‘lore’ is a trap and will kill your story if you let it. so what can we do about it?
This is not an essay about lore. I mean, it is, sure. We discuss lore, what it is, how to best use it, and how it can trap you into writing worse stories… but that’s not really what this essay is about. Instead of telling you exactly what it is, though — since you really ought to read it first — I am going to tell you who it’s for:
Every writer who has ever gotten stuck telling a story.
Is that you? Do you need to get unstuck? Well… this essay is for you, friends. So here we go…
Assorted Thoughts On Doctor J and the Art of Basketball
It is an undisputed fact of life that when teaching someone who is inexperienced and ambitious, the teacher may say to the student “you must not do this One Thing unless there is an exception,” and the student, who wants to do the One Thing will say, without thinking, “well, I am the exception.”
If you give a student leeway, the student will do everything in their power to justify why they should be able to do the thing they want to do, but without the experience or understanding, they’ll fuck it all up. You don’t learn how to play basketball by exclusively practicing how to dunk, and the student who focuses solely on dunking will never become a serious basketball player. A dunk — a real slam dunk — is an act of extreme athleticism and skill that requires an intuitive understanding of the athlete’s relationship to the world around them on a physical level. It is not something you start with.
You need to learn how to dribble first.
You need to learn how to shoot. You need to learn how to work with a team — some of the best slam dunks, after all, come from:
- player A has the ball and recognizes that player B can get the ball in the net
- player A knows they can’t double dribble
- player B knows player A wants to get the ball to them
- player A needs to find a way get the ball to player B
- player A and B work together within the rules to create an opening
- player B needs to be ready to receive the ball, and, without double dribbling, take the momentum of their body and get the ball into the net
And they have to do all of this without breaking the rules. Can’t do it offsides, no fouling, you know the drill. You have to learn all that other stuff before you can even think about a dunk.
But the kids, they see a dunk, it impresses them, of course they want to be Doctor J.
To get to that level, there’s a lot you need to know. You cannot dunk at Doctor J’s level until you know as much about basketball as he does. The dunk is the culmination of his understanding of the basics. When we begin as writers, we often want to skip past the proverbial drills and get to the dunks, but we’ll never get to dunk if we don’t know how to pass or dribble, you know?
With writing, every single inexperienced writer I’ve ever met, without exception, wants to skip past all the important stuff: drama, characterization, even plotting, and go for what seems easiest. Beginners and talentless hacks both have one thing in common: they love to write lore, granting it a primacy that more experienced writers never do. The inexperienced writer believes, incorrectly, that lore isn’t just important — it’s the point of the story.
If you want to test this, just state your lack of interest in lore publicly — if inexperienced writers see it, they’ll get angry with you, telling you that you don’t know anything, that what you’re saying is just your opinion, and so on. The scrubs will use statements designed to bring you down, beneath them, so they can keep doing what they’re doing, because they want to do what comes easily to them, and they don’t want to change. They don’t see why they should, which is why so many of them write stories that go nowhere.
Meanwhile, more experienced writers tend to respond with “yeah, of course.” They won’t even blink. No shit drama comes first — that’s the whole reason people go to stories in the first place.
Now, there’s a lot of reasons inexperienced writers cling to lore, ranging from misunderstanding what makes games like Dark Souls narratively interesting to hearing about how impressive it was that JRR Tolkien created an entire language and mythology in making the Lord of the Rings.
Lore is appealing because it is the easiest thing there is to do in any kind of storytelling process. You think “why is this place like this?” “how did we get here?” “what do people call bread?” and so on, and it’s all very easy to come up with cool and interesting deviations from reality as we know it. But lore isn’t a story. It’s barely even storytelling.
If you think my work has value and you want to help me out financially, that would be great because being disabled in America is expensive. I’m putting all this out there for free because hey, I used to be in poverty and couldn’t get by without government assistance; I know what it’s like not to have resources available to you that other people have in spades. I don’t believe people should be denied access to educational materials like these just because they’re poor. My hope is that those of you who are able to support are willing to help not just me, but the people who can’t afford a lot of access to other game design materials. If you’re able to help and you think this goal of providing access to people who need it is good, here’s how you can help me keep writing:
Other ways to help include sharing my game Adios with people, leaving reviews if you liked it, and telling people about my articles. Beat the algorithm by discussing my stuff!! Traffic leads to more traffic!
Who is this “Story” of which you speak?
This seems like the kind of thing you’d want to roll your eyes over, but seriously, work with me here. I need to show you my work, and something that seems so basic as this might be something you want to skim past, but trust me: this shit is crucial.
A story is, at its most essential level, a meal.
If I tell you “well, a meal is food,” I haven’t said much. If I say “a meal includes a main dish,” you might think it needs the main dish to be a meal, and everything else is optional. If I tell you that a meal is a social experience to be shared with others, you may get confused since ‘meal’ can refer to both the shared social ritual or literally a serving of food. There are a billion different little nuances to what a meal is, and no one definition is entirely satisfying.
Seriously, I just looked it up and ‘meal’ can be both a serving of food or an occasion in which people eat.
It’s like how a book can be a physical object or it can be a specifically formatted concept. “I have a pile of books in my room” refers to the physical object, but “seven billion copies of a book called The Bible have been sold,” refers to the ideas contained within the Bible and not one specific physical container. Does that make sense? There’s “The Bible” as stories about Jesus and stuff, and then there’s like, a single physical object with “The Bible” written on the cover. Both are the objects we refer to as “a book.” There is no ‘original’ Bible, in the sense that no one author sat down and wrote ‘the Bible,’ because it’s a compilation of other writings from other authors, right? Like, the book — this time now referring to a section of the Bible, rather than a physical book or a book-as-concept — of Isaiah is not written by the same person who wrote the book of Revelations, right?
So a story is a lot like that — it’s a bunch of different things all at once. It has a lot of potential meanings. So we come up with words to describe components of a story, like “narrative,” or “plot,” and so on, but the truth is, all of these words are just describing components of the whole.
Like, here’s a story: a bunch of blind guys are presented with an elephant, and they’re asked to describe it based on their touch. So the guy who touches the elephant’s ear thinks it’s thin and flappy, the guy who touches one of its legs think it’s like a big tree, the guy who touches the trunk thinks it’s flexible. The elephant probably enjoys the company. Anyways, all the guys are wrong — they only see parts, not the whole.
