Lore vs. Narrative and Their Impact on Video Game Story-Telling

How was lore become an effective story-telling tool? How do straight narratives compare?

Posted By | On 21st, May. 2017 Under Article, Editorials


Ever since I was but a wee lad, video game narrative has fascinated me. The silent protagonist, seen in the likes of The Legend of Zelda, and how the story revolves around him; Metal Gear Solid that employed cinematography, framing and pacing from movies to tell its story; a non-linear narrative where different choices could unlock a different fate like Chrono Trigger – I was exposed to them all. Even the straightforward stories appealed to me. When Zero fell in Mega Man X, I was sad and swore bloody vengeance. Several years later, Zero’s return in Mega Man X3 remains one of the most iconic moments in gaming for me. Ditto for when he emerged from a centuries long sleep to save Ciel and the Resistance in Mega Man Zero on the Game Boy Advance.

We’re going to be getting into spoilers for some pretty big games from this point on, including Nier: Automata, Metal Gear Solid 5: The Phantom Pain and Destiny so be advised.

"Granted, lore itself was nothing new. Every game had lore. Lore pretty much formed the back-story, setting, previous events, politics, religion and scenario of the game you were playing."

There were dozens, literally hundreds of video game stories that I’ve kept pace with throughout the years. At one point, a more unique form of story-telling began to emerge. This was a story told primarily through lore. Granted, lore itself was nothing new. Every game had lore. Lore formed the back-story, setting, current events, politics, religion and scenario of the game you were playing. Even that comic book you read of that one character that probably died to the Flood in Halo but not really can be considered lore. It was perhaps with Demon’s Souls and then the Dark Souls series that lore really came into its own as the real story behind the story.

What am I talking about? Basically in video games with a straightforward narrative, you’d have the cast of characters, the over-arching plot and it’s various twists and turns. You had a beginning, middle, climax and an end. Along the way, you’d probably learn more about the world that you were playing in. The primary focus was still on the plot that your character was immediately involved in. Lore in, say, the Dark Souls games works differently.

While there is a plot that has you taking down the Lords of Cinder or other magnanimous beings of fire to rekindle a flame, the real story is in the descriptions of the various items and weapons gathered. You can find it within the interactions with different characters, enemies and bosses. There is a greater story at play, one that connects the entire Dark Souls series – which is essentially a cycle of kindling that never ends – across different ages. Certain souls re-emerge in later games with familiar forms. Some are completely different but maintain the essence of what makes them unique. Their overall influence and significance to the plot – such as the Nameless King’s role in the Kingdom of Lothric before exile – is what makes up the meat of the story.

Here’s another example, one you’ve not doubt heard many times before from me – Destiny. As a whole, Destiny’s plot is kind of a wash. In the base game, you’re tasked with exploring different planets, fighting different alien races, destroying some Heart of Darkness that the Vex covet, then moving on to kill Crota, downing the House of Wolves, battling Crota’s father and then eventually, destroying some self-replicating nano-virus called SIVA and the Archon Prime known as Aksis. Yes, it really is that simple. However, once again, there is a larger array of stories at work within the Destiny universe. Much of it was sadly relegated to the Grimoire, like the Book of Sorrows that tell the story of Oryx and how he became the Taken King.

Destiny

"The point is that many games have begun turning to lore as an effective means of telling a story. In a way, many games use minimal plots to push events forward while the meat of the story is in the lore."

Other examples include the story of Dredgen Yor – how his trusted gun Rose was corrupted and transformed into Thorn before he was eventually taken down by someone wielding The Last Word, another legendary (but actually Exotic) hand cannon. Then there are various incidents recounting Cayde-6’s journey into the Vanguard. The Battle at Twilight Gap is covered in brief glimpses as we learn about some of the more influential Titans involved. Then there’s the story of SIVA, how it was created and its ties to Rasputin. Oh, did we mention the Traveler and its less than ideal intentions, bestowing the Light unto races and then leaving when the Darkness somehow catches up? How about the Darkness actually having an incredibly real form? If you never played Destiny and heard all of these details, you’d be horrified to see how few of them actually make it into the gameplay.

Furthermore, a game like Dark Souls is distinct from Destiny by actually immersing you in that very same world that’s boiling with dragons, Lords of Cinder and strife. Ditto for Bloodborne where you’re a Hunter that must demons and find a way out of the Hunter’s Dream (there’s a lot more to it than that, don’t worry). By comparison, Destiny is more like the direct-to-DVD sequel that followed the big budget theatrical release. It’s improved in recent times but the most interesting stories don’t weave the player into the world as much as Dark Souls or Bloodborne would.

I digress though. The point is that many games have begun turning to lore as an effective means of telling a story. In a way, many games use minimal plots to push events forward while the meat of the story is in the lore. It’s an unconventional story-telling approach. While not the strangest or least effective, it is amazing how so many developers can actually get this approach wrong. Games like Fallout 4 and The Elder Scrolls 5: Skyrim are interesting because the actual lore governing them is more effective than the main plot, especially in the case of Fallout 4.

