T51bWinterized argues against lore dump introductions, and talks about the openings of Dark Souls and Lord of the Rings.
Last time you were graced with my obnoxious, preachy presence, I talked about how to begin H-games. It’s been too long since the last installment, so let’s get right into it now, shall we?
Winter’s Advice: Keep in mind the interest curve.
If you remember high school English class (supposing you even went through high school English class), this may look familiar to you.
Yeah, we know Owen and Beru weren’t Luke’s parents.
That is an interest curve. What it maps is the ideal way of structuring any kind of experience from a roller coaster to a movie, or even a video game in order to keep excitement. People tend to be energized by rising intensity, but all rising action and no falling action is exhausting. Much in the way that all the powering up in Dragon Ball Z eventually became meaningless. The end result is that the interest curve for most properties tends to be a series of gradually escalating rise and falls, starting on a high and ending with a steep drop called, amusingly, a climax.
Lots of people knowingly choose to venture from the interest curve, but doing so risks causing your audience tune out. Some of the great triumphs of human narrative throw out the interest curve, but that’s because they’re venturing off the beaten path with a purpose. Tarantino likes to take his narratives off the beaten path, but if you don’t think he could write a story that adheres to the interest curve, then you’d be dead wrong.
This is the basis of everything I have been talking about so far, and everything I’m going to talk about now. It’s why you want to start on a high note, but also why starting on a low note is so tempting.
Winter’s Advice: Keep in mind common good openings.
The topic of this post is the “lore dump” opening, and why it is terrible. However, first I should explain what it even is, so I can be clear. There are untold numbers of ways you can start a narrative so that it begins on a high. This is further complicated by the mechanics of video game narrative, which allow all sorts of other options. For now, I’m mostly going to talk about openings in a non-medium specific way, because a conversation on how all of this applies to video games is a whole column into itself (specifically, the next part in this discussion series).
Here is a few of the most notable good opening techniques.
The in medias res opening is one of the few literary techniques that have actually crossed over in the public consciousness. It’s when you start a narrative with the story already in context, and then you fill in the details through either the use of flashback or context clues. Most stories do this partially, but we’re only talking about stories that start in the middle of the narrative arc.
The reason people do this is really simple. It’s a way you can start your story on a high point and then go back later. It also lets you add an element of suspense. You know that somehow Kimiko ends up in the clutches of the dick monster, but the question of how Kimiko got there hangs over your head as you see her accepting a job to scout the lagoon. Video games that use IMR include Call of Duty: Black Ops, God of War, and Knights of the Old Republic. For films, think Deadpool, The Emperor’s New Groove, or Reservoir Dogs.
There is the ever-popular dream sequence opening, which can also be some kind of vision. These dreams are often prophetic (so they combine a bit with in medias res), but their non-literal nature allows you to avoid spoiling anything from later in the story. Kingdom Hearts does this, so does Fire Emblem: Awakening and Fates. Although, your best is looking at Madoka Magika, which begins with an explosion of action and energy that sets the tone so well that you’re willing to sit through the relatively boring first episode. Like En Medias Res, Dream Sequence openings can be fully playable in video games, offering a good chance for tutorial levels that your early narrative might not allow.
Using a thematic narrator introduction is common. It’s when you start with a narrator or a character ruminating on the themes of your story. For this one, consider the Fallout games. They’ve been milking Ron Pearlman’s epic rant about the nature of war since the 90’s. This is a decent way you can slip in some backstory into an introduction too. Though, keep in mind that this is not a lore dump. Ron Pearlman introduces the concept of vaults, but 90% of his speech is about human nature, and he keeps setting details brief and too the back. Something worth nothing is that if you don’t have anything to talk about, this intro falls flat. Don’t ever fake it to sound smart. Not all epic narrations are doing the same thing, narrative wise.
The “let me tell you about” introduction is another variation of an opening monologue that isn’t a lore dump. It tells a story with a beginning middle and end through time. This intro will usually be narrowly focused on one character or object. The first scene of Beauty and the Beast (the old one) is a perfect example. No one would say that it’s a lore dump. We don’t find out about the political situation of the realm or the witch’s magical powers. It’s the story of one person, and according to an interest curve it’s a complete story. Like other monologue type introductions, even in video games this is exceptionally hard to do with any game play element.
