Perfect Ten: The 10 tiers of MMORPG lore
Lore! Huh! What is it good for? Understanding why you’re standing in the middle of a pack of angry people with fangs in MMOs, of course. It’s the thin line dividing your actions from being reckless, indiscriminate mayhem and discriminating, careful mayhem. Lore is how you know what the world is like beyond your front door, and it’s the difference between understanding that you face Ragnaros, lord of flame or just knowing that there’s a dude here made out of fire, so you should probably use water spells on him.
All lore, however, is not created equal. There’s lore that creates a detailed, vibrant world full of people with their own hopes and dreams, and there’s lore that creates a game where you know what you’re supposed to be doing but have no idea what people do for fun afterwards aside from waiting to die. So today, we explore the tiers of lore, arranged in a numbered list because that’s the entire premise of the column. It’s not Perfect Vague Assortment of Concepts. That’s not even a column.
1. No lore
Enter dungeon. Kill bad guy. Leave dungeon.
Consider Pac-Man for a moment. The original game doesn’t bother telling you who Pac-Man is, why ghosts want to kill him, what the stupid pellets are that he’s munching, or anything even vaguely resembling a rationale for what’s going on. Why? Because no one cares. There are ghosts after you and you have to eat pellets, and you’re doing that because otherwise the ghosts kill you. There’s your lore.
Fortunately, MMOs generally steer clear of this nadir; even the most thin explanation of lore still counts as lore, but it is theoretically possible to have an MMO that doesn’t bother to tell you anything about the world it’s set in. It would be novel, at the very least, but it probably wouldn’t lead to much in the way of actual attachment.
2. Excuse lore
Enter the Bone Spire of Evil Skull Island to fight the Necromancer! He’s bad! You get new hats for beating him.
People and monsters have names! You have a world! In the broadest possible sense, there’s something going on! But it’s pretty obvious that you aren’t supposed to care much about it, and the designers obviously don’t. The game’s lore exists as a very thin layer of soap bubbles, and the part that anyone is supposed to care about is the actual gameplay.
You could argue that it’s hard, if not impossible, to technically go below this level. Even Pac-Man has names for the player character (Pac-Man) and names for the ghosts (which I never remember), so it has the thinnest amount of lore. But I would argue that this level at least has some overarching sense of this being a world, it just doesn’t care about that world.
And, I’ll note, this is not necessarily a bad thing. To the best of my knowledge, this is the level that Trove operates at, and that’s perfectly fine – it gives you the thinnest possible explanation and then invites you to have fun with the actual game mechanics. Excuse lore is perfectly fine if your designers do, in fact, just want an excuse to make the game. The trouble usually comes up when a plot is added retroactively… but that’s another discussion.
3. Meta lore
Enjoy the new Necromancer Battle mission in-game! You can also read the lore behind the Necromancer in our five-part short story on the official site.
Did you know there’s a fair amount of story behind League of Legends? Because there is! Of course, it has basically nothing whatsoever to do with the actual game itself, but it exists just the same! And if you really like playing a game wherein the lore will never interact with what you’re trying to do, that’s great. If you were hoping for actual lore connections, well, that’s a different discussion altogether.
MMOs rarely go this route, but I place a lot of not-really-MMOs into this category. Overwatch is afraid of lore actually influencing its gameplay, so it falls under this category. SMITE piggybacks on a very long history of myths, religions, and so forth. And once again, this is not an inherently bad thing; it just means that the actual moment-to-moment experience of gameplay is more or less totally separate from any lore concerns. That isn’t appealing to me, but I get why people would like that.
4. Plot lore
This patch will see players fight through the lore of the Bonespire Necromancer on the Island of Skulls, including a questline concerning the necromancer’s goals and history. He doesn’t have a first name.
While the second entry concerned the excuse lore, this is about lore that is basically made up of a series of excuse plots. There are definitely plots, characters, and so forth; the trouble is that you’re not really connected with any of it, because it’s just a bunch of thin layers over “go here, fight this dude, take his stuff.” None of it feeds into any sort of larger structure, nor does any of it feel like it forms an overall theme or motive. It’s just a sequence of things which happen.
Lore like this is actually perfect for younger audiences, because it’s more about a sequence of events than any sort of overaching notions. It’s also good for games that want players to jump in and out at will. Unfortunately, it also winds up feeling rather thin after a while, because nothing ties into anything else. The latest threat to fight is the last threat you fought, but bigger and harder. It’s not someone you know or care about.
5. Basic lore
Fight Garnos, the Necromancer of the Bone Spire and third in the line of Spire Necromancers, on the Isle of Skulls. Two more Necromancers to go!
This is… well, basic. Places have names, characters have names, there are organizations. That’s about all you have and all you need. It still all feels like it’s a thin layer over a video game, but there is at least attention paid to the concept of lore. There are lots of free-to-play games with exactly this much lore, and depending on personal opinion a lot of games can move between this tier and the next one almost seamlessly.
