The merits of lore in video games – Destructoid


A community blog by Kerrik52

[Destructoid reader Kerrik52 writes about the ways in which games have used lore to varying degrees of success. A fascinating topic that spans some of my — and many of your — favorite games. Dig in. -Jordan]

A little while back, I wrote a bit about how different games use crafting systems. So with the 10-year anniversary of Dark Souls inching ever closer, I thought it prudent to do the same for lore. I can’t say I’ve seen much discourse on the subject, so hopefully I’ll be able to write something novel or interesting. Maybe even both!

As before, let’s start with defining what the hell we’re talking about here. Urban Dictionary (the most reputable of sources, I know) defines it as “The collective history and the sum of all knowledge available about a certain fantasy or sci-fi universe,” which sounds about right for our purposes.

Expanding on that, I’d say it’s any piece of story in a game not touched on by the main plot. So if you have a character that’s only around for a scene or two to serve a direct purpose (dying, exposition, boss fight), then their backstory presented in a log two hours later is lore. It’s extra information available to give the setting more texture and prove that the character has a place in the world beyond their role in the plot.

With the two flavours of story (plot and lore) being separate, a game can naturally do one better than the other. A game can have the main story be really engaging but have terrible lore notes (like No One Lives Forever) or the plot can be as flat a dinner table and have all the good bits in the menu and loading screens (hello there, Dark Souls). There are probably games out there that do both well, but none come to mind at the moment.

Just as with crafting systems, I don’t find it interesting to merely single out good and bad uses of lore. Instead, I’m gonna group together various approaches to lore and let that carry the discussion. But enough preamble, let’s get talky!

Lore In The Manual

For a long time, putting a majority of a game’s plot in the manual was the only way to go due to memory limitations. But instead of focusing on decades worth of games that put most (if not all) of the story in the manual, I wanna talk about games that put extra details in the manual when they didn’t need to.

I’m thinking mainly of fifth and sixth-gen games here, as that’s when devs got enough freedom to put a decent amount of words in their games, but before they turned their back on manuals entirely. So what ended up in the manual back then wasn’t vital information to understanding the plot, but instead nifty extra information that would be difficult to slot into the game without it being awkward.

Looking over some manuals I have, it’s most common to have a few paragraphs of worldbuilding that lead directly into the plot plus some character profiles explaining some interesting (but superfluous) details. Though even under such restrictions, some games still manage to have fun with it.

Muppet Monster Adventure frames the character bios of the bosses as in-character monologues directed towards the protagonist Robin. And for Sly Cooper and the Thievius Raccoonus, the manual is styled after the titular book with the whole thing being framed as a dialogue between Sly and Bentley, giving you a taste of their interactions before playing.

Metal Gear Solid 2 Instruction Manga

I haven’t done a deep-dive into the greatest manuals ever made, so if any special ones come to mind, be sure to tell me about them. I’ve heard that PC game manuals are the stuff of legend. But I wanna at least highlight the stuff that ended up in the manuals of Kojima’s games. I’ve seen tutorial comics, timelines, and even a reference glossary. I’m pretty sure you won’t even know what the title of Zone of the Enders means unless you check out the manual for details on what the hell an Ender is.

I’m of two minds on this. Manuals are rad and certainly more interesting than in-game codex entries and summaries of previous games, especially when there’s some good art on display. Not to mention that putting stuff there can help with a game’s pacing, since the devs can assume you already read the manual. But I can’t help but think that my perspective is heavily clouded by nostalgia here.

It’s more efficient to have everything related to the game in the game (otherwise you can end up in the Taro-hole with its canon stageplays or the many CD dramas Japan is so fond of), especially since manuals can be lost. I’ve often been disappointed when opening up second-hand game cases only to find a mere disc, never to know what fun tidbits the manual had.

I think the way to go to make everyone happy is to standardize digital manuals or at least put in more extra content in games. Tell me that Hollow Knight wouldn’t be better if there was a Zote comic in the main menu, or that it wouldn’t be neat if you could unlock the lore bible XSEED used to maintain consistency when translating the Trails games after you beat Trails of Cold Steel. I’d be interested in seeing anything that’d help me engage with the world of the game better.

