There are times when developers cram so much lore into a game that it starts getting in the way. Is there a more effective way? Read on and find out.
Lore is increasingly becoming a vital part to many western RPGS (“WRPGs”). This makes sense, since video games are largely fantasy experiences, and part of being a fantasy experience is drawing an audience into the world the developers created. However, video games aren’t movies, and they aren’t books. The single largest unique feature to the video game medium is interactivity, meaning the gameplay, and the increase of lore in video games can actually undermine the gameplay. Today, I’d like to look at two recent examples of lore in video games, Dragon Age: Inquisition and Alien: Isolation. Keep in mind, this analysis could apply to a vast array of similar games, however, I found these two games do well to embody the ultimate glut and minimalist approach to lore in video games respectively.
Dragon Age: Inquisition isn’t a bad game. Actually, it’s my favourite in the series. But that doesn’t mean that there weren’t problems. Runaway lore was one such problem. I understand that, especially as a fantasy game, you need to establish the world and make it seem real. However, Inquisition went about this in the worst possible way. Think of lore like any bit of written communication. A short, concise statement that leaves the reader satisfied is going to gather a lot more invested readers than over-the-top verbosity with very little to say. Inquisition clearly favoured the latter approach.
What we have with Inquisition is a kitchen sink approach to lore. You’ve got expositional lore clumsily spewing out of every character’s mouth with every conversation, and world lore being constantly fed by huge word documents scattered around every corner. Every item, character, event, or thing is used as an excuse to bombard the player with lore. It is about as effective as a wet sponge. I try to read lore in video games, but the key is that the lore has to be exciting and, more important, pertinent. There is no tension in Inquisition’s lore, only a massive amount of exposition spew that could have been handled better if it were written by a musty squirrel on Quaaludes.
To illustrate my point, let’s move onto my other paradigm of the day – Alien: Isolation. This game takes the traditional mystery-style approach found in many games such as Resident Evil. What they do is provide very little exposition through dialogue and written documents, but what is given is broken up into compelling snippets. You want to know what happened to the crew of the space station you’re on – how things got so bad. But the game doesn’t simply tell you. It shows you the breakdown over a period of time, which brings you back to those text files every time one is provided.
Minimalism is the key. Providing the player a huge text document telling you about the entire backstory to something is a huge mistake. Players should find out about these things on their own through the gameplay. More importantly, players should want to find out about these things. Back in Inquisition, I wanted to know about the backstory of Iron Bull. I didn’t care about the huge histories of some of the mundane forest environments of the game. Both of these bits of lore got shoved down my throat with the same level of urgency. The reason that minimalism works is that mystery is always better. Don’t tell the players everything – let them guess. This generates a desire to know more and feeds into the lore you actually give them. Nobody reads a text dump, especially when the game is text dump after text dump.
This is a major weakness of WRPGs, in my opinion. In that genre, there is the desire to explain each and every facet of the world, and leave nothing to the imagination of the player. There is no nuance, nor any desire to have the player put themselves in the world willingly rather than shoving them in face-first. It isn’t common in Japanese RPGS (“JRPGs”) to have huge text dumps around every corner in order to explain every little detail. Would Chrono Trigger have been a better game if the flora and fauna of every time period was scrupulously explained and shoved into our faces?
Games like Alien: Isolation realize that less is more. A good, concise story with bits of details surrounding the core events of the game will get you far. There is a certain amount of restraint that is required to pull off a good story. For those who write fiction, it is standard practice to know far more about the world and characters you’ve created than you will ever expose on the page. This helps you build the world in a realistic and effective manner, while leaving the details for eagle-eyed readers to find. Imagine reading a book where you were given nothing but unrelated asides to read every five seconds. You probably wouldn’t think too highly of it, right? Then why is it we accept this from our video game media?
The obvious answer is that you don’t have to read it. The problem with this reasoning is that many games, Inquisition included, are built around very little else. Games like Dark Souls do massive amounts of lore very unobtrusively, but I couldn’t imagine getting through Inquisition without being hit by a single wall of text. Perhaps the biggest problem is that key bits of lore and total asides are presented in the same way. I know more than once, I’ve skipped a text file in Inquisition, thinking it was another waste of my time, only to discover later that that particular document was one of the few crucial ones to understanding what the hell was going on.
Another major issue I have with how some games are dealing with lore is the most heinous practice of expanding the universe’s lore outside of the games themselves. Sure, hardcore fans love novelizations – that’s the only way I can justify the existence of the Star Wars expanded universe. However, when games expand their universes in such a way and then build subsequent games reliant on material found within those often poorly written tomes, there’s a problem. The fact that made-for-DVD movies and books have been written about the characters and world of Inquisition, and the game constantly gives subtle and rampantly unsubtle nods to them is infuriating for those of us who want their games to tell them the whole story, competently.
Games, even sequels, should strive for self-reliance. Inquisition decided to throw self-reliance away with the bath water. I’ve played all of the Dragon Age games multiple times, so I have a good sense about what’s going on. Those who don’t? Well, they’re stuck. A friend of mine really didn’t understand what was going on with the Mages and Templars. I explained to him that it was a big deal in previous games, then realized he hadn’t played them, and the game expected you to. This would be one thing if it were a trilogy of connected games like Mass Effect, but each Dragon Age is supposedly standalone. Inquisition is a game so overloaded with lore that it’s actually deficient in explaining certain key events, leaving that to previous games and outside materials. Or maybe it was in the fiftieth expositionary dump he came across and chose to ignore, because nobody has time for Inquisition’s lore.
The real problem with Inquisition’s story-telling and lore dumping is how lazy it is. It doesn’t seem lazy to have scores of text documents, but it is. The fact of the matter is that each of those documents presented an opportunity to cleverly and seamlessly integrate something fun and imaginative into the game, to create urgency and interest like in Alien: Isolation. Instead, Bioware chose to simply throw the exposition at you and be done with it. Discovery is so important in video games, because it can be integrated into gameplay, so that the player is actually accomplishing something. When I see games that throw mountains of lore at the player, I shake my head at the waste. Few players are going to read those text dumps, and many of them might have cared if the lore wasn’t so ham-fisted.