Welcome to Burning Questions, a new Kotaku feature where Jason Schreier and Kirk Hamilton chat about the games they're playing, the news they're hearing, and the comings and goings of the world of video games.
Last week, they tackled Persona 3. This week's subject: Fantasy lore. Why are some game worlds believable and interesting while others are boring and rote? What makes "dark fantasy" "dark"? When does that moment come in an RPG when you say, "Okay, I'm into this"?
My, those are some… Burning Questions.
Kirk: Today we're going to talk about lore, believability, and why we buy into some fantasy worlds and not others. Let's start with The Witcher 2, which you're playing for the first time, right?
Jason: Yes! I stepped into a world of gritty fantasy and gratuitous sex scenes. Then I turned off Game of Thrones and started playing The Witcher 2.
Kirk: Ha. It does seem to be a fortuitous time to be releasing a game with The Witcher 2's subject matter, given how bananas everyone is over Game of Thrones. What do you think so far?
Jason: Well, rereleasing. That's me being an obnoxious twat and correcting your minor mistakes.
Kirk: Such a whoreson, you are.
Jason: But yeah. The Witcher 2! It seems really cool so far. It's GORGEOUS.
Kirk: I was impressed with how they managed to get the thing looking so great on the 360, since it kinda makes my gaming PC chug a bit at "high" settings. It's good that they made it look good, too, since the appearance of the world is a big part of what makes it so believable and interesting for me. What do you think of the setting and the characters? Are you buying into it?
Jason: You know, I've been playing for a few hours so far — probably three or four — and I still don't know who most of the characters are. In typical fantasy fashion, they all like to throw around bizarre, clunky names with apostrophes and weird consonants and other strange tendencies.
So, like. It takes quite a while to start figuring out who is who and what is what. Like, what the hell is a Scoia'tael?
Kirk: Well, if you'd read my primer, you'd know.
Jason: I don't read.
Kirk: Oh right, I forgot. A hazard of playing too many video games. The Scoia'tael are a band of non-human freedom fighters. Aka terrorists, basically. They're kinda dicks. Lots of people in The Witcher 2 are kinda dicks.
Jason: OK, so why can't they be called, like, The Freedom Fighters? The Resistance? Occupy Temeria? Al Qaeda?
Kirk: Well, that gets down to it, doesn't it? Why does this twisty fantasy nonsense work, when other twisty fantasy nonsense doesn't? I should say: It works for me, anyway. I'm sold on The Witcher, I buy it.
I think it's at least in part due to the fact that the world is based on source material (i.e. Andrzej Sapkowski's novels). The Witcher 2 does have some really goofy names in it. "Yennefer," "Nilfgaard…"
But when I hear a word like Scoia'tael, my initial eye-roll is softened a bit by the fact that this term 'already exists.' I have faith in the source material. That's not to say that a game like Kingdoms of Amalur doesn't have source material, but something about it is still different. When I play Amalur and hear "Fae" and "Seelie Fae" I just groan and tune out.
Language is only a part of a game's lore, I think. "Lore" is more than just written lore, when we talk about it we're talking about the information created to help draw the world. And what I notice about The Witcher 2 is that the world looks and feels like it's in tune with... well, with itself, with the source material.
It's not just a handful of codex entries — The Witcher 2's lore permeates every aspect of its visual design. For example: How great are the costumes in this game?
Jason: They are pretty cool. HBOish. Lots of insignias and crazy colour combos.
Kirk: I am in love with the outfits these characters wear. They feel so chunky and... sensual? Like, not in the "sexy" way people usually use that word, more: you can really feel the clothing. It has heft and presence.
Jason: So wait: you think you connect more to this lore, as opposed to the lore of a game like Amalur (which is full of ridiculous proper nouns), just because it came from a book?
Kirk: I think it's partly the visual design that sells it, and partly the earthy, natural way the world feels. The visual design goes from the costumes to everything else — the buildings and outfits look like they've been lived in, and Geralt's clothes in particular are very specific to a Witcher.
The two swords on his back, the way he keeps that book tied around his chest, the vials he keeps on his jacket... it's all very logical and connected, and it's all part of the world and the overarching Witcher lore. Nothing feels general — it's not like "Oh, this guy has a staff. He's a wizard. This guy has a bow. He's a rogue."
Jason: But Amalur has its own cool aesthetics too, no? This colourful, super-stylized world that's filled with bright greens and purples and reds. It has its own mythology: people recreate songs and ballads that are passed down from generation to generation, kinda like those Civil War recreations in the South.
So why do Amalur's names feel so silly?
Kirk: Well, at least a part of it is just subjective — for whatever reason, The Witcher 2 just appeals to me more. But there IS more to it than that — there's a weightiness to everything in The Witcher 2 that is lacking from Amalur, as it is from a lot of other fantasy worlds. It's a weightiness that the game shares with Game of Thrones, actually — it's not necessarily because both worlds are based on books, but there's a sort of dense, literary quality to the worldbuilding that feels absent from many other fantasy games.
Jason: How do you achieve that weightiness? Tits and cursing?
Kirk: Well... I mean I do like all the breasts and profanity. But it's more than that. It's how potions work, for example — you must mix them, then meditate and drink them one at a time. Their effects are strong, and specific. Or magic — people don't just cast spells all willy nilly — they build large complicated contraptions, and the magic itself mixes with science in a way that feels heavy and focused.
I've always kind of thought that earthiness is what makes "dark fantasy" "dark." Not so much the tits and murder and blood everywhere, but how weighty everything feels in fictional worlds like Game of Thrones or The Witcher. It's not a coincidence, I don't think, that Geralt kneels on the ground and centres himself before doing any alchemy, resting, or potion-drinking. It's an earthy world, and I find that really appealing.
