Over the last generation or two, there has been a notable shift in the way video games are written. It’s not just enough for a game to have strong mechanics and pretty graphics. Gamers now demand that their games deliver an engaging story – in particular, one that transports them to a well fleshed out world. The escapist nature of video games has been covered extensively by Volcano Bakemeat, and the easiest way to establish that element of wonder is by making sure your world has interesting, in-depth lore.
We have all experienced strong lore: a universe that you want to jump into and never leave. We all know what house we’d be sorted into at Hogwarts or which side of the Force we would favor. Many of the same elements that make for strong lore in other media also works for video games, yet many games get it wrong.
The way I see it there are five rules of thumb to making lore that pulls gamers in instead of putting them to sleep:
Keep it Quick
In comedy there is the notion of a “Tight Two”. Doing a quick two-minute routine to get the audience laughing, then leave before you can overstay your welcome. A similar concept holds true for in-game lore. We are, ultimately, playing this game to play a game, not hear the writers lay out all the cool little quirks of their universe. Players should be quickly given the basics of what they need to know, and leave everything else to optional dialogue or an in-game codex.
GOOD: Mass Effect is the prime example of how to do this. Before deploying on the first mission, the player is given the rundown of who Commander Shepard is, what Spectres are, a hint of the simmering tension between humans and turians, and what the geth are. You are then immediately on Eden Prime shooting robots with space guns. For the more action-focused gamer, that is all they need to understand the gist of what is happening and keep things moving. The socio-political structure of the Turian Hierarchy is best left for the Codex. BioShock Infinite gets an honorable mention based on its opening sequence alone. Booker’s walk through Columbia trying to find the fairgrounds elegantly delivers everything the player needs to know through mere atmospheric dialogue and artwork.
BAD: On the other side of the BioWare coin, Dragon Age: Origins is the worst offender of clunky exposition in recent memory. NPCs frequently talk for upwards of a minute at a time, outlining large swaths of the game’s lore before the player is allowed to continue with the situation at hand. It is hard to remember who Andraste is and why I should care about her remains when it was delivered by the video game equivalent of Ben Stein’s character from Ferris Bueller. The much tighter exposition of Inquisition shows that the Dragon Age universe is actually quite fascinating, but it’s hard to get invested when it is delivered in such a bland way and in such large, cumbersome chunks. Final Fantasy XIII also gets a dishonorable mention for the fact that the first 4-5 hours of the game are essentially a lore primer before the action truly starts.
Remember: Character Still Comes First
If we are playing video games to escape, the key component of that escapism is letting us inhabit the life of a genuine character. The lore should be directly tied to the character in some way, allowing us to understand the world in the way that it impacts our avatar and the people around them. Lore in a vacuum is like finding out your favorite band is touring on the other side of the world – cool, you guess, but it doesn’t actually affect you.
GOOD: The Metroid Prime trilogy was ahead of its time in many ways, chief among them that it delivered the overwhelming bulk of its storytelling through the environment, an entire generation before BioShock would make this common practice. The thing that makes the Prime games an enthralling game experience instead of Reading Simulator 2002 is the heroine: quintessential badass chick Samus Aran. When you find old pieces of a Chozo prophecy, those are the people that raised her. When you see that the Space Pirates are experimenting on Metroids, that is the joining force of two of her oldest foes. When clues as to Ridley’s whereabouts are found, that is a woman hunting down the monster that killed her parents. Despite having little to no dialogue, keeping the action squarely in Samus’ headspace creates for a singularly engaging gaming experience.
Honorable mention to Deus Ex: Human Revolution. Even if Adam Jensen isn’t the most original protagonist in the world, his struggles made the greater landscape of augments much more interesting.
BAD: Every Diablo-type loot grinder is horrible at this. Dating back to the original Blizzard classic, almost every single one of these games involves a place that is in some kind of turmoil, and you play as a random hero who happened to stroll through and has decided to help.
Since your character is essentially a bundle of stats with no past, the writers have no character to tie into the story. While Diablo III attempted to rectify this by giving each character a canon background, those backgrounds were barely tied into the story, and didn’t change the experience at all. I love this genre to death, but I usually skip all of the dialogue after the first hour of gameplay simply because I don’t care about the characters or what is going to happen to them: talking is time that I’m not gaining XP.
Don’t Require Homework
While lore can obviously get delightfully complex, and that is part of what makes fans jump headfirst into a world, in-depth knowledge should not be required in order to enjoy the main game itself. The core story and its characters should drive the drama, not a plot twist that hinges on the player understanding the intricacies of a fake nation’s politics.
GOOD: The Legend of Zelda series has an in-depth, interconnecting lore that involves time travel, reincarnation, and multiple realities. While they kept it under wraps for a long time, Nintendo eventually did come out and say that depending on which game you are playing, Link might be in a world where Ocarina of Time shook out three different ways. However, you can easily play all the games without ever knowing that. With the sort-of exception of direct sequels like Majora’s Mask and Phantom Hourglass, you don’t need any previous knowledge whatsoever to enjoy a Zelda game.
