Lore for Lore Overload: The Overemphasis and Misuse of Backstory in Today's Video Games?

Prepare yourselves, dear readers, for a critical examination of what today’s video games have deemed ‘lore’. I’m not referencing those engaging narrative sequences that integrate seamlessly with gameplay, or the compelling plotlines that draw us into new levels. Instead, I’m referencing ‘lore’ that seems to exist for its own sake. Those long, disjointed, and tedious excerpts of backstory that serve no other purpose than to proclaim, “Behold the depth and complexity of our universe!” Spoiler alert: it’s about as deep and complex as a child’s wading pool.

Have you ever played a game where you’re abruptly pulled from the action, and instead of being rewarded with a juicy cutscene, you’re presented with a text box? It’s as though the game is saying, “Congratulations, here’s a novella’s worth of dislocated history to give our 2D characters some 3D depth.” And let’s not even delve into comparing Bungie’s Halo to Bungie’s Destiny or the aberration that 343’s Halo became in terms of lore. Remember the days when Halo was primarily about Master Chief performing extraordinary feats? Now it seems like you need a doctorate in “Halo-ology” just to comprehend why Chief sneezed.

It appears as though the background information or “lore” in short, usually explored casually in a paperback novel or a audio collectible found in-game, has switched places with the main narrative, the story directly connected to what unfolds on-screen.

This shift is problematic not just because of its reductionist nature, but also because it’s insidious. Such an approach cultivates a culture of faux-intellectualism where ‘true fans’ gatekeep and scoff at anyone who hasn’t absorbed every peripheral detail of a character’s backstory. “Oh, you didn’t read about Sarge’s preferred cereal brand from log #3984? Casual.” Spare me this pretentiousness, please.

Video games were meant to be a fusion of narrative and gameplay, but ‘lore’ is transforming them into disjointed experiences. Let’s be clear here, most of this lore doesn’t reflect Tolkien-esque brilliance in world-building. Often, it feels like sanitized cartoon scripts went on a date with subpar fanfiction, had a bit too much to drink, and nine months later, voila! Game lore.

Comparing this type of ‘lore’ to reading the transcript of a silent adult film is surprisingly fitting. Both might be anticipated, but neither magically transforms the source material into high art. Just because you can read about what’s happening doesn’t elevate it to Shakespearean levels. Similarly, adding fancy language to a game’s universe doesn’t suddenly make it profound. It’s like attempting to market a simplified version of an essentialist history textbook as Pulitzer Prize-worthy. The concept simply doesn’t hold up, and maybe shouldn’t.

In the end, I don’t require a novel’s worth of irrelevant details. Give me a cohesive, compelling narrative any day. Reserve the lore for the encyclopedias, and let’s return to genuinely playing games.

Having vented our frustrations, let’s take a nostalgic journey back to a game that nailed storytelling: the original Deus Ex.

Deus Ex, ladies and gentlemen, is a masterclass in Ross Scott’s “three levels/layers of storytelling.” Initially, we have the fun video game story: you’re JC Denton, a nano-augmented agent navigating a labyrinth of conspiracies. Equipped with your cool sunglasses, stealth mechanics, and secret organizations, you have all the elements of an exhilarating video game adventure.

Next, there’s the world and its inhabitants’ story. Deus Ex doesn’t solely revolve around JC; it’s about the entire world he inhabits. Delve into the depths of this game, and you encounter a world teeming with narratives. From the residents of Hell’s Kitchen to the eerie streets of Hong Kong, every corner of Deus Ex tells a story. Overheard conversations, news bulletins, and historical snippets all contribute to a vibrant tapestry of a world on the brink.

Where Deus Ex truly excels is its third layer: the notion that it’s more than just a game. The narrative boldly incorporates sobering yet ‘mundane,’ real-world statistics and facts. Remember discovering a homeless encampment and learning through in-game sources about the economic and societal reasons behind their predicament? Deus Ex didn’t merely sprinkle these details for ambiance; it used them to anchor its fictional narrative in the very real problems of our world. It addresses themes of privacy, the power of the elite, and the ethics of augmentation, all while making you question the nature of your own choices and agency. It’s not content to just be a game; it aims to be a conversation starter, a reflection on society itself.

What distinguishes Deus Ex is that it doesn’t congratulate itself for every subtle reference or every bit of “depth” it delivers. It presents a complex world, leaves breadcrumbs, and trusts players to follow the trail and wrestle with its implications. It doesn’t flaunt its lore, shouting, “Look how clever I am!” Instead, it integrates it so thoroughly into the fabric of the game that you can’t help but become engrossed.

So, to game developers out there: you don’t need to inundate us with pages of disjointed lore to make your worlds feel alive. Sometimes, anchoring your stories in real-world issues, offering layers of depth for those who seek it, and enabling the world and gameplay to meld seamlessly is all you need. Look to games like Deus Ex, understand what they accomplished, and let’s maintain that level of respect for the player.

The landscape of video games has changed dramatically over the decades. From a niche hobby, video games have evolved into a mainstream phenomenon with an industry that surpasses even Hollywood in revenue. However, this growth and commercial success has slowly adopted compromises along the way.

