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

    
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For lore(n).

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

Everyone likes a good list, and we are no different! Perfect Ten takes an MMO topic and divvies it up into 10 delicious, entertaining, and often informative segments for your snacking pleasure. Got a good idea for a list? Email us at justin@massivelyop.com or eliot@massivelyop.com with the subject line “Perfect Ten.”

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Dobablo

Gameplay and lore are separate so of course lore should change to accommodate improvements but at the same time, games that tell stories need a congruent story to explain why people are doing stuff. That being said I’m normally perfectly happy to accept stories being Obi-waned. The old lore you knew the truth from a certain point a view. The in-game historian did their best but the lore they are one part-unreliable narrator, no-part omnipotent god.

For that reason I probably agree with all your points except 8 and 9.
On 9, if developers have a cool idea that exists in a lore hole then give it a little story and throw it into the game. The absence of prior references is not an excuse to adding good content.
On 8, I think it is a strange to argue that gaming mechanics should not be beholden to the lore while also arguing that changes in the ongoing storyline should be mirrored in the mechanics.

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Witches

People misunderstand lore (or maybe they don’t get it at all).

Fictional characters, locations and so on, only have a past, or even a present behind the story being told, when the author writes it.

We have no idea why, how or when the Chiss became a civilization with few force users, then again until ROTJ all lore jedi were males, we had no reason to think females could be jedi, but at the same time, we had no reason to think they couldn’t.

Even if a game is based on a known IP the lore is being made by the devs as they write the story, it will always prove or disprove whatever the devs want to be true or false.

Then you have the players who have some kind of group delusion that is self validating, we all decided that x was rare and y was impossible so it is now a know fact, because our collective illusion/delusion is more valid than whatever the author thinks is true.

The best example of the fallacy of lore is the whole fracas about Hermione from Harry Potter.

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EmberStar

I haven’t been paying attention. What about Hermione? I don’t pay attention to fandoms, so I thought part of her role in the story was to prove anyone who thinks “wizards born to mundane parents are inferior” is simply an idiot. As in, her parents are dentists and yet she’s one of the most skilled and creative magic users in all of Hogwarts, up to and probably including most of the professors.

Was there some other fracas I missed? I’m guessing there was.

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Witches

A black actress played Hermione in a play (that is now also a book) and some people were upset because Hermione is supposed to be white.

While JK herself said the only canon for Hermione was brown eyes and frizzy hair, some people argued that Hermione’s ethnicity was implied many times, of course this happens in an universe where people can turn into animals so the explanation could be something as simple as Hermione decided to change the colour of her skin.

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rosieposie

So tell me why did JK approve of the casting of Emma Watson, if it was so obvious to everyone all along that Hermione was supposed to be black.

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Tobasco da Gama

You misunderstand. The point is that the only description Rowling gave Hermione was racially indeterminate, so therefore having a black actress play Hermione on stage was not, in fact, a violate of canon. Rowling does like to retcon herself, but this wasn’t even a retcon, just a case of her pointing out that the original “lore” was ambiguous enough to support a black Hermione.

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Dobablo

Oh dear. I am a terrible person. I was about to launch into a rant about how film-Hermione gets all the ideas, solutions and key moments which in the books were spread more evenly around the group (so Ron actually had a purpose), and then I saw the replies and what you were really talking about.

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aleccia_rosewater

There is a potential #11 to be found in lore being used as a defense for not changing lore. I have had the misfortune of running into this. It can tear apart a fanbase and kill any interest that people might otherwise have in a setting

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Castagere Shaikura

When Star Trek Online came out it was based on one timeline. Now it’s all over the place.

TheDarthStomper
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TheDarthStomper

EQ2. Anashti Sul, Mayong Mistmoore, vampires and undeath.

/commences twitching

My old friend, the Mayong Migraine…

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Tobasco da Gama

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.

/r/teslore would love it, though.

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squid

I seem to remember Zenimax saying pre-ESO launch that the game could never have dragons because the lore says they’re all sleeping or something…eyt I’m pretty sure there was a dragon-based DLC released recently.

Lore is bullshit.

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Tobasco da Gama

The joke is that there’s a bunch of… let’s be generous and call it deuterocanonical lore suggesting that spacecraft and space travel and space elevators are already a thing in TES, but outside of that specific subreddit nobody really takes it seriously.

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Dobablo

TES lore set outside of the main continent gets very crazy, very fast.

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Ailsa Nordstrom

I remember there being a lot of complaints about the Beorning race/class in LOTRO because the lore didn’t support it (I vaguely recall similar complaints when they introduced the Runekeeper class).

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Hikari Kenzaki

“The game makes something more common than the lore suggests”

The Chiss is probably one of the lesser infractions SWTOR makes. How many times are we told Barely Important NPC is unbeatable and they’ve thrown everything they have at them and hundreds have died only to defeat said NPC in 5 seconds?

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Bryan Correll

To be fair, that happens a lot in lots of games.

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Hikari Kenzaki

For sure, but in SWTOR it’s a way overused trope.

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IronSalamander8 .

I’ve had a Chiss Sith Juggernaut as a main since the day the legacy system opened up (I had a 50 Chiss Sniper before that), and made her right after I got home from work, and to be honest, we needed a 2nd tank to raid so it was a perfect time! Edit: also after all the anti-alien crap my sniper went through, making the juggernaut her daughter and force choking people was cathartic.

I’m kind of a sorta SW fan though, and the lore in that universe is such a mess, you can ask 3 SW fans a question and get 3 different answers so I don’t get into that situation. I’m not even talking about the new movies, although they certainly add to the infighting!

Many games use lore as almost a throwaway thing as it is. Part of why I never got into CO that much is that the lore feels very tacked on, whereas in CoX, while I’ll never argue the lore is fantastic, it feels more coherent at least.

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Jaymes Buckman

Why’s it the Mechagon problem? I’ve been there, but I missed the connection.

Also, it’s frustrating to see players use lore to shoot down other people’s ideas.

“No, we’ll never get playable demon hunters because they’re all on Outland! Stop asking!” Or whatever.

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EmberStar

I don’t understand the context. What even is “a Mechagon problem?”

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Jaymes Buckman

My exact question.

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Dobablo

A big fun distraction that you might expect to be fairly noticeable suddenly appears with no apparent connection to the main story and little-to-no previous references. WoW does this a lot with content patches, and sometimes people get unhappy if they consider the reasons for why it has not been previously mentioned to be inadequate.
Uldum is accepted in lore because it was magically hidden by by the creators and had been hinted at in some stone tablets. Timeless Isle should be hated in lore (5th island that pops into existence that expansion, timey-wimey explanation and clearly a half-assed excuse to justify the next expansion), but gets a pass as “devs trying some new experimental end-game content. Mechagon on the other hand, being a previously unmentioned secret underground city hidden on a non-descript island from which people don’t return, is apparently a complete lore-breaker because the island can be seen from the main zones.