“You’re sure to be in a fine haze about now,” says Gehrman in the opening few hours of the videogame Bloodborne. “But don’t think too hard about all of this. Just go out and kill a few beasts. It’s for your own good. You know, it’s just what hunters do!”
And on a surface level, that’s all the narrative you get in Bloodborne: You’ve arrived in a decrepit Victorian town seething with slavering werewolves, mad townsfolk wielding torches, and sickly crows ready to pluck out your eyes. It’s a videogame and the only buttons you can press create murder, so…you murder.
Which raises the question: Why are videogame stories so routinely derivative? Videogames aren’t a new media; they’ve been around for fifty years now. Weren’t we promised narratives that could only exist in videogames, the way we’ve had stories that could only be told in radio and movies and theater?
Why, after fifty years, are so many videogame stories no more complex than “Just go out and kill a few beasts?”
Alas, the problem with game-based storytelling is that it’s completely unnecessary. Story in games is all too often like pretty bows on a Christmas present—people appreciate the bows if someone put them there, some people won’t even open the gift if it’s not wrapped perfectly…
…but the bows aren’t why folks are looking under the tree.
You’re dealt five cards in poker, and those cards are devoid of an inherent story. You can tell yourself stories with cards, particularly through the order in which they’re revealed—these two clubs surely mean I’m on my way to a flush—and stories can evolve around the games, such as the desperate gambler trying to win her paycheck back on this next hand. But those cards weren’t designed to create a narrative.
It’s a game. And games can be purely fun through mere mechanics.
Which is not to say you can’t tell a story in videogames, but doing so is completely optional, almost more than any other form of media. Yes, there are films comprised of related imagery, like Koyaanisqatsi and Baraka, and there are novels that are mostly tone poems without characters to speak of.
But storyless films and books are rare. Whereas games…well, does anyone need a character arc for the Five of Diamonds?
No. Which is why games that have chosen to tell stories have traditionally appropriated narratives from other media, often pulling hoary, timeworn stories over their game mechanics like a stolen cloak.
Dungeons & Dragons started out as pure wargaming, using numerical mechanics to figure out who won a fantasy battle, but it wasn’t long before gamers started swiping stories from Conan and Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser. Videogames began with simple stories (“Rescue the princess!”)—but as technology has allowed for more complicated tales, they’ve tried integrating story in ways ranging from ham-handed (Metal Gear’s record-breaking seventy-one minute series of back-to-back cutscenes) and subtle (Braid’s inverting of the standard “rescue the princess” narrative by running the game backwards).
But it’s hard for videogames to tell planned stories because the player is in charge. What good is it putting that Chekhov’s gun on the mantelpiece when the player might not even walk into the drawing room? The developers of Half-Life 2 openly discussed the challenges of even getting a player to look in the right direction—it took them hours of design to figure out where a player was likely to look, designing entire rooms to encourage them to face the right direction.
And yes, you can restrict a player’s actions so they’re forced to go look at the mantelpiece! But the less freedom you give to a player, the more that story resembles a movie.
So, the other approach is to give people tools to create their own stories around the game. One of the reasons Minecraft has become so extraordinarily popular is because it’s not so much a “story” as it is “a toolbox to tell stories.” The story isn’t the top-down narrative you’d get in a movie, it’s the chaotic accumulation of events that occur when you and your friends get together to build a castle.
As such, “story” in videogames are usually either the random sports anecdotes you can cobble together from participating in any group effort, or a movie grafted imperfectly onto a bunch of game mechanics.
Ah, but what if there was a story that could only be told using games?
What if there was an exciting new type of tale that is unique to videogames—one that allows the player full control over their actions, yet immerses them in a way a book or a movie absolutely couldn’t?
Welcome to the world of lore—mysterious fragments of prose scattered throughout the background of another activity.
The brilliance behind the lore that drives Bloodborne’s story—and the stories of numerous other Dark Souls-like games—is that it treats its narrative with the same reckless freedom that videogames themselves possess.
On the surface, Bloodborne is just a stew of weirdness to slay monsters in, with alien creatures slithering out of crumbling alleyways to be cut down by your axe. And if all you care about is the challenge of chopping tentacled beasts, there’s a lot of mechanical fun to be had in Bloodborne—the combat is deep, punishing, and satisfying.
You know, like Gehrman says: “Just go out and kill a few beasts.”
But stashed around Bloodborne are maddening snippets of narrative—an intriguing description of a gem you embed into your axe, a two-sentence conversation that makes almost no sense on its own. These aren’t narrative infodumps, like BioShock’s audio diaries, which tell dramatic microfictions as people relate their stories—these are puzzling, cryptic messages, like a boss endlessly repeating “Ahh, Kos, or some say Kosm… Do you hear our prayers? As you once did for the vacuous Rom, grant us eyes, grant us eyes.”
