Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!


Posted by Rampant Coyote on September 28, 2012

How many of you actually pay attention to the optional “lore” in an RPG? Reading / listening to exposition about the background, paying attention to the little details about the setting and backstory?

I’m kind of middle-of-the-road. Frankly, too many game worlds have some pretty boring lore. Many tomes end up going into the “TL,DR” category for me. However, sometimes a game world really grabs me, and I can’t get enough. I read the books, I piece together the details, and these days I look up stuff online on a Wiki somewhere.

I think a lot of it depends upon the amount of effort the designers took into making an interesting world. In the case of a game series, this often evolves, with haphazard world-design in the first game, with a bunch of retconning and revisionism bringing it all to life a couple of games later. To be honest, while Dragon Age never grabbed me, it was clear the designers did put a lot of thought into their world. At first, I was convinced it was going to be yet another paint-by-numbers fantasy universe, but early in the game they provided some very interesting background tidbits that made it come alive. Once my interest is piqued, I want to learn more.

But it takes something to get me there.  Lots of exposition early in the game will leave me cold – as it will most players, I expect. Usually I’m uninterested in the game world until later in the game. At some point I cross a threshold where I begin to care about the game world and the characters in it, and then I want to find out more. Maybe it’s a commitment thing.  Maybe it’s even more of a craftsmanship thing.

And also, as I’m fond of saying, the Clone Wars were a lot more interesting when they were only hinted at in Star Wars than when we actually saw it unfold in the prequels. Perhaps the best use of “lore” in an RPG is not to explain the game world, but to fire up the player’s imagination to fill in the blanks for you.

Another thing – for designers – to bear in mind: The best “game lore” comes out not in straight-up exposition, but is hinted at in art, style, off-hand comments, and the details of the game world. While the “character generation screen” has kinda gone out of favor in recent years (but seems to be experiencing an indie-driven revival, huzzah!), one of the things I did love about it was the anticipation and hints at what I might come to expect in the game before me. While letting the player choose the face of his avatar is no doubt important, perhaps it is more important to give the player a sense of how his new character belongs in this world he’s about to explore.

Filed Under: Design - Comments: 14 Comments to Read

  • McTeddy said,

    I probably qualify as not caring about the lore for the very reason you mention… it’s boring. I actually LOVE lore in games, but I don’t like the usual storytelling method of finding history books with awkward fonts and clunky UIs.

    I’m much more interested in seeing lore as shown in many horror games. The game play brings up questions and topics that get me curious. At this point, I care about finding answers and I’ll fumble through every book and audio log to find out more.

    I’m also FAR more likely to read a real-world book than I am to read in-game. When I’m playing a game I expect to PLAY… But if I’m in a bookstore and I see a chance to learn about that legendary event from that cool game… count me in!

  • WhineAboutGames said,

    Giant lore databases inside the game do not interest me because they’re a distraction from playing the game, and they’re usually not as well laid out and conveniently navigable as lore databases outside of the game. I couldn’t be bothered to read most of the entries in Dragon Age, but I’m glad that they exist so that they can be looked at in Wikis where they are more convenient to read. Especially as someone who partakes in FANFICTION, where lore can be played with and expanded upon.

    I found things like the planet descriptions in ME2 actively frustrating because they suggested interesting things that I could not actually engage with in any way.

    However, I loved the tiny backstories you’d get on fancy weapons in some older RPGs. The weapons themselves were useful, and the story snippets were brief and entertaining: like, say, Foolsmiter.

    In dialog games I’d be happy if they had footnote systems in place, so you could easily pull up a QUICK explanation / further details of something your character should know about, if you wanted to.

    But even as someone who plays visual novels, I do not want to sit around and read books inside an RPG. The interface really isn’t designed for it.

  • Jonathan MacAlpine said,

    Honestly, the game which come to mind as having the most interesting lore to me isn’t really an RPG at all: Dark Souls. Fantastic game for environmental storytelling.

  • Barry B said,

    I pay a lot of attention to it, as long as it’s embedded in the game. If it just sits on top as something written for the game but not actually part of it–more like Oblivion, rather than Morrowind–I’ll pretty much ignore it. But games that really work it into things have a depth that other RPGs lack, in my opinion.

    Probably the best in this vein was Darklands. Arnold Hendrick and his team really put a lot of late medieval lore into it, from the alchemical formulas named after famous alchemists of the period to all the saints, each of which empowers a really pious individual for a short time in very different ways. The enemies you faced, too, were derived from the legends people believed, and the incidents you faced on the road were all the kind described in contemporary diaries.

    But I don’t need to tell you all this. 😉

  • LateWhiteRabbit said,

    I like lore in games, and actually read a lot of it, but I’m seldom impressed or excited about it. I’ve played over a 1000 hours combined between 3 Elder Scrolls games at this point, reading all their books and lore…and I STILL don’t care about it or know who the heck So-in-so is when they’re mentioned. Mainly because the lore is so damned boring and fantasy-generic.

    I personally like lore to be hinted at and delivered via the environment and character interactions. The Fallout series has some of the coolest lore in my mind, because you discover it in little discreet pieces scattered into the environment and gameplay. At no point does the game just info-dump everything on you.

    It’s not an RPG, but I love how Bioshock does lore as well. Audio diaries and the occasional slide show, filled in completely with environmental design and breadcrumbs.

