Made in Abyss and Building a World
I’ve had the great fortune of visiting Walt Disney World multiple times over.
True to the name, it’s a world all its own. A place where I seriously lose myself and leave my worries behind me. It achieves this effect by meticulously building itself up piece by piece, brick by brick. The mythical kingdoms. The delicious foodstuffs. The silly characters. These aspects and more combine into a park-away-from-home, a special experience unlike any other.
Stories enjoy building their worlds, too. We cannot visit them in person, of course, for they are stuck behind a computer screen or printed onto paper. But they build their worlds just the same, hoping to achieve a similar, captivating outcome.
Last year, during the Summer 2017 season, a “little-known” anime by the title of Made in Abyss arrived with splendor in tow. To put it lightly, this show swept the community off their chairs with its grand adventure and intense direction. However, almost none of the praise it received would have been possible without the story building the world in which it was contained. So, the anime got me thinking two major questions.
What does building a world mean, and how is Made in Abyss so effective at it?
This essay will attempt to convey the idea of world-building. First through a general description, then with its specific functions derived from other mediums, and finally leveraging the anime Made in Abyss to bring everything together. Along the way, the presented research should hopefully address what world-building is, how it is used, and why it is important for a story.
Without further ado, let’s get started!
Adam and Eve Notwithstanding
Pedantry and geology aside , most people within the anime community have come across the term “world-building” at some point. Even more people already have an understanding of it. In fact, the meaning behind world-building exists within the phrase itself easily enough: the act of building a world (in a fictional sense). Be it a film, a television show, a video game, or a novel, certain stories spend precious time and resources tilling fields in which their events and characters thrive.
However, world-building implies going beyond dotting the farm with a couple of trees. As is often the case, this process involves turning a setting into a veritable garden worthy of the audience’s attention. It grows details for picking. It waters thoughts which stand upright. It plants seeds of lore to harvest later. Within these Edens, one finds intrigue, knowledge, and wealth ripe for consumption.
Not every story worries about forming such a garden through world-building, though. They may focus more so on its characters and their interpersonal conflicts, or they may produce plot points that cater towards thrilling sequences. Either way, it’s important to understand that world-building is not always the focus or even a necessity but rather a welcome addition to the layout of a narrative’s land.
For those stories which emphasize world-building as part of its blueprint, the “fruits” and “vegetables” therein usually taste like one of three types: science-fiction, realistic, and fantasy.
Science-Fiction: Interest and Commentary
Within the science-fiction (or “sci-fi”) realm, world-building applies a technological twist. Star Wars is arguably the most well-known representation, for its world is more akin to a universe. Numerous planets to visit. Organizations reminiscent of government bodies. Futuristic doodads like lightsabers, holograms, and robots. Giant space battles.
These additions and more build the world of Star Wars into a juggernaut of both the science and the fiction variety. More importantly, world-building turns this faraway galaxy into a grand setting that simultaneously houses epic tales and entertains the audience. No world-building means a much less interesting world and therefore a much less interesting story.
Sci-fi world-building often explores social commentary, too. Likewise using outer space as its setting, Star Trek is somewhat famous for this approach. During its early run in the 1960’s, the syndicated series showcases strange aliens, new sectors, and molecular transportation which build its world one episode at a time.
Such building also has a lot to say about society. Specifically, the show targets the faults of racism and of militarism (but failed on the fronts of feminism) . In this manner, the world of a given story not only serves as the setting but also acts as a vital tool for the narrative to deliver its core ideas. And world-building makes this tool a viable choice in the toolbox.
Realistic: Rules and Context
For some worlds, they ditch the scientific aspect entirely and stick to fiction quite loosely. That is, realistic world-building aims for immersion, a reflection of life as the audience knows it. Take the hit video-game franchise Grand Theft Auto. Despite the weird physics and the improbable stunts, the game incorporates tons of elements that create realism incarnate as the players’ world.
