A long time ago, games were a series of small adventures where you would shoot slowly advancing aliens or eat pixelated blocks while being relentlessly chased by colored ghosts. While those games were and still are entertaining, the backstory of a video game universe is, at times what helps make it awesome and undoubtedly unique.
For many gamers (myself included) the need to uncover and explore every inch of the lore of a game is resolute and unyielding. It draws the player in and allows them to feel like a part of the digital world. This is why great writing and mechanics that bring to light the carefully constructed information, is essential. Without this, games would feel awfully 2-dimensional, with the reason for completing objectives being lost.
Even the simplest style games from way before I was born have a motivation. They just have to. Pac-Man did not just wake up randomly one morning, deciding to eat pixelated circles. However we never find out anything about him or the colored ghosts. And that was and still is fine, with certain styles of games, in fact the very same formula of enemy, hero and objective, still permeates the digitalized world. The difference is in the story.
Keep Them Guessing
Sometimes the best kind of in game history is the one that isn’t immediately available to the player. Something they have to sift through, read over and connect to other pieces of lore, and perhaps some real life knowledge. This draws in so many connections and links that the world takes on yet another dimension. It isn’t just you reading information about other characters or places, you are reading about exchanges between heroes and villains, great battles being fought, and striations being felt by the universe itself.
Destiny does this rather well, as you are put into the shoes of individuals who are considered to be legendary even by the standards of the super-powered Guardians. Saint-14 is a notable example of this. Compounding on this, is the discoverable lore found via dead Ghosts, which retain info about certain events and the Calcified Fragments which hold memory of the Darkness, as well as just unlockable lore via killing enemies. You either stumble upon these or seek them out in the obscure corners of the digital world which is how the game history should be – it should feel like you are working to uncover the puzzle pieces and with each one you build more knowledge of the universe you inhabit.
It is not only that, since each card (Grimoire Card), only gives you a little bit of the story, and even with all the available pieces, you are still left guessing. This leaves you to insert your own theories into the gaps, it reflects your own personality and thoughts into the very heart of the pixelated world. Again referring to Destiny, there are so many mysteries that are still not clarified, like the true nature of the Ahamkara, the power of the Worm Gods and the mystery surrounding the survival of Eris Morn. The purposeful lack of connection, these puzzles embedded in the game, cause the player to long to know more. To seek out the missing pieces and build the puzzle with a combination of fact and theory.
Real Emotion for Digital Characters
I’m sure we have all had experiences where the NPCs that inhabit a world are as empty as a hollow watermelon. They add little value, just acting as quest-givers or reward-providers, separated from each other by way of their objectives, and appearing as if they just fell right into the midst of the game without any hint of reasoning.
Despite its shortcomings in relation to available backstory in game, Borderlands 2, through discoverable Echo Logs explains all the reasons for the playable Vault Hunters who had arrived on Pandora. The logs were difficult to find in order to piece them together, but they, bit by bit, make the motivations of the Vault Hunters a little more broad than just simply ‘Vault Hunting’. Whether its a search for glory for Axton, a search for knowledge for Maya or a search for a challenge for Zer0, you learn both more about Pandora as well as the characters residing on Pandora.
Adding backstory to the lives of the playable and not so playable characters gives a digital world depth, and shines the game in a whole new light as you are playing it. In this regard in game lore also sets the tone of the mission or sequence. If I may return to Destiny for a moment, you find that any mission that is provided or narrated by Eris Morn, garners a grave tone, wrought with seriousness and practicality.
Eris has suffered by her years long exile and the loss of her companions, and that has seeped into her voice and mannerisms. On the contrast a mission provided to your Guardian by Cayde-6 is more upbeat, sarcastic and of a more ‘fun’ nature, due to Cayde-6’s personality. But it is through the Grimoire Card backstory, flavor text on weapons and armor and from listening to characters talk that you learn about their pain and troubles. This in turn provides that extra dimension of tone which puts your head into the right space when playing through the game. In its essence, it becomes less hollow and one-dimensional.
Broadens The Universe
If you forget about playability and just view a videogame for the story it provides, a unique history and great lore is essential if you wish to keep players immersed in your game. Sure, there are wildly popular games that are admired regardless of any backstory, but a truly complex world that offers constant discovery and learning is a world that is worth coming back to. Take The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, one of my personal favorites and an amazing RPG in its own right. Through its several DLC packs and the massive base game, there is so much to discover.
Particularly in the form of books and other readables that can be collected and collated to uncover the true history of Skyrim. If you wish to uncover more about the Dark Brotherhood, you can read, ‘A Kiss, Sweet Mother’ or ‘The Five Tenets’ and similarly this applies to background history about major events such as the Oblivion Crisis or the return of the Dragons. Part of what makes this game amazing (aside from the badass magic and combat) is the available in-game history. Because not only does it add depth, but it also can clear up sections of the game where confusion begins to set in.
Similarly to this and returning to the links between characters, Skyrim also contains Journals and letters that you can discover, either on the bodies of the living or the dead or in containers. These showcase correspondence between bandits or powerful NPCs, which not only provide some humor or warning about what is ahead but once again, add a bit more substance to a massive world.
Quality of Play
In game lore is not just for those players who need to understand everything about the universe they have become lost in. Sometimes it can affect how the very game is played and the way your characters interact with the pixel world. Take the recently released No Man’s Sky. There is almost no direction in this game, no objective, no hints. Just survive and explore.
However, as you go about doing just that, you will most likely encounter differing alien races, that you CANNOT communicate with initially. Now, this opens up a whole new spree of difficulties. How do you trade with them? You may say or do something that will prompt them to attack you or to shun you. You obviously need to learn their language. It will certainly make things easier.
How do you do that? In game lore. Discovering certain relics as you travel that you can translate and begin to understand will give you a rudimentary ability to communicate. As you travel around the universe more and discover new relics, you can unlock more pieces of the language based code. So in this regard the ability to discover hidden bits of lore almost directly affect playability.
This is due to, as you learn a new alien language, you become friendlier with those you can now speak to. This leads to cheaper prices for the things you need to survive, maybe they will give you a little bit extra or they might just help you in your universal quest to exterminate every living thing. Who knows!
Finally we have curiosity. Where would games be, and indeed where would reality be without curiosity? The desire and drive to seek out and discover things about the video games we love is paramount to our experience. To just grab a game and play it through without curiosity is almost impossible at best and at worst it’s just boring.
Whether you are wandering around a Call of Duty map and are wanting to know what disaster of a military strike came through to cause all that destruction, or are confused as to the rise of the Arbiter and the Swords of Sanghelios, a never ceasing itch to know a little bit more is always there.
When a video game provides that answer the curiosity is sated; players feel a little more comfortable, which adds to the immersive effect great games provide us. When the digital world gives players obscure clues and half truths in the lore, or if one puzzle piece is unable to be found, it spins up theories and conspiracies on behalf of the player. Characters are given even greater backstories than what was written, ideas are formed about the structure of alien races and their governments and answers are found off the small clues the lore provides.
Video game lore does not only allow players to sink into the digital realm and feel a true part of it, but it also brings that digital immersion and that pixelated curiosity to the forefront as they return to reality. Great lore is needed for a great game, a game that leaves you wanting and curious even after you turn the screen off.