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.