I suppose what I’m arguing for here is “that extra touch” over better storytelling, but I’d say stuff like that would make games easier to connect with, which technically does make a story better, if only subjectively.

Lore As A Direct Reward

Depending on who you ask, any extra lore can be considered a reward, but I’m singling out Arkham Asylum specifically here due to the sheer amount of extraneous effort that went into the lore pages and interview tapes in the game.

While the tapes are arguably main story material that exists to give you a better understanding of the game’s six active villains, the biographies of the rest of them is very much not. With Batman’s storied (Read: convoluted) history, getting to grips with his rogue’s gallery is a herculean effort.

So I was surprised to find out that I enjoyed reading the biographies of all of these D-listers. You get a nice illustration, some basic information like their first appearance in comics, their backstory, and their relationship with Batman. They really managed to distill decades of history into the most engaging bits without necessitating an extensive wiki dive. That’s probably why the series is so successful overall.

Prometheus lore in Batman: Arkham Asylum

Now, this approach probably wouldn’t fly for most games, as without a strong and diverse setting that people either have an interest in before playing or some really stellar worldbuilding, putting lore as the reward for a challenge could very easily backfire. Arkham Asylum does give out exp in anticipation of people who don’t care about the lore, but even that might not be enough to motivate a player if the setting is boring enough.

Lore As Flavour

This is incredibly subjective, but I have a pair of games here where the lore didn’t resonate with me as writing. Instead, it feels better to describe it as a tone-setter.

The first game is Bastion, which is drenched in lore for each area you explore courtesy of the game’s famous narrator. But since everything in the game is told through his narration, I found it difficult to connect with the plot, especially when he narrates where one would expect normal dialogue instead. That’s obviously intentional and does lend the whole game this unique feel of degradation, isolation, and otherworldy-ness.

The other game that I think fits into this category is Thief: The Dark Project, which opens each mission intro cutscene with a religious passage or ancient letter from one of the game’s factions. The text is often kinda difficult to map to the current mission and can easily be disregarded as fluff (even though there is some meaning and foreshadowing to be parsed from it).

But even taken as simple fluff, these quotes do an excellent job of making the setting feel grander than quaint presentation would suggest. Like there’s this giant disaster looming over The City, which very much the case.

There’s an argument to be had about style over substance (especially when intended substance gets interpreted as style), but I’m of the opinion that if there’s enough groundwork there, then a game is free to prattle on up its own ass as much as it wants to. I think Thief succeeds over Bastion in this regard because the main character Garret gives you a good leg to stand in with the setting, whereas the Kid and the narrator in Bastion are difficult to connect to.

Lore As A Monster Guide

To my recollection, not many games put a lot of effort into their monster lists, and even fewer manage to add something interesting to make them worth perusing. With a lot of monsters being designed as obstacles first and little thought being given to their ecology. What you usually get is a quick blurb about what they eat or how they attack.

Ratchet and Clank: Going Commando has a Monsterpedia, which does include some mildly entertaining descriptions and worldbuilding. But it’s not as good as I remember it being, so I finally understand why it didn’t make it to the next game.

A game that’s really good about its monster guide is Devil May Cry. In that game, not only do you get lore about the monsters, you get specific combat tips that fill out as you get hit by rare attacks or manage to exploit a weakness. So if you accidentally get a critical hit, you can then check the relevant file for a description of what just happened. I find this to be an excellent way of helping the player master the game’s enemies without being overbearing.

There’s a lot of potential in this department, as the monsters you spend a whole game fighting would serve the game better by being more interesting to learn about. While it’s hard to make the ecology of your monsters interesting (especially if they don’t really make sense to begin with), I think a neat shortcut would be to have a character in the game describe them for you.