Jason: How many hours did it take before you decided "okay, I can dig this world"?
Kirk: That's really the question with any of these games, isn't it? How much of a chance do you give it to sell you on it? For me and The Witcher 2, it was somewhere in the first act in Flotsam, a bit after where you are now, that I started to get really into it and get invested. But it's different for each game.
Jason: I think I'll be fully invested by that point too. And that's great, because everything I've heard (and seen so far) suggests that The Witcher 2 is a really good game.
But when it comes to giant, sprawling fantasy or sci-fi or really any kind of worlds, it's tough to put the time and energy into making that investment — into getting to know all the characters, learning the lore, figuring out what all those silly names mean.
And it's especially painful when you take the time to invest in a world or lore, but it turns out to be disappointing or unsatisfying in some way. Like LOST.
Kirk: Or, I don't know, say... a certain game that rhymes with CRASS DEFECT.
(Or Battlestar, or any other thing the ending of which has angered people.)
Jason: Right! For a while, I had a hard time understanding why so many people were SO pissed off at the Mass Effect 3 ending. Then I realized: it's because I've never been invested in the series. I've never cared enough to remember the difference between a Quarian and an Asari or to try to figure out what each Reaper signifies. The games are good, and I've played them all, but I'm not emotionally invested at all.
So when I'm sitting here trying to immerse myself in The Witcher 2, or Game of Thrones, or any other sprawling, intimidating series, I can kind of understand why Mass Effect devotees were so upset when they put in all of this time and energy and left the series feeling like they'd been slapped in the face.
Kirk: And yet part of the fun of these series is making that investment together — we get caught up in what means what, and who would do what to whom, and it's very fun.
That's certainly a big part of the fun of the current Game of Thrones craze. It's so fun to dish about Cersei and Joffrey, and talk about Tyrion, and what he did this week — there's a communal sense to it.
But sometimes, it can feel like there are too many different sets of lore vying for our attention.
Jason: Too many shows, too many games, too many longrunning pieces of media.
Kirk: That was my issue with Amalur — it was partly just unfortunate timing by the game. I'd just digested all this Skyrim lore, and that was on the heels of both The Witcher 2 (which I played last year) AND Game of Thrones... it was, as I said when I first saw it, one fantasy game too many.
And yet still, I feel like lots of new players will make room for The Witcher 2, and for whatever new world arrives in the years to come. We love discovering new places and learning about them. We're just at something of a saturation point at this moment in time, for whatever reason.
What does it take for a game's lore to win you over? I know you're a big fan of The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky — what was it about that world that you found appealing?
Jason: The big drawing point for me in an RPG — and this isn't my only requirement, but it's my biggest one — is when every character, from the innkeeper to the King Of The World, has something interesting to say.
Kirk: I have noticed that in Trails in the Sky — every NPC has something to say that makes them seem like a real person, which in turn makes the world feel more real, despite the fact that it's a fairly generic airshippy monstery JRPG world.
Jason: Right — the world itself is nothing particularly special or interesting, but because it's filled with these loveable, charming characters, it feels exciting every step of the way.
All I wanted to do was wander from city to city, hearing what everyone had to say. And, you know, that's something that's lacking in a lot of Western RPGs.
Kirk: Skyrim, for example. I still love that game, and bless its heart, but the characters are so screamingly superficial and wooden that it makes the entire world feel flimsy and strange. But then, the world of Skyrim is convincing in other ways.
Jason: It has its own charms. Like when you walk into an abandoned lighthouse, you don't need an NPC to tell you some shit has gone down in there. You have to piece the mystery together by checking cabinets and reading notes from the people who once lived there.
Kirk: Ha, I just found that lighthouse!
Jason: It's creepy, right?
Kirk: Yes! Man, who on earth would bring their family out to that desolate hellhole and expect to survive?
Oh man, let's talk for like five thousand words about Skyrim sidequests. (Wait, let's not do that.)
I think that the fact that I would happily do that says a lot about why Skyrim's lore and world interest me more than Amalur's.
Jason: For you, that lighthouse — and all the other moments of environmental storytelling in Skyrim — were enough to get you hooked. But if you never have those moments — and I presume you never had a moment like that in Amalur — you'll never really be invested, even when a game feels like it should be "good."
Kirk: Yes! That "buy in" moment for a new fantasy world; it never happened for me with Amalur. Do you remember any "Okay, I'm into this" moments from past RPGs (or other types of games) you've played?
Jason: Yes! Deus Ex: Human Revolution, which is one of my favourite games from last year.
Kirk: Mine too.
Jason: I was trying to get into this police station, and I failed the option of talking my way past the guards, so I had to sneak around to the back. And I found this tunnel with an electric floor. Try to step on it and I would die. I looked around and found two metal crates, then used them as stepping stones, one sluggish hurdle at a time, to manoeuvre my way across the electric passageway. Lift, step, lift, step, lift, step.
I was shocked that it actually worked. But that moment just made me think "hey, this world respects me, I'm going to respect it back."
Kirk: Ha, cool. I had something similar — and what's neat is that that moment you described is very much the "heart of Deus Ex." It's what the team making the game would tell you was their chief concern with making the game. So it makes sense that it would sell you.
A writer friend of mine sometimes calls me up when he's playing a game that he's not convinced about. He did it with Human Revolution, actually — "Why do you like this game?" The story wasn't working for him, and he hated the voice acting. And he recently called me up about The Witcher 2 — it is so clunky, when does it get good?
It's hard to try to tell someone about your own "I'm in" moment, isn't it? You say something lame like "Well, it's like... you'll find an open-ended way to solve a problem, and it's cool!" Or, "The world and conflicts are really deep and interesting, you'll see!"
But it may be something that everyone has to experience for themselves.
Jason: Yeah. Once you hit that personal revelatory moment, you're hooked