Debate: How should video games handle lore?

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Skyrim book

Stian: A good story can certainly turn the tide for a game. We have seen plenty of games that have been more successful due to conveying an atmosphere, plot and/or characters, despite the interaction (gameplay) being not a focus or even poor. While the importance of a story might be a topic for another time, I wanted to shift focus to something that can be a minor part of a game or even not included, yet have an enormous effect. I started playing Nioh after acquiring a Playstation 4 one saturday afternoon. While I was talking to Casper about the Dark Souls-series, he mentioned how odd it was that I was a fan as well, and yet did not ramble on about the lore and mystery of the game. This made me think of many gamers that are much more focused on the lore of a game, than the game itself. Skyrim, Star Wars, and even Kirby games have lore that fans can be absorbed by.

However, I am quite mixed about this form of storytelling in general. Minor details can certainly give more to the overall world. Some good examples are Silent Hill 2 or Yume Nikki, which gives you characters and/or worlds that have interesting and subtle elements to them, that can be further elaborated upon through optional diaries or left up to discussion. However, when you have to find info from outside sources to get compelling lore such as a wikipedia, or read text from in-game books that doesn’t necessarily tell of something or someone you will interact with (Skyrim), it makes the product become very distant for me. I often think when this happens, it is a shallow way of creating a fanbase just because it has something interesting outside of the game. Especially these days when the games have the possibility to hold a lot of data and the main-concept of a game is the way you interact with it, lore and more insights shouldn’t be something similar to reading faqs on gamefaqs. What do you think Casper?

Dark Souls ring

Casper: I feel it’s important to establish that lore and storytelling are not the same thing. Lore refers to the back-story of a world, its cultures and systems, which is separate though not unconnected from the storytelling you actually do in the game; your dialogue, cutscenes, even the way you present areas and people visually is all a way to transfer that lore to the player. And yes, I feel games can rarely go without it, though I have been proven wrong before.

Lore is the backbone of any creative setting and finding a way to make it appeal to the player can go a long way to crafting a solid fanbase. You could offload all of your information or stick it in thick books, but in my experience that will do you little good. Gamers will beg for the ability to skip your lengthy cutscenes and ignore your books entirely, whereas if you hook them in first they’ll actively work to find this kind of stuff. People who play Warhammer love the lore, but were first drawn in by the cool-looking troops they could play as, which had bits of lore translated into abilities they could use. Dark Souls too transfers much of the lore through its gameplay, selling players on the harsh world they want to convey by having players battle against the monstrous creatures that inhabit it, dying over and over again. I actually skipped the cutscene at the beginning of Dark Souls only to look it up on YouTube later in the game when I was getting immersed and also found myself going into the inventory to read the description of items before I even bothered to look at their stats.

Warhammer codexes

Stian: I suppose that is actually true as it clearly can work the other way around as well. I still have a hard time getting into Warhammer 40k after hearing about the culture of the orcs first, and seeing how serious some players take this world. Maybe if I got a fair shot at the game, I might be persuaded, but I am still unsure. However oddly enough: Star Wars games or even the movie never interested me until I began reading up and hearing about the philosophies of the way of the force, which while easy to grasp, had a very good concept. Lore can however be too much at the forefront and unfortunately what will turn many away from a series, game and so on. As you said, you are usually drawn in by a different aspect than the lore. So when fans are so in depth that they only talk about lore instead of what the product offers at first hand, do you think it can destroy more than its worth as well?

Casper: A good example of lore nobody needed is an old industry anecdote. Tom Hall, one of the men who worked on the original Doom, conjured up a massive bible dictating the story, lore, and various characters for the game. Almost all of it was discarded or repurposed, because Doom is not a game that wears its lore on its sleeve or even benefits from it. Several old games preferred to tuck a few paragraphs away in the manual. Imagine if Doom had opted to use all that fluff in the bible, had to work in all that story Tom had written, instead of just making great levels and focusing on game flow. Sure wouldn’t be as popular as it ended up being.

I think I kind of get what you mean with your Star Wars example. I have only recently watched a single Star Wars movie, because all I knew about it from fans were long-winded explanations of the Jedi ways and all that, it’s not something that sounded like it would click with me. That’s not a flaw of the lore, though, that is just fans being fans.

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Stian: Actually, they kinda tried to get it back with Doom (2016) and I honestly could not care less. It is so weird when certain games try to take themselves too seriously, when especially the tone can be different. However, I think you have a point there. Sometimes, it’s not just about the lore itself that can be a problem, but also how its told. I can’t tell you how many fans tried to win me over with some movies, series or games, and only brought up the lore and tried to glorify the product. It’s a weak discussion when you can’t take in both positive and negative aspects, and things are simply black and white.

I personally feel the game itself should show what it can offer, without lore being the reason to play the game. However I do agree that lore can definitely add and be “the backbone of any creative setting”. Since it is more accessible for fans, both for discussions and for absorbing, do you think lore is meant for those that are already deeply invested? Maybe it is the reason why it is not something that is clearly part of the main-plot as it can turn away newcomers.

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Casper: So, at this point we figured we’d try a little practical experiment and had the other watch an important cutscene from a game we are passionate about. I had Stian watch the cinematic for the Battle of the Wrath Gate from World of Warcraft and he had me watch the introduction to the Orvus Chamber from a Rather & Clank game. While hardly definitive proof, we both had a very similar reaction: lacking any sort of context we couldn’t at all appreciate the contents of these scenes, epic as though they may be to the other. Stian just found the entire thing baffling to watch and I just found myself being bored and mildly annoyed with it.

With that in mind and to answer your question, I feel lore is best used like a rabbit hole. Anybody walking the field can spot it and you may even draw attention to it, they may intrigue players into taking a peek inside and those who really feel like it can take the dive and discover the vast depth of your world. The alternative, then, is stepping out of your front door and being faced with a large cave. Sure, there is the promise that there is a field to walk across once you get through the cave, but before you have even had any fun you are already quietly dreading how many more caves lurk beyond the first.

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To bring this discussion back to Dark Souls, I found that the various strange bosses were those rabbit holes for me. I wanted to know why I was setting a large, noble wolf on fire or why I would even want to fight against somebody like Priscilla when given the choice. Contrast that with Kingdoms of Amalur where you need a glossary to keep up with all the factions, historic events, and Gods being thrown at you. Not to mention titles like Skyrim, where lore is tucked away in books that players skip and conversations they are eager to rush through; the rabbit holes that are overgrown and hard to see.

Stian: I think this is a good summary for our conclusion so I won’t dwindle much more on this topic. Lore can definitely add, as you already described, if it is presented as a good extra to your experience. However, it will have a hard time giving introduction to a media alone, as there need to be a form of a hook or introduction that can be easier to take in. After all, without any context, lore will simply be a shallow theory.

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