For instance, they can listen to fake radio stations while driving a car in busy traffic. They can commit crimes, forcing the police to hunt them down. They can even take part in recreational activities, such as bowling with a favorite cousin or spending some hard-earned cash at a local strip club. All just for the heck of it.
While this type of world-building merely mimics reality, it nevertheless immerses the audience by framing and following a specific set of rules based on the context of the story being told. “Every time you create a setting, you also create a set of rules or logic…The important thing is to follow your own rules…Who wants to play a game with someone who makes up the rules as you go along? It’s not fun, and it’s not fair.” 
Grand Theft Auto doesn’t suddenly introduce Norse mythology halfway through, and it doesn’t devolve into a philosophical cyborg tragedy. Instead, the content sticks with its established schema, keeping the world within the game a realistic playground that never strays (too far) off the path. In other words, world-building creates relevant context for the story being told, binding it to rules that prevent weaknesses in the foundation.
Fantasy: Density and Believability
And other worlds go in the opposite direction, championing fantasy from the roots in the ground to the stars in the sky. The titular example being J.R.R. Tolkien’s lauded Lord of the Rings series. Frodo and Sam traverse a world fleshed out to the fullest: entire species, spanning histories, literal usable languages. Seriously, there is a lot that has gone into the franchise, and no several-pages essay could do it justice.
World-building does not need to imitate this direction and fill every nook and cranny with minute, fleshed-out details. However, literature does not have the usual visual luxuries that films, television, and video games provide. Thus, it must work a lot harder to convince readers that its world is worthwhile. Indeed, the audience knows that magic and orcs do not exist, so it’s up to the world-building to make the audience believe as if they do. At least, within the confines of the story.
Such a sentiment holds true for worlds and world-building regardless of the flavor or the genre. Despite how entertaining, meditative, or stringent the world may happen to be, if the world-building cannot adequately join together the world’s separate parts as a cohesive unit, then it by extension cannot coerce the audience to invest themselves in whatever unique land the story happens to come up with.
A solid benchmark for world-building emerges from this cohesion in how well the unstated parts of a world add to the imagination. Alex McDowell, a production designer and resident world-builder for cool films such as Fight Club and Minority Report, says it quite well: “World-building is about understanding a world deeply enough in all of its aspects that stories spring almost effortlessly from that base world.” 
From Gardens to Burrows
Okay, with world-building defined and its functions investigated, a relevant project can now tunnel its way into the fray. For anime, the extremely popular Made in Abyss from Summer 2017 stands as a pretty obvious choice.
This anime includes the same strong world-building techniques that the previous examples likewise employ. One could even argue that this show demands the application of world-building given the journey depicted. Whatever the case may be, it represents another nice example in understanding this rewarding endeavor.
As a quick recap, Made in Abyss centers on two characters: Riko and Reg. A series of incidents lead them to each other — and to immense curiosity of what lies at the very bottom of the monstrous hole in the center of their island. Relying on the other’s strengths, they muster the courage necessary and descend into the darkness beneath them.
That’s the setup. While already intriguing, the anime doesn’t reach its stardom status on a synopsis alone. Instead, world-building aids it around most corners (if circular crevasses had corners at any rate).
To start, Made in Abyss falls into the fantasy category, but it does not get there immediately. Instead, it begins its world-building above ground, providing details on and about the surface and the surrounding city of Orth before it lowers down.
For instance, the show makes note of the orphanage, their training, and the vertical classrooms. It describes the allure of the Abyss’s treasures and the people who brave its unforgiving depths. It showcases a festival which celebrates massive accomplishments that further designate the tiered system of the whistles.
The show doesn’t stop there. It remarks on the nearby slums and their closeness to the Abyss. It gives a glimpse at a carriage animal and one kind of shop the locals can visit. It highlights the Cave Raider Guild HQ, a museum of sorts that protects many of the important artifacts and findings. It even provides information before the main story itself when the opening credits of the opening track coincide with the runic symbols that form the readable and writable language of their world. (The accuracy of such “translations” is another matter entirely.)