A journal entry from Eternal Darkness

That way, it’d be easier to write, as you don’t need to think up perfect descriptions and you can use it as an opportunity to develop the character in question, highlighting what they like and dislike about the various monsters. Now that I think about it, Eternal Darkness did this to great effect in one chapter by having a character perform autopsies on defeated monsters. The Suffering did something similar and The Darkness 2 had a character prattle on about various magical artifacts you collect in an entertaining fashion, so there are devs out there with the right idea.

Lore As Gameplay

Here’s a fun (if sadly rare) way of using lore. By connecting it to the gameplay, you incentivize the character to care about it, which can lead to greater appreciation for the story. It can also backfire like in Ziggurat, where the lore gives you exp (or a whole level with a specific perk card), but is so disconnected from the game that I didn’t care about it at all aside from its gameplay benefits.

There are ways of making it work, like in Alpha Protocol where you can collect information about various people and organizations. For the most part it’s just extra info, but if you collect enough, you can easily get the upper hand in a conversation, which feels great, since information is usually pretty expensive to acquire.

Then you have the whole immersive sim genre, which is built on the ability to steal passwords and passcodes from various notes and emails in order to more easily progress. You can usually hack your way through these problems, but if your skills are not up to task, stealing information is a fun alternative.

Implementing information into gameplay is difficult, but it has seen some success. If I were to pick out a place where it could be really great, it’d be in western RPGs. Some of them do let you skip steps or try alternate quest paths by collecting information, but from what I know, it’s never a standardized mechanic outside of Alpha Protocol. So if more western RPGs were to allow for better sleuthing, I think the genre would be a bit more exciting.

Lore Dumps As A Cost-Saving Measure

Here we are in the realm of main story stuff again, but depending on where you draw the line, it can still be considered lore. I’m mostly thinking of the aggressive lore dumps in the Metal Gear series, but there are some other examples that I can think of as well.

Metal Gear is infamous for its lengthy cutscenes and a lot of that is due to the sheer amount of detail Kojima wants to shove down your throat. Having access to that information is nice and there is a certain charm to letting go of your controller to listen to a gigantic speech about destiny, genes, and nanomachines cut to still images or minimal animation.

But in many scenes, it becomes apparent that the characters serve as mediums for whatever Kojima read about that week instead of having the information contextualize the characters. It’s a fine line between what accentuates the plot and what’s just military trivia. Restraint is important.

Xenogears

Then you have games like Resident Evil and Onimusha, with very straightforward plots that feature some inexplicable bullshit, be it monsters or strange environments. In order to make the journey more believable, there are a ton of documents to discover, which hastily address current or upcoming things.

It can feel a little bit weak to lean on text so much, though I like it when Trails games cut to the newspaper after huge events occur. But it’s a case-by-case thing, as sometimes you can just feel the budget drop with the arrival of a plot/lore dump (like in Xenogears). Other times, like in Amnesia: The Dark Descent, it feels perfectly natural to scour the levels for side stories on the way to the next main plot point.

I think the key lesson here is to make sure that everything forcibly presented to the player flows properly so that even those only interested in a quick playthrough can keep up. Then you can add more material to explain details for those that are truly interested.

Metal Gear started doing this with Peace Walker by making a bunch of conversation tapes optional but also non-missable, which I think was for the better. A shame about the follow-up, The Phantom Pain, not being able to have much of a main plot and instead having to rely on said tapes for its story. I think that game is a perfect example of how important it is to nail the main plot before putting in extra side stories.

Lore As A Giant Tease

When making a setting, it’s natural for certain past events to sound incredibly interesting when described. So much so that one would want a game exploring that part, even if it wouldn’t really work as a game.

I’m mainly thinking of two franchises here, Devil May Cry and Castlevania. For Castlevania, there’s the battle of 1999, which is when Dracula finally dies after getting resurrected 1267 times. To delegate such momentous occasion to the backstory of Aria of Sorrow is such a tease. Knowing modern Konami, I doubt they could do it justice, but what few details we get makes it sound so damn cool.

