Why lore matters

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.

23 thoughts on “Why lore matters”

    1. Does it really? I wonder how many Nethack players filled in their own lore in their heads as they played it.

      If it doesn’t exist we tend to make one up ourselves.

  1. Yup. And this is the reason why there is a quest text and other things before the yellow “do this” text. But as you said, lore is more than texts. Weathertop in the Lone Lands is so iconic that it inspires people a lot just by them seeing it from afar.

  2. The best example of this I ever read was from a Magic the gathering dev blog, it showed a card in it’s mathematical numbers and effects and the same card with every part of it that’s lore.

    Lore isn’t only the wall of text from quest it’s everything that place what you do in context.

  3. While I agree with the point you’re making, and Thought Experiments 1 and 2 clearly require an answer of “obviously I require the context”, you lost me with the two pictures of stadiums. I had to look at them twice, then go back and read on before I even noticed the difference you intended to emphasize. And even then, I prefer the first one, whicj looks much friendlier..

    1. Well, not two people are alike. We’re getting way into psychology here (I hope Suzina chimes in), but what if I had asked “Which picture do you think is more complete?”

      Seems like a stupid question, doesn’t it? Obviously the more “complete” picture is the second one, because it has the stadium’s surroundings, the lighting is different, a bit more uneven as we’d expect as we move from representation to reality. But the real question is -why- does it instinctively feel more “complete”?

      My guess would be that we can only grok so much in a vacuum. We’ve all gone to stadiums and while we have no troubles recognizing the objects in both pictures as stadiums, the second one vibes much closer to our experience of visiting stadiums. The surroundings and the detail do not define the object, but in our minds they define the experience.

      Same with lore as meaning. We instinctively react better and attach ourselves better to settings where the lore is good than to settings where it’s not good or even absent. That’s because our lives in the real world are chock full of meaning, even in the most mundane of situations. We know what things do and what they are for, from a pair of scissors to a nuclear plant. We know (or can easily find out) who made them, and why. We go through life knowing the purpose and meaning of most things, and we tend to latch to that framework whenever we see it.

      1. Ah, you might have put your finger on something there. I’ve never been to a modern stadium like those pictured. I’ve never even seen one in real life. Last time I went to a “stadium” was in 1975. I haven’t watched t.v. for a decade, so I haven’t even seen anything that I recall looking like that on a screen before.

        Both of the pictures looked like something from a science-fiction movie to me, and had no resonance with any real-life experience at all.

      2. I found the first one also more inviting. When I thought about it, it was closer, more open, you could see small people in there. As the other seem distant, cold, and all I could focus my mind on was the huge “Naming Rights” text.

        I think like the nethack example, my mind filled the gaps on the first one. As the complete one just wasnt inviting for me..

        I agree on the importance of lore though. Lore and stories have always been the driving force for me in the games. They are there to mask the game mechanics. If I’m not pulled in by the story/lore, I start to see the plain mechanics of the game and the experience is ruined. Unless the game mechanics are superb!, but that doesn’t happen often to a veteran like me anymore…

  4. I’m an Explorer, so I greatly prefer my world to feel real and lived in. I have a screenshot of my Gnome while fighting (don’t ask me how I managed to accidentally hit PrintScrn while fighting but I did it numerous times, and almost always by accident) a skeleton in The Tranquil Gardens. My Gnome is balanced on a fence not for any tactical reason (height is irrelevant in WoW) but for purely aesthetic reasons. It was more pleasing to me to watch my Gnome fight a much taller foe while looking him in the eyes (or at least eye sockets) than having him stare at his pelvis for the entire fight. It made no difference at all with respect to the actual combat, it just looked better.

    Your allusion to having simply a purple blob for an avatar, or fighting triangles, rhombuses and hexagons, made me think of the radio ad descriptions for GTA:Vice City’s “Degenatron” (a console parodying the Atari 2600): “Swing from green dot to green dot with your red square monkey!”, and “Save the green dots with your flying red square!”

  5. Sometimes, I think people of certain characteristics (and I can’t help but suggest something like lower intelligence) tend to prefer that which allows their brain to sleep more.

    Example: Millions more people watch T.V. than play on the internet.

    Example: A greater majority of people prefer simpler games to more complex ones.