That’s a story.
It’s also, y’know, what this section is about. Defining ‘story’ is difficult, but maybe, like ‘meal,’ or ‘book’ the best way to describe a story is that it is a container for a whole lot of different, but tightly related things. You take peanut butter, jelly, and bread, put it together, and you got a sandwich. You take narrative, lore, character, plot, put it together, and you get a story.
Maybe that’s the most convenient way to describe a story, but even then, I have no idea if the word can ever do the concept justice. After all, we make up words to describe things that we don’t have words for — can any one word truly encapsulate an entire concept? It does its best… but like… words are descriptors, at the end of the day. Words are little packages that we send to other people, and if we’re lucky, they can decode the package enough to get at what we’re trying to communicate, even if it only gets across part of it.
A good story is one of these packages or containers that manages to hold all its elements in balance — that doesn’t mean equal amounts of all, of course. In the same way as you wouldn’t want 32 ounces (~908 grams) of steak and 32 equal ounces of salt on your plate, a story must be balanced in the same way. Thirty two whole ounces of salt will kill you. Seriously, a lethal dose for a 210 lb (~95 kg) adult male is around 0.5 to 1 gram of salt per kilogram, which means that something like 1.6 to 3.2 ounces (~48–96 grams), if I did the math right? 32 ounces would fucking kill you. But 32 ounces of steak? Go for it!
“Balance,” then, is not “all things in equal proportion,” but “all things working harmoniously in the perfect amount necessary to make the complete meal.” A little salt here, a lot of steak there.
In this metaphor, lore is salt, and drama is the steak.
There Are No Stories Without Conflict
“Ugh,” you’ve heard someone say, rich with disgust, “I don’t like her, she’s just… y’know, always bringing drama.”
The “drama” referred to in that context is not the kind of drama we talk about when we talk about storytelling. A person who has “too much drama” is just a person with a lot of shit going on, probably way more than you need to deal with.
Drama in fiction is, well… it’s like atomic fission. It’s a process of collision. In nuclear fission, one atom slams into another, splitting it into two or more smaller atoms. In fiction, a character needs something when they slam into a barrier, and that collision, and the effects of that collision, are the fission that we call drama.
Here’s a very simple drama: I went to the store to get some milk, but there was only one gallon left, and just as I walked up to the door, an angry woman zoomed past me, tore the door open, and reached for the milk I so desperately needed.
Boom, now we have the setup for drama. How will I resolve this situation? It is this tension that creates the dramatic energies that drive the story.
As you may know, I am deeply fond of David Mamet’s “Letter to the Writers of the Unit,” which remains the single best description of drama I have ever heard.
QUESTION:WHAT IS DRAMA? DRAMA, AGAIN, IS THE QUEST OF THE HERO TO OVERCOME THOSE THINGS WHICH PREVENT HIM FROM ACHIEVING A SPECIFIC, *ACUTE* GOAL.
SO: WE, THE WRITERS, MUST ASK OURSELVES *OF EVERY SCENE* THESE THREE QUESTIONS.
1) WHO WANTS WHAT?
2) WHAT HAPPENS IF HER DON’T GET IT?
3) WHY NOW?
THE ANSWERS TO THESE QUESTIONS ARE LITMUS PAPER. APPLY THEM, AND THEIR ANSWER WILL TELL YOU IF THE SCENE IS DRAMATIC OR NOT.
IF THE SCENE IS NOT DRAMATICALLY WRITTEN, IT WILL NOT BE DRAMATICALLY ACTED.
THERE IS NO MAGIC FAIRY DUST WHICH WILL MAKE A BORING, USELESS, REDUNDANT, OR MERELY INFORMATIVE SCENE AFTER IT LEAVES YOUR TYPEWRITER. *YOU* THE WRITERS, ARE IN CHARGE OF MAKING SURE *EVERY* SCENE IS DRAMATIC.
I’ve met people who haven’t thought very heavily about stories who go “stories don’t have to be about conflict!” because in their minds, “conflict” is bad, and there’s a ‘better way’ for stories to be. This tends to come from a fundamental misunderstanding of the idea that stories are all about conflict, usually categorized as “man vs man” (Luke Skywalker vs Darth Vader), “man vs nature,” (Luke Skywalker trying not to freeze to death on Hoth), and “man vs self” (Luke Skywalker wrestling with his fears over becoming like Darth Vader).
It’s a bit like someone hearing that friction is a process of resistance, and going “what if we could have friction without things resisting each other?” Well, friction is definitionally a form of resistance, and it’s a very good thing too. Without friction, you couldn’t turn tires on the road to get your car to move. You couldn’t even walk! You’d go slip-sliding everywhere! While there are uses for frictionless things, friction cannot be anything else. If it was, it would be something other than friction, and the resistance that drives friction is a good thing.
It sounds nice to want a story without conflict, if you are dumb enough to think that a story without conflict is one where people don’t “fight” or something, but in the same way that a game of tug-of-war is boring when no one’s pulling against you, no one — and I mean no one — cares about a story that has no conflict.
Conflict doesn’t need to be bad! It can be “I need to get to the mail store before it closes,” or “I’m nervous about confessing my feelings to the boy of my dreams.” The conflict of walking on a tight rope is between the walker and the forces of gravity and balance. Getting lost in the woods is a conflict. Wondering what meal to cook is a conflict. Everything where the character is prevented from having what they want is conflict, and that is drama.
A story is interesting, in other words, when it is dramatic, when we see the atomic fission taking place, when we want to know the outcome. The only way not to know the outcome is either to be completely random (which is dissatisfying, because if things happen and there’s no cause and effect, the audience will lose interest) or to… you guessed it: have conflict.
Self-stylized “wholesome” stories often attempt to be conflict-free, but the result is that they’re often boring. When we look at the best of them, like the television series Steven Universe, we see a show that has conflict in every single episode. The episode where Steven fuses with Connie? You bet that episode is full of conflict! Greg worrying that Rose will leave him if he can’t fuse with her? Conflict! Pearl and Greg having to deal with the fact that Rose is gone? Conflict!
