Friday, April 12, 2013

A Long, Long Time Ago...

I was going to write about something else today but I can't ignore the dust kicked up by Syl yesterday and scuffed about by Nils today. This is a topic worthy of a PhD thesis (probably someone working on one this very minute) and I don't propose to attempt to address it in any depth in a blog post. I just want to focus on one aspect: the difference between Story and Lore and why the former may not matter but the latter inestimably does.

Arguably, Story and Narrative are synonyms, as are Storyteller and Narrator. I'd suggest there are subtle differences but it's probable that using one in the place of another wouldn't cause fatal confusion. Lore, however, is not a synonym of either. A story doesn't have to have a traditional beginning, middle and end but it always has a direction, always goes somewhere. Lore does not go anywhere. It just is. You follow a story. You live the lore.

Lore in MMOs is, of course, a specialized use of the term. In life, lore is a somewhat archaic concept, usually ascribed to things that have acquired thick patina of time. How to charm warts, perhaps, or the portents of weather. When we use it here, that's not usually what we mean.

In post-Tolkeinian fantasy, particularly in its long, episodic or continuous forms, the term Lore has come to mean a conflation of History and Fact. Our world generates both spontaneously, continuously but imaginary worlds don't come into being replete with meaning. When we cross from character creation into a new land, that land hasn't been lying there undiscovered for millennia accreting context. Someone sat down and made it all up.

Not someone. Many someones. There may be a person or a team specifically responsible for creating The Lore. They may have seeded the world with more scrolls, books and  inscriptions than will ever be found, let alone read by even the most obsessive fan. They may have given snippets of dialog to every psuedo-living creature able to stumble over the lowest bar of sentience. They may even, if no-one has been able to stop them, have created quests in which The Lore is Handed Down to The Deserving. Still, there's more to it than that.

If this imaginary world is to be somewhere worth spending whole months, years of real, actual, irreplaceable life it has to be at least as compelling as the world it replaces. It has to feel as though you are walking on different soil, breathing different air, being somewhere you otherwise never could be. Every decoration on every wall, every strap on every sandal, every calling bird or barking dog has to work together in harmony to create a true sensation of place.

All that is Lore and lore is the bedrock. It should be there in everything from art design to music to voice. It should be in the shape of a sword, the cut of a coat, the feathers in a hat.

These worlds don't make themselves the way ours made itself, by chance and deep time. They're thrown together in a few short years with compromise and under constraint. When the worldgate opens and the player horde floods in, yes we change that world and make it ours. We should. But there must be a world already there, waiting to be changed.

Don't tell me stories. Make me worlds.


  1. I think that's pretty much the point of the TB quote I cited too - "the world shows you" rather than it being told to you. and I agree with the definitions of course. sadly lore, while potentially awesome, is still communicated via storytelling in MMOs way too often which then creates 'lore fatigue' among players like myself.

    lore should just 'be' all around you. it's your world's past and it's also in your present, in culture, language, art etc. you could think there were enough channels to bring lore to life without spelling it out via disposition all the time, but apparently not.
    as for stories, I absolutely want stories and every now and then I even like to listen to one. but the greatest stories are those I'm telling myself, that happen as a consequence of what I'm experiencing (aka connecting dots).

    1. I wonder how we'd all feel about being given stories in MMOs if the stories we were given were better? The elephant in the room here is The Secret World. Frankly, there its the game that lets that game down, not the story.

      And when it comes to player-made stories, inside the game I really only care about my own. When it comes to the stories of others it comes down to how good they are at re-telling them.

      I love reading Wilhelm's stories at TAGN and Tipa's at West Karana because they are both great storytellers. Half the blogs in my reader are there because the people who write them know how to recount their adventures with wit and style.

      I've come across a few storytellers in game but only a very few. The stories you don't take part in are invisible to you but the stories of NPCs are there for all to find. Sometimes I just wish they were written by people as skilled at telling stories as the "amateurs" in my blog reader. Or by whoever writes The Secret World.

  2. Great observations. It's the immersion that is critical to have the game feel right, and that immersion is created by the elements that you have mentioned.

    That is why things like quick travel, flight paths, flying, etc. all detract from opportunities to create moments of immersion.

    We have given up Lore for the convenience of gameplay, at the expense of the game.

    1. Travel is such a difficult one. Although I sometimes take issue with people who seem to want to go back to the days when we traveled uphill in the snow coming and going, I do really agree with them, and you, in principle. Meaningful travel that you can't avoid adds immensely to immersion.

      The problem is, it suffers very, very badly from diminishing returns, just as it does in real life. An invigorating, fascinating, memorable five mile walk through beautiful countryside becomes a tedious trudge the tenth, twentieth, hundredth time you have to do it.

      In MMOs I'd go for travel that is unavoidable the first time through and which, even after that, takes some effort to avoid. At some point, though, I think you have to let people take the bus.