    Example: Texting has taken off because people *prefer* to have a conversation via the limited characters than to actually *come up* with something to actually talk about! This has been demonstrated in studies!

    You are dealing with a majority preference towards the “simplest”, “easiest”, most “routine/pattern-driven” (and therefore sphexish and thoughtless) approach possible. People don’t want to even have to focus on the game they’re playing, by and large, if they’re playing MMOs! They want to be able to hit the same combo of three buttons nearly subconsciously while racking up XP and loot, while they zone out to whatever movie is on cable at the moment!

    This is why they can’t be bothered with text, or lore, or anything else! You’d have to seriously motivate them with something substantial and necessary for them to even think about doing it, and chances are? All they’re going to do is grumble and bitch, again, by-and-large. They probably will just find an easier, simpler game to play in the end.

    This is why you will always be in the minority. This is why movies like Transformers and Twilight will always get the whopping numbers.

    The key bit here to remember is that numbers are meaningful in one sense: sales. That’s it. In almost every other characteristic, we value and look for the *minority* because it is nearly *always* better.

    Smarter people are in the minority.

    Beautiful people are in the minority.

    Strong people are in the minority.

    Accomplished people are in the minority.

    The only thing the masses are good at being is everything the minority is not, and throwing their numbers towards sales. *shrugs* Which is why if you live by the numbers, you’re going to be slouching (as a society) towards mediocrity by appeasing the lowest common denominator.

    Lore will only ever be appreciated by the minority, and I totally value it, just like you. I take my time in a game, which is why I prefer single player games over MMOs. I *like* to work at spending three hours in the Mages Circle libraries piecing together the pages and riddles they contain to unlock the hidden content. I *like* to read the *tons* of backhistory, stories, and lore in Oblivion and keep every book I come across in that game. I was a huge fan of the Silmarillion because of all the different branches of lore it added to Lord of the Rings.

    But I never expect most people to understand or agree with that.

    Yet, you are right, Julian; we are out there. And I hope to god that game companies continue to make games for *us* and not just try to appeal to the biggest numbers possible.

  6. I think you’re confusing “theme” with “lore”, Julian. Fighting minotaurs instead of purple rhombuses is theme, specifically a fantasy theme.

    Lore is the story bits that tie different elements together. It’s the explanation about why the minotaurs are allies of the orcs even though they have a deeply spiritual society rather than a bloodthirsty history. Or what name the minotaurs are called in your setting.

    It’s entirely possible to prefer to kill minotaurs instead of funny colored geometric shapes but not give a rat’s ass about why Orc Warlocks are an abomination to the backstory.

    This distinction confuses the rest of your post, unfortunately.

    1. Perhaps it does, Brian. I think at least parts of the difference are mostly semantic, but your point is taken.

      “It’s entirely possible to prefer to kill minotaurs instead of funny colored geometric shapes but not give a rat’s ass about why Orc Warlocks are an abomination to the backstory.”

      Agreed, but I’m not arguing from that point. That’s just preference. One might not care about the reason lore gives as to why Orc Warlocks are abominable, but that’s not automatically the same as introducing those Orc Warlocks as abominable for no reason at all. The reason needs to be there even if we don’t care about it.

      I imagine many of the players who would not care about the given reason would also turn around and complain if that reason was taken away and nothing left in its place.

      1. I think at least parts of the difference are mostly semantic…

        Well, yes, I would like the meaning of words to be determined more precisely. Having ambiguous terminology can be frustrating when trying to have a meaningful conversation. So, I want to define these words more precisely.

        I think most of your examples show that theme is important to people (which, by extension is why art style is important), but I don’t think that the lore is quite as important as you say it is.

        I imagine many of the players who would not care about the given reason would also turn around and complain if that reason was taken away and nothing left in its place.

        I disagree. In WoW, Night Elves can’t (currently) be Mages. Do you imagine many people went to look for a lore-bawsed reason why there wasn’t a “Mage” class icon on the Night Elf character creation screen? Or do you think the vast majority of people thought, “I must pick another class or pick another race that can be a Mage.” I think this is more likely than people going to find out about the old elven addiction to magic. I also think the ploy to reintroduce the Mage class to the Night Elves in the next expansion only irritates a small minority of people who whom the lore is truly part of the experience.