Honorable Mention to Mortal Kombat for having a lot of interesting stuff behind the scenes that in no way impedes the ability to punch stuff until it explodes.
BAD: I love Kingdom Hearts, but that game’s lore is a gigantic hot mess. Before the HD Remixes were released, players would need to play seven games across five consoles to know the whole story so far, and three of those games aren’t even good. The tangled web of relationships, metaphysical links, and increasingly complex rules has turned even the simplest explanation of the plot into the rambling of a deranged weeaboo, and the series’ overarching conflict has bred the hilariously accurate statement that everyone in the franchise is either Sora or Xehanort. I weep for casual fans who are going to pick up Kingdom Hearts III having checked out of the franchise back on the PS2.
Make It Easy To Access
Some of my fondest memories of high school involved leaving the Mass Effect in-game Codex on so Colonel Volgin could read to me about quarian sanitation procedures while I did homework. The most interesting universe in fiction is worthless if fans cannot easily access that information, allowing them to take a break from the action to become immersed in the world.
GOOD: The BioShock series set the gold standard in this to the point that it became one of the funnier and more self-aware gags in South Park: The Stick of Truth. While it has become an overused trope, there is nothing more accessible than an audio diary system. By organically working the hunt for audio logs into the gameplay, players will be inclined to hunt down more lore, and by making it easy listening that does not interrupt gameplay, it can contribute to the atmosphere and flesh out the world without stopping the forward momentum of the game. Sure, it’s sometimes annoying when an audio log gets cut off by the in-game dialogue, or accidentally pushing the wrong hotkey so you have to listen to Sander Cohen pleading to take the ears off for the third time, but the elegance of the format is hard to ignore.
BAD: Oh, Destiny. Destiny, Destiny, Destiny… Look, everyone, I promise Destiny actually has some really interesting lore in the background of its stylish space-magic world. The integration of 6-man raid teams into the story of the Vault of Glass is actually a really cool way to tie gameplay and story together, and confronting Crota in his throne world is super compelling when you realize everything that lead up to that event.
I don’t blame you for not knowing any of that, because Destiny has possibly the biggest story-telling fumble in the last ten years of video games. The codex is not accessible in-game. The more atmospheric, mysterious method of exposition Bungie tried to employ is admirable, but without being able to read about the clues I’ve gathered while I’m waiting for friends in the Tower or camping out a public event zone, players lose all drive to look into their world. The only way to read the Grimoire cards you have gathered is to go to their website and read it through their clunky interface (although I haven’t played since The Taken King so maybe they’ve fixed that). Otherwise the only real story tidbits you get are unintelligible technobabble during mission intros.
I’m not mad at you, Bungie, I’m just disappointed.
Keep it Consistent
Fans will never let anything slide. The slightest inaccuracy or continuity error will breed endless scrutiny, discussions, and outlandish theories to piece the story back together. In today’s internet age where nothing is ever forgotten, it is crucial for a game’s lore to remain consistent as much as humanly possible. While there will always be little mistakes, large inaccuracies will be immortalized.
GOOD: The truth is, no game is perfect at this, because writers are human. Mass Effect had a new, less efficient heat sink technology become universally accepted and applied galaxy-wide in the span of two years because they wanted to change their ammo system. BioShock was never quite able to decide how freeing Little Sisters from their control works. StarCraft seems to have things fairly tight, but I’m sure if I read the books and comics and such I’d find numerous continuity errors between the two games. But you know what? That’s okay. They tried. We were still immersed, and enjoyed those stories, so who cares if there are some continuity errors?
BAD: I CARE, DAMMIT! To once again defecate all over a franchise I love, Metal Gear Solid is a nightmare. Plot threads get dropped and picked up all over the place. Remember that whole “one-has-all-the-dominant-genes” thing between Solid and Liquid at the end of the first game? NEVER COMES UP AGAIN. The hour long reveal of the “S3 Program” at the end of MGS2? ALSO NEVER COMES UP AGAIN. The relationship between two key characters in the franchise that informs a lot of the central antagonist’s actions was mentioned once by Kojima in an interview, and then never explicitly brought up in the games. Metal Gear Solid V exists solely to patch up some of the plot holes in the series, while MGS4 was probably a good 33% retcon. Much like the Star Wars prequels, it seems like new Metal Gear games were written without reviewing the previous ones to refresh on the finer points.
Dishonorable Mention goes to Diablo III for retconning the entire first game to make room for an obvious plot twist, reviving Tyrael with no explanation whatsoever, and then having the most beloved character in the franchise get killed in an in-engine cutscene by a group of random mooks. That last one isn’t lore-related but I think we’re all still bitter.
What makes for interesting lore when you play a game? Did I forget a universe that you think deserves an honorable mention? The answer is yes, I never talked about Halo. But anything else? Comment below!