Ah, lore. There’s so much to say, let alone dissect, that it’s no wonder most developers forgo a fully fleshed out lore crafting experience for the player to enjoy. It’s just much easier to create a singular story for a game than it is to create all sorts of other elements to keep track of and connect.
But see, it’s the intricacies of lore creation that make it so great. You’re dealing with substance there, stuff that is inherently meaningful and connectable. Moldable, even. More than just telling a story it’s the process of intricately weaving together meaning through several stories, all leading up to the one being played in your video game.
And in doing so, everything suddenly has a purpose. Maybe there’s a weapon that someone before your playable hero used to wield. Perhaps an armor set, or an amulet. Maybe the cities in your game all look however they do because of what happened several years before. Bloodborne does this exceptionally.
So, what can you as a developer do to make lore creation a streamlined process? What are the steps to absolutely accomplish, and what can you do without? Let’s dive in.
Potting the Plant
Think of lore creation as gardening. Depending on the type of plant you’re dealing with, you may have yourself quite a few plants, or at least a very large one. For instance, and bear with me, I promise it’ll connect to game development, consider the Algerian Ivy. There’s a few vines connected all to one root system. As time goes on, what begins as a bundle of roots and a few small strands of ivy turns into what you see above. This particular one, my own, is not as big as it’s going to get, it’s only a few months in. Eventually, it will require a larger planter, preferably hanging, and the vines will trail down like hair.
This is lore creation at its finest. Starting out with a core idea that you want to portray in a game, consider the bundle of roots as the point of origin. It’s where everything will stem from. You might have a few story concepts that tie into that, making up the few, small vines. As your game begins to take shape, things will change though. Suddenly a story just doesn’t fit, and requires altering, but oh wait, it can be two different stories! You wake up one day and there’s ten, twenty, maybe even thirty stories you could connect to this overall core idea, and that… that is lore creation.
So for the sake of illustration, let’s go back to Bloodborne. You’re a hunter, and your task is to go through the Gothic, Victorian era inspired city of Yharnam, whose inhabitants have been afflicted with an abnormal blood-borne disease. At first you know nothing more than just it’s a mess and you’re having to defend yourself. You know you need to find something called “Paleblood,” but you don’t know why. As the game progresses, however, your objective is to terminate the source of the plague, and escape the nightmare.
This is your point of origin, your root system. This is something you hold onto, because everything will stem from it. So for this step, create your own bundle of roots, or game concept, and hold it tight.
Caring for the Vines
Now that you have your overall game concept, it’s time to turn your attention to those few, small vines. When an Algerian Ivy starts out, there’s maybe 5-6 vines popping out of the soil, nothing too fancy or large. Think of these as your stories. They don’t need to be amazingly intricate plots, they just need to be concepts, really. As time goes on, those stories will grow larger, complement other stories, or even be eliminated altogether.
Going back to Bloodborne, the game has several “vines”: the hunters and the hunt, the city of Yharnam, the red moon, the umbilical cords, the scourge of the beast, Old Yharnam’s connection to ashen blood and powder kegs, the Great Ones, the Pthumerian civilization, etc. There are a total of 12 stories that once connected, lead up to that overall concept the player is focusing on: the actual gameplay.
If you look at each one, there’s a full-fledged story there. Each one could stand on its own and be sort of… a book in a series. One book from cover to cover tells one single story, which has to do with the previous book, as well as the one after it. But it stands entirely alone, if need be. This is what you’re aiming for, but it is not essential right now. Start off small; develop story concepts you can build on.
Now, the number of vines is going to differ depending on your game. MMO’s will require a lot of stories. Single player not as many. FPS or RTS probably won’t require any! So before anything, think about your genre. How many stories do you need? A game as intricate as Bloodborne was fine with 12, but honestly, even 10 is fine.
Once you establish how many you need, begin crafting a story concept after another. Again, don’t be too intricate yet. Be elementary about it. Something as simple as a man seeking an orb of life is a concept that could work.
Watching It Grow
Now that you’ve hopefully written up 10-12 story concepts, let’s consider what happens next. With a plant, you sit back and watch it grow. Just ensure you put it in a spot with enough light, and water it once a week or so, and you’re done. With a story, the process is a little more demanding.
To make a story grow, you’ll need to do three things: 1) expand on it, 2) add elements from the other stories, to connect them all, and 3) edit. Beware, the editing process requires time and effort, because even if a story is inherently good, it doesn’t mean it meets the game’s needs. Be prepared for editing after editing after editing.
Going back to the man seeking a life orb, expanding on that could be anything that springs to mind during the brainstorming process. It could be a man on a quest for immortality, or an old man looking to be young again. One would ask why he wants these things? Maybe he doesn’t feel like he’s done enough in his lifetime. Maybe he feels that his life went to waste and now he wants a second chance. OK, but why does he feel this way? He wasted it by never pushing himself to be any better than he was in that point in time. He got comfortable, and never grew out of his shell, let alone aspired to do much else with his time.
Notice the power of the question “why?” Something as simple as asking that can lead to further story development. In fact, the standard “who, what, when, where, why” is a great starter. For instance, where does the story take place? Who is this man and why should the players care? What exactly is the orb of life?
Also, remember the parts of a story:
- Hook – Opposite of resolution.
- First Plot Turn – Introducing conflict.