The biggest failing in games at this level is that while there’s a lot of information, there’s no much sense of how the world actually works. The original Guild Wars, for example, is a game that I’d slot right around this point. There’s clearly lore, there are stories, there are things that fit together. But I could barely tell you what people would do outside of fighting one another, and the Prophecies expansion is very much a video game of running from one place to another until the story is done. Full stop, you’re all set.
6. Elaborate lore
Garnos Calvendish, one of the minor antagonists from the Necromancer’s Curse patches, has recovered his power and has a spire on Evisku Isle. Fight through his traps to learn more about the Spire Necromancers and find hints about their next plot!
Elaborate lore is different from basic lore in the same way that a Double Quarter Pounder is different from a Quarter Pounder. That is to say that it’s the same thing, only there’s a lot more of it. As a result, the world winds up feeling richer just because there’s more to it. World of Warcraft, for example, arguably sits here, and in this particular case that’s kind of a failing – there’s years of storytelling, places, names, and so forth, but no sense of the actual larger world beyond “go fight these dudes now.”
7. Detailed lore
Garnos Calvendish is a Spire Necromancer on Evisku Isle. Check the wiki to learn more about the Calvendish family, the 400-year-history of Evisku Isle, and the order of Spire Necromancers as well as how they’re different from normal Necromancers.
This could also be called The Elder Scrolls Online lore, but it’s not really fair to the game. Here you do have a picture of the world as a whole, of the various peoples and politics going on behind the scenes. You probably have a decent idea of what people do for fun and why, and there’s plenty of space to understand how the world works.
At this level, the big problem isn’t necessarily that the lore has no connections, it’s that it’s easy for so many details to be piled on that none of it feels particularly real. There are plenty of names, places, orders, historical facts, and so forth, but a dearth of vibrancy in the immediate context. You’re still getting “fight through to the evil necromancer” as a plot, you just know a lot about evil necromancers and where you’re fighting through.
This is also where we start to get into a lot of personal preferences regarding lore, so it’s the sort of thing that should be taken gently. The lore here isn’t necessarily better than elaborate lore, but it’s far more detailed, and there’s a tendency to substitute those details for actual points of interest; for some people, though, those details are all they really wanted in the first place. Which is totally fair.
8. External lore
You probably remember Garnos the Necromancer from Season 4 of Sword Ladies, but now he’s back as your newest enemy in Sword Lady Online!
The reason I rank this one higher than just detailed lore isn’t because it’s necessarily all that different; sometimes that additional lore just provides more details. But there is a lot of additional lore, and that’s what matters. You probably have your own feelings on how much you enjoy the Lord of the Rings movies/books, but Lord of the Rings Online indisputably gets to draw on all of that lore to create a more elaborate world. Star Trek Online gets a lot of television and films to flesh out the world and provde tons of antagonists. The list goes on.
Sometimes, this can highlight weaknesses in the source material, but no matter what it means an immediate connection and more stories to draw upon. Designers got to draw on a whole lot of Star Wars lore for Star Wars Galaxies and Star Wars: The Old Republic, and players get to draw on that same lore to understand the galaxy as a whole. Of course, this also relies on the notion that there’s enough lore to make it worthwhile; as much as I love the books, Otherland is a bit thin in terms of existing support material.
9. Vivid lore
The newest dungeon takes players into the lair of Garnos Calvendish at the behest of his brother Simon Calvendish, both of whom are elaborately explained characters from the past expansion. Players will explore E’skinu Isle off the Seeping Coast with the help of local fishermen.
Guild Wars 2. City of Heroes. Final Fantasy XIV. The Secret World. Final Fantasy XI. This is where lore-lovers live and breathe, games with elaborate and fleshed-out lore that nevertheless retains forward momentum and a vitality to the lore. You can write pages and pages about, say, the backstory and activities of the Freakshow in CoH, but you also have a sense of these as plausible antagonists with goals and wants and lives.
Here, you fight antagonists you know for reasons that are clearly understood, sometimes because their goals and your own are just simply incompatible rather than because they’re the Bad Guys. That’s not to say that all of these games have spectacular storytelling all of the time or never make mistakes, but to say that you can see these worlds as living, breathing places. You understand slang and turns of phrase native to this world. It’s a lovely thing, when it works out properly.
Of course, this does have weaknesses beyond “it’s really hard to do.” This much lore can be kind of overwhelming, and it usually requires either sticking with the game over a long period of time or doing a bunch of reading to understand everything. It can also lead to endless debates over the nature of story in MMOs, so that’s always fun.
10. Forced lore
Welcome to Calvendish’s Necromancer Lair. To enter, please enter the three names of Garnos Calvendish’s childhood pets based on their species name found in the Taxonomy of Fauna.
The Secret World, when its riddle quests get too elaborate. Heck, you could argue that no game goes this far, but the idea is still there. This is when a game has a world that’s so vivid and so detailed and so elaborate that players are basically writing a book report on it instead of actually, like, playing in it.
I’m also going to go ahead and nominate Shroud of the Avatar here for forcing me to play myself according to its official lore. Don’t make that decision for me, game, I’m playing you to avoid myself. Gosh, get it together.