I’m one of those people that really care about the context of the game-play experience I’m participating in, most of the time. It just kind of makes sense to me that I should be quite aware of why I am doing what I am doing. That’s why I’m willing to sit through all of the amazingly cheesy cut scenes of Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance just so that I can hear the bad accents and unnecessarily lengthy expositions, all the while being fully aware of the fact that I’m watching a 720p 30fps cut scene with motion blur, which fittingly looks just as bad as I imagined it to be. Getting back on track, I can safely say I don’t actually care much about lore, unless it is somehow extremely interesting and interactive. I might want to look through all of the retro film reel I see in Bioshock Infinite, but I cannot be arsed to care about reading any of Skyrim’s hundred pages books. Reading, at least on a screen, is extremely tedious and inefficient, not to mention it kills my legally half-blind eyes.
Before we dwell any deeper into this, let’s make some clarifications. What is story, and what is lore, in a video game context? Well, I’d say that for most of the games I’ve had the chance to play, story would mean those information discovered that are tangible to the happenings of the game’s main plot. For example, *spoiler* your acquiring the estate at the end of chapter 1 of Dragon Age 2 is very much a part of the overarching story of the game. I chose an unavoidable instance to make a point, but even ones where player choices affect the plot directly can be included in this definition. This would equate to *spoiler* the part where either you, Alistair or Loghain if you’re one of those people murder the Archdemon at the end of Dragon Age: Origins. This choice you directly made has a heavy influence on the plot of the game, its DLCs and even its sequel, and is very much an integral part of the story. Lore, however, are much different. They are those things that you are told of, or you read about in the process of game-play, rather than being shown to you directly and usually cannot be changed. Knowing them also would not affect the outcome of the plot, or so those I’ve seen. The exception to this is where games carry their previous plot line to the sequel as lore. Case in point: Dragon Age series. The line is a bit blurred at this point, but it shouldn’t cost too much of a ruckus.
Back to the point. Story and lore doesn’t actually have to be tangible to each other at all, and some games only have one, or even neither. This is perfectly fine, depending on what kind of game you’re going with. I don’t expect Tetris to have anything close to either of those elements, but an Adventure RPG like Fable: The Lost Chapters would do great with both. This preferred balance is not at all restricted genre by genre, as while Call of Duty: Ghosts needs no lore (nor story for that matter), something like Metro: Last Light do very well with both. What is appropriate is usually easy enough to see, and that’s all fine and well; but can a game without lore, or story, or both be a truly complete experience in modern day gaming?
Well, casual games require no lore, I can tell you that, nor story for that matter. No one cares about the rope, so just cut it. While I would never actually play any of those App Store/Google Store games, not out of snobbishness mind you, they are also a part of what we call ‘modern gaming culture’, as ironically as possible. What about more ‘hardcore’ games? Those of triple A production from big companies? Well, not at all. Fast-paced multiplayer fps-es don’t need lore. A game like Counter Strike doesn’t even need a story, at most some flavour text, and look how much good thatt did to the mechanics of the game. Hell, most competitive multiplayer games doesn’t strictly need a lore. While some certainly did them great, think Starcraft: Brood War and Warcraft 3, some were insanely tacky and usually just bad, think MOBA games. Story only usually matters in a single player or a co-op campaign RPG experience, think Neverwinter Nights or Diablo. However, some single player game don’t need lore at all, think Closure. Get your focus straight, and everything should turn out just fine.
I understand that I’m talking a lot in circles here, and I recognise that. It’s simply because I’m a bit frustrated that I couldn’t finish my noire piece and have to delay it further, but moving on.