Conflict is the friction we all experience in life, and drama… well… drama is our way of expressing our lives to each other. When I wrote Adios, I was writing about emotions I had been dealing with — not about needing to quit the mob, of course, but about a very personal experience I had struggled with. I tried to communicate how conflicted I had been feeling, that mix of pride — for Farmer, the pride in the pigs, the chestnut tree he preserved, and so on — and fear — for Farmer, the uncertainty, even fear, that comes with doing the right thing.
It’s a nice thing to imagine a world without conflict… if you’re so simple-minded that you think “conflict = fighting, so it’s bad!” For everyone else, it should be obvious that all stories are conflict.
“But I read on some tumblr post about Kishōtenketsu that said it’s an Asian four-act structure that has no conflict!”
Sorry to tell you this, but Kishōtenketsu is… a story structure. It’s literally just four act storytelling structure. The Greeks believed three act was correct despite no evidence other than them liking the number three, where Shakespeare — and literally all television you’ve ever seen — works with five act structure. Kishōtenketsu is just a way of organizing the acts of your story. It has nothing to do with conflict.
Azumanga Daioh and Super Mario both use Kishōtenketsu — but Mario still has to jump over a pit to get to the end of the level (conflict) and the girls in Azumanga Daioh routinely deal with things like “what if I get lost in a crowd” and “what kind of thing should we do for the school festival?”
That’s all conflict! Whoever spread the rumor that Kishōtenketsu is somehow conflict-free is just a fucking idiot, haha.
If you understand how to write a dramatic scene, you can easily write a dramatic story. Literally every story that exists — without fail, unless it sucks — is one that is dramatic, even if it is just some girls going “what if we get lost in a crowd?” with the punchline being to simply look for the 5'8" tall girl. That’s still a conflict — between the girls and their fear of being lost in a crowd. Fears can be small things — like “did they remember to remove pickles from my sandwich?” or “what if I don’t spot the kitty that’s always sunning itself on my daily walk?”
Give me any story, I’ll show you the conflict. Anyone who says there isn’t is a person who refuses to look hard enough.
So, if you’re sitting there, writing a scene, what’s the first thing you do? You figure out what the character wants and what’s standing in the way of that. Depending on the needs of the scene, you will resolve it immediately or in a later scene or, perhaps, not at all.
What’s My Motivation?
So, if you’re writing a story, and you’ve got a character and some scenes, you’re ready to move on to step two: motivation.
When reading reviews of Adios, the single thing that the game is praised the most for is the performances. I’m not saying this to toot my own horn, but to tell you that, in my experience, audiences give better ratings to stories with good stories than they do with bad stories.
A good story, we could say, is one where the audience is interested the whole way through, where a bad story is one that either loses or outright rejects the audience’s interest (the parodic Golden Raspberry awards tend to be given to movies in the latter category; nobody even remembers stories that lose their interest). Obviously, different people have different interests, so we can’t codify this perfectly; La Strada is one of the best films ever made, but it might have trouble keeping the interest of the average twelve year old, who won’t understand it without significantly more life experience.
So while there is no surefire, bulletproof, absolutely immutable way to get every member of every audience to like your story. For instance, I don’t like the 2017 video game Prey because I grew up in a deeply religious environment that routinely applied purity tests to me, and Prey is a game about humans testing an alien being’s morality, so my bad experience makes me averse in a way other people won’t be — you will never cure me of that discomfort unless you’ve got a time machine.
This section is actually about two kinds of motivation. The first, of course, is character.
When we were working on Adios, Rick Zieff, the voice of Farmer, would often ask me what his motivation was going into a scene; it’s a very classical thing to do for actors, and if you’re a writer who’s writing a story that will be acted in some way, you’re going to want to know this.
One of the things our actors said stuck out to them about working on Adios was that any time they had a question about their characters, I could answer the question, and the answers I provided allowed them to embody the characters better. Humans are funny creatures — we recognize the genuine, even if we can’t articulate it, because we’ve seen it so much. As a result, even if we can’t act, we can spot a bad actor; a story that sweeps us off our feet is often the one that feels the most true to us. Consciously, sure, we know that kid isn’t actually about to shoot his rabid dog, growing up in the process, because he’s an actor, but damn if Old Yeller isn’t emotional as hell.
If you write genuinely, your actors can perform genuinely, and your audience will receive your story as if it is genuine, even though you, me, and they all know that you’re writing a work of fiction.
It’s because we want to be carried along.
When people say “this story is a page-turner,” they mean it as a compliment. But what makes a story a page turner?
If you guessed drama, then give yourself a prize, because you’re right. In a scene, a character wants something, but something gets in the way. As the audience, how do you feel? Well, if you care, you probably want to turn the page because what is next?
A great story is one where the character’s motivations drive the narrative forward, while the audience remains interested enough that they want to stick with the story so they can find out what happens next. A well-paced story is one where the actual pace of events-that-make-you-want-to-know-what’s-next is done so well that you never get bored.
So, from this, we may suggest that a great story is:
- One in which the character has desires that propel each scene forward
- One in which the audience wants to know what happens next
- One that does not get bogged down to the point that the audience begins to question why they are moving forward.
You must consider how you motivate the audience just as much as you consider how to motivate the characters.
“Why would the character do this next?” and “why would the audience want to keep following the story?” are far more important questions to ask than “what is going to happen next?”
With me so far?
In a video game, the need for motivation is amplified further. I can watch a movie with some relative passivity compared to a video game — the movie won’t come to a halt if I stop moving, but a game will. When a movie character says “let’s go visit Doctor Science,” the movie continues and the characters are visiting Doctor Science. When a game gives you an objective to visit Doctor Science, you have to actually press buttons or move sticks (sometimes both!) to make your character go there so the story can continue. It’s an additional layer of complexity that differentiates the two mediums.
A foolish person once replied to me on twitter, suggesting that video games are a “lower art form” than other media, because he personally had not been as impacted by video games as some of the best novels ever made. Well, friendo, novels have several centuries on video games. Give it time — given the reaction some people have to Adios, I’d suggest that we may already be there, hehe.
While I am pointing out the differences between film and games here, I am not offering a value judgement — they’re different forms of media. A story told with sequential art is told differently than one told in prose. Games are the same way.
