Posted on August 10, 2023 in Technology

Game Lore in an Online World

You’ve probably seen at least a screenshot of a Five Nights at Freddy’s lore video stretching an hour or more. The game is so extraordinarily good at producing theory content that people will gladly sit down and watch the content creator draw lines between a serial killer, a defunct Chuck E. Cheese style restaurant, and you, playing a security guard.

Doing all of this takes a surprisingly long time.

Lore wasn’t always such a major source of content, so what happened when FNaF hit the scene?

Online World

Lore didn’t used to be so easily accessible to people who hadn’t played the game. Lore also used to have to be somewhat straightforward, so the less observant and less obsessive players still had a shot at understanding what happened in the background of whatever they were playing. Now, in the age of the internet, you can watch people explain it for you! Game developers can build layers upon layers of complexity and know that people will put all of the pieces they have together in a fan forum, so not everybody needs to get all of the pieces to see the finished picture. In some cases, this is great! The people who can play the game for 50 hours and the people who only got to play it for 5 can now collaborate, so nobody is missing out just because they don’t have the time to get super deep into the game. Players don’t have to play through a game twice, thrice, or more just to get some little piece of the lore puzzle that appears based on RNG – someone else may have gotten it first try and shared with the class.

Because mysterious lore encourages sharing and collaborative puzzle solving/theorycrafting, it also tends to be good for content engagement. Heck, I’ve never even played a FNaF game, but I get the gist of what happened lore-wise because so many people are putting out videos and articles about it.

Speaking of which, FNaF changed the way indie games looked at lore – if you can get an interesting enough mystery going, your game may get picked up and incidentally advertised as people try to crack it, even if the actual plot is simple or the gameplay weak.

Plot Vs. Lore

I’m going to use FNaF as a common thread, because FNaF is one of the origin points of the deep and heavy lore trend in Indie Games. The first Five Nights at Freddy’s game is very simple, in terms of lore. The first ‘hour’ you play (which is really only several minutes IRL), a man on an answering machine is explaining the mechanics to you. “The animatronics get a little quirky at night”. That’s plot. Later, he mentions the Bite of ’87 – which is lore. Lore used the way the internet uses it is sort of peripheral to the game, stuff that becomes plot when it directly affects you. Bite of ’87 is used to warn you that the machines are dangerous, yes, but it also references a specific event that you have no context or additional information for, a little bit of flavor that doesn’t affect the plot of the game any more or less than the other numerous warnings you get about injury does.

Lore in this sense of the word includes things like what Princess Peach’s favorite flavor of cake is, or where the cars are made in Burnout. It’s stuff you may have found in a game that doesn’t interact with the plot at all, or does, but only barely, and not in a way that removing it could change the plot. If there came a game where you had to learn Peach’s favorite cake, then in this case, it’s plot!

These aren’t the exact definitions of these words – lore, as in folklore, refers to shared knowledge and tradition passed around a community. That said, people online understand what you mean when you ask about FNaF or Mario or Metroid lore, the stuff that’s happening behind the plot that the community has worked to assemble and share with each other. Online, the words have taken on new meaning.

Plot OR Lore…?

The issue with stories modeled after FNaF is that they sometimes sacrifice solid plot for mysterious lore in hopes of generating engagement online. While this works for a little bit, and while it works better for big games with lots of eyes on them, it doesn’t work consistently! If anything, it tends to irritate fans who joined the community to spend less time finding pieces and more time analyzing the content, which they now can’t do because 50% of the content is outside of the game in the form of lore.

Look at Silent Hill’s P.T. – the lore enhances the game, but the game never sacrifices anything within itself to clarify that it has an ARG attached to it and there’s more mystery afoot. Meanwhile, Hello Neighbor was so desperate to generate mystery that the outside content about the ‘mystery’ is longer than the content within the game.

Part of this is the difference in experience between the two development studios, but another part is that P.T (a demo) is okay with only being an hour long where Hello Neighbor was not. While lore is fun, it can also be used as a cheap trick to lengthen the time the player spends in the game by offering up little tidbits that either trigger randomly or after a certain number of playthroughs. A compromise is the FNaF 2 minigames, which you get to play after every ten or so deaths. You’re going to die a lot in the early game, but if you want to get (or see) all of them later as you get better, you either have to die in-game or watch a Let’s Player do it.

All this to say that lore can take the importance of plot in a game if the development studio isn’t careful!

