Vague Patch Notes: Lore is not an excuse for bad MMO design decisions

Because lore is made up

Long long gun

In a previous column, I wrote about how gender-locking classes is bad. This is because it is bad. It is bad in all conceivable circumstances, and it is bad even if your game has an elaborate set of lore explaining why only a specific gender can be this particular class. This is true no matter how elaborate the lore is, how detailed it is, and even if it’s actually good lore written in service of a good story and a well-constructed world.

Why? Because lore is made up.

I’ve talked about this before when discussing that lore can be altered or modified as necessary when it comes to roleplaying because it’s all made up. But I also see lore bring brought up as a defense against critiquing bad decisions because the lore is internally consistent on some point that explains things like gender-locking or class restrictions or whatever. And this defense doesn’t actually work because in all of these cases, the lore you’re appealing to is made up. It’s a disingenuous argument, and it’s not right.

Let’s start with an exercise. Suppose I’m writing a fantasy story taking place in a world where men absolutely cannot be mages. Suppose that I make this statement really clear in interviews discussing the book. It’s not just that this is a story wherein all of the mage characters happen to be women; it’s that I state repeatedly that women are the only ones who can be mages in this setting.

If this doesn’t come up in the story proper, that’s really weird, isn’t it? Like, if the plot of the story doesn’t revolve around this supposed law in some way, it’s a weird detail to fixate upon. It would make sense if, say, the prohibition is societal and the story is in some way about would-be male mages rising up and asserting their right to be. But just making that an important and indisputable rule of the setting would be weird and archaic if I’m not going to comment on it or do anything about it.

There’s a thought about this called the law of conservation of detail. Essentially, every detail about a story should in some way contribute to the story being told if it’s being presented. If a movie features a scene in which characters are judged by their ability or lack thereof to successfully identify defects in cow’s milk, you expect that to be relevant to the overall plot in some way. (It also can be used as a specifically absurdist element in films that explicitly avoid plot, like Napoleon Dynamite, where a scene just like that is inserted with no bearing on anything before or after.)

MMOs do not have this same limitation, in some regards. You do not have a single throughline of plot that defines everything in the game; even in games with strong narratives like Final Fantasy XIV you have side stories, additional quests, and other bits of worldbuilding to bring up. But that also means that you almost certainly aren’t telling a story about these gender restrictions; you’re just assuming that they’re there and taking them as an established fact.

At which point you’re just using lore to cover for what you already want to do.

I'm not a doll.

I’ve talked before about how World of Warcraft has a whole bunch of class and race restrictions that have never actually made sense. People have long appealed to the game’s lore as if it’s some defense against it, forgetting that the lore was made up at the same time as these restrictions were decided upon. It wasn’t that some external force dictated the lore or restrictions of same; it was that the developers decided they wanted race restrictions for various classes, then wrote lore to justify it – lore that didn’t make sense at the time and makes increasingly less sense as time and the game’s storytelling progresses.

The argument coming from those who treat the lore as if it somehow validates these particular decisions is essentially appealing to logical consistency instead of addressing the actual issues raised. Rather than looking at the substance of the argument (“it’s really sexist that you can’t make a male character be a mage in this setting”), they’re focused on the details of the setting, ignoring that there is not a physical law in place that makes this the case but the decisions of writers and designers.

By allowing the dodge of “but it’s what the lore says,” these fans are effectively dismissing actual agency and complaints so long as the lore is internally consistent. It fails to account for the fact that those people pointing this out are already aware that the lore is written this way; they’re not asking what the stated justification might be but why that justification was made. The lore didn’t prohibit this until you determined that it did.

Remember Escape From Tarkov dodging things exactly this way before, when it tried to justify not letting players have a lady character by saying that it didn’t match the lore they had just made up? That didn’t fly then, either. I’m not saying that it would have been better if the designers had just shrugged and said “we don’t feel like making that an option,” but it would have at least been honest.

Because yes, it was just made up. It was justification for a decision that was made by designers and writers that was not informed by some elaborate pre-existing set of rules. This was what the designers wanted, later codified into fictional rules.

It helps that the game is bad, I guess.

I don’t believe that the people who are making this argument are necessarily all being disingenuous when they swallow this nonsense. Some of them are, of course, but some of them are genuinely under the misapprehension that so long as the game’s internal logic is consistent, it doesn’t matter if it doesn’t make external sense. After all, the narrative is what’s important here. You have a reason why X can’t be Y, so why does it matter?

But to restate the point, that is attributing a decision made by designer and creator fiat with a universal truism, as if these were scientific facts. Lore is not the work of scientists observing evidence and saying “well, our best guess is that the female of this species was about 25% less massive than the male.” It’s the work of people sitting down and deciding things, usually in service of ideas that were already decided.

And that’s not even taking into account that for a large number of people, being able to identify with their characters is a crucial point of enjoying the game. If it’s important to you to be able to play a male character and what you really want to do is play a mage, odds are good that a game based on that hypothetical “no male mages” setting will be outright anathema to you. You won’t want to play it because of an arbitrary decision that didn’t have to be made.

Lore is made up. It can be changed. And lore does not cover for bad decisions like gender-locking player options. Post-hoc justifications made for designers who decided on that are just that and should be read as such.

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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