There’s a page in Astonishing X-Men where Piotr and Kitty have sex, walk into the kitchen… and find Logan sitting there, calmly eating breakfast. He looks at the two, says “‘bout time,” cause he’s been wondering when they were gonna hook up (everyone believed Piotr was dead for like a whole-ass decade in the comic, so Kitty is still trying to navigate the situation with the man she loved suddenly being alive), and the couple very awkwardly try to move on. It’s deeply funny in context, and John Cassaday does a beautiful job illustrating the body language.
In prose, you know that body language has to be described, and it’s gonna come off very differently.
When people say “that story is not adaptable,” what they really mean is that something will be impacted in the translation. Things are going to change. It’s one of the reason that a good translator won’t do a literal word-for-word translation when translating a story; instead, they’ll try to get the emotion of the moment across. If you want to perfectly translate a book to film, you would simply film the pages of the book being turned, giving the audience time to read the pages. That would be utterly awful — change is part and parcel with translation. There’s no other way to do it.
When you’re editing text, maybe you’ve got to translate “glizzy” into something other than English. The character could be referring to a gun, a hot dog, or human anatomy, depending on the context, and while you could go “translator’s note: glizzy refers to one of these things. in this scene, it’s referring to part of human anatomy,” you could instead match the story being told and make a dick joke that makes sense in the language you’re translating to. “Translator’s note” is information — it slows down the pace and enjoyability of the story (unless you’re including footnotes the way T. S. Eliot or Mark Danielewski do, which is part of the work itself); instead of translating a slang phrase literally and saying “translator’s note: yes, this doesn’t make sense in English, that’s because it’s slang, and is approximate to the English slang for…” you can just… put in the English slang. The words might not be the same, but the effect is, and that’s far more important.
Because there’s only like three reasons anyone tells a story: to relay something that happened (“I went to the store and there was a holdup!”), to teach (Jesus telling the story of the Good Samaritan or Marie de France inventing the concept of damsels in distress as a way to teach medieval boys how to be better men than the awful knights that dominated medieval times), and, most importantly of all:
to deal with human experience
Why Do We Tell Stories?
You ever watch one of those science fiction shows where a space alien doesn’t understand basic human concepts, like that episode of Star Trek: Voyager where aliens don’t really ‘get’ music and Robert Picardo’s character of Doctor has to explain it to them?
A common theme in scenes like this is that the beings don’t understand why humans do things that are not fundamentally constructive in some way. It’s usually “illogical” or “pointless.” The purpose of these scenes is for human beings to write so we can better understand ourselves.
One of the worst people I’ve ever known, for a whole lot of reasons, fancied himself a writer, and he once asked me why we couldn’t just write stories about aliens, stories with no humans in them at all, about completely alien ideas and concepts. I thought about it for a bit, and replied something like “because stories are written by people, and it’s not really possible to completely divorce yourself from human experience like that.”
When we tell stories, we are telling stories for ourselves, sometimes in a very literal sense — Adios helped me heal from very deep, personal trauma — but more often in a broader sense.
I don’t know why it sticks with me, but there was a television show called Lie to Me, starring Tim Roth, who plays a “micro expressions expert,” who can read people’s facial tics and body language to see if they’re telling the truth. Apparently this stuff has been largely debunked, so the show was essentially science fiction, but I remember it had one episode about a fictionalized version of the very real Blackwater private military company.
It was an anti-private-military-company episode, as Blackwater had, about a year before it aired, done some really awful stuff. There was a whole scandal, and the show clearly wanted to use what would’ve been current events at the time it was pitched in order to say something. Of course, that was a year prior, and the episode, being so closely linked to the specific Blackwater deal, ended up feeling more like “topic of the week” material than something actually relevant to its audience.
Great writing is, I think, more universal than that. The stories that last for us are often the stories that mirror our lives; when people play Adios (sorry to toot my own horn, but I just have a lot of data for this one!), some of them get back to me with things like “this helped me process my dog’s death” (it’s like… more than a dozen people at this point!) or “I finally spoke to a family member I wanted to reconcile with” or even “this helped me choose to keep living.”
No one who played Adios helped the mob dispose of bodies, I assume. The experience I was dealing with that inspired me to write Adios had nothing to do with crimes at all. But the truth of the emotions that drove it all? Those mattered. Those helped people.
A lot of people think intelligence is all data, no feelings. That’s why “smart” characters borrow heavily from Sherlock Holmes’ less emotional, more analytical early portrayals. From Gregory House to Rick Sanchez, the smart super genius is supposed to be a character who’s too smart for anyone else to really relate to. There’s the implication that these people are practically computers, capable of making brilliant decisions because for everyone else, emotion gets in the way.
So now we’ve got this whole mess where you’ve got extremely angry kids online who want to be part of the Skeptic movement going “ah, I don’t feel things, I’m super smart and analytical,” and you’ve got people saying things like “you’re being emotional right now! Calm yourself!” as if it’s bad to experience emotions.
This misconception could not be further from the truth if it got in a space ship and blasted off at warp speed to the other end of the universe.
When we look at genuinely intelligent people, we see that’s often not the case. While an intelligent person has greater resistance against, say, appeals to emotion, intelligent people often tend to be highly empathetic, because they’re smart enough to pick up on what other people are thinking, feeling, and doing.
Highly intelligent people are also often in tune with their emotions — there’s a reason some of the smartest people in history are artists, you know?
Why do we keep writing stories about how a robot or a bureaucracy has a bunch of rules, is completely inflexible, and that lack of flexibility causes mass suffering, because it couldn’t take into account the truth of human experience? How many times have you watched a character trapped in a Kafkaesque hellscape of emotionless beings with thousands of rules? How many times have you seen them suffer?
It’s easy to create an emotionally dead framework that removes all thought from the equation. Why do you think the easiest degree there is to earn — a master’s in business administration — focuses so much on just “make profits bigger” and “everything you have is a property to be exploited”? Movie execs forty years ago knew far more about movies than anyone today, and Hollywood was a richer, better place for it. Now that the MBAs run everything, and they don’t know anything about people, they either want a computer software to tell them what movie to make next, or they regurgitate properties endlessly because “it made money before.”
Look at how James Cameron, in tune with his audiences, a person who constantly talks about how important it is to make movies for audiences and their feelings, constantly makes movies that blow generic, bland, artless, business administrator-run properties out of the water. They’ll try to turn Hungry Hungry Hippos or Emojis into movies because it’s quantifiable. Strip out the emotion in the decision making, turn it purely into ‘data,’ and you make dumber decisions. Your audience spent a ton of money watching superhero movies already — they’re tired. If you were in tune with them, you’d realize that and ensure they don’t burn out. If you’re a guy who wants to strip out as much as possible so you can just get to ‘the data,’ you’ll end up force-feeding people movies until your studio crashes.