One of the most prominent trends in the post-2010s games era pertains to how games are packaged and sold. In the golden days, when you purchased a game, you received the entire game. Levels, characters, story arcs – the full experience was there, ready to be enjoyed. There was a tangible sense of completeness. You did not have to think “Oh Wow! This character must be referring to the level I got for free.” Gamers could lose themselves in intricate narratives and vast worlds without the nagging sense that something was missing.

However, the current picture is markedly different. As the gaming industry has expanded, there’s been a disconcerting trend towards segmenting pieces of games to be sold separately as downloadable content (DLC). This isn’t about providing additional content post-release to expand upon the base game. Instead, we’re discussing sections of the primary story or levels that seem conspicuously absent from the main game, only to miraculously appear behind a paywall or sometimes a free update meant to re-advertise the game.

Now, it’s important not to generalize all games or attribute ill intent to every decision. There are indeed titles with post-launch DLC that genuinely feel like valuable additions. However, when gamers can predict which parts of a new release will be parceled out as DLC or when the main story feels incomplete without paying for the ‘extra’ content, it’s clear that the original spirit of gaming is being lost in attempts to maintain profitability.

The shift from buying a game to “investing” in a game franchise has altered the dynamics. The very essence of a game – its levels, narrative arcs, and characters – which were once sacrosanct, are now seen as divisible assets. It’s akin to buying a novel but having to pay extra for the chapters missing in the middle of the story. While business models need to adapt to the times, it’s worth considering the cost this carries for the sanctity of a complete experience.

In an era of entertainment where experiences are increasingly filtered and monetized, it may be time for the players themselves to reflect on what made games special in the first place. It wasn’t just about graphics or mechanics but about immersing oneself in a different world, unraveling its mysteries, and experiencing its stories from start to finish without interruption.

The evolution of the video game industry into mainstream culture has indeed been a mixed blessing. On one hand, it has broadened the scope and reach of gaming, drawing a new generation of players. On the other hand, the essence of what made gaming a beloved pastime for many seems to be getting diluted in the mix.

One of the more subtle shifts in the industry’s ethos lies in how games are marketed and presented to potential players. There was a time when games were primarily sold based on their gameplay. A title had to be mechanically solid, innovative, and, most importantly, fun. Trailers highlighted in-game action, and demos were released for players to sample before committing to a purchase.

Today, however, the emphasis has significantly shifted. More often than not, games are marketed with meticulously curated screenshots and cinematic trailers that may look fantastic but give little to no indication of the actual gameplay experience. It’s a trend that leans more towards visual spectacle than substance. These images and trailers are crafted not for the dedicated gamer but for the elusive ‘average gamer’ or broader audience, whose purchase decisions might be swayed more by a game’s aesthetic appeal than its playability.

This shift towards aesthetics and away from gameplay can be viewed as a strategic move to attract a larger, more mainstream audience. After all, a striking screenshot can be easily shared on social media, become a trending topic, and spark conversations among those who might never even pick up a controller. The intention is clear: to secure that initial purchase from as many people as possible. And while there’s no denying the importance of reaching a wide audience, there’s a danger in prioritizing mass appeal over authentic gaming experiences.

By focusing on creating a visually stunning facade primarily rendered on a supercomputer and maybe touched up by photoshop, developers might inadvertently sideline the core gaming community–the very people who championed the medium when it was still considered niche. It’s akin to producing a movie with a dazzling trailer but a lackluster plot. While it might draw crowds on the opening weekend, it won’t stand the test of time or foster a dedicated fan base.

The gaming industry, once a niche corner of entertainment, has grown into a behemoth that commands mainstream attention. As with any sector that experiences rapid expansion and commercialization, there are growing pains and shifts in focus. While the early days of gaming centered on comprehensive storytelling and innovative gameplay, the contemporary scene is often overshadowed by marketing gimmicks, aesthetic appeal, and segmented content designed for ensuring maximum profitability.

The rise of curated screenshots over actual gameplay in promotional materials is indicative of an industry grappling with its identity. It’s an attempt to cater to a broad audience, but in doing so, there’s a risk of alienating the original audience that has been the backbone of gaming for decades, and arguably the reason for its ascent into the mainstream.

The depths we explore when discussing the intricacies of the gaming world are profound! But let’s face it, in this era of digital dopamine, you could almost envision it: Turn off the video games and their blockbuster movie adaptations for just a week, and there would likely be mass outrage, trending hashtags, and perhaps even a few spirited rallies in city squares. “Return our pixelated paradise to us!” they’d chant.

Yet, imagine a dystopian scenario in which 99.999% of all books were to spontaneously combust, and the majority would likely just scroll past the news, perhaps ‘like’ a sad emoji tweet about it, and then return to their virtual battlegrounds and cinematic universes.

The irony! While we eloquently dissect the philosophical shifts in the video game industry, it’s both amusing (and slightly disconcerting) to consider how deeply ingrained these digital indulgences are in our societal psyche. Priorities, indeed. So here’s a toast to the post/trans/hyper modern era, where the fate of fictional characters in games might incite more passion than the preservation of centuries of written wisdom. Bravo, humanity, bravo!