Devil May Cry‘s tease of similar magnitude is what the hell happened to Dante’s father Sparda. He was a demon who “woke up to justice,” sealed away the demon world, and fell in love. Then he just went fucking poof. He is presumably dead, but nothing in the games says that’s the case. It’s so weird to have this intrinsic part of the mythology never come to light.

Devil May Cry lore

Now, not cashing in on a promising idea may seem like a waste, but I totally get not wanting to risk it. If you screw it up, then people are going to riot. If you simply leave it be, then people can use their imagination to fill in the blanks. That way, you save yourself both the effort and the associated risk.

You can look to the Metal Gear games starring Big Boss for an example on how this can play out. MGS3 is great, but even that brings about retcons that very much change the context of Big Boss compared to the legend you hear about in the previous game. It’s a mixed bag that really shows the difficulties of writing backwards.

Lore As Fanservice

When you have a big franchise, a text document hidden somewhere is a very efficient way of giving closure to old characters or confirm that they haven’t been forgotten and are still doing stuff. For example, there’s a very minor character in Trails in the Sky 3rd Chapter named Leo who shows up as an author of a modern history book in a later game, giving him a small, but still evident place in the world after he goes off-screen.

I’m pretty sure that the Dead Space franchise takes things even further by putting references to characters from the series’ impressive range of multi-media content in Dead Space 2 and 3. That’s really neat, but to get something out of that, you’d need to be a super fan of the series, which I personally found difficult. Both due to how inaccessible said media was to a European player getting into the series around when it died (where can I watch the animated movie and how can I play the iPhone game now?) and my perceived notion of said media’s lesser quality.

Without the pizazz of a full game release, I find it difficult to care about the characters in something like Dead Space, especially when most if not all of them end up as monster food. The multi-media approach is valid, but it really needs to work with the setting and get the proper amount of care and money. Otherwise, you can very easily end up like Dead Space, where the multi-media content props up the expectations for the main games, thus making perceived sales failures more likely.

Anyway, back to the main point. As with all fanservice, moderation is key. It’s best to only do it when it really matters or when you know people will flip when they see a reference to an old thing. Shouldn’t be too hard to make that call, but you could end up making something like Dark Souls 3, which is built on a foundation of fanservice that has no place in a setting where things are meant to be lost to time. They still do some neat things with said fanservice, but I think I’ll save that for a dedicated Dark Souls write-up closer to the anniversary.

Lore As Connective Tissue

For series with standalone games that are still in the same world, it’s common for there to be some small sprinklings of lore to at least pretend that it’s a cohesive narrative. Ys does it and I know I don’t give a shit about it because it doesn’t really matter outside of 1, 2, and Origin. Once you’re past those, it’s just a series of increasingly absurd amount of stories where Adol bumbles into being the chosen warrior of yet another lost civilization that might be vaguely connected to the last one.

Ys Seven

Zelda is the big example here (though the Taroverse certainly counts as well, same with the Zestiria/Berseria connection), which comes with some baggage. Now, I’m not an expert on Zelda lore, so from my perspective, it seems like they tried making a cohesive timeline up until the N64 games, then gave up and promptly tried to throw something together later in order to sell the Hyrule Historia.

With the series taking place over a gigantic period of time, yet always retaining its core elements, it looks to me like it’s not worth caring about how the games connect (barring direct sequels) and it’s better to instead focus on how each game treats said core elements. Otherwise, you’ll end up in the pit of despair where you care more about the series’ overarching story than Nintendo ever did, forever hoping that they’ll acknowledge your theories.

This approach is a valid, if lazy choice, since it communicates that you care about the world players have become invested in, if only a little bit. Being more detailed leads to a more impressive series, but that makes it both harder to make and pick up as it goes along, something I bet both Nintendo and Falcom are keenly aware of. They just wanna make adventurous games with a similar feel for as long as they can while making sure people can start playing whenever they want.

Lore As A Convoluted Nightmare

Of course, if you do value your writing over its accessibility, you can go Kingdom Hearts or fighting game route and just pile on lore until the series you’re making becomes so incomprehensible that most people just give up and focus on the gameplay.