Hell, it’s one of the reasons that Activision is falling apart: Call of Duty sold, so Activision has gradually been bleeding its studios dry, sacrificing them at the gristmill of Call of Duty. Meanwhile Ubisoft successfully held off a takeover by Tencent because they had a much, much broader slate of games, appealing to a ton of different audiences. A Ubisoft that refused to make anything but Assassin’s Creed would not find the audience that didn’t care about Assassin’s Creed but did really like competitive first person shooters. Rainbow Six Siege is a massive moneymaker for Ubisoft.
Put another way: you gotta diversify your bonds.
It is emotion that drives people; we just create words to capture those emotions and share them with other people. If I say “sunset,” you respond to it because you have lived through a sunset; the word unlocks the feelings you’ve lived. If we were two computer programs living in a vacuum, and my program output “sunset” and your computer went “ah yes the light change when the earth’s rotation gradually changes so that an observer at a fixed point sees the light passing through more atmosphere, which filters out the high energy blue light and leaves only red,” well… it’s… just kind of a nothing, isn’t it? It’s whatever.
We live emotionally first, and we think about it and try to contain that emotion in words, which we communicate to each other. Hell, you can see this with people who’ve been raised without language — their experience is entirely emotional. That’s baseline humanity right there. That’s what we are before language. A well-rounded person does both, but dumb people want you to think that data, which is easy to read, is for smart people, and emotion, which is hard to read, is for dumb people. They got it backwards.
Don’t get it twisted — it’s not smarter to get rid of emotions. It’s much harder to quantify or understand them though. You’ve got to go with your gut. It’s easy for a stupid person to go “the data says we should do this.” It’s much harder to intuit “oh, the people in the crowd are starting to look bored, I bet I can get their attention if…”
I’ve probably beaten this point to death, but it’s important: emotion deserves primacy, and as you can see, the reason people respond so well to good stories is… because they’re emotional. The more data and information you impart at the expense of emotion, the less interested the audience becomes.
We make art, as humans, to explore the human experience. We make art because it’s one of the hardest things there is to do — but it’s necessary, just as necessary as eating and breathing. It helps us regulate our brains, our ability to interact with other people, our pasts, presents, and futures.
Fiction is necessary in the way that certain ungulates (like cows) require roughage to help them digest food; fiction is what helps us digest our lived experiences.
This, paradoxically, is why people who consume only one kind of media are emotionally stunted — because it’s only one kind of experience; the broader slate of emotions you experience, the healthier you will be as a human being. People who obsess over “wholesome” stories to the point that they exclude them at the expense of all others are some of the least emotionally-developed people out there because their diet is unbalanced. Emotional roughage can’t help you if you don’t consume it — if you only consume stories with minimal conflict, how do you expect to deal with conflict in the real world? Stories provide safe contact with real emotions — they can prepare you for what’s to come. Don’t fuck it all up by rejecting a healthy media diet.
Stories are, in other words, a necessary component of the human animal’s ability to function in a healthy way. Take an animal that is predominantly emotion-driven (if we weren’t, then when presented with facts that contradict previously held beliefs, we would have zero trouble altering our beliefs — as you know, that doesn’t happen… because humans are emotional animals!), give it some roughage to help it digest its real experiences, and bam, you have a healthy human being. Stories are a necessary component of this process.
How To Kill A Scene
You know the phrase “I’d listen to that person read a phone book”?
A phone book is largely comprised of a series of names, addresses, and numbers. You open it up, read Doe, John & Jane, 123 Street Avenue, phone number (555)123–4567, and now you know the facts about John and Jane Doe’s house and phone number. It’s a great resource, sure, but it’s a bit dry. The phone book is a volume full of facts. Also advertisements, but its primary purpose is to convey data to you.
That said, I do not believe anyone actually sat down and asked, say, Samuel L. Jackson to read them a phone book, nor do I think that if such a thing happened, the audience was able to listen for very long, even with such a beautiful voice, and that’s be — BAH GAWD, IS THAT DAVID MAMET’S MUSIC? IT IS!! IT IS!!! LOOK AT HIM, RUNNING INTO THE RING! GRABBING THE MIC! SHOUTING INTO IT:
BUT NOTE:THE AUDIENCE WILL NOT TUNE IN TO WATCH INFORMATION. YOU WOULDN’T, I WOULDN’T. NO ONE WOULD OR WILL. THE AUDIENCE WILL ONLY TUNE IN AND STAY TUNED TO WATCH DRAMA.
When someone says they’d listen to someone read a phone book, they’re saying that this person’s voice is so amazing, it could take the most boring task in the world and make it compelling, at least for a brief period of time.
You can’t tell a story like that.
(remember that thing I said about beginners hearing that if there’s an exception, they’ll take it? I wanted to say “Wayne Douglas Barlowe’s Expedition: Being an Account in Words and Artwork of the 2358 A.D. Voyage to Darwin IV kinda achieves this… but the reasons it does are complicated and mostly down to the way the masterful artist’s creatures are rendered. He’s still telling stories in there, it’s still got conflict, but it is framed as a dry nature documentary. This is Advanced Tier storytelling stuff, so rather than go into detail about it, I’ll just say that this project was something done by one of the world’s greatest monster artists, and not something the average writer can or should attempt — if you are thinking “I bet I could pull off a book like that,” then I have to ask: can you draw monsters that well? no? remember, you can’t get someone else to draw them for you — Barlowe’s understanding of anatomy is what allows him to draw the monsters that are the reason anyone reads the book to begin with. you need to be able to talk about the monsters in the detail that he does, but he’s an anatomy expert, which is why he can do that)
Mamet’s right: we don’t tune in for information. Nobody does. Okay, sure, there’s a few people that read the fantasy novel series Lord of the Rings and fell in love with the Silmarillion, which was essentially a collection of linguistics and myths, but most people absolutely did not, and few, if any, people read the Silmarillion first, without knowing about Lord of the Rings, fell in love with it, and tracked down The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings trilogy, you know? Most people fell in love with the characters of The Hobbit or Lord of the Rings, wanted more, and tracked down the Silmarillion so they could learn more.
