How Lore Can Make or Break a Game
Examining how different games have handled lore as a storytelling tool
If you’ve ever played through Dark Souls, you know that the game’s impressive scope is built upon the sum of its parts: foreboding hallways, ghastly enemies, unforgiving combat, and a satisfying gameplay loop. What is obscured in Dark Souls is the reach of this narrative, or, the lack thereof — the game is framed by what you don’t see, by what is purposefully occluded via world design and lore snippets buried in item descriptions.
For some players, this meta approach to storytelling can be frustrating. For others, we will watch hours-long pontifications via YouTube essayists such as VaatiVidya and pore over our personal interpretations of what actually happened in the game. Dark Souls, in line with its incredible resistance to player progress, keeps its lore dumps intensely separated from stilted dialogue or overlong cutscenes.
This is both endearing and frustrating. Players have felt the long reach of this stylized storytelling throughout the gaming community for over a decade. Dark Souls, I’m sorry to say, did not invent nonlinear storytelling or lore. However, it has massively popularized how it can be used in games, presenting this forward concept of lore as a story.
Reading Between the Lines
While Dark Souls is the go-to example for this sort of storytelling in games, it’s far from the first to ever do it. Games such as Final Fantasy XIII and Xenosaga buried their more complicated and overwrought pieces of lore in appendixes and libraries, enabling curious players to read up on backstory of the world at their leisure. This is an intentional design choice and its message is clear: dumping extensive lore on players at inopportune times can negatively impact the pacing of the game and the player’s experience. Hence, give players the opportunity to choose to engage in the lore.
There is a lesson to be learned specifically with Final Fantasy XIII. The game is often criticized for its story and is an example of how the separation between world, lore, and plot affects the player experience.
The world of Fabula Nova Crystallis is built on the back of an incredibly dense lore bible. Although, one could make it through all three entries of the Final Fantasy XIII games and never scratch the surface. Final Fantasy XIII gives the player a database filled with concepts and deeper lore segments, but these are ham-fisted by the game’s incredible pressure to continue on at a breathtaking clip.
Taking a moment to read these extensive entries goes against the motivations and momentum of the game itself. It makes these additional details to this world more of an afterthought — as if they don’t quite belong.
Final Fantasy XIII-2 and Lightning Returns attempted to remedy this by pushing the weirdness of their worlds front and center. This took form in returning quests and optional dialogue that fleshed out the time-and-reality warping story of the fal’cie, l’cie, gods and goddesses. Despite this change, it was too late for Final Fantasy XIII. The damage has been done.
To my chagrin, most players do not have the patience to bury themselves in hours of additional lore or text dumps. I find personal enjoyment in this, but the average gamer isn’t as motivated as myself to read novel-length appendices only to figure out why some gobbledygook-named extra-dimensional entity had the agency that it did.
I have profound empathy for the development of RPGs and how their stories are interwoven. I cannot even comprehend how difficult it must be to edit anything akin to coherency alongside a 40+ hour storyline. While so many games that are beloved keep it simple, games such as Dark Souls often end up being the easy out for storytelling criticism.
This sort of lore, like much of what is designed in gaming, exists purely for fun.
The Weight of Lore
The video games that live long in the hearts of players are the ones that can establish a good backbone. These games are not only believable, but have a sense of earnestness in the design of their characters. While it’s absolutely possible to push through Dark Souls with only a cursory understanding of what is happening with Lord Gwyn and the Age of Fire, it’s also possible to pour over every piece of minutiae that exists within the dusky corners of Lordran.
The game’s expert design lends itself to more than story snippets stapled to weapons and items. Dark Souls is so richly animated that it’s impossible to stumble through its dank corridors without coming away with some kind of perception on what is going on.
Where Final Fantasy XIII’s overtly clean aesthetic left little to the imagination, Dark Souls bleeds creative input.
It doesn’t matter whether you view VaatiVidya’s interpretations as absolutely true or absolutely misguided, FromSoftware’s design of Dark Souls happened the way it did because they were interested in individual perception. We can argue over the furtive pygmy until the end of time, but anyone who tries to tell you they have the end-all-be-all understanding of the game’s lore is flat-out wrong. But we can all agree that most players appreciate the lore that comes from Dark Souls.
There is a reason we become so fixated on lore pieces and interpretation.
Despite living in a post-truth society, many of us still desperately cling to reason and meaning. We look for grounding — even in fiction — because it gives us a believable jumping-off point. A good video game can bring you wholeheartedly into the realism of its world, regardless of how strange it is.
Psychonauts, for example, is wacky to its very core, but has a world that feels completely intentional from the start. These are the games that marry together their lore and their story with such expert craftsmanship that regardless of what happens they have molded us into comfortable suspended disbelief.
Psychonauts places its lore bits in the general design of both area and character, similar to how you can play Katamari Damacy and never question the surreal absurdism of whatever is happening in the background; it’s real because they earnestly designed it to be real.