That’s a lot to take in, but already this story contained to just “a remote island in the southern sea of Beoluska” (as the anime puts it) feels like an awe-inspiring place the audience wishes to learn more about. World-building works well here, too, since the docile, normal city contrasts nicely with the harshness of the Abyss to follow.
Moreover, the anime knows not to go outside of this area. World-building does not need to conjure up every single nation or every single culture or every single detail semi-tangential to a given setup. Inherently, that’s impossible to do. Practically, straying away from relevant world-building bogs down the story and the world at best, distracts them from what really matters at worst.
On that note, the Abyss itself matters most, so Made in Abyss prioritizes its world-building efforts around this otherworldly place. And it does so by focusing on those four key functions: creating interesting content, becoming a strong narrative tool, following specific rules, and forming a believable place.
A (W)hole World
First and foremost, the anime decides on a very simple yet very smart addition: a map. At the end of every episode, Made in Abyss treats the audience to a cartographer’s take on the Abyss, the so-called “Rough Map of the Netherworld.”
While the map mainly serves to orient the audience and highlight the current location of Riko and Reg, it also contributes to the world-building when it hints at the fantastical areas that await everyone involved in this adventure. Hazards, distances, interpretations. The Abyss contains no shortage of wonders, and the insight from the map makes the audience wonder about them that much more.
As the map explains, the Abyss is sectioned off into multiple layers. Each layer contains its own ecosystem and a brand-new set of challenges, bringing along extra opportunities for that precious world-building.
Thus, Made in Abyss loves to show off its visual splendor with picturesque views of the terrifying habitats. Where the shots of Orth highlighted cobbled streets and quaint architecture, these new shots focus on the eerily calm and equally chaotic locations of the various layers. Rocky terrains, serene waterfalls, green hills, upside-down trees, cloudy faults, steamy ponds, snowy mountains. The Abyss morphs its shape and consistency constantly, and the world-building captures these changes without issue thanks to its plethora of images.
Flora cannot exist without fauna. So, Made in Abyss likewise channels its animal instincts, inventing many a monster that the duo encounters to complement the ouba leaves and the baracocha fruit. Hammerbeaks. Crimson splitjaws. Corpse-weepers. Inbyos. Madokajacks. Neritantans. Amakagame. Orbed-piecers. Such a bestiary rivals even the most prolific of Charles Darwin’s works.
With the mappings, the landscapes, and the creatures, the world-building gets at one of its key functions: creating interesting content. The diversity of these biomes inherently delivers a range of new elements to take in episode after episode, making sure that the audience is never for want.
While layers and beasts of a dastardly origin impede the movements of Riko and Reg, the world itself represents their largest foe, their biggest “antagonist.” For, as any raider worth his whistle will warn, a nasty truth lurks within the atmosphere of this unrelenting chasm: the Curse of the Abyss.
Shiggy (one of their friends in Orth) puts it best, saying “When cave raiding in the Abyss, the return journey presents a problem… The deeper you go, the greater and more severe the physical toll of heading home becomes…” To clarify, it isn’t only returning but rather any ascension of any kind, so long as it is steep enough, runs the risk of the Curse taking hold.
Thus, with this massive danger in mind, Made in Abyss gets at that second key function of world-building: becoming a strong narrative tool. To this end, and appropriately enough, the show takes the time to include narration (usually near the beginning of an episode) that denotes its more upfront thematic ideas. The balance in challenge versus curiosity. The struggles of dissuading death. The realization of inferiority.
The very nature of the Abyss also emboldens the story plot-wise. As Riko and Reg dive further and further, overcoming obstacles that bombard them from every which way with increasing difficulty, a keen sense of progress blossoms. Their victories lead to forward motion, putting them a few steps closer to that ultimate goal of reaching the absolute bottom. Steps that would not be feasible without the world-building granting these cathartic chances.