If you want to kill a scene, fill it with information.
Honkai: Star Rail recently released. It’s the newest game from Mihoyo, the developers of Genshin Impact, which is one of the most successful video games of all time. Honkai is a much better written game, so much so that just about everyone I have seen talk about it remarks on this.
Why is that?
Well, I have a theory: Genshin Impact’s very exposition heavy. Much like Arknights, another wildly popular mobile game, it’s like the developers heard “people like this story a lot,” and thought “well, we should add as much story as possible,” but to do that, they crammed in as much data as possible. So now, when you boot up Genshin Impact, you can cook an entire pot of macaroni and cheese (which I have done) while a character talks for twenty minutes about random world minutae in the form of data.
It’s not that interesting for a character to drone on about the particular ins and outs of things we already know, telling us for the eleventeenth time that Sumeru has a technology that lets them access data at any time they want blah blah blah I don’t care anymore what are you even talking about?
Meanwhile, Star Rail has some of the funniest, most effective writing I’ve ever seen in a game of this size. It’s consistently funny, very character driven — people saying things because of who they are rather than because the scene needs a character to provide information and it might as well be just this guy.
Every time you put too much data in a scene, you kill it dead, much like killing someone by feeding them thirty two ounces of table salt would. Some data can be fine, just like some salt can be — in fact, I’d argue that, just like salt, you need some data in a scene… but… too much and it’s lethal.
You’ve got to show restraint.
The data we’re talking about is lore, isn’t it?
Lore is information that explains how the world of the story is not like our own.
If you write a story about World War II, it is unlikely that you will spend time in your story explaining how certain things got to be the way they were. Everyone knows it, we’ve all learned some basic history. There was a guy named Hitler who thought fascism was a great idea, so he went whole hog on it. A lot of people didn’t like when he did war on them, so they did a little war back, and he ended up losing because fascists always lose because their entire belief system is not capable of sustaining itself.
You could write a story in our world that is not based on reality — Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 spends a great deal of time in the opening discussing academic discourse surrounding Benno von Archimboldi, a fictional writer. That’s information that means that, even though the world is almost like ours, containing cities like Madrid and Paris, Archimboldi himself is unique to it. Details about Archimboldi, then, can be seen as ‘lore.’
Now, if you write a story about a fantasy world, like Lord of the Rings, you may need to explain why rings are important — in this case, this ring has magical powers. That world isn’t like our own. There’s some additional context the audience may need. That’s all well and good.
If you’re a good writer, you’ll show off what the ring does and the implications will go a great deal of the way towards making it clear that the ring must be destroyed, but that’s not lore. That’s the storytelling.
If you’re a bad writer, you’ll probably spend a lot of time explaining how the ring got made, who Sauron is, and so forth. That is lore.
Every story you write will require some level of information, but how much information? Well… that’s what you’ve got to learn to balance.
In my next game, codenamed Waifu Death Squad, I’ve been mulling over a conversation where a character mentions choosing between apple juice and orange juice, and another character says she’s never had orange juice, and the guy goes “right, you wouldn’t, they’ve been hard to get since the war” or something. That’s a simple bit of worldbuilding, and it’s not elegant at all, which is why, if it shows up, it will undoubtedly show up in a different form.
At Mischief, we tend to write sentiment/emotion first, dialogue second. We need to know what we’re sculpting before we start hacking at the proverbial marble, you know?
So we get the idea down — I think up some shitty line about apples and oranges because, in my gut, I feel that this older character casually using a metaphor that doesn’t really apply to the younger character says something about their relationship. Yes, it does help structure the world, but when I’m writing this, what I find important is the dynamics between these two people. Plus I can have a nice call back to it later when the older character manages to track down an orange and hands it off to the younger character, so she can see what oranges taste like.
When a beginning writer comes along, they’ll gravitate towards unbalanced amounts of lore. You’ll tell ’em ‘hey, some lore is acceptable, but not too much, so you need to focus on dramatics first, and then you’ll start to see where lore is necessary,’ and they’ll go “ah, so some lore IS necessary” (ignoring all the parts about where other skills must be developed first) and they’ll go right back to refusing to grow. They will write bad stories, garbage stories, things no one but them cares about, building little worlds that mean nothing because they don’t go anywhere… because, well… lore is a lot like dreams.
It’s rare that someone telling you about their dream actually manages to explain why the story matters, you know? Because most dreams are subconscious, they’re deeply personal, which means that the sensation of importance is there for the teller, who experienced the sensation of import firsthand, but on the receiving end, you’re just hearing a lot of jumbled thoughts that mean nothing. Dreams are weird like that. So is lore.
You’ve got to give the audience a reason to care. Rarely does anyone care about the genealogies of your characters, the biology of how pigs can fly in this universe, or anything of that sort. Hell, few people cared about the lore of Dark Souls the first time they went through — almost no one back in 2011 was like “oh boy! FROM is making a new game! I can’t wait to read all the lore entries!” Nah, man, you know they saw that original trailer and went “WOW I CAN’T WAIT TO PLAY THIS.” Like the Silmarillion fans that first enjoyed Lord of the Rings, once they cared about Dark Souls, they wanted to understand Dark Souls better, and then they dove into the lore. You encounter the boss, the boss has a name like “Sad Jim, The Defiler,” and you’re like “cool guy. I think there’s something there to it. What’s going on?”
It’s because you encountered him in the game you cared about first — you were compelled by the experience of the game first — that you decided to look this fella up and figure out what his deal was.
Too many games sound like The Malediction Prophecy, unfortunately.
LiartownUSA is a website that photoshops funny things, like Netflix TV shows that don’t exist, and The Malediction Prophecy is one of them. Each new entry features a series of seemingly effortlessly-depicted, boring, direct-to-streaming movies that rely too heavily on lore.
When I consult on games, I can’t help but notice a pattern: every time a game starts out with some shit like “ten thousand years ago, the dark lord shitforbrains cursed the dirkblade, a blade that could only be wielded by someone named dirk…” and my eyes just glaze over… annnnnnnnnnd so does everyone else’s. Games like that have fewer customers because nobody wants that experience — it’s just the easiest thing for bad writers to write, and I’ll explain why shortly.
