Perfect Ten: When MMO lore is at odds with the game

Never gonna get it, never gonna get it.

Lore is made up. We all know that. People who write the lore for games are not doing research into the real story and then letting us know how these wholly fictional things play out; it’s the product of writers and designers sitting down at a table, talking about what they want to do with the game moving forward, and then creating a game with lore in it so you’re not playing a floating blue cube in a featureless void fighting red cubes. Unless you’re playing Second Life, I guess.

Despite that, there are times when lore… attacks. When the game you’re playing clashes with the lore that has been written for it in various ways. Or when the lore clashes with itself. It’s something that can happen a lot of different ways, and thus today I decided to look at the ways that lore can fight a war against its own home within an MMO. I’ve also decided to use my experience with the legal system (which is chiefly finding the second half of most Law & Order episodes more interesting) to examine whether or not these classes are innocent or should be put in design jail.

1. The game makes something more common than the lore suggests

The Chiss do not tend to be Force-sensitive in Star Wars: The Old Republic. That’s why the Chiss can’t normally select the Force-based classes… unless, of course, you’ve reached that Legacy unlock and can make all the Chiss Jedi you want. Which are things that should logically be astonishingly rare, right? That’s a problem!

Except it’s really not quite a problem because the whole point of player characters is that they are at least theoretically exceptional in some way. That’s not even getting into the logistics of how players are inherently a smaller portion of the population; even if you have 10,000 Chiss Jedi, that’s less than .1% of the population of Earth, let alone a galaxy far, far away from long, long ago (minus an additional 3000 years). So while it can be a little odd for players who hear that this is supposed to be rare and see it a lot in actual play, it’s not really a lore conflict beyond the broadest strokes.

Verdict: Innocent

2. Systems that have no lore explanation

Why can you re-run dungeons in Final Fantasy XIV? Because dungeons are fun and a core part of the game. In lore, it happens once. There is no lore explanation for it and there doesn’t need to be one, because it’s a system to make the game work.

This also is where lots of things fall that might make less sense if you think about them, like how spells that bring players back from death only work on people half-dead or how hit points work or whatever. These are acceptable breaks from reality and are best dealt with by not overthinking them because they’re universal.

Verdict: Innocent

I'm kind of a contradiction.

3. The current lore contradicts older lore

Arguably the most famous example here is the change of how Draenei lore and backstory worked, with Draenei becoming a subtype of the Eredar ahead of the first World of Warcraft expansion. And the thing is that there’s room for this one to work too… usually.

See, this arguably breaks down into two categories. The first is when your newer lore contradicts existing lore that was largely invisible and not related to players. The backstory on Sargeras, the Eredar, and the Burning Legion was important, but none of it was ever more than backstory. Changing it didn’t have a huge impact on things that players had experienced, and thus it’s easy to handwave it away as learning more about the world.

But sometimes these things retcon things that either you were there for or that players directly interacted with. WoW did some pretty serious retcons of Illidan’s story for Legion, and the thing is that players were there for the original version. It rang as false because it was asking players to ignore what you already knew was true, because you saw it happening. This part is kind of fuzzy territory, since it’s usually “here’s the stuff you didn’t know before,” but it feels like more of a patch job.

Verdict: Mostly Innocent

4. The current lore contradicts the feel of other lore

“Feel” is a really fuzzy term a lot of the time. You can’t put precise limits on the feel of a lore. But I think everyone would agree that if The Elder Scrolls Online had a new expansion in which everyone got a personal spaceship to head to the planet Nexus, it’d be a sharp break from the game’s usual feel and thus a problem.

I’ve long been of a mind that this is a bigger issue than retcons, but it’s also hard to really point to as a firm point. What violates the feel for me might not be an issue for you, and vice versa. So in many ways, violating the feel is less about the lore and the fictional “rules” around a setting so much as breaking your connection to that setting.

Verdict: Indicted, but not convicted

God, Urianger, why can't you just speak like a normal person?

5. Lore says something is possible, but there are no systems for it

In the lore of WoW and FFXIV, half-breed races are possible. The games have no mechanics for it and you can’t actually make one… although you can just make a full-blooded character of whatever race and say “my guy is a half-elf,” which is kind of where this winds up. Some things are technically possible but not included in your options, but that’s more because they’re unusual, narrative devices, or just not the point for the most part.

Verdict: Innocent

6. Lore characters behave according to mechanics separate from players

This is another one of those acceptable breaks from reality, honestly. NPCs, both as allies and enemies, need to fulfill different roles from what players do. If you’re doing a scenario in WoW with Jaina accompanying you, the scenario needs to be completed whatever class and spec you have, and that means Jaina might be able to tank and heal because that’s the only way to make this particular scenario work. If it helps you get through the night, just assume that the experience is pseudo-allegorical.

Verdict: Charges dropped

Smoke on the water

7. Lore is used as a defense for not changing systems

Oh, here we go.

Remember what I said at the start of this article? Lore is fake. Lore can be whatever you want to be. If you really want to, say, allow players to become liches and vampires in RIFT, you can just do that and write up a story explaining why that’s now possible. It doesn’t have to be a big deal!

This comes up a lot as a way of deferring player anger when there’s outcry for something specific but the designers don’t actually want to implement the system, so instead they blame the existing lore (which can be changed) as an absolute law that can’t be altered. It’s really just a matter of intellectual laziness at best, though. The lore isn’t preventing anything; you just don’t want to do it.

Verdict: Guilty

8. The current story suggests a system change, but that new lore is ignored

This would be the last point, but taken to 11. Now the lore actually doesn’t support the system, but in an anti-retcon the team is basically declaring that this new lore matters less than the existing lore and so you don’t get what you want. It’s indisputably intellectually lazy and usually a mark of poor communication between the people charged with telling the story and those designing the game, the sort of “do you even play this game” that leaves you just staring and shaking your head.

There might be a recent example or two that springs to mind.

Verdict: Guilty on all charges and a few more charges we added in

gotta go to space

9. New lore is invented purely to justify a system

This is what I like to call the Mechagon Problem. Essentially, the designers want to add something that offers interesting stuff for players to do. Thus, despite it having never come up before when it should logically have been mentioned on earlier occasions, suddenly players learn about a deep well of lore that’s supposed to indicate that this seemingly new thing is actually deeply entwined with existing lore! It’s not a new addition, see!

No, this never really works. If something was actually really important, it would be brought up and explored at some point earlier than the last minute. But at the same time, this is much better than using the lore to block something. It’s a bad patch job, but it’s a patch job used to justify adding more stuff, and while you can fault the people responsible for not planning ahead more comprehensively, it’s at least done with the right intentions.

Verdict: Guilty, but a suspended sentence

10. Systems are used as a defense for not changing lore

This often forms a circular bit of logic with using lore to not change systems. You keep the systems static because of lore, then when people argue that the lore should be changed, the existence of those systems justify failing to do that. The point is that this is always basically a smokescreen, and a bad one. After all, if you’re designing the game, aren’t you also responsible for making the decisions about what systems to keep in place?

Verdict: Guilty with a plea bargain

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