Vague Patch Notes: No, MMO lore does not excuse design decisions

    
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No belts

There are a lot of problems with how people tend to use lore when it comes to MMOs. I’ve talked about one side of this before, even. But there’s another aspect of how lore is used not just by players in a storytelling context but by developers, and that’s when you get into the territory of using the lore as a shield for things the development team just doesn’t want to do for whatever reason.

I want to stress that this is not something that is a new thought. Dan Olson has a great video about it as “The Thermian Argument” that lays things out in a nutshell format, and it’s something I’ve mentioned in the comments more than once. But it seems to me that especially in wake of the most recent “we can’t add women to our game because lore” incident, we should have a bit of a longer discussion about what this argument really is and why it’s… well, let’s say disingenuous.

Let’s start with an example not using this argument. In Final Fantasy XIV’s most recent expansion, two new races with only one playable gender were added. Players were upset about this, and the explanation given was that the team had limited time for adding the new races and thus opted to add one more non-human race and one fan-favorite race in the most commonly seen genders. The game’s lore was written after the fact to justify this.

Let me highlight that specifically: Lore is not the justification for the decision. Lore is the added explanation for that decision, which was a conscious creative choice driven entirely by time constraints.

By contrast, let’s look at the calls for cross-faction grouping in World of Warcraft. Even beyond the obvious roleplaying rationale, a lot of people are calling for this to address some actual systematic differences in the game between faction-locked racial abilities and the overall population chasing progression content. The usual rejoinder when people ask about this – closely echoed by the official response – is that it’s the lore that doesn’t support any sort of cross-faction interaction and that it would violate the faction identity.

Or, in other words, lore here is the justification for the decision, as if “the lore” were an impartial thing to be consulted and couldn’t be, you know… changed.

We cannot be friends.

This is, at its heart, what Olson dubbed the Thermian Argument after the eponymous aliens from the film Galaxy Quest, who treated all fiction as being absolutely real. And it’s a really, really bad argument on a lot of levels, starting with the fact that it treats creative decisions as if they’re the same as normal choices of verisimilitude.

Verisimilitude (literally “the appearance of being real”) is an important aspect in any video game imitating a world. You want to believe that this a plausibly real world, and we’ll accept a lot on the way to doing that. In both of the games I’ve mentioned thus far, basic biology appears to work more or less the same way it does in our world, basic cultural constructs like marriage are more or less intact, and so forth. These worlds are fantastical, but they’re not too far removed from our actual world.

In other words, you wouldn’t ask why a character is breathing if this takes place in a fantasy world… because people breathe. That’s a thing that happens, and it’s a decision made because you’d need to specifically choose for it not to happen. (Like, say, if your character is undead and thus no longer needs to breathe underwater.)

However… once you move past verisimilitude, every decision is being specifically made. Which cultures have a history of druidic magic in WoW? The answer is “whoever the designers want to have that history.” The argument we’re talking about treats the lore as if it’s the same as basic biology, as if “our made-up story says humans aren’t druids” has the same solid basis of “I know people need to breathe because I am a person and I need to.”

Obviously, a lot of these decisions matter only in an abstract sense. In and of itself, it’s not really a problem if Dwarves can’t be Druids because the lore says so. But it starts to become a real problem when the same argument is applied to things that wind up either hurting the game from a mechanical standpoint or wind up causing offense or discomfort based on lore that can be written however the author wanted.

In the former case, well… yes, there is lore about a conflict between the Alliance and the Horde, but players are asking for that to be changed because it doesn’t fit the realities of the game. RIFT dealt with a similar problem with its own factions, which ultimately wound up severely loosening the faction split because players really wanted it gone, even though it had been written into the lore. The lore was fiction and could be changed. It’s not a law of physics.

Uh.

And then we get into the stuff that’s not just bad mechanical decision-making but actively ostracizes people. Gender-locking classes, for example, is something that’s existed in Black Desert Online since the beginning. The game has spent a lot of time adding new classes that play similar to an existing opposite-gender class as a way of ameliorating that split, but it’s still off-putting to say that a man just can’t be a Dark Knight or a woman can’t be a Samurai. Fortunately for BDO here, I’ve never seen this particular narrowness treated as being a function of lore specifically, so while it’s a bad decision, it’s not one justified by worse reasoning.

But that’s not to say it isn’t there. Look back to the inspiration for this piece: Escape from Tarkov tried to justify its complete omission of playable women by stating that they were too much work to be modeled (which rings false from a pipeline standpoint as well as from the fact that the developers, by their own admission, have lady NPCs in the game) and quite specifically that it didn’t fit the game lore.

The important point of this particular moment is that justification being used. Instead of addressing the actual creative decision (“we don’t want women in our game”), they’re deflecting by appealing to self-created fiction (“the lore doesn’t support it, so it’s out of our hands”).
It honestly was kind of fascinating in its sheer audacity, since generally designers who are willing to say “we just don’t want women in our game” don’t actually try to hide behind this particular stonewall. But there it is, clear as day.

Obviously, if the designers don’t want playable women in the game, that’s a decision allowed to the people making the game. Whether or not it’s a good or rational decision is outside the scope of this argument. No, the important point of this particular moment is that justification being used. Instead of addressing the actual creative decision (“we don’t want women in our game”), they’re deflecting by appealing to self-created fiction (“the lore doesn’t support it, so it’s out of our hands”).

That’s not to say that lore is irrelevant; remember, my first example was FFXIV making a decision about gender-locking that is explained within the lore. But the difference there is that the lore is explicitly being written to justify the creative decision being made. It’s not that the lore says male Viera are rare, so you can’t play one; it’s that the designers made the choice to not include male Viera at this time, and the lore was subsequently written to justify that choice.

So therein lies the lesson. Lore is fiction. It’s written by creators. It is not a defense of the decisions made by the creators but an after-the-fact explanation. And if the defense boils down to “we wrote the lore this way,” the correct question to ask is always “why not write it a different way?”

Sometimes you know exactly what’s going on with the MMO genre, and sometimes all you have are Vague Patch Notes informing you that something, somewhere, has probably been changed. Senior Reporter Eliot Lefebvre enjoys analyzing these sorts of notes and also vague elements of the genre as a whole. The potency of this analysis may be adjusted under certain circumstances.
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