That’s led to the main debate – for as effective as telling a story primarily with lore can be, is it more effective than a straight-up narrative? Let’s look at The Last of Us and how great it was at introducing characters, conveying the themes of family and survival without beating you over the head with them and just generally creating a new world but staying focused on the plot. The Last of Us is regarded as a great story. For that matter, so is the Uncharted series. If you don’t know all that much about the various places Nathan Drake is seeking to loot, does it affect your enjoyment of the series? Not really.

"When a lore element is directly thrown into the game but an important part is left out, fans will be rightfully angered. That’s how strong of a connection there can be between players and the lore."

On the other hand, one of the advantages of telling a story through lore though is that your fans can piece the story together for themselves. The entire story isn’t quite known and as such, when you continue playing the game, you start connecting the dots and learning more. There may be blanks you fill in yourself, building off of popular theories or even throwing your own into the mix. It’s actually fun to see how other people interpret a story especially from what seem to be the most insignificant things. Overwatch is a great example. While we know about Widowmaker and how she was brainwashed by Talon, we still see glimpses into her previous life via the sprays, dialogue interactions and voicelines of her character. Somehow, in the midst of all this, players have created an entire fictional romance between her and Tracer.

Pharah is a better example. Using the names of skins for Reinhardt, Ana and Pharah, some fans made the wild theory that Reinhardt is actually Pharah’s father (which was debunked by the way). In Overwatch Reflections, we saw Pharah with an older man who was most decidedly not her boyfriend. Later, a spray was added with Pharah’s parents and no, we still had no clue who this mysterious man was.

Judging by the success of something like Uprising – which further detailed the role of Blackwatch, where Genji fit in, how Tracer first started out in Overwatch and even the impact that the Omnics had on King’s Row – it’s obvious that fans love this particular style of story-telling. That’s not counting the various shorts we’ve seen introducing different characters and the conflicts defining them. It’s worth noting though that Overwatch is a team-based multiplayer shooter. Even without all this lore, it’s still possible to enjoy the game.

A good balance of lore and cinematic story-telling can actually be seen in Metal Gear Solid 5: The Phantom Pain which builds off of many of the previous games in the franchise. A first-time player may not know the significance of Liquid Snake or Psycho Mantis or even Outer Heaven. However, for long-time fans of the series, these are significant plot and lore elements essential to the game’s very story. Heck, look at all the anger that came about because Chapter 51, which recounts Eli’s battle with Venom Snake before he eventually leaves with Psycho Mantis, wasn’t an actual playable mission (and also available only as footage for only Collector’s Edition owners). When a lore element is directly thrown into the game but an important part is left out, fans will be rightfully angered. That’s how strong of a connection there can be between players and the lore.

nier automata

"One doesn’t have to read all the Batman comics in existence or The Witcher books to truly appreciate the Batman Arkham series and The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt respectively."

In my opinion, all games need a good combination of lore and narrative to tell an effective story. Nier: Automata was a great game with memorable characters like A2, 2B, 9S, Devola, Popola, Pascal and even Emil. However, the encompassing lore – like how the world ended up in this state, what Devola and Popola had done to trigger it, the stories behind the scenes of the machines and YoRHA, Emil’s trials – further added onto the tale. Let’s not forget the stories of the various weapons discovered and how they conveyed their own interesting tales that somehow connected to the main characters. Undertale is another great game with lots of secrets that you really have to dig deep and understand several things to know what’s happening. Lore by itself cannot always make for a good video game story, as the Five Nights as Freddy’s storyline has taught us. The same applies to straightforward narratives though as games Rogue Warrior and Inversion have taught me.

Telling a good story in any medium isn’t easy. Video games are unique in that they don’t always need a good story to propel players along. You don’t always need a finely tuned narrative in a game like Dead Cells to appreciate the Metroid-vania action happening. I don’t need the entire weight of the Metal Gear Solid franchise in Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance’s plot to appreciate its gameplay (though again, there are several references and callbacks that fans of the series will appreciate).

One doesn’t have to read all the Batman comics in existence or The Witcher books to truly appreciate the Batman Arkham series and The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt respectively. Good games can get by without having to draw on established lore. Some can make their own lore that’s inspired from the established lore and simply move from there. That’s the beauty of story-telling though – with a little creativity, it doesn’t take too long for a great story to emerge.

Some games could tell better stories. They could also benefit from some editing, fine-tuning of certain elements, better dialogue and what have you. Nailing the essentials of the story is one task and presenting a tale that everyone can relate to, much less, enjoy is another. However, if a story can help someone stay immersed in a universe, forgetting about the real world for a handful of hours to worry about these digital characters running around, it’s still pretty effective in its own right, regardless of whether it’s told to you through cutscenes or pieced together in your own head.

Note: The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to GamingBolt as an organization.


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