And then, there’s theorycrafting, which has always existed, but turned into a special kind of hell in the late 2000s/early 2010s, and has held steady since.

TheoryCrafting and Lore

People theorycraft because it’s fun. What if Ash from Pokemon accidentally made a wish to a Pokemon that grants wishes in the first episode, and that’s why he’s been 11 for over a decade now? What if Lost wasn’t set on an island, and all of the characters are actually dead and this is just purgatory? What if Rey was related to a Skywalker? What if she wasn’t? But wait, what if she was again? What if Superman is secretly telekinetic, and he doesn’t even know it himself, and that’s why physics seems to break down around him when he lifts things that should fall apart under their own weight like airplanes and yachts?

Theorycrafting is a fun pastime, but it got to a point (especially on Tumblr and Twitter, in the seven or eight years around 2010) where superfans would send death threats to a media creator because their personal theory didn’t pan out. More on that later.

Theorycrafting often goes hand in hand with lore, especially when the lore’s a little obscure, or incomplete. For example, to go back to FNaF – we knew nothing about the Bite of ’87. Until the next game came out, people liked to theorycraft what exactly that bite was: did it kill the kid? Did the animatronics gain sentience after tasting human blood? Were you involved in the bite, and this game is you having a nightmare about being in control of the situation, but not really? And then, we got a few bits more of lore with some strategic tweets and the second game, and we learned another animatronic called Mangle was responsible for the bite. All that theorycrafting went out the window, and new theorycrafting slid in to take its place.

Too Much Involvement

Again, theorycrafting is fun. It’s also one of the hardest parts of asking for fan participation, because in order to get fans to make theories, the information has to be incomplete! On one hand, you want people to theorycraft because it generates interest in what you’ve made. On the other, theorycrafters may figure it all out before the creators get to explain it, which many game makers seem to hate. Creating a puzzle that took hours to make and five minutes to solve would be frustrating for anybody, but especially for people trying to generate a lot of engagement out of said puzzles. On the third, theorycrafters, with the power of crowdsourced, forum-based discussion, can sometimes create something deeply unhinged that gets accepted as fact within the community based on disjointed, incomplete information.

If the community is particularly green and young, they may be so disappointed in what actually happens next in the show that they stop participating altogether, or… start behaving erratically. For example: Johnlock, and BBC’s Sherlock, which Youtuber Sarah Zed has a very good video on (here!). It’s long, but her video collects a ton of fan reactions. It shows exactly the pitfalls of asking and poking and teasing fans with clues and little bits of lore online without expecting them to take it seriously. The showrunners, known as Mofftis at the time, encouraged the fans to go after every little detail, every obvious red herring, until eventually those fans had convinced themselves as a collective that Sherlock and Watson were going to be together as a couple at the end of the series for sure. The showrunners should have known that by the time people were putting together Johnlock couple cosplays based on a handful of semi-ambiguous lines in the show, they’d gotten in too deep.

Fans were sure Watson and Sherlock were going to end up in a relationship together and got very upset when that didn’t happen, ending in death threats to anyone even remotely involved in the show if they could be found online. It got so bad that Lucy Liu, who played Watson in the American TV show Elementary, a totally different adaptation of Sherlock, was getting harassed online because of a British-made show that premiered a few years earlier.

If you encourage the wrong kind of theorycrafting or attract a community that hasn’t learned these lessons yet, you run the risk of the fandom overpowering your original vision for something a small majority has decided it would rather have instead. Again – it’s sort of bad to let lore, a secondary part of the story, interfere with plot, the concrete, primary threads of it.

Lore Isn’t Inherently Bad

Lore isn’t inherently bad. What makes lore bad is overuse and overreliance on the fans to put together a good story out of little disjointed pieces of lore. Bad lore is essentially crowdsourced story-writing and collectible fluff, where good lore enhances an understanding of the content in question, giving viewers a better feel for the world without robbing them of essential plot if they choose not to pursue it.

It comes down to skill and demand. The original Sonic lore is mostly unknown because people just didn’t want it. FNaF lore, on the other hand, was written fairly sparingly to it’s own benefit. Finally, games like P.T., Resident Evil, Death Loop, Hades, etc. all benefit from their lore bringing the player in with little interactions and bits of flavor text they want to see, without dragging their attention away from the core content itself.

Lore is good! But it has to be done well to be good. Being complicated alone doesn’t make anything good.