Prompted by Spinks to write about something I love, today I wanted to draw attention to one of my favourite gameplay mechanics in recent years. I’ve been racking my brains to find the correct terminology for this approach and have settled (for now) on “Lore Nuggets”.
In the most popular video game genres, the narrative typically follows a model emulating the Hero’s Journey, or monomyth.
Princess Peach is kidnapped and Mario makes his way through the world from A to B, to eventually kill Bowser and rescue her. Dying acts as a pause button, putting the narrative on hold, and you repeat the journey until you eventually succeed at defeating Bowser. At various stages in the game, something happens in a scripted cutscene. Usually, it’s Mario getting a glimpse of Princess Peach long enough to mouth “I miss you” before she is tearfully whisked away to the next world.
This is the “on-rails” model. Some games offer multiple routes from A to B, but your choice is arbitrary, not impacting the plot or characters. If you accidentally drop Luigi into some lava, there is no funeral, nor obituary in the Mushroom Times.
The second model of storytelling allows players to make pre-designated choices which have varied impacts. These remind me of the “Choose Your Own Adventure” books of my youth which featured a plethora of choices (most of which led to the player’s demise!). In the video game equivalent, you typically see 2-3 main plotlines that depend on whether you decided to feed the goat or cook the goat, with a cutscene depicting a succession of goat-related outcomes either way. It is satisfying to see that your choice was impactful and these choices encourage repeat plays of a game.
An evolution of the Mario example is that you would be forced to make a decision to save or kill Bowser, and on deciding to kill him, Princess Peach looks at you with horror and the Mushroom Kingdom begrudgingly accepts you as their new liege.
There are of course other more flexible models of storytelling (“sandboxes” etc) but I will leave these themes for another day, before I go on another Mario/goat related tangent.
“Lore Nuggets” is the use of bite-size chunks of narrative to incentivize certain in-game activities, such as exploration or repeating content. They may be text or voiced, or purely visual Easter Eggs that give detail about the world that the characters inhabit.
They are optional are do not impact on the main plot, with many players preferring to miss out on them altogether.
Maybe Bowser has a hidden diary explaining that he hoped Princess Peach could grow to love him in time. Maybe Princess Peach had written letters to Bowser asking for protection from Luigi.
Here are some (real) recent examples off the top of my head:
-Skyrim has a wide wealth of literature scattered throughout the world to peruse and enjoy.
-World of Warcraft also has some amusing texts and an achievement for reading them all.
-SWTOR provides Codex achievements and descriptions of the various races, factions and locations.
-Bioshock features a range of diary tapes which you can listen to whilst playing the game, voiced by the characters. These do not interrupt play but allow the player to progress unhindered, listening to the dastardly thoughts of the villains.
-Diablo 3 features a similar mechanic of story scrolls which are in various random locations, or bestiary entries on killing a new enemy.
I love these little touches because they add colour and depth to world.
Because they are not fired from a cannon into the face of the player, they can be sought out and enjoyed. Reading or listening to Lore Nuggets does not change the world, but rather changes the player’s perception of the world, which is altogether far more important.