    I guess my favorite games are ones that make me work and play detective to fill in the lore.

  • Califer said,

    It really depends on how much I like the game. If I’m enjoying myself I’m much more interested in learning about the world this all takes place in. If I’m not having fun then I’m usually just pushing through the game to complete it.

    On that note, any time promotional material starts with lore, I automatically tune out.

  • Groboclown said,

    What you’re describing with the “hinting at” is pretty much what Tolkien said about what he did for the Lord of the Rings. Suggesting things adds to the mystery of the world, and makes the world seem bigger than you need to make.

  • Andy_Panthro said,

    I like good game lore, but only when it’s consistent with what you actually see in the game.

    One of the best was surely the Ultima games (specifically IV-VII) where the accompanying manuals contained lore and actual game information in equal measure.

    Dragon Age is a funny one, because the lore is actually quite interesting, but it’s not really that important in the game itself (in particular the magic/templars thing).

    It should never be forced on a player though. Mass Effect is quite good at “hiding” the lore, it’s all there if you want to read it, but you’re never forced to. I suppose the Elder Scrolls games also do this (although again most of the lore has very little to do with the game).

  • dagon said,

    Regarding the Elder Scrolls games(particularly Morrowind) and lore, I really recommend this series of blog posts. They are about two years old now, but are still a fascinating exploration of lore and its place in (and outside!) games: http://fallingawkwardly.wordpress.com/2010/09/02/the-metaphysics-of-morrowind-part-2/

    I liked Morrowind a lot when I played it, but this article made me replay it in a totally different light.

  • Silemess said,

    I’ll often start reading the lore of the game that I’m playing. Whether I keep at it depends on a few things.

    1) If it has a bearing on the game. Why read it if it’s practically a side story that you’ll never get involved in, whose consequences are never seen or felt? But if it helps to explain why the world is the way it is, then yay!

    2) If it’s well written. I make an exception to rule #1, if the stories are enjoyable enough in their own right. That’s hard to do, because again, the only time you’re going to encounter this world and its stories is in the game. So the game itself has to be enjoyable, the actual plot of the game has to good, and then the lore has to be good to qualify here.

    3) Entertaining to find. Mandatory searching for lore? Does not qualify. “Achievements” or “Awards” also do not qualify. Sure, I might look for them just to earn that bit (I am one of /those/ players at times). But that doesn’t mean I’d actually pay attention to what I’ve found. But if it’s like finding something hidden, an easter egg or bits and pieces of clues related to what the player’s going through? That makes looking for the hidden bits of lore worthwhile. For this, it still has to have some relation to the plot that the player is going through, but the style of writing can change from piece to piece because they don’t have to come from the same viewpoint.

    My long worded response.

  • SniperHF said,

    I like the optional lore dumps only when they are directly related to what you are doing at the moment.

    Finding a book about a dungeon you are about to enter or a town you are about to visit is interesting. Provides backstory and flavor.

    But In Baldur’s gate when I find a random book about some Forgotten Realms lore that may not even be in the game; I skim it in about 3 seconds.

  • Adorna said,

    When I started out with playing RPGs.. back in 386 and supernes times I loved game lore, but especially in RPGs its almost never interesting. True, I no longer read standart fantasy either. These days, if a book lists races instead of character names and mentions something about a war 100-5000 years ago I put the book away instantly.
    I usually want to know more about worlds that seem to have rules that hardly get explained. I still try to get a cpy of “Rule of Rose” even though I hate survival horror games gameplay wise because I want to explore the world and try to make sense of it all. lots of japanese films make me look up history, links and reviews to help me understand whats going on.

    I think backlore is interesting only if it affects what you see and do. I’d really like to see more mystery-solving in RPGs: having a chance to read up on rules that you think you observed in game would be cool, or a way to research spells and such. Being forcefed history that honestly is the same over most games is not. Maybe it all comes down to – does the game leave you with questions that need answers?

  • Gareth Fouche said,

    Depends on the craftsmanship of the writing/world-building, as well as how original that lore is is.

    A good writer with a decent setting can get me reading lore for ages, and digging around on the internet for more. Bland writing, or good writing saddled to another version of “hero saves world from generic ancient evil in the generic lands of elves and orcs”, and I skip it.

    Best lore/world-building, for me, was the Thief series and Morrowind. Games like System Shock 2 and Deus Ex, with their scattered notes, emails and newspaper articles, were also great.

  • Xenovore said,

    The best “game lore” comes out not in straight-up exposition, but is hinted at in art, style, off-hand comments, and the details of the game world.


    I do like the in-game books in The Elder Scrolls games, but the problem with those is that 75% of the time, it’s old history and not relevant to the current game setting.

    One noteworthy exception comes to mind, however (potential spoiler ahead, if you care). In Skyrim, there’s a location/sub-plot where a cult is trying to summon the Wolf Queen back from the dead. After running into this, all those history books about the Wolf Queen suddenly became relevant. I found myself actively looking out for those books, so I could learn more about the Wolf Queen and why/how she became who/what she was.

    So yeah, I think it’s important to keep game lore/story primarily — and subtly — in the game-play, but it can be cool to have more information available, via in-game books, audio/video recordings, emails, etc. HOWEVER, it needs to be at the player’s disgression — no shenanigans like forced cutscenes!

    @Gareth: Agreed.