    2. Yeah, I definitely don't want it to go the old way of EQ - Gnome starting area to Quynos took hours - if you didn't die on the way.

      Although, oddly enough, I have some amazing memories from that trek. Learning languages on the boat, meeting new people, etc.

      Damn, how DO we put that back in without completely killing convenience? One and done loses the magic for possible interaction.

      Or are those days just gone?

      I used to do that run regularly. I'd camp the mino caves, get the mino axes in bulk, run them to Qeynos and they sold so fast, it was very profitable.

  3. I do wonder. If a "game" ever came out that was not marketed as a "game" but just you and your virtual avatar strolling around in a vast, complex imaginary world, how commercially successful will it be?

    I love lore and history. Sometimes I'd read stories of games I don't even play, because I find it fascinating. But to date, I don't think I am familiar with anything (games, books...) in which the WORLD and the LORE is the main selling point, as opposed to something else.

    Just as an example. There's lots of side-stories and manuscripts detailing and fleshing out Tolkien's world. However, I'd argue that most people first become emotionally attached to Tolkien's characters and narratives, and then continue to dig deeper in the world Tolkein invented. If you remove this emotional attachment to the characters and story, will people still have that desire to explore the rich imaginary world?


    1. I've thought about that a lot. In the same way that, outside of the avant-garde, novels and movies always at least have to pay lip service to narrative and/or plot, so I think "games" need at least a skeleton of gameplay to retain even a minority interest.

      Narrative entertainment doesn't have to be the model for online worldmaking, though. If you strip out the Game part and don't see Gamers as your target market then yes, I do believe that virtual sightseeing could work. I think the problem is that for something like that to appeal successfully to an audience without either game structures or narrative it would need to be fantastically complex and detailed, which would be unfeasibly expensive.

      I do actually spend a significant amount of time in many MMOs, especially the graphically sophisticated ones, just wandering about. Often taking screenshots. It's a very similar feeling to sightseeing or even traveling. I'd certainly be up for a form of 3D graphical "entertainment" that made that kind of behavior its focus.

    2. "I do wonder. If a "game" ever came out that was not marketed as a "game" but just you and your virtual avatar strolling around in a vast, complex imaginary world, how commercially successful will it be?"

      That game already exists: it's called Dear Esther. there's no gameplay to it, only experiencing story (and without means of interference which makes it very railroad). and it's not commercially successful, although for several more reasons. but essentially I don't think enough people consider this a 'game' and it really isn't.

    3. Not heard of that, somewhat surprisingly when I look at all the awards it's won. Said I wasn't a gamer :P

      It looks very interesting. Bookmarked it and may well buy it, if and when I think I might actually have time to play it. I don't get on well with offline games, though.

      Dear Esther does appear to be story-based as you say, though and I think Ursan was thinking of something with no narrative structure at all, just a pure world to explore for the sheer pleasure of seeing new things. That's certainly something I'd love to see.

    4. Yeah I see. I have a feeling that just strolling around would get boring at some point. I can do that in Skyrim but I actually also want to interact with NPCs there and do quests and collect things. a 'pure' sim...not my thing personally, although fun for maybe a few hours. have you played Journey? it actually comes closest to this type of play. unfortunately it's only accessible with PS3.

      And Dear Esther is a worth getting. it's super-cheap on Steam and you won't spend more than 1-2 hours, anyway. but it opens up a lot of 'newness' - I actually think there's potentially in visual books like that. DE is a book you can walk through and puzzle over its secrets. nothing more.

    5. What Bhagpuss said. No narrative, no "story." Just a large world, replete with history, ordinary residents, and its own laws of physics.

      Now that you mention it, Skyrim comes pretty close to it. I'm one of those "Ignore plotline, explore everything" people, so I got great joy in exploring that world and learning everything there is to it while completely ignoring the storyline.

      But then it goes back to the question, how many people are interested in the gameplay, and how many, like me, couldn't care less and just want to learn learn learn?

      I imagine learning for the sake of learning isn't a very popular concept, unfortunately.


  4. What a fantastic post! Yes, absolutely. And thank you for nailing something that for me defines the best games from the rest. I knew there was something at the edge of my mind, and you got it. I think also layers help, that interact - like with a good painting there's the brushstrokes, the feeling theres a world outside the edges, the details, a lot of other factors each interesting in itself, but also in the way it relates to other elements and the whole. That plus lore, or as part of lore does it for me - Av

    1. Thanks! I guess I'm extending "lore" to include what might be called atmosphere or ambience but in a virtual world even abstracts like that don't just come out of nowhere. It's like all collaborative art; when everyone is working in harmony towards a shared vision, the result can be far more than just the sum of the set pieces. Which isn't to say the set pieces aren't important, but if you're going to kill a dragon to save a world you need more than just the dragon.

  5. Yes... and the more I think about it the more I realise that lore is a steady foundation and framework for all the myriad other parts. A "bingo" moment for me when I read what you wrote up there.


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