Worlds Bigger Than Games
Why great world-building improves video games
This past week saw BlizzCon descend on Anaheim, California. Blizzard’s fans came from far and wide to celebrate the company’s major franchises and — they hope — witness some big announcements. Blizzard is a company fuelled by its fandom; many people become deeply invested in their favorite Blizzard franchises for a whole host of reasons, but the lore behind these games is a big driver for fan enthusiasm. Lore and world-building are incredibly important in terms of elevating a video game.
Lore/world-building is the concept of fleshing out a setting beyond the initial concept. It’s about establishing a sense of place that transcends the original concept or plot.
World-building comprises two categories: character and setting, which both add weight to the experience. Some of the best stories in the medium use lore to get players more invested, and there are several distinct advantages from a writing/storytelling point of view.
First and foremost, world-building creates a storytelling “bible” of sorts, to establish the rules and frameworks around how the setting and characters behave and interact. Creating this foundation enables developers to establish new stories, situations, and characters that feel naturally connected to the underlying framework.
The second point dovetails with the first: established world-building allows developers to expand their property in numerous directions. Popular characters, for example, lend themselves to the creation of side-stories — especially with fan-favorites. If it’s in the world — and especially if it’s popular — there’s room for all kinds of content like prequels, side-stories, totally new characters, worlds; anything you can imagine.
In video games, lore takes on an extra-special quality because so much of a game’s lore might be completely separate from the core game experience — but that doesn’t make it any less important to consider.
Looking at lore
I think it is instructive to look at some specific examples of games in terms of their lore and the impact it had on both the fans themselves as well as the growth of the game.
Team Fortress 2 — right from the initial reveal — established itself with lore-building. The nondescript mercenaries in Team Fortress Classic were replace by stylized — and effectively-realized characters. Valve took the concept further with its “Meet the Team” video series, which introduced us to the various personalities of the main characters. From that starting point, Valve expanded the game further with events, new movies, digital comics, and more.
Valve eventually engaged with their fans directly through the Polycount Pack — allowing modders to create custom gear that could be added to the game — and then the Saxxy Awards for people who created custom movies.
Payday 2 has had some growing pains in terms of lore-building, relative to other games mentioned here. Following the success of the first game, Payday 2 kicked off with a more serious attempt at lore-building. The process started with a web series that attempted to ground the game by exploring its “crime-net” and fleshing out back stories for the principal characters.
But the attempt didn’t stick, and the creators began to push the game in a more surreal direction (perhaps in response to a perceived lack of success), introducing tie-ins with properties like Hotline Miami, John Wick, and even Hardcore Henry. There have been some serious attempts to expand the lore (such as the reintroduction of fan favorite character Hoxton), but these have been few and far between.
The tonal change has also impacted continued updates and additions to the game, with the gang now travelling all around the world performing crazier and crazier heists. Weapon packs introduced both historical and new weapons in equal measure. The creators tried to balance the introduction of weird/strange weapon packs along with heists that feature a long-form story surrounding the various characters.
In my view, this has led to the game feeling somewhat fragmented — that said, the creators have demonstrated that they still know how to engage their fans. Milestone events in the game’s history unlocked free content for all fans, and the developers have been putting on an annual event called “Crimefest” with massive updates and contests for fans to enjoy.
Finally, there’s Overwatch. Of all three games presented here, Overwatch had something of a head start in terms of lore-building thanks to its genesis in another life as Blizzard’s cancelled MMO, Titan. Like Team Fortress 2, Overwatch’s stylized aesthetic helped it stand out from other team-based shooters. This starting point was further fleshed out through a diverse set of characters, in terms of body types, gender, and even species.
Overwatch’s lore comes in the form of cinematic trailers, character reveal movies, and comic books. It’s also worth pointing out that Overwatch is tremendously cosplay-friendly, due to the wide variety of character designs. And, outside the usual fan appreciation, Blizzard has a specific section of their site dedicated to fans submitting stories about everyday heroes in their own lives.
In all of the cases above, there’s one theme you might notice: none of the lore directly impacts the gameplay. So, why does it matter?
Why lore matters
Great world-building will never save a bad game. But it can elevate a good game to become something truly great. Creators who think about the lore of their game tend to also have a greater grasp of the details of their overall design.
Sometimes, strong lore-building seems to emerge — as if by accident — as a result of great writing. Though it’s possible to intentionally write characters that can become fan-favourites, creators can never really predict who is going to resonate with fans (Nintendo ran into this situation recently when Bowsette seemingly dominated Twitter for a brief period).
Fans tend to appreciate well-crafted lore, especially when creators go out of their way to enable fans to delve into that lore both within and outside the gameplay experience. This in turn can become an important pathway for games to grow their audiences; strong fanbases, after all, have been strong contributors to some of the biggest indie success stories we’ve seen (including games like Undertale, Five Nights at Freddy’s and Minecraft).
Of course, not every game needs to focus on lore. But I think it’s true that the games which stick around the longest in terms of ongoing community support tend to be the ones where lore and world-building extend well beyond gameplay. As we slowly emerge from the powerful gravitational force that is Red Dead Redemption 2, I’m sure we’ll see growing fan frenzy around games like Super Smash Bros. Ultimate and Kingdom Hearts 3 when they are released.
I think one final — but important — point is that, when a fandom developers around a game, creators really must figure out how to engage with the community that emerges. Just as a creative team can cultivate fandom, they can also be seen to “betray” that fandom by failing to communicate with — or outright ignoring — their fans.
Thank you for reading, I hope you enjoyed this article. I’d like to leave you with a question: can you think of games that have tried to cultivate fans via world-building but still failed? And then, a corollary question: can you think of games where a strong fandom emerged, but where the developers didn’t really try for that in the first place?