Hey, Game Developers: Enough With the Lore

 

One of the criticisms common to many Halo 4 reviews — I mentioned it in my own — is that the game’s story is very difficult to follow if you’re not familiar with the series’ extensive lore. Represented in this massive timeline, Halo’s grand narrative starts more than a million years before the birth of Christ. Painstakingly constructed via several games, and further expanded in books, anime, comics, and episodic YouTube films, the lore places Master Chief at the center of an epic struggle between humanity and an ancient race of aliens known as the Forerunners.

Except that, in practice, it’s not epic — it’s boring. Halo 4′s main narrative is the kind of McGuffin chase we’ve seen a thousand times. 343 Industries relies so heavily, so reverently on Halo lore that they forget to tell a story that might excite or interest people who don’t know or care what the Forerunners were up to seventy centuries ago. Nothing that happens in the game has much significance beyond its connection to portentously named characters and events from the past, or the fact that the fate of the entire galaxy is at stake (again). Not that you’ll understand why, unless you know the lore.

I’m being a little unfair, picking on Halo 4. The fact is, far too many recent video games use their extensive lore and backstory as a substitute for exciting narrative. Part of this is simply creative atrophy — it’s easier to write a story about a character who is the one person who can stop an ancient conspiracy to destroy the kingdom, world, galaxy, etc. than it is to write something original. The other part is likely greed — a complicated backstory necessitates sequels and spin-offs to explain everything.

Examples of this problem are endless: Dead Space gussied up nerve-wracking sci-fi horror with unnecessary blathering about religion and ancient alien artifacts. The Assassin’s Creed frame story about Templars, Assassins and Apples is legendarily stupid. Diablo III delved deep into the series’ lore — what came up was disappointing. These games are all successful, but they succeed despite their lore, not because of it. Even Mass Effect, whose backstory is better than most, touched off an internet firestorm when the developers finally drew back the curtain.

Stories, particularly speculative fiction stories, and particularly speculative fiction stories in video games, are more exciting when they preserve some mystery, some uncertainty, reining in the impulse to explain everything and everyone. This is something we grasp intuitively as children, when many of us have intense, formative video game experiences, despite not even being able to understand exactly what’s going on.

Anyone who’s seen Star Wars Episodes I-III knows the dangers of explaining too much, about the backstory and about how the universe works. Why video game developers ignore this lesson time and time again, and insist on creating their own Midichlorians, is anyone’s guess. When they do decide to skip the exposition, the results are often excellent. The first Halo, which begins in medias res and unspools its mysteries carefully, is a marked contrast to its tedious successor. Journey, one of 2012′s best games, makes no attempt to explain itself, and expects the player to simply piece things together by actually playing the game. This is something that video games do better than any other entertainment medium; since players are actually in the world, they can experience exploration, uncertainty, and awe in a way that is simply not possible with books or movies. Imagine how awful Journey might have been if it included collectible tomes that explained the 10,000-year history of the pilgrimage it depicts.

Dark Souls, despite its bombastic intro movie, is a master class in narrative economy. The game evokes strong, memorable emotions, derived from the players’ sense of isolation and confusion as they try to figure out what the hell is going on. I am a Crystal Magic Weapon-wielding Dark Souls obsessive, and this summer, I frequented the YouTube channel of a user named Epic Name Bro, who combs through developer interviews and even in-game item descriptions to piece together the story of the Dark Souls universe. A couple videos in, I stopped watching. The more I knew about the lore (which turned out to be pretty conventional high fantasy), the less I liked the game. Not understanding Dark Souls bizarre, uncanny mysteries is crucial to enjoying it.

In his review of Skyrim, Grantland games writer Tom Bissell argues that the game’s approach to expository is simply unsustainable:

“It surely says something that even my most fervent Skyrim-loving friends cop to skipping through the expository narrative sequences. They laugh when they admit this, and it’s a nervous, uncomfortable laugh — a laugh that suggests they’re wondering why they do this. I’ll tell them: Because the stuff they’re skipping is so bad that it makes the rest of the game seem like a waste of time, which it’s not. When many of a game’s biggest fans are unable to endure large parts of that game, it may be time to reexamine the vitality of certain aspects of the experience.”

By contrast, he praises Dark Souls’ restraint. Still, neither Bissel nor I is arguing that games should do away with lore altogether. Not every game can be Dark Souls, and people will always expect an epic backstory from a game like Skyrim. For the medium to move forward, however, lore has to be done right. Three suggestions:

  • Don’t answer every question. Pass up some opportunities to info-dump. As Bissell says, “not every Jarl needs to offer you the chance to learn about his town’s ostensibly fascinating history.”
  • Make the lore worth learning. Too often, backstory content is one step up from fan-fiction, or reads as if it were written by the junior member of the writing staff that no one could find a job for.
  • Most crucially — deliver lore in a way that is actually consistent with video games as a form of entertainment. Don’t make players pause and scroll through a bunch of text, which is often boring, not to mention ridiculous, if you’re deep behind enemy lines, or in some equivalently dangerous place. Video clips and cutscenes can be an acceptable compromise. Discoverable audio clips that players can listen to during gameplay are better — done best in BioShock — but quickly approaching cliche. Best are ways to learn lore that involve actual video game activities, like exploring and interacting with the environment, overhearing NPC’s, or, occasionally, conversing with them in a way that isn’t transparently designed to deliver a bunch of expository information.

Halo 4 made $220 million on launch day, which means that this advice probably won’t be heeded in the short term. Still, I can hope for an uncertain future, full of mysterious games.

