happening now.
Build games with characters not with quests
I believe this is a concept that can be applied to open world games. Many sandboxes claim to be expansive worlds that are more open and big but really most are empty. In 2015, I wasn’t expecting to take an interest in Assassin Creed’s next game then I saw the likes of Jack the Ripper and Charles Darwin in trailers. These characters who would provide quests with substance.
I know it’s weird for game designers and writers taking advice from a mangaka but the demand narrative driven gameplay and storytelling experience is growing ever stronger in gaming. A lot of gamers don’t want “stuff to do” or collectibles but stories on top of stories. Short stories, weird ones mixed with dark ones based on characters from all walks of life.
As a gamer and someone who enjoys immersing himself in fictional realities I ask game designers who are building their own worlds to try something different. Try not having “side missions or quests” instead add new characters with quests attached. Don’t add a location or a “challenge”. Add another character. Because every character has hopes and dreams, a place they came from and a place they are going to. Build around characters and deep dig into their personalities because it is the characters that leave a lasting impression on you not game trophies (unless it’s Platinum).