World Lore in Cartoons and Games

While I do play a fair number of games that have little or no story wrapped around them (otherwise known as “casual” games. My current obsession is Angry Birds Go.), I am a storyteller and a cultural anthropologist at my core. I like a game with a story to it. I like game worlds where a writer or a narrative designer took the time to create an actual world, with a present, and a past, and a future. A world with quirks, with a conflict I can make myself care about.

What’s really funny is that my favorite game set in a game world, The Legend of Zelda, actually doesn’t have a connected story. Each iteration is a new glimpse into the life of Hyrule hero Link. It’s episodic…sort of. Final Fantasy, which I’ve had more fun watching than playing, has a similar issue. What’s even funnier is that the games I decided to look at in this post…are games I have little or no experience with. I’m just fascinated with how world lore and story came together to form each game’s world.

Twenty years ago, when a friend pulled out decks of odd-looking cards and tried to get us to play this hot new game, I glanced at it and went back to chatting. It looked like nothing more than a card game with five suits and funky art. Okay…so it was really cool art in a lot of cases. But still, it was just a deck of cards where you chose what suits you personally played with. The guys got into it; I just stole cards to look at the art. Eventually, I noticed the cards had text on them, beyond just explaining what that card did, and a passing interest with Magic: The Gathering was born. Through the flavor texts, I learned that the game was actually players re-enacting a duel between Urza and Mishra. (I always forget about Mishra when I try to explain this to people.) The flavor texts not only flesh out the world Urza and Mishra are dueling in, but sometimes highlight aspects of that legendary duel. Tie-in novels have actually arisen out of the game’s flavor texts and world design. I lost touch with the game years ago, but I understand Urza has gone on to duel a wizard named Gix.

Ten years ago, I fell into a cartoon that has become a bit of a guilty pleasure. Yu-Gi-Oh is a story about an alternate universe Tokyo where characters resolve their issues by playing card games. (Not even kidding. This was Takahashi’s intention. He thought it would be entertaining.) So, you have battles over souls and territories and egos…being resolved by a Magic-style game. Characters are rescued from certain death…by playing a card game. It’s really quite bizarre, and just as lame as it sounds. There’s nothing really notable about the card game itself. If your only contact with Yu-Gi-Oh was the game, you’d probably have no idea that the game has a backstory in the manga. Beyond the spirits inhabiting the Millennium objects, I probably wouldn’t have noticed, either, until much later in the cartoon. But about halfway through the first season of the cartoon, the character generally regarded as a moron (who becomes the poster child for what happens when you make unfair assumptions about people) shares the tales surrounding one of the monsters in his deck in talking through his strategy. It’s the first flash the cartoon gives (because it’s been so long since I read the manga that I don’t remember if it’s also there) that this story, and by extension the game, might actually have an interesting layer to it. It turns out later to be a rather tragic story, but still. Not bad for a world where all conflicts, small and life-threatening, are resolved through a card game.

When World of Warcraft (WoW) introduced the ability to take on lore as a profession, I briefly started paying attention to it. I still have never played it, but I was following one of the guys working on it on Twitter for a while. I didn’t realize until the announcement of the lore profession that WoW had a story aspect. Apparently, it’s had several, making WoW a far more interesting and complex massively multiplayer online roleplaying game (MMORPG). If I’ve understood things correctly (and WoW players who actually play the story-related quests and activities, please feel free to chime in down in the comments), each release or expansion is a new storyline in this building exposition. And players really get into it. They will even call the narrative designers on continuity and logic issues.

Games really are pushing themselves to be a new storytelling form, through exploring telling stories in ways that make sense to the game’s narrative designers. The stories can serve just as the world background for the game, or can allow the players to help shape the world’s story through their play. As narrative designers continue to push and to work with game designers to explore different ways to deepen these worlds, games are going to become an immersive storytelling experience worth curling up with.