Every time, without fail, when a game that begins that way gets delivered to the audience, the game seems to perform poorly. You see fewer late-game achievements (the little awards that players get when accomplishing various tasks in a game, like “get past the opening”) being earned because players stop playing. The sales tend to be low too — cause players don’t care. When service-based games add tons of lore, the players stop playing and you can see the monthly average user count plummets.
I wrote about this a long time ago, arguing that “games are too long” is a bullshit idea, because we see people who argue that having thousands of hours in competitive multiplayer games.
Remember when we were talking about motivation, and how we kinda pivoted to “stories are about feelings?” Well, we’ve been talking motivation this whole time! We actually never left! People want to keep reading a book when they care about what’s happening. People return to a new season of a television show they like because they want to know what happens next. We do things because we feel the motivation to do so.
Feel like you gotta pee? You’ll probably go pee. Wanna pet your dog on the head or give your kitty some scritches? Then you probably will. Wanna play a game? Watch a movie? Eat food? DO ANYTHING?
Motivation, my dudes.
We do things because we’re motivated to do them.
There’s no such thing as a game that’s too long, except for a game that fails to motivate its players to continue. I’ve put 800 days into Genshin, and only recently — with the Sumeru content that overwhelms players with lore — am I finding myself tiring of the game. I’m like… five major story quests behind at this point because the exposition is killing me.
You must motivate your characters, and since we already know that drama is the engine that powers a story, and we know that data slows it down, we know that too much lore, just like too much salt, will poison and kill your story…
So why is it so attractive to scrubs?
Why Scrubs Like Lore More Than Anything
“No deaths,” I remember her saying. You could see a reaction erupting onto the other students’ faces, but we did our best to remain composed. She sat there, with her short, red bob of hair, waiting for the question she knew would come, because she’d taught beginners like us plenty of times.
“How can you even do that? Why? Why put a restriction like that on us?”
I don’t remember who asked it. I know I was thinking it, but I didn’t like speaking up in class all that often.
“Because,” my teacher said, “everyone writes about death. Death is easy. It’s an easy way to heighten the stakes. I want you to see how many other ways there are to write stakes.”
I was struck by how simple it was. My entire life, I thought restrictions placed on me held me back. I’d never even considered that they could be tools for empowerment. Death was what held me back — because it was easy, it was a crutch; I relied on it too heavily, and all of my stories were carried by its gravitational pull down into sameness.
If I wanted to become a better writer, I’d have to write without death.
So I did.
And of course, like the scrubs mentioned waaay back at the start of this article, almost nine thousand words ago, I did my best to skirt the rules by simply injuring a character. It’s not a story I was proud of. A few years later, I wrote a better story, one about a girl learning to fly at an airport and the grumpy old men who flew there. I mentioned death, because I was pulling from my own experiences, including one where a fellow pilot, who’d won the scholarship (I got second place) we were all going after (he was from a prestigious school in the city and there was a whole thing about it; I was homeschooled, but apparently they liked me so much they wanted both of us to learn to fly), who died in a plane crash because he was careless and not watching his instruments.
But my story wasn’t about death, it was about flying, and all the people you meet when you do. It was short, maybe a couple pages. I would probably cringe if I looked at it now, but it impressed my teacher and the fellow students in a later class.
My first screenplays were bad — good ideas at best, missing something interesting. I’ll bet none of my fellow students remember any of my stories except the one about the pilot, because it was the best of mine, the way I generally remember the best of theirs.
Eventually I became a better writer, and now people remember my stories with more frequency. I’m lucky that some of them even like my stories. Some people like them enough to want to publish my games, put them on podcasts, give them game of the year awards, and things like that, which is wild.
One thing I’ve learned over the years is this: put a restriction on a scrub, and the scrub will say “you are holding me back!” when you’re actually liberating them. I’ve discussed before the time when I suggested people not tell a zombie story with cults that think zombies are demons, biker gangs, slavers, or cannibals. This is because you see them in all the zombie stories.
But if you were restricted from using them, you could make something far more interesting. If you strip out the tropes of a zombie story, break it down to the basic level of “human bodies come back from the dead as mindless, ravenous beasts, and if you die to them, you come back from the dead as part of their horde,” you can come up with a billion exciting premises no one has ever seen.
Creation always seems to work this way: someone delivers a new idea, and if they have enough critical mass, their work becomes part of the cultural fabric. What we know of zombies comes, largely, from Dawn of the Dead — including the malls and biker gangs and “zombies are really about consumerism, humans are the real monsters,” tropes.
Then you end up with a lot of derivative works, as lesser creatives try to make money off the new popular thing or put their own spin on it. Eventually, the concept oversaturates the marketplace, and people go “eh, okay, enough of that then,” and someone new comes up with a new concept that blows everybody away and suddenly they’re all making super hero movies. Now people are tiring of that; who knows what’s next?
You can never really know what the future will hold, but you can, at least, avoid being the guy making the derivative thing and leaving no mark on the world of your own. Do you really wanna be the next Direct to Video Zombie Movie Guy? Or do you wanna be the pioneer of whatever it is you’re creating, the way George Romero was for zombie movies?
You can’t ever do that if you’re derivative. At best, you’ll be Neil Druckmann, a guy propped up by a multi-billion dollar company as some kind of creative genius, but whose work is reaching increasingly lukewarm reception, and who seems not to command the respect of Hollywood that he so desperately seems to crave. And you can’t really bet on getting billions of dollars of support from Sony the way he did.
Best not to be derivative.
Scrubs like lore because lore is easy.
It is easy to sit there and go “how does this world work?” It’s easy to jump from topic to topic, asking yourself what the government is like (utopia? dystopia?) and peppering your story with little details. I’ve got one for Waifu Death Squad that’s like “well, the monsters don’t care about color, so people tend to paint their mobile bases in bright colors, similar to what you’d see on 70s sci-fi book covers, so that other people in other mobile bases can immediately identify them,” and that’s very cool and all, but… what does it actually do?
It certainly doesn’t motivate you to read more of my story. It might lead to a visually compelling image of what landships will look like, though, which you might enjoy.