Obviously, the story in fighting games isn’t intended to engage the player in the same way as the story in other games, but some still try. Keyword being try, as shit gets dumb fast. I challenge anyone reading to explain to me the plot of BlazBlue without getting cross-eyed.

Kingdom Hearts 3 key art

Kingdom Hearts is something I’m more familiar with and its issues can be traced back to the series’ creative lead, one Tetsuya Nomura. This man is enamoured with keeping his audience guessing and making sure just about every game has some surprises, even for the most dedicated fan.

The only way to do that is to expand the cosmology of the series and introduce more and more inane plot devices. I used to be up to the task of keeping up, but it’s gotten to the point now, especially with the mobile game, where the work-to-enjoyment ratio is completely off-the-walls.

Suffice to say, I do not care for this approach to lore. Fighting games get a bit of a pass, since they need to keep the characters in fighting shape across games. But for everything else, I just want to slap the keyboard away from the writer and force them to hire an editor.

Continuing with the Kingdom Hearts example, the series does have concrete elements that are appealing. It’s mostly a bunch of teenage angst and cartoon shenanigans, but that’s ok. The problem is the retconned bubble of bullshit it’s encased in. It’s the job of a writer to make the audience want to engage with the world they’re connecting. The better the writer, the more engaging the material, and the more of it you can justify.

But if you bite off more than you can chew and go for a grand tale you just cannot tell, sooner or later people are gonna look for something else to fill your niche.

Lore As A Challenge

All right, last category. And wouldn’t you know it, this is where I finally get into Dark Souls. There are a lot of words out there that argue for and against the minimalist storytelling in these games. If we’re being reductive, we can say that it’s just cheaper to put most of the story in text. And from the other point of view, you can say that it’s a way to help the player immerse themself in the world and challenge them to figure out what’s going on, just like their character.

I like the approach, assuming the world is interesting and it’s actually rewarding to learn about it. There are two layers at work here to make that happen. The first is what’s explicitly written in the text. This is where you’ll get most of your information and a bunch of basic information, which isn’t terribly interesting in a lot of item descriptions. For example, the bosses that simply exist for a fight get enough of an explanation to make sense of, but they’re not interesting beyond that. The Bell Gargoyles guard a bell, the Gaping Dragon likes to eat, and the Iron Golem runs on ground-up dragon bone.

The iconic "finger but hole" message in Dark Souls III

You can get some interesting stuff straight from the descriptions (particularly in the DLC), but the real kicker comes in when you combine certain pieces of information and environmental details to draw conclusions. A lot of stuff about the world becomes a lot more interesting when you do this. Figuring out what happened to the gods of Anor Londo, Queelag’s motivation, Griggs’ identity, the true nature of Humanity and bonfires, what a Bottomless Box is, and where the first part of the DLC is feels awesome.

Stuff like that is great, but not as common as one would hope. I actually had difficulty thinking up good examples, since a lot of information is either straightforward (“Shit’s bad in this way because this happened”) or simply missing (which is by design to allow room for interpretation). I’m not surprised about this, since it’s difficult to present mysteries with satisfying conclusions constantly. And if they were more common, they probably wouldn’t feel as special.

But it’s important that they’re there nonetheless, as they provide an incentive to engage with the setting. Souls-likes like Salt & Sanctuary and Remnant: From the Ashes only have one or two interesting conclusions to draw each as far as I know, which is probably why I found their worlds less engaging. It’s a real tightrope to make a setting interesting while splitting up the story for the player to piece together.

Conclusions

I think I’ve made good use of my words to discuss why other people’s words can make a game better. But as I hope I’ve proven, it’s simply not a matter of writing well. You need to think of when and why to tell the player something and figure what needs to be force-fed and what is better left optional.

As with anything, lore is a tool, which can be used both creatively and destructively. One hopes the industry will put some more weight on the efforts of their writers, since when things click and the player gets a good world to learn about, they’ll probably be fans for life. That obviously won’t happen, but a man can dream.



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