The action backstory is always a great option. It features some kind of event or action that happens before your narrative, but helps set up the events of the story, or sets a tone. This event can involve characters from your story, or not. It’s not a full backstory, because it doesn’t contain lots of setting or story details. It just shows one event. The archetypical example is obviously R2D2 and C-3PO’s escape from Darth Vader at the beginning of A New Hope. Other examples include the first scene of Game of Thrones with the Night’s Watch men and the first scene of Attack on Titan with the survey corps members. Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare’s car ride is a great example. In terms of gameplay, it’s really any prologue that has you playing as someone besides the main character and dying in the first scene.
The vignette is a good option. It’s where you start in the middle of some unrelated story or mission, just to show off your character or world. In terms of examples think of the beginning of any of the Indiana Jones or James Bond movies. Moments that show off why your character is cool, and what their everyday life is like. It has tons of narrative options, such as later tying into the main narrative, or allowing you to establish how cool your character is, before you show them get their shit stomped. Comic books do this all the time, having the story begin with Spider-Man curb stomping Shocker or something. It’s why TV tropes calls it the “Batman Cold Open.”
Probably the single simplest style of introduction is the quick inciting incident. “Attack it” is basically the same as any other introduction except it moves up the moment the narrative turns to the front. It’s especially common in films, because the low amount of narrative time means they have to get started sooner. The first scene of Avengers, where Loki steals the scepter is a good example. The beginning of Princess Mononoke is another example worth nothing. It’s mostly the same as the action backstory, except the events shown typically involve the main character and starts the actual narrative.
Those are all example of common good openings. Now, let us talk about bad openings. Bad openings tend to fail to achieve one of the things good openings do. They either fail to provide any kind of coherent or useful introduction to the setting, themes, and characters, or they fail to draw you in to the story.
Lore dump backstories suck. They reason they suck is that they’re boring. Let’s get into it, shall we.
Winter’s Advice: Don’t start with a lore dump.
Imagine you’re watching Game of Thrones, and the first scene in the series is Ned Stark going on at length about the political situation of the Seven Kingdoms and the events of the War of the Usurper. That sounds immensely boring, and that’s because of a simple fact. People don’t fucking care about your world, until you give them a reason to care.
This is true in general, but not so much in each individual case. People may eventually come to care about your world, especially if it is excellent or well constructed. A good setting may eventually become the star of the proceedings. By the time I finished Dishonored, I was aching to know more about the setting. However, that’s because I first got a chance to explore the character and story. There may be some people who actually do find your setting fascinating without any kind of emotional connection to it, but they are likely quite rare. These few people who run through the wikis of games they’ve never played have better settings to find out about then yours, unless you happen to be George R. R. Martin. It is the same reason why talking to some random person at a party about your novel is so excruciating. They just don’t care yet.
Basically any time that you spend ranting about your world at the beginning of a game is dead air, as far as players are often times concerned. The impact may be softened by other factors. People like stories, and even most of the worst lore dumps are told in a vaguely narrative-esque format. Sometimes you have other things going on. The first scene of Pacific Rim would have be just another boring world dump if it had not filled the screen with intense kaiju battles. Yeah, it’s boring setting details, but look at those giant monster battles.
Another problem is just that people don’t tend to remember the big, fancy proper nouns you throw around. Most of it just comes out as gibberish. The calculus in movies is easier, since you can control the rate that people absorb information. You can throw in maybe one or two proper nouns a minute max in a film intro or any kind of controlled introduction. If your introduction is gameplay based, more than a few new proper nouns per minute of game time is just going to make your player’s head spin. Note, that I am not calling players stupid. If they really were devoting their mental attention to the words and their context, it would probably work fine, but no one really wants to be doing that at the beginning of a story.
I sympathize with the desire to begin a story this way. People love their own stories, and their own worlds. It is easy to get lost in that fact. Sometimes it genuinely feels needed, like introducing the world and its makeup is needed. Sometimes you want to do what Lord of the Rings, did. Though, did Lord of the Rings do it?
Winter’s Advice: Not everything that looks like a lore dump is a lore dump.
The beginning of the Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring film is one of the most admired and copied introductions in all of modern Western culture. It’s no wonder why, it’s fucking awesome, but is it a lore dump intro?