Would that work well in a scene? Does it ever need to be said? On Adios, someone reviewed us negatively because “no one ever explicitly states that he’s getting rid of bodies for the mob in the game.” Yeah, dude, but it’s still got something like twelve hundred reviews (if you don’t believe me, remember that Steam, where the reviews are located, filters out any reviews that were given as free codes, so anyone who got our game from places like Fanatical or Itch have reviews that don’t count towards the ‘official’ total, but they’re there — I’m telling you this because people have asked me how reviews on steam work and if ‘buying a code’ will let them leave reviews and like… it will, but they don’t go towards the official total) and they’re 94% positive. When was the last time any of us got one thousand, two hundred people to agree on anything that much? It must’ve worked, somehow, I guess.
With Adios, I wrote a tight 4,600 word script.
With Waifu Death Squad, our character relationship table is likely far higher than that — considering that by tomorrow, we’ll have completed something like 625 total entries, averaging… well, at a minimum, ten words per entry, which would put it at 6,250 words. I know some of our entries are much longer than ten words.
And that’s before we get to the scripts.
It’s gonna be a monster of a game, because it needs to be. I know the story, the characters, where it goes, what it needs to accomplish. I know a lot of the key scenes. It’s ambitious, it’s different, and hopefully, it’s good as hell.
But you know what?
Lore comes up as we write scenes. We don’t build the lore first. Sometimes I drop a Lore Thought™ in chat, because I have one in the shower or something, and eventually we put it on the wiki. I came up with a town in the game’s world that was a shitty tech-billionaire’s idea of a perfect city… because I had an image of a dead city that had lots of dilapidated billboards around it proclaiming it was The Future. I liked the emotion of the scene; coming up with why this city might have existed and what it was about is just a little bit of detail. It’s effortless.
It’s far, far harder to come up with conversations, to have characters do things in a scene. Are we animating this? Is it being told with CGs? Is it a black screen with text? Do we have a narrator describing what’s happening? Is it fully 3d? What we’re able to do in a scene is limited partially by the constraints of our budget, bandwidth, and availability.
Then you’ve got to actually think about every. single. line. Look at the back and forth in Adios. I spent months on that script, writing and throwing things out. I think the finalized script was around December 2020, having started in August?
For 4600 words. This essay, right now, as I’m typing it, has something like 10,550 words in it (I wrote some stuff later in the piece before I wrote this part). That’s two and a half Adioses! Ridiculous, right?
The more effort to do, the harder something is.
Coming up with Trivia about a world is easy — and lore is trivia — but you don’t want to stuff it in someone’s face any more than you’d want to stuff 32 ounces of steak. So many writers I know fail to write the story because they lose motivation.
You know why they lose motivation?
Because they write lore.
What This Essay is Actually About
Understandably, you may believe that this essay is about lore and the pitfalls it presents… but it really isn’t, which you’ve probably guessed if, at any point, you’ve asked “a pitfall to what?”
This is actually an essay for those of you who want to write stories but keep getting stuck. You say it’s writer’s block, you share those memes about ‘us writers, huh?’ and how you procrastinate. You want to get stuff done, but things keep getting in your way. Lore?
Kiddo, lore is just one of those things.
This essay, much like the last one, is really about helping you, the reader, get a story out the door.
There is a psychological process that kills motivation. As a writer, you’ve probably been through all sorts of procrastination and writer’s block and missing muses, and for some of us, it was just… assumed that’s the way the world worked.
Back in 2006, when I was writing on roleplay forums (imagine a forum where people write collaborative sometimes-fanfiction stories (I personally have played on everything from Digimon to Bleach to Dot Hack to Naruto, for instance, as well as tons of original worlds) as posts, often collaborating with each other, and there are ‘game mechanics’ involved sometimes), coming up with what would eventually become the seed for Waifu Death Squad (long time coming, I know), we joked about this all the time, but RP forums were often high-volume forums, with us sometimes writing upwards of twenty pages a day (yes, I used to write a lot before my disability progressed).
It’s so so so easy to go “ah, us writers, huh? some nebulous thing like ‘writer’s block’ hit me, now I can’t write for a while. sorry.”
And yes, sometimes it is actually just that our brains are tired and need to recharge before we can write.
There is a particularly insidious process where talking about our story, or coming up with things for our story that isn’t the actual story (like recounting a summarized version of your story plans for your fellow roleplayers) that actually tricks your brain into thinking that you finished the job.
I read about this years ago — I want to say it was in one of Daniel Pink’s books on motivation — but the more you do things like the task you’re supposed to be doing, the more you make your brain feel that it has completed the task. When you do that, the brain slows down. It says “hey. I did the thing. I no longer feel driven to do it anymore.”
When you write lore, you aren’t just focusing on the things that don’t matter to your audience, you aren’t just killing a scene’s pacing, you aren’t just substituting data no one cares about for emotion… you’re also creating a lot of junk data that your brain interprets as the real data. You’re writing about the story instead of writing the story.
You’d be more productive writing plot outlines, building character relationship charts to help you capture a character’s voice, even writing scenes themselves! Get sticky notes down with the scenes you want to include and shuffle them around until the emotional delivery feels right to you!
Whatever you do, though, try to avoid being the scrub who thinks the rules don’t apply. Don’t poison your audience with a lethal dose of sodium poisoning; get really, really good at cooking. Get to the point where you can just tell how much salt your story needs. Don’t use salt as a base for your dish — the protein, stock, veggies, or carbs should be the star of the dish. The salt’s just there to help it shine.
Dip a spoon into your soup, test the broth. How’s it taste?
Need a little salt?
Then put some salt in.
But don’t oversalt it.
I’m going to bed right now, I’m going to wake up, get some physical therapy, and I’m going to spend something like $200 to do it. That sucks!!! I could really use your help, so if you think my work is useful, then please consider hitting up my tip jar. It all helps. Thank you for reading.
I’m putting all this out there for free because hey, I used to be in poverty and couldn’t get by without government assistance; I know what it’s like not to have resources available to you that other people have in spades. I don’t believe people should be denied access to educational materials like these just because they’re poor. My hope is that those of you who are able to support are willing to help not just me, but the people who can’t afford a lot of access to other game design materials. If you’re able to help and you think this goal of providing access to people who need it is good, here’s how you can help me keep writing:
Other ways to help include sharing my game Adios with people, leaving reviews if you liked it, and telling people about my articles. Beat the algorithm by discussing my stuff!! Traffic leads to more traffic!