Kickstarter donor Alien Legion has proposed an intriguing question about lore in MMORPGs.
“Back in my World of Warcraft days, I mentioned to a friend that I would love a Worgen Monk. My friend, being a WoW fanatic, rambled on about how Worgen Monks were not in the game because Pandaria was discovered after the Worgen intro story takes place, so there are no Monk trainers in Gilneas. I made the offhand remark that if Gilneas was behind the Greymane Wall for years, maybe a Pandaren explorer landed there long ago and was just hidden from the rest of the races and Worgen have had access to Monk trainers all along. It was fiction, and the devs can decide anything they want to fill the narrative. This touched off a geek-rage rebuttal from my self-avowed WoW historian friend that still hovers over Lake Michigan to this day. And I see this same thing in forums all the time: people who take a games lore so seriously that they will defend it to the end. I like getting into the story of a game, especially an MMO, but some take it really, really, REALLY seriously. So how much does a game’s lore matter to you?”
How seriously do you take MMORPG lore? I posed Alien Legion’s question to the Massively OP writers for this edition of Massively Overthinking.
Brendan Drain (@nyphur): In any narrative-driven medium, I think it’s important to always be consistent with the previous lore and not step on the toes of the previous narrative. Any book, comic, film or game will invariably collect hardcore fans who will be upset if you establish something in the prime fiction and then later violate it without some kind of reasonable plot device. Those superfans can be a fantastic source of organic word-of-mouth marketing for a game (or any geekdom, really), but they are loyal to the lore, and if you violate it, they can kick up a serious stink online. We’ve seen a ridiculous number of IP reboots in the past few years just because producers or writers want to go in a new direction without being limited by the previously established lore, but if you’ve got existing hardcore fans, then I think that’s often a mistake.
For a model of how to maintain consistency in the prime fiction without trapping writers in a box, I always look at the TV series’ Stargate: SG1 and Stargate: Atlantis. When they establish that a piece of technology works in some way or an event happens that takes the plot in a significantly different direction, they commit to maintain that going forward. But if the writers need something to be different for plot reasons, they might establish that a piece of technology works differently in certain unusual circumstances. Need a wormhole to go back in time, last over 38 minutes or jump to another gate mid-journey? Throw in some solar flares, a black hole, or alien energy weapons hitting the gate. Sci-fi is predicated on the plot and technology seeming plausible, so it has to maintain consistency and then either expand on parts of the previous fiction that haven’t been explicitly explored or use plot devices to change things temporarily without retconning old lore. I think game studios could do well to follow that example.
Brianna Royce (@nbrianna, blog): For me, it depends on the lore and game itself. I told a story on the podcast a few weeks ago about the hundred-odd printed-out pages of WoW lore I pored over in my attempt to immerse myself in the world in order to craft an appropriate RP backstory for my guild. It made my eyes glaze over. It was wretched. But it is that my reaction to all lore? No way. Like Jef below, I soak up Star Wars lore, especially Clone Wars/Dark Times/Rebellion era stuff (not so much the KOTOR era). You can’t escape Lord of the Rings Online’s lore, and you shouldn’t because atmosphere and history are half the game (plus Turbine has done a marvelous job making a rich MMO without breaking much beyond canon). And I love the Guild Wars world and characters (the characters the most). And on and on.
So I suppose that the more I care about a game, the more I’ll take note of and adhere to its literary trappings. I don’t care about lore just because someone’s stamped a lore symbol on it, but if it’s compelling, I’ll absolutely pay attention and incorporate it into my character’s story and any roleplay I do. I just won’t memorize it for the Reddit exam tomorrow, and I won’t lose my shit over someone whose roleplay steps outside of the lore rules (or when devs change things around because they want or need to).
Eliot Lefebvre (@Eliot_Lefebvre, blog): The problem with taking any game’s lore too seriously is when you run into the idea that the lore, as it exists at a given moment, is sacrosanct and cannot be altered. And that’s just plain silly; lore is fiction. It can change. It is not based upon historical realities, the story we know may not be the whole tale, and there’s always space to speculate about what else could be out there.
Where this runs into issues, of course, is that going too far in either direction is just as unpleasant from a worldbuilding perspective. If the developers really do change anything and everything on a whim, then how can you commit to the world as a whole? How can you be certain that what was true this week is going to be true next week? You’d wind up with a game in which the setting seemed to have been assembled by random number generation, wherein every event was subject to change wildly based on nothing more than the whims of whomever wrote the scenarios for the latest expansion. And while I can’t say that nobody wants that, it would mean a world in which you can’t really invest.
Put it another way: In this case, it is 100% plausible to come up with a scenario in which Worgen Monks exist, but they do not. And it would be a problem if tomorrow the class was added and players were told “oh, yeah, those guys were always here”; it would involve a pretty huge derailing of existing stories that involve Worgen Monks not being a thing. That’s what it comes down to: How much does this change affect the established setting and stories, the things we know happened because we were there?
Lore can always change. New elements can come to the forefront. It’s a question of what’s changing and why, and whether or not it makes the world feel richer or not. A whole lot of lore was added to Final Fantasy XIV with its most recent expansion, but there was a lot of it that you could predict and speculate upon ahead of time if you were paying attention. That consistency and that sense that everything hangs together is the important point.