        I agree with your basic premise, that context is important. I think that’s why familiar themes like high fantasy do well, because the core audience knows the general rules of the theme. However, I don’t think the lore as I define it is what really gives the context. I think it more gives the texture for people who want to dig a bit under the surface.

        To put it in terms of your stadium example, theme is having a large, metropolitan city in the background to put the stadium in context. Lore is knowing that it’s a specific city that is looking to build a stadium to attract or start a professional team to increase tourist revenue. Lore may make the stadium picture more meaningful to some people, but it’s not necessary as your example directly shows (at least for me, since I don’t know which city that is).

        My thoughts.

  7. I think well written lore, as in it fits with the world or story, really helps suspension-of-disbelief.

    In one movie we say “OMG he’s FLYING, psssh, /done”, while in another we’re like, “Yeah okay I can dig it”. In this way it helps establish parameters for writers.

    suspension of disbelief and many other factors of story writing and reading, are, you could say, almost subconscious. It’s hard to take that fact, for what it is, and apply that to any realm of a persons intelligence one way or the other, as it’s a human condition.

    We all do it. We watch movies, and simply by into the fact that the guy can fly. We don’t hypothesize why compared to the rest of the story(well some of us do).

    Also in this respect, if you start to theorize about it, where does the game end and the lore begin? Because really if I took WoW and took out the name of NPC’s and the name of the spells, and everything else, you’d be left with what? Would the game be as enjoyable to the world in large?

    I think a lot of players, who may not even know how to voice their opinion, would want just enough lore to mesh everything together enough to suspend their disbelief regardless of what they choose to do in an MMORPG, while to anywhere from slightly above that sense of lore to near infinite amounts above that other players want more lore or story.

  8. Lore is extremely important to me. At 60 I went backl to SM in WoW to clear it out solo and read all the books that were laying around. Most fun I’ve ever had in EQ: reading all the books in PoK, and then going back in time through EQOA to see some of the locales and NPCs mentioned.

    However, I don’t think Joe Avearge MMO gamer cares much about the lore, or even well written quest text. Given that the most successful sub based MMO to date has “lore” that grows more rambling and incoherent with each major update (they lost me when the Alliance was joined by “kindly space demons”), it doesn’t seem like it’s much of a priority for WoW fans. I have seen claims to the effect that most MMO users don’t even bother to read to quest text, they just scroll down to the objectives and run off after them. I know anecdotally that it is true of many folks I’ve run into inside various MMOs (“What, you read all that crap?”), but I don’t have a firm sense of how common it is.

  9. Thank you for posting this. I will think about this the next time that I feel that everything I’m writing is not read by anybody. No matter what the players say about the words the Story Guy is writing, those words are important. Essential. They define the experience. It’s a subconscious thing, taking place on the edge of the game. But the game needs edges. The picture needs a frame.

  10. One of the best-selling wii-ware games is a game about connecting dots of sentient goo, with some goo to spare, so some of them can be saved through a sewer pipe by the connections. Another top-selling one is “Defend Your Castle,” where your castle is being attacked by buttons and Popsicle sticks. Millions of people really are fine with playing random, makes-no-sense, hexagons and blobs — they love it — it’s just that they’re probably not MMO players.

  11. Nethack has a world of lore.

    What does “elbereth’ do? How do these rings react when dropped down a sink? What is a sink for? Where do nymphs live? Where is the Oracle and what is it useful for? Gnomish Mines? Amulet of whom? And it is guarded by who? In what progression will I reach the elemental planes? What are their attributrs and who lives there? Which gods are neutral, and which good? What happens on the night of a full moon? No moon? Is it bad luck to eat my own pet if I’m starving?

    Procedural placement from keystones does not make a game lore-free – you played Diablo, didn’t you?

    @Ryan – Consider your own proof:
    “So that it can be saved by a pipe”
    “Defend a castle that is being attacked by…”
    Those are both lore statements.

  12. Considering MMORPGs stem from MUDs (command line WoW :P) and those improved on classic DnD, one cannot underestimate lore as the centrepiece of any such endeavour.

    That’s why I think Star Wars and Star Trek MMORPGs are going to benefit from fantastic numbers of players. Their fan base is simply so large that some of them are bound to try their hands at sword fighting or Multiuser SpaceBattles.

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