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7 Comments on Hey, Game Developers: Enough With the Lore

Michael White

On November 15, 2012 at 11:43 am

Yeah, this article is really spot on. I just finished Halo 4, and ended up being pretty frustrated by the story. Some aspects of the storytelling had been improved, mainly in the dialogue/acting/animation department. The story as a whole, though, was actually pretty boring. There was one moment, about halfway through the game, where I thought they were going to go in a really interesting direction, but they just never really followed through. As you touched on in the article, the lore in most of these games is both convoluted and quite stupid. I’m also playing through Assassin’s Creed III right now, and I can barely bring myself to care about the nonsense more of the characters are prattling on about, as they have done very little to actually tie it together to an involved narrative.

Mass Effect is one of the only series that has a really great and well-thought-out lore. I actually had little problem with what was revealed at the end of the series. I just really hated how it was delivered.

It’s really sad to see so much money, time, effort, and talent going into these big budget AAA games, with very little effort being paid to the story.

Axetwin

On November 15, 2012 at 12:01 pm

I wouldnt say the problem with ME3 was that they “pulled back the curtain”, it was more that what was behind the curtain almost completely came out of nowhere and defied logic within the parameters of the game.

Im not a big believer that the best course of action is “less is more”. Yes, sometimes less is more, but there is a fine line between less is more and less is simply just less. To me, with Dark Souls, less was woefully less. Unless you spoke to just the right NPC at just the right time, you had no clue as to what was going on.

Personally, I like lore, learning the history and non-essential backstory of things in a natural and organic way makes the whole world feel more alive. You really get the feeling that this world existed before you started playing and it will continue to exist after youre done.

I think the easy trap that some dev companies are starting to fall in to, (Halo and Mass Effect are the biggest culprits) is relying on external sources to establish their lore and then continue on under the impression that your fanbase as read/watched said sources. I think a really good example is Kai Leng. He was a character that first appeared in the Mass Effect novels and then all of a sudden he pops up in ME3 and theres no explanation as to who he is, he’s just there and EA simply expected us to know who he is.

I do agree with the tips you ended the article with. Its interesting you bring up Bioshock because I think that was a game that managed to strike that good balance between revelation and mystery, which is harder than you think when trying to write. I remember when rumors of Bioshock 2 started to first circulate, so many people wanted the game to be a prequel set during the events of the New Years attack. I was one of the few who argued against it because the first game told you everything you needed to know about it, having an entire game based around that ruins suspense of uncovering what took place and what lead up to it.

Bob Phalange

On November 15, 2012 at 1:48 pm

I don’t think it’s fair to say the game is bland because of the lore. I’d argue the main thrust of the story is the relationship between Chief and Cortana and their evolving dynamic/ his emerging humanity. All the stuff about forerunners and the Didact certainly provides the backdrop for conflict but I didn’t get the sense that was what 343 wanted as the primary focus of the narrative; I think this is evidenced by the fact that you have to actually launch waypoint to watch the lore you get from the terminals you first have to find in-game (quite a bit of work, really). You touch on Mass Effect, and I think it’s the same deal. At this point, who cares about saving the galaxy? It’s the characters that lend weight to the narrative and ultimately drive interest in the story.

Roy Batty

On November 15, 2012 at 4:27 pm

My favorite repetitive colloquialism in the MassEffect was the grotesque overuse of “at all/any cost(s)!”

If your people don’t know what is at stake you have other problems; Admiral Hackett is especially guilty of this. Message to your troops – go out and die you are worthless to me. It seems to me that historically this term is in fact seldom used (megalomaniacs not withstanding).

I find it interesting that people like the ME story, I did as well; however it does shall we say “borrow” things from other works. I was fine with this because it used these borrowed items in a unique way. I am not talking about an Easter egg or homage. For example they flit with plagiarism with Shepard’s resurrection when we find out the Liara had a heavy hand in it, it is at least implied that she somehow retained Shepard’s soul…see Star Trek III – Spock’s body is found alive sans a soul, Spock had given his soul to McCoy (since he did not have time to give it to Kirk), Vulcan witch lady transfers soul from McCoy back to Spock’s body, Spock lives fans don’t riot.

I also see elements of: Star Wars, Star Trek (including TOS), 2001, BattleStar Galactica, I-Robot, BladeRunner, Akira, Aliens, and Dune. Again I was ok with this since the story was retold in a unique and engaging way. In fact I found it fun to try to find these connections considering it part of the experience. This is one of the reasons I thought “artistic license” was meant as a joke by Bioware.

Mike

On November 15, 2012 at 7:22 pm

I just can’t agree with this at all, but that may be because I obsess over things I like. I need the back story, the lore, the novels and comics. Mostly its because it scratches the itch while I wait for the next game, but also because I need these universes fleshed out to keep me interested. I don’t know why it seemed to surprise you when after Bungie handed the series to guys who adored the universe, they then drew off that universe’s content. They even said in a dev diary that this would be a game made by fans for fans. Of course the game is a giant fanwank, the rest of you were just drawn in by the Halo name. From my perspective, Dark Souls greatest failing was the absence of storytelling, and Epic Name Bro’s channel has been a pleasure to watch. Stick to CoD if you don’t want lore heavy experiences, ’cause it seems that you guys are just too lazy to open up a book to appreciate the full story. Christ, I bet you guys don’t even know that Chief isn’t the only Spartan II left. Drown me in lore 343 and CD Projekt, set a robust setting for me to lose myself in Roberts Space Industry, anything to distract me as my country burns in mediocrity around me.

Octavo

On November 15, 2012 at 7:42 pm

I don’t agree. Dark Soul’s lack of an engaging story or a universe filled with neat background stories was not a plus. I quite enjoy the lore in most of the games you’ve mentioned.

Fork Me

On November 16, 2012 at 9:54 am

“Mass Effect is one of the only series that has a really great and well-thought-out lore.”

‘Had’, Michael. ‘Had’.