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In a new editorial posted over the weekend, Eurogamer points to the way in which lore is delivered to us in video games, calling out several examples where it falls considerably short of their expectations. Their examples of good and bad lore include The Witcher series, the BioShock series, and The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, so I've quoted those mentions below:
From this point, a lot of games indulge in a form of narrative carpet bombing in which story fragments are simply dropped onto the world from a great height in the hope that they make some sort of impact. Scrolls, emails, Post-It notes, letters - all crammed with text and left for the player to discover, "if they want to go deep into the lore". But so often this feels like stealth exposition, a way of filling in the backstory disguised as a reward for inquisitive players. The Witcher is a wonderful game series, but it does rather treat the Northern Kingdoms like a novelty bookshop, littering every shack, castle and cavern with pages of unexpurgated text. If I wanted to read the novels of Andrzej Sapkowski, I would jolly well buy them.
I mean, I understand the theory behind lore placement. It's about allowing players to discover story content, rather than having it shoved at them; it's about pull rather than push, to use the horrible language of UX methodology. Bioshock is a wonderful example of this - obviously the audio tapes provide backstory in entertaining and intriguing chunks but then you also have the whole mise-en-scene of Rapture, the way certain scenes are carefully set up to tell the story of this failed utopia almost in tableaux form. The environment feels like a carefully curated museum of lore rather than the ramshackle narrative flea market that many subsequent games have become. I trusted the motives of the writers - and that's not always the case.
I actually think trust is a key issue here. The world of Elder Scrolls: Skyrim is effectively a giant instruction manual, a great warehouse of bloated backstory where you can't walk for more than five minutes without being hit about the head with a 100-page lore nugget. Journey, meanwhile, conjures a mysterious evocative world by providing the player with a few ruins and some ancient symbols. I cannot help but feel that the latter game trusts and respects its players while, the former wants to scoop story into their flapping mouths.