Well, it certainly seems like it at first glance. It spends a lot of time talking about men and elves forming an alliance to fight the armies of Mordor, and the decision of a barely introduced abstract monarch to not destroy a magic weapon. That sure sounds like a lore dump. However, you should watch it again.
The first full minute of the movie is a black screen while Galadriel talks about how the world is changing. Not a word of dialogue about the world. Then the topic shifts to the creation of the ring. About its relationship with the other rings. How the ring carries Sauron’s evil. Next, it talks about the war of the ring, and how Isildore and Sauron both lost the ring. Then it concludes with a brief recap of Gollum losing the ring to Bilbo.
That all has the same topic. It seems to be a straight line story about the ring, much in the way that the first scene of Beauty and the Beast is about how the prince got cursed. It is especially notable, because the way the ring acts in the story of Lord of the Rings is that it’s essentially a character in its own right with its own motivations.
You can see it in the way that the first seven minutes of the film uses proper nouns. In seven minutes of film the only proper nouns are as follows: Middle Earth, Sauron, Mordor, Mount Doom, Isildore, Gollum, Bilbo, and the Shire. That’s eight proper nouns in seven minutes. Far from an overload. Whenever the narration allows, they use sentences that are more emotive then they are explanatory. Instead of saying, “Isildore, the prince of Gondor” Galadriel says “Isildore the son of the king.” The priority is not explaining the setting to you (although it does a pretty decent job of that) the priority is telling a powerful standalone story.
No, the Lord of the Rings isn’t a lesson in why lore dumps are a good way to start a story. In fact, they’re the opposite. It’s proof you can introduce someone to your setting and world through a backstory monologue without making it about the lore of your world.
Winter’s Advice: The lore dump in Dark Souls isn’t a role model.
This editorial is on a game site, so shouldn’t I talk about perhaps the most famous and well-loved lore dump introduction in all of gaming?
Dark Souls begins with a massive and blatant lore dump. Full force. One can say it is telling the story of fire, but the reality is that it really is exceptionally concerned with talking about the world. The intro deliberately takes time introducing proper nouns and concepts, such as different lords. Proper nouns are thrown out at more than three times the rate that they are in Lord of the Rings.
Why isn’t this intro bad? Isn’t it considered one of the best video game introductions of all time. A more cynical observer might point out that the reason why is merely that it is metal as shit. Lord of the Rings starts with an awesome battle scene and so does Dark Souls. They might point to that as the connector of what makes a lore intro good.
Though, one has to ask a question. How many of the different proper nouns and concepts did you properly understand from watching that intro the first time? The answer is likely very few. The first time I played Dark Souls, it left me as mystified and bewildered as it did excited. None of it made any sense.
The point of the opening of Dark Souls is not to teach me about the world. If it were, it would have done it in a totally different way. It would have actually explained the meaning of many of the terms it used. It would have told me about Lordran, Anor Londo, or even what linking the fire even means. Instead, it used time talking about a war with dragons that essentially never comes into play, and most notably, it talks about the Furtive Pigmy. It is fascinating that the game mentions that here, because it is literally never mentioned again in the entire game. If the goal was explaining the game world, Dark Souls did a terrible job.
No, the purpose of the introduction to Dark Souls is to bewilder and confuse the player. It is to make the player feel small. The entire narrative of the game is designed to enhance this feeling. The world around the player is vast, challenging, and unfeeling. Almost everything going on in the story is as clouded from the player as from the main character. The introduction purposefully breaks the rules of good introductions in order to create that feeling in a player.
However, I want to warn you against the belief that the best way to start a game with a mysterious world is by throwing lots of huge arc words at the player with little explanation. What Dark Souls did would surely have never worked if the game had not been made by a team of brilliant developers. I could not tell you if I tried all the ways that the design in Dark Souls helps create this feeling, from the usage of elevation, to minor environment details. Dark Souls is not a role model, because Dark Souls made a very specific narrative choice that is almost never going to be useful to copy.
That should wrap up this discussion of lore dump introductions. Join me in part 3, where I will be discussing some of the specific challenges and techniques of video games, in relation to other types of media.
If you enjoy our content and would like to support us, please consider donating to our Patreon.
Image Credits: Dark Souls.