Building Upon Imagination
When it comes to the discussion of good design in terms of lore-based storytelling, I endlessly return to the works of Fumito Ueda.
While Ico, Shadow of the Colossus, and The Last Guardian do not contain the lore bibles or detailed item descriptions of other games that use this storytelling style, they demonstrated an incredible depth of world-based narrative and imaginative lore throughout the game. In these games, the player interprets the lore of these games, dependent on the way they present the world to the players.
Each of Ueda’s games is mostly free of scenes and dialogue, relying instead on the actions of the game to present storytelling information. When dialogue happens, it’s sparse but impactful. Its sparseness is partially the reason why even the most fragmented dialogue in Ueda’s games is taken so seriously.
Shadow of the Colossus is a game that oozes mystery, that refuses to show its hand despite the obviousness of the crafted lore behind it all. The fault with many other games that have entire oceans of world-building is that in their excitement to show off their narratives, they forget to hold back enough and curate mystery and obsession in the player. The Last Guardian contained a surprising breadth of both cutscene and lore, presenting a narrative that felt much more linear than Ico or Shadow of the Colossus. Despite actively growing the bond between the boy and his creature, it held back enough to make the player’s eyes constantly scan the world for morsels of information.
Open-world games seem to struggle the most when it comes to the balance of lore, plot, and world. Ghost of Tsushima consistently impressed me with how it handled this problem. Its quests were more than unnecessary fetch and kill effluvia. Every single quest in Ghost of Tsushima aimed to widen my perception of its world and characters by offering optional — yet inspired — moments of meaning. Instead of fashioning its details to item description, Ghost of Tsushima presented its lore through something the player was naturally going to do anyway. This reward, for me, was profoundly more interesting than simply gaining a new weapon or piece of armor in another title. I will play a thousand quests that flush out the story with more fervor than I ever will for some throwaway item with a modified stat.
The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild almost feels like the antithesis of this design. Despite my deep love for the game, Zelda titles infamously don’t craft their stories until later in development, choosing instead to build upon the believability of the world.
While this can be beneficial, in some ways this approach felt hollow in Breath of the Wild’s open application. There is a story at the heart of the game — an impactful tale about the loss of a kingdom and how people move on after — but we can entirely overlook it in a playthrough as these story beats are almost comically hidden from the player.
Lore bits are mounted on the backs of recognizable Zelda mainstays, such as the Zora or the Gorons. While the world in Breath of the Wild is so obviously dystopian, the openness of the game occludes the very nature of those who live within it and how rarely it ever asks you to absorb what it is you are seeing. Breath of the Wild is undeniably beautiful and predicated on the open-world concept of endless exploration, and while its version of Hyrule is jam-packed with mysteries, it could have benefited from some cohesion that I hope is amended in the upcoming sequel. Its marriage of story and lore is sadly uneven.
Then, as if crafted from sheer magical perfection (it wasn’t, it took a lot of real people and a lot of hard work) we have Final Fantasy XII.
The Balance of Lore and Story
A few years ago, US Gamer released an exquisite conversation with the two incredible people that localized Final Fantasy XII. This entry in the franchise differed from its predecessors for many reasons: it took place in Ivalice, it had an entirely different battle system, and they designed it with a mentality wholly separate from Final Fantasy X and the eventual Final Fantasy XIII.
Aside from all the many reasons that this game remains one of the most powerful titles in the titanic Final Fantasy library, there is an impressive and nearly overwhelming scope of detail and lore accounted for in this iteration of Ivalice. The body of this game, owing significantly to its director and team, was truly gilded by its incredible localization that made every aspect of the world feel alive. Detailed in the interview is the staggering revelation that only 9% of the game’s dialogue exists in the voice-acted story; 91% of the written and localized dialogue are just the parts of the game that one might never experience, such as the NPC dialogue that changes at multiple points throughout the story.
Like any series entry, Final Fantasy XII can be played as a linear story and fully enjoyed. However, there is so much more to this game that can be explored upon multiple playthroughs, from the overtly detailed and extensive dialogue to the bestiary that contains additional stories about world and character.
The lore in Final Fantasy XII isn’t necessarily deep from a meta stance, but it is deep in that it makes the world feel not only rich, but dense and believable. Although previous Final Fantasy titles took some attempts to this approach (such as Final Fantasy VIII’s deceptively detailed SeeD reports and Selphie’s email diary), Final Fantasy XII realized with success what Kitase had flopped in other entries: a truly congruent mixture of lore and story.
The next time you boot up Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age, treat yourself to a personal deep dive by simply talking with random NPCs and reading through the bestiary entries. There’s so much to explore within this game that it’s nigh-overwhelming.
Regardless of how you come at this sort of storytelling or how it affects your personal enjoyment, these subconscious additions to video games do impact the overall experience. Lore-based storytelling is a vibe, and it feeds the imagination. At the end of the day, lore gives us a way to delve deeper into the video games we love and immersive ourselves into their believable worlds.
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