For a caveat as evil as the Curse, though, merely describing the complications isn’t enough. Instead, the story must also act on them. Luckily, Made in Abyss understands world-building, and so it does just that, placing the effects of the Curse front and center in all their grisly glory. They range in severity from worrisome to horrible to downright terrifying, and the show makes it clear that these byproducts are absolutely no joke.
This commitment towards the Curse gets at the third key function of world-building: following a specific set of rules. Context for the story isn’t ignored but rather embraced as events and other world-building elements arise. A sentiment that applies to more than just the Curse. Reg’s capabilities, the balloon letters, and a need for nourishment each have rules around them that the world-building dictates and the characters abide by.
From a bird’s-eye view, Made in Abyss also avoids including items that do not mesh with its context. Areas like the Seeker Camp and Nanachi’s hovel find a home within the Abyss without feeling out-of-place, and the action-oriented sequences are neither too ridiculous nor too subdued but rather remain within the desired Goldilocks quadrant. The world-building, in how it creates the right rules for the story to follow, makes these inclusions fair rather than unwarranted.
Everything else in-between crystallizes as footholds that the anime utilizes for the final key function of world-building: forming a believable place. Throughout the story, the myriad of smaller, almost inconsequential details may not seem pertinent, but they still flesh out this world, giving the audience even more to think about. In turn, these details permit other potential stories to spring forth.
The unearthed skeletons in praying poses are a nice example to back up this argument. “The Compilation of Recorded Relics”, with its pages on mysterious objects discovered inside the Abyss (like the Unheard Bell which can apparently stop time when rung), also invites further imaginative thoughts. The dialogue helps, too, like when certain exchanges talk about the hammerbeaks bringing shiny items back to their nests or certain spiky appendages along a flat wall house eggs for tasty eats.
Besides inanimate traits, the people tangential to the Abyss likewise have their own stories to tell due to the world-building. Side characters like Habo, the giant, golly man whose gorilla-esque build and crazy speed underpin his skills, and Maruruk, the caretaker at the Seeker Camp, each play their part while also having their own untold adventures and interactions. Allusions to the obscure white-whistle holders warrant more speculation as well, especially Riko’s mother who has been through and has seen it all.
Truth be told, the audience does not learn much (if anything) about these additional people. The exploits they have potentially embarked on, however, pop up not as tangible scenes but instead as imaginative footholds for the audience to latch onto.
Better yet, these world-building details could extend farther than simply expanding the world and filling the gaps at the audience’s behest. They can come into play later on as an important foreshadowing mechanism, serving as more than just extra info. Meaning, “unnecessary” inclusions — such as mentioning the iron rain which pelts the sixth layer — not only flesh out the world in a believable fashion but also prepare the story for what it is to come.
Believe it or not, there are even more world-building techniques that could be pointed out within Made in Abyss. And there are even more for sure on the horizon (given how the anime has not finished telling its tale quite yet). Nonetheless, this show imparts its mark on the anime medium by building a fascinating world — from outside in and the whole way down.
So, what have we learned?
World-building is the process in which a story builds its world into a complete entity. While not required and capable of many forms, such a garden of intrigue grows lush “greenery” for a variety of purposes. Captivating the audience, bolstering the narrative, following context, invoking a sense of believability. World-building allows these functions to flourish, making the world within a story an impressive facet worth noting.
As for Made in Abyss, it clearly has a deep understanding of what makes for strong world-building. The anime knows its limits. It showcases flora and fauna for lots of intrigue. It constructs a keen sense of progress. It acts on its in-place rules. And it sparks imagination with its smaller asides.
Having delved into the subject and having read through a related example, make sure to keep world-building in mind going forward. Take note of what the process creates, and grasp how it improves the story in a meaningful manner.
For you may just find that building a world requires more than just a mouse mascot!
List of References