Welcome to another installment in our on-going series of narrative design myth-busting. This time we’re taking on “lore.” What is it? How has it changed over time? Why do people sometimes think that writing it is all a narrative designer or game writer does? And, most importantly, how can you ensure lore plays its best role within a larger, more integrated approach to narrative design?
“Lore,” while it’s certainly a familiar storytelling term that has been around for a long time, is now a buzzword in video games. It is now common for game writing jobs to advertise lore writing as one of their main duties, in addition to staple types of game writing like cut-scene and in-game dialogue. In this modern usage, "lore" usually refers to writing peripheral to the main plot beats and character interactions that fill in the surrounding history and context. Character bios, item descriptions, documents or recordings found within the game world itself--these are typically the form lore takes in most modern games.
The term itself can be a bit of a misnomer, since, technically, the “lore” is really the backstory of the world itself--the actual content--regardless of how it’s delivered to the player. But in common practice the line between the content and the delivery has become blurred, since this type of content is almost always delivered via such systems. When someone refers to “lore” they could be referring to the content, or these delivery systems, or both.
While all fictional worlds technically have lore, some are “lore heavy,” meaning they have a lot of lore and lean on it as a selling point of the experience. Discovering lore is seen as one of the game’s primary pleasures. For example, the lore imparted by a bare-bones fantasy item description might be:
- Large Axe
Destroys even the mightiest enemies with ease. Only the strongest and wield it.
Whereas the description for a similar item in a lore-heavy game might say:
- Grendel’s Tragedy
A large axe once belonging to an ancient outcast who used it to build a wall between himself and the world. Unparalleled power, but each cut takes a bit of the owner's soul.
This latter example implies quite a lot about the world and the backstory, even if nothing mentioned or implied by it appears elsewhere in the game. It is precisely this that contributes to the notion that it sits apart from the rest of the experience: not because it must, but because it so often does. This can have the compounded effect of, in a lore-heavy game where the writer’s main job might be lore writing, giving the impression that a writer’s main job is “just lore” and that lore itself is peripheral to the experience of play.
While there’s nothing wrong with lore being disconnected from other aspects of the game, it doesn’t have to be, and it’s important to understand that nothing about it intrinsically suggests it should be. Some of the best examples of lore in modern games are highly integrated with other aspects of narrative design in non-trivial ways, making lore an important leg of the table.
This is typically the case in what arguably popularized modern “lore-heavy” narrative design: the Soulsbourne cycle of games by From Software, starting with Demon’s Souls (2009) and continuing to this day. However, what is sometimes missed about these games--especially by their imitators -- is that their lore exists not just as collectables but in tight relation to other aspects of their design, including mechanics, level design, dialogue, and cut-scenes. For example, there is an entire family tragedy that plays out in Bloodborne (2015) that you can only find if you follow a series of gameplay-based clues left in an interlocking chain of lore.
Lore is a tool in the narrative designer’s toolbox, and used well it can be a vital link in the chain of the player’s immediate and immersive dramatic experience.
In this plague-ridden city of death and madness, you come across an open window. A girl, afraid to come out, asks you to find her mother and passes you a music box, saying nothing more. Only if you look at the box’s item description do you realize it is engraved with a man’s name. You later encounter a boss--a mad hunter--with the same name. If you remember the lore and use the box during the fight, the hunter is overwhelmed by emotion, creating a strategic opening for you to kill him. After he’s dead you find a broach nearby, that you can sell, or examine to find another engraving, this time with a woman’s name. If you return the broach to the girl in the window, she sobs uncontrollably and won’t speak to you. The implication here is that you’ve just confirmed for her that her father murdered her mother in a mad rage. Then, later, after killing a large pig in a sewer, you find the remains of this girl inside. Only by examining those remains do you realize she wandered out of the house in her sorrow and was eaten alive, bringing a pathetic, awful end to the whole family.
While this is called a “quest” in Soulsborne player communities, it’s important to mention that these games have no conventional quest system to speak of. No information is kept or collected for the player about who they’ve met, what they’ve asked you to do, and whether they’ve completed any of these tasks. In other words, the player is required to pay attention to the item lore, to the names of bosses, to what they drop when killed, to how they’re dressed, to where they live, and on and on. It’s precisely this lack of hand-holding that creates narrative engagement, turning the lore and its relation to other game elements a mini-detective mystery. There are no quest boxes checked, no bestiary entry filled, no outcome for it other than the player’s own personal satisfaction of story comprehension.
Lore is a tool in the narrative designer’s toolbox, and used well it can be a vital link in the chain of the player’s immediate and immersive dramatic experience. It’s not just fun stuff to write that has nothing to do with what you do in the gameplay. If it comes off that way it’s because opportunities to connect it with the game’s larger design ecosystem are not being taken. Whether or not those opportunities are taken, or can be taken, depends on how well the team is communicating during production, on how much inter-departmental collaboration on narrative has been prioritized by those at the top of the dev ladder. Lore can’t connect with gameplay unless the game writers, facilitated by narrative design leadership, are talking to the combat designers, to the level designer. Lore deserves to be more than a throw-away element, and as always it comes down to process.
***Matthew Weise is a narrative designer and writer whose work bridges the worlds of games and traditional entertainment with credits including Disney's Fantasia: Music Evolved and The Jury Room from Oscar-winning director Barry Levinson. Weise is former game design director of MIT's GAMBIT Game Lab and currently runs narrative design consultancy Fiction Control.