At that point in the story, you’d have already fought a boss named Rom the Vacuous Spider, a large grublike creature who does not look like a spider at all—and Rom was almost a random encounter, appearing out of nowhere in an enchanted lake with absolutely zero explanation. Yet if you’d found a hidden passage in a tomb, you’d have discovered a mysterious reference that says, in its entirety, “The Byrgenwerth spider hides all manner of rituals and keeps our lost master from us. A terrible shame. It makes my head shudder uncontrollably.”
If you want, you can take time between killing beasts to start piecing together the clues. The clues are incomplete. They require much exploration to find. But they hint at a story that makes sense.
The story Bloodborne tells is compelling simply because it’s completely optional. As such, the lore doesn’t have to worry about holding your attention in the same way a book does—because while there are books that tell stories in the background for those who pay attention, they also have to have stories in the foreground. Whereas a game’s lore is akin to archaeology, wandering through snake-filled woods to unearth another hazy glimpse at What Happened Here. The act of deciphering lore often becomes a collaborative puzzle as you scour websites and forums for secrets that other players have uncovered in the game.
And while Bloodborne’s story has missing segments, the tale that can be collaged together from the pieces is breathtaking—a cosmic horror story about scholarly hubris, of rising empires crumbling under the weight of their own reckless desire for knowledge. But it’s also breathtaking because the story was not given to you; you had to assemble this backstory from scraps, and its incompleteness is part of what gives it verisimilitude.
Explore that lore, and the game becomes saturated with a new resonance. Before, that rocky, grublike beast was simply a bizarre target for your blade; now you know what Rom the Vacuous Spider was placed there to protect, and what horrors you unleashed by barging into its lake to slaughter it.
In that way, the moon-soaked city becomes the tale.
What’s interesting is that there’s another form of lore that’s existed for decades—namely, flavor text on collectible card games. The first cards in Magic: The Gathering way back in 1993 sometimes had two- or three-sentence snippets printed beneath their card mechanics, making fan favorites out of otherwise weak cards. Mons’s Goblin Raiders was literally as weak a creature as Magic allowed, but my friends loved it because of how it was described:
The intricate dynamics of Rundvelt Goblin affairs are often confused with anarchy. The chaos, however, is the chaos of a thundercloud, and direction will sporadically and violently appear. Pashalik Mons and his raiders are the thunderhead that leads in the storm.
Tough words for a card that could be eaten by an elf.
Unfortunately, Magic was never able to turn their flavor texts into a compelling story—they’ve tried various tricks over the years, including an entire block where each card contained a text which, when put together in chronological order, told a full saga. But the problem with flavor text on cards is that collecting a full set of cards is expensive, and there’s no guarantee that the best lore goes on your favorite card.
Magic’s been at its best when it’s used flavor text to hint at a wider world that’s expanded by short stories, videos, and flat-out recaps of “Here’s what happens in this set.” In that sense they’re not so much the window to the story but a commercial for an aspect of the story, whether that’s revealing a Planeswalker’s personality or showing off a new land to adventure in.
Good lore is difficult to create, because lore has to be both consistent and pleasingly obscure. Be too overt with your clues, and you’ll force-feed users a narrative experience like audio diaries, too explicit to feel satisfying when you unearth them; be too obscure, and fans will be unable to follow your vague hints to satisfying conclusions.
And above all, in the end, lore must still tell a satisfying story. You still need compelling characters chasing their goals to create a plot—it’s just that you may have to distill that character down to seven sentences and a cryptic cutscene scattered among hours of gameplay.
Getting the right mix is difficult. There’s only three sentences in all of Bloodborne referencing Rom the Vacuous Spider, yet those sentences are packed with enough information to cross-reference them with other Bloodborne lore in order to understand what those references to “all manner of rituals” might mean.
And when it’s done right, what is revealed through the quest for lore is a narrative that mirrors videogames themselves—they’re a game you play as much or as little as you want, digging satisfaction out of investment. There was no reason you had to pay attention to this story. In fact, in some ways the story resisted you, purposely tried to deflect your inquiries like a videogame monster.
And you beat it.
As they say in Dark Souls: Victory achieved.
Ferrett Steinmetz is the author of the novels The Sol Majestic and Automatic Reload from Tor Books, as well as the ‘Mancer trilogy and The Uploaded. He is a graduate of both the Clarion Writers’ Workshop and Viable Paradise, and was nominated for the Nebula Award in 2012, for his novelette Sauerkraut Station. Ferrett can be found on Twitter as @ferretthimself, and his new podcast, …And We Will Plunder Their Prose, analyzes the writing techniques of great modern speculative fiction.