Jef Reahard (@jefreahard): I took the lore surrounding Star Wars Galaxies seriously (at least until player Jedi and angel-winged ewoks happened) mainly because my roleplaying buddies and I made it a point to fit our in-game actions into the established SW canon of the time. I don’t know that I’ve ever taken another MMO’s lore seriously, though, both because themepark mechanics heavily favor gamification over lore and immersion and because aside from The Secret World, the writing and the stories put forth by MMO developers are wince-worthy fanfic, at best.
I guess in a way I take Star Wars: The Old Republic lore somewhat seriously since without the IP there’s literally no reason to play it. But that has more to do with my incurable itch to consume every little bit of Star Wars narrative ever produced than with SWTOR itself.
Justin Olivetti (@Sypster, blog): First of all, I think it needs to be said that the right to modify a story is always within the purview of the creator. Even Tolkien retconned The Hobbit to set up Lord of the Rings. So while it is distressing to be used to one version of a tale only to have the author modify it or even negate it later on, oh well, that’s life in fiction. As for MMO lore, it’s never the central focus of the game for me. It’s of interest, to be sure, but I’ve long accepted that the devs constantly tinker around with it (see: everything in World of Warcraft) and not to get too attached. I suspect that roleplayers have more of a vested interest in both knowing and hewing to the lore, which is why they may become more agitated when it is changed, but again, they do not own the game but merely participate in it.
Lest I be seen as too callous, I will say that it’s generally a good idea for developers to not rewrite their game’s backstory unnecessarily and to keep in mind that shaking the narrative foundations might alienate some of their most devoted players.
Larry Everett (@Shaddoe, blog): Ultimately, we roleplayers are storytellers, and I believe that a story without boundaries actually makes for a less-than-exceptional narrative. I know some people will disagree with me, and I admit that I have enjoyed many stories that don’t have limits on what can happen in a story. For instance, I loved Piers Anthony’s Xanth series, which has really no limits on what can happen, but I enjoyed Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn series a lot more because of the limits set on, for instance, magic.
When placed in the hands of a good storyteller, limits in lore can actually be used to the advantage of the story. And if you’ve not read the Mistborn series, you should, and you’ll know what I’m talking about.
From an MMO perspective, I enjoy limitations. Although I do have characters in, for instance, Star Wars: The Old Republic that are the exception to “the rule,” I actually am in favor of the limitations that BioWare put on character creation originally. I understand that there will always be exceptions, but when everyone is exceptional… to quote Syndrome from the Incredibles: “And when everyone’s super, no one will be.”
A large number of roleplayers have said that my Pureblood Sith, who sticks to Imperial traditions, is actually refreshing to RP with because there are so many people who are trying to be the one Pureblood who actually likes other species and isn’t subject to xenophobic tendencies like the SWTOR lore has established. All the people who try to buck the system inadvertently become the system themselves. This makes those players who attempt play within the system more rare and actually refreshing. I’m not going oust anyone from my roleplay circles for playing a character that doesn’t quite fit within “the norm,” but I will admit that seeing a character that adheres to the limits placed by the story makes me more likely to want to find a way to RP with that character.
I know that many roleplayers will say that they don’t want limits; I get that and understand that. But I think that their perspective is slightly off. I believe developers need to place more story-related restrictions on the players (like no Worgen Monks), and then it should be up to the creativity of the roleplayer to use those limitations to the advantage of the story he’s trying to tell.
Matt Daniel (@Matt_DanielMVOP): For me, it all depends on the game in question. I actually have some pretty strong opinions on the matter but, for the sake of turning what would be a huge bulwark of text into a mere wall of it, I’ll distill them a bit. Essentially, I think that if the devs are going to bother to establish extensive lore, they should stick to it for the most part, but at the same time it should be perfectly acceptable to stretch and bend the established lore for the sake of gameplay as long as it’s done in a reasonably plausible manner.
To use the example of the Worgen Monk, for instance: I can understand the point of view that Worgen Monks are in opposition to established lore because Pandaria wasn’t discovered until after the point in the timeline at which the Worgen starting zone takes place. That being said, I don’t think that the lore should stand as absolute, inalienable gospel, and I feel it would be perfectly reasonable for the devs to explain the presence of Worgen Monks by saying, as suggested, that a Pandaren explorer came to Gilneas before the discovery of Pandaria itself. After all, no matter how extensive the established lore is, I don’t think it’s reasonable to claim that it accounts for every last minuscule detail of every last thing that has ever happened in the history of the game’s world, and new additions to the lore are fine as long as they’re consistent with what has already been established.
To continue with the Worgen Monk bit, the Warcraft universe has already established the Pandaren as a race for whom wanderlust is not unheard-of, it has established that many of the more adventurous Pandaren sail the oceans of the world on the Wandering Isle, and it has established that Gilneas is a coastal region. So within the bounds of what has already been established (unless I’m overlooking something, which I might be, but I’m making a point here), it’s within the realm of possibility that a Pandaren set off on his own from the Wandering Isle and found himself in the neighborhood of Gilneas and taught the Worgen (or those who would become the Worgen) the ways of the Monk. Sure, it may seem unlikely, but it’s not impossible or even especially implausible.
My point with that long-winded diatribe on the lore of Warcraft is that games should adhere to established lore within reasonable limits, but if the devs want to do something for gameplay purposes that would seem to go against the established lore, I think that’s totally fine as long as it doesn’t flagrantly contradict significant and important details within what has already been laid out as canon. Plus, at the end of the day, the storytellers are the ones who decide what does and does not happen in the worlds they’ve created, though I still think at least some degree of internal consistency is key.