- First Pinch – Something goes wrong. Introducing the antagonist.
- Midpoint – Middle. Transition. Characters decide what they’re doing to do.
- Second Pinch – Adding even more pressure.
- Second Plot Turn – Characters get the final thing to complete those actions.
- Resolution – Self-explanatory.
Use this as a guide for your story. What goes where? Fill it out like a form as you brainstorm, and remember, you can edit whenever. It doesn’t have to be amazing first try.
What is difficult about this process, however, is having to do this for however many stories you need for your game. Each one eventually needs to be fleshed out enough to hold up on its own. Even if you don’t outright use all of them in the game, or even use them all in their entirety, having a general sense of beginning, middle and end for each one helps to connect one story to another, eventually making a web of lore.
For instance, say in one story, the man finds the orb of life, becomes immortal for a time, and then makes some mortal enemies. Maybe those enemies steal the orb, and the man dies. Poof, one story is done, because the main character is dead. Where does the orb end up? That’s the second story.
Let’s Do Some Weeding
So, now that you have your core idea, and a collection of stories, it’s time to get rid of what you don’t need. This is an annoying process, but it can also be quite relaxing if it’s your thing. A good trick is to think of a diagram like the one shown above. Or better yet, create your own by just jotting down all story ideas and the concept on separate pieces of paper and laying them out in the same fashion.
You’ll likely notice something in my diagram: each one of my story lines involves the orb, but each one is different. In one, there’s a man and an orb. In another, it’s a kid that takes it and gets trapped inside. The orb is what ties all of these stories together, serving as our main character, of sorts. The other elements change with each story, from the characters to their motives. Maybe the kid is just curious as to what it is and figures he can sell it for money. He just wants to buy video games and not go to school. On the other hand, maybe the woman is Lara Croft in nature, and relishes in finding valuable relics.
This isn’t the only way a story can connect to another, however. Stories in lore often connect through the characters themselves. Much like a song featuring another artist, you could incorporate a character from one story into another. For instance, maybe the cults fighting for the orb in one of the stories are the same two cults chasing the woman. The kid in one of the stories could have been the man’s son.
Now, during this process of diagramming your stories and seeing how they connect, there are going to be distinct weak links – stories that just don’t measure up compared to the rest. There’s a variety of things you could do with these. You could eliminate them and replace them with new stories, you could make them a part of existing stories, or even save them for side projects like other games, or a comic book based on the game itself.
For instance, let’s consider the diagram above again. “Centuries go by, more wars over the orb,” is a weak story, there isn’t even a clear main character mentioned. However, we know there are two cults that fight over the orb in another story. Combining the two stories would add some interesting elements. Something like cult wars wrecking havoc on cities for centuries.
Don’t be afraid of only winding up with a quarter of the stories you had originally. This is just fine as long as the remaining few are high quality. If you find yourself short on time during the development process, consider editing a few stories to save them, rather than just eliminating them or making them parts of other stories. Another option would be to create several stories from the very beginning, so if you need 12, make 16 to cover your bases.
Now, a good question and one which you might be asking now is why should anyone flesh out stories prior to eliminating what they don’t need? Because developing the stories can help in a variety of ways: it can put you in the right frame of mind for your lore creation, it can give you ideas for more stories, it can uncover details that can help embellish your lore, and it can also help you during the weeding process. By fleshing out stories first, and editing them, you’re already aware if a story is weak compared to others. It basically does the work for you, and may even encourage you to alter a few details and make it stronger.
In other words, if all you do is create a one-sentence story concept and then eliminate it, you’re not giving it a chance to show you what it has to offer. It could wind up being your strongest story yet, but you’d never know, because you never gave it a chance.
So remember, during this process your objective is to either eliminate weak stories, morph them as part of other stories, or edit them until they become better than they are currently. In this fashion, you should wind up with stronger stories, better embellishments and detail, and game lore.
Of course, that’s not the end of the process. The process truly has no end. There are many edits to make, and honestly, there is no such thing as a finished story. There is always something that could be better. Multiply that times 10 or 12, maybe even 30 depending on your genre, and you have yourself a ton of edits to make on your overall lore.
But don’t lose hope. Take it one week at a time, and add, delete, rewrite and alter whatever you need to. Just remember that the story for the game, and the lore leading up to it are two different things. One is the immediate story played by your fans, the rest are just explaining the events before it. In essence, they will be playing one story in a long series of stories. Focus on this one primarily, so as to finish the game itself first. That’s your primary focus, after all.
Once you crank that particular story out, focus whatever time you have left on the lore, following the steps listed in this article. By then, it will be easier because you’ll have inspiration from both the finished game story, and the overall design of the game. As an example, maybe you have a level filled with golden pillars and a ceiling that is composed of constellations. Maybe it’s part of a raid in the game. A good way to add further meaning to a beautiful space is to explain it through lore. That room could be where the king and queen got married. It could be where the dragon was first honored by his people. Maybe the city once floated peacefully in the sky, but now this room is all that’s left of a city that’s now long gone.
And after creating all the lore, and editing, remember that you need to maintain it. Any expansions or DLC you put out after need to either add to the lore, or seek to dive deeper into whatever you’ve already written. Collectibles should reflect the lore, if you can help it. Any patches should help to fix bugs, but also add lore detail that may have been missing.
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