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

    
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Bunny.

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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A Bellow From Below

I don’t think that authors should have to justify – or even defend – their creative choices. Their game is their decision. And whether or not you give them your money for it, that’s your decision.

I admit – I always main a female character when given the chance, and I always roll characters of both sexes and all classes if there’s enough slots and time. But ultimately, it is just flavor, much like all the other aspects of character customization, and flavor will always be limited in one way or other, because we still don’t have infinite RAM, infinite GPU and infinite developer man-hours.

Some people might claim it’s a matter of “representation”, but that is really just an empty buzzword when it comes to art: nobody is entitled to get their own personalized representation in someone else’s creative vision, and calling it “representation” is likely just an attempt to disguise one’s entitlement by invoking the demon of current year politics…

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Robert Mann

It’s rather simple actually. Lore SHOULD be a good reference to why, where, what, how, and other questions in a game.

Instead it is generally poorly written and frequently used to excuse issues.

Honesty with any issues, and then lore built around supporting the potential questions, is a rare thing in MMOs. To be blunt, inclusion of people should be part of the lore, and the various areas needed to accomplish that would be a reason to actually have your team get a writer and LET THEM DO THE WORK RATHER THAN DICTATING.

Because devs get these hairs growing out of a place we shouldn’t mention in polite company and ruin any actual good work from the writers all too often.

Ernost
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Ernost

I’m confused, I thought Escape from tarkov was set in some version of Russia, one of the few countries on the planet where there are more women than men. Having playable women but no men would make more sense.

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Utakata

“…is that it’s the lore that doesn’t support any sort of cross-faction interaction and that it would violate the faction identity.”

…that rich coming from a lore that is seemingly on par with that Orange Buffoon’s stream of consciousness from end to end and maybe even more full of plot holes. If they want to use rules that are based on such, then the lore has to be reasonably consistent. It’s not.

And in fact and with that, the lore also suggests exceptions in factions rules can be made. So again, liar, lair, pants on fire, Blizz.

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Utakata

“Isn’t that a little over the top in comparison, Uta?”

I guess. But to be clear, I’m not talking about exagerated conspiracy theories and assertions strung out to create a deluded narrative for the masses. Rather an inconsistency in the story that meanders itself into a corner with a retcon Sharpie. >.<

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sizer99

The worst thing is that usually the lore is so bad, like World of Warcraft, that appealing to it is just as eyerolling even if you believed it. Given how badly you guys have mangled your own lore, repeatedly, with ridiculous contortions, you’re telling me this is why you can’t get rid of the faction stuff?

In reality, it’s because the two main factions (Horde, Alliance) are baked so deep into the code and databases that it’d be a nightmare to change that. And like you said, I think that would be a reasonable response for them to make, rather than ‘Oh this is the one thing our terrible lore is firm on.’

And it’s not just WoW, who actually gives a damn about Tarkov’s ‘lore’?

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Zanes

I’m pretty sure after the last WoW cinematics, where it looked like Alliance and Horde were finally joining together, people thought the faction war would be gone, IT’S THE LORE EXPLANATION COMING.
But in a interview (or maybe Blizzcon), Ion said it’s going to stay and they don’t have any plans to change, because it’s the base of the game, as a mechanic.
So I don’t think lore was the reason here.

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Jo Watt

Sad thing with FFXIV.
They added 2 races but obviously rushed them.

Female only Viera who can barely wear any of the games head pieces. There is a turn helm off option. So literally just letting the ears poke through would have been 100% acceptable. Au Ra horns poke through so.. no excuse tbh.

Male only Hrothgar. No idea where to even start on these hulk’n’bulk guys. I switched to one briefly. Pretty much no armor or glamour seemed to actually fit or look even remotely nice on these guys. Permanently hunched back makes it worse. They could have just used Kimahri Ronso design and would have been so much better.

I have no issues with the game over all. Actually enjoying it again lately.

But the main point I do wish lore wasn’t an excuse to do less in any game.

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Deadly Habit

More devs should just not make lame PR excuses like lore and just either say you’re not our target audience, this isn’t a change we want to make, or those changes aren’t going to be profitable enough to be worth making.

It’s ok to have a niche product or appeal.

Conversely more audiences that feed on the drama need to stop acting like these changes they get up in arms over would actually suddenly make them interested in, and key point PURCHASE, a product they never heard of or had any interest beforehand.

Bree Royce
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Bree Royce

Just to be clear, we’ve been covering Tarkov since 2015 and I’m pretty sure most of our readers at least had heard of it. :D

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aleccia_rosewater

When writing lore you should try to tie things together. x is a thing because of y and z. The druidic culure formed the way they did because they once had to fight a evil threat that despoils nature. This same culture might be what drives them to send warriors to assist paladinkingdom in the fight against evilgroup

In regards to factions the way to make them distinct is to make them uneven. If there is an empire that controls half the map and has some of the best stuff then the fanbase will be asking for open-pvp rather then a merger. If you want a pvp hotspot then give faction x control over territory that quite clearly belongs to faction y

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Stormwaltz

As a writer / creator, my experience has nearly always been that systems designers and artists are not as concerned about lore integrity as I am. A lot of my job is finding in-universe ways to explain someone else’s design decision.

Probably the most well-known of my handwaves are weapons in Mass Effect. In ME1, the system designers wanted to avoid a system where you’re counting and budgeting bullets – so I said guns fired tiny, effectively-infinite pellets at hypersonic speeds, and heat buildup was the limit on how long you could hold down the trigger.

In ME2, the designers felt the lack of reloading had spoiled the pacing of combat in the first game. They wanted players to have something that would get used up and replaced – but still avoid the tedium of counting “I have 82 incendiary bullets and 37 polonium bullets.” So we handwaved that the “reloading” was actually replacement of an expendable heat sink.

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Kino360Xperienc

Created an account just to say that the bullet shaving guns in ME1 was, hands down, my favorite chunk of lore from the whole series. It made the guns and setting feel cemented in the reality of what future tech could be.

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Zanes

I think it was exactly because of the heat mechanic.
People claimed it was slowing down combat.