With the technicalities out of the way, let’s talk actual merits. What are good ways to tell lore, and show stories, in a medium so involved and evolved as video games? Well, the first is to determine whether you need to even have it in the first place. A game like Nidhogg requires none of these elements, albeit some are quite confused about the giant flying snake. This allowed the developer to focus on making a game with crisp and deep mechanics and optimised performance. However, something like the Wolf Among Us would obviously not work without a strong story. Lore is a lot less necessary usually, and is usually much less developed in certain games where story is usually king, and is added on for pure flavour text. There are some games that have no story at all but a good amount of lore, say Dota 2, but they aren’t very well done and is also too subtle to make any difference on game-play experience at all. Determine the amount you need, and the proper balance to go with it, then we can move on to actually writing them.
Lore is a bit easier. It’s a canvas with maybe a light background, awaiting for the player to paint the story on top of it, from a non-mechanic stand point of course. However, they can, at times, be extremely extensive and overreaching, depending from the game’s series and other media. For example, Starcraft 2 has an extremely impressive amount of lore, developed through its previous game, albeit this is still part of the story, but branching out to novels along the way. They were all decent as well, if only the story itself wasn’t so absolutely atrocious and vomit inducing. Lore should be developed with a necessity basis in mind, perhaps except when you’re making an Elder Scrolls game. However, Bethesda probably isn’t going to read this, so I don’t give a toss. Lore should always be tie-in and easy to approach, except when you’re making them collectibles. Either way is fine, but you should never make lore a necessity to discover, in order to carry on with the story. This is an extremely clumsy way of going about designing a game’s progress, thankfully this is not at all a common mistake. Only old adventure games really have this problem, and not even to that great an extent. Other than that, there aren’t a lot of rules with lore, as they aren’t very intrusive.
When we’re talking about story, however, it’s a whole different problem. Story is extremely important and directly affect the player’s enjoyment of a lot of games. Sure, if the game’s mechanics are strong enough, it can carry a game. Still, you’re then better off just focusing on that, and/or on the multiplayer. Examples of unnecessary storyline would be most modern military shooters. The story is the reason why I liked Bioshock Infinite, and why I didn’t at all enjoy the Assassin’s Creed games, especially the more recent ones. It can literally make or break the game. Surely there are those who would value mechanics over story, and that’s perfectly fine. However, balance is always key, and sometimes a good story is just what you need to sell the game. An even more extreme example is, I suppose, Spec Ops: The Line. Its story and value is immense, but its mechanics are extremely horrid. Even if that was intentional, it wasn’t an excuse still. However, I still liked it, while I can’t be arsed to play Grand Theft Auto IV vanilla. Story, if there, needs to be good. However, good writing simply isn’t enough. Only with good implementations does it truly carry its own values. The traditional method of story telling would be with cutscenes and dialogues. This is fine, but unexciting. Just make sure none of those are too long and/or interfere with the gameplay itself. If you’re an adventure game, you get a bit more lenient, but never so much that the player feels like the game is simply taking away control. That isn’t good writing, just bad implementations. There have been other methods of story telling utilised. A more prevalent style would be to tie story into the game-play, as an intangible part of the mechanics, but only as much as the player want it to be. The perfect example of this would be Papers, Please. That game is my choice for perfect balance throughout 2013, and with good reasons. A decent amount of people you meet everyday brings stories, enough to keep you interested and your moral tingling. However, they do not overflow the game too much to break the actual game-play, and you’re always free to do with those information however you choose. More of this, albeit with almost zero in-game cut scenes, would be the Portal series. The two games hold fantastic writing without even once interrupts the player to shove it in their face. The Left 4 Dead series does this as well, but without a lore and the story is pretty much filler and conversation holders. That’s before we get into graphic novel territory, but that’s an entirely foreign beast. There is, of course, the kind of point-and-click style employed by adventure games. Every bit of time you spend in the game, a story is being told. This is, of course, does not account for the ridiculousness of free-form story that is The Sims series. Overall, there are plenty of room for innovation, and I would be glad to see some. There just haven’t been a lot of them lately, and I feel kind of cheated.
Hence these words.
The image belongs to Giant Bomb, depicting the ever so memorable Companion Cube.