No, don’t run away. Really. I know I’m coming across as the nerd in the corner who insists on some stupid technicality, but I object. I am a nerd, and I might be cornered, but this is no technicality.
Lore matters because we are human and, as such, we ask questions. Some of these questions (most, in fact) we ask to ourselves. We keep them in our heads and rarely ever ask them out loud, lest we are cast with the lot of cornered nerds. In the context of our games, the questions are plain, but powerful; Why is this here? Where did it come from? What does it do? What does it mean? How does it relate to what I’ve seen before and what I’ve yet to see? What happens when it’s used? Why are they fighting? Why are they friends? Where do they want to go with this?
There are more, but that’s basically the genesis of lore right there. Sure, it’s easy to dismiss or underestimate the importance of lore depending on one’s focus. After all if one goes through an encounter with the sole goal of acquiring a particular reward, those questions do not matter. Item acquired, goal completed, move on to the next.
But even the most recalcitrant of goal-oriented, RP-bashing, lore pooper, “ha ha if you think about anything other that’s in front of you you’re a nerd” type of players asks many of these questions. To themselves, of course, because they can’t be caught pondering about something that doesn’t exist and doesn’t matter, but they still do. They do because they are human like everyone else (some more than others), and humans ask questions, and from those questions draw connections.
And connections are the key to the whole lore business, because that’s exactly what lore is. It’s not “the story” and it’s not simply a collection of weird names and places. Lore in our games is the essential connective tissue that holds the illusion together. It doesn’t -do- anything; it won’t make your character faster, stronger or more efficient. It’s not an item you can get, not a piece of gear you can equip. Won’t help you overcome the challenges of the game unless the game’s challenges are actively designed around it. What it does is to provide a meaning to all that you see in game.
Now, you might care about that meaning or not. It’s your prerogative. But even if you don’t care about it, you need it to be there. We all do. Without that connective tissue, everything falls apart. Sometimes plainly, sometimes in more subtle ways, but it does.
Thought experiment #1: Other than aesthetic considerations, would encounters mean the same to you if you were fighting, say, triangles, rhombuses and dreaded hexagons instead of dragons, minotaurs or other creatures? Would it mean the same to you if those geometric terrors were “just there” with no other explanation for their existence than they are created to be killed by you, rather than knowing what they have done, why they are there, why are you there and what the encounter means, even if the explanation is simple?
Thought experiment #2: Other than purely graphical or aesthetic considerations again, would your game experience mean the same to you and would you invest yourself in a game if, say, your avatar was a purple blob that rolls around and it is so for no reason whatsoever? Or would it be better if you had a more appropriate form, a form that can be traced to an identifiable group, with particular characteristics, history, motivations and goals?
Thought experiment #3: Observe these two images.
Don’t worry, it’s not a trick. I’m not asking you to tell which one is real and which one is CG. They’re both CG. But I’m asking you to look at the images themselves (not their quality) and see which one feels more inviting to you. The first one, which is just the stadium? Or the second one, a stadium inserted in a location, surrounded by other structures and so on? Which one do you prefer?
It shouldn’t matter, but it does. If you’re looking at these images, say, to take a peek at how your team’s stadium will look like then that’s your goal. The stadium itself. When you picture yourself going over on match day, you go to the stadium. You don’t care about the rest. You go to the stadium because that’s where the match will be played. That’s your goal and there are no other considerations. And yet, why do people “prefer” (using metrics they can’t even name, much less quantify) the second image over the first?
It’s largely because we need that connective tissue around our objects and goals. It completes the gelling of the illusion, provides meaning and even comfort. Some people can consciously state this, and appreciate the connective tissue. Find the beauty in it (sometimes much more beauty than it warrants, and sometimes for far too longer than what would be healthy. cornered nerds again). Some others can’t, and consciously dismiss it, but it remains unconsciously locked away. Never really disappearing. It doesn’t disappear because it would mean the disappearance of meaning, and that’s something our minds can’t deal with, consciously or not. We try to find connections and meanings to things because it’s in our nature. We’re hardwired like that.
That’s why lore, even in the most despicable, barren, and “in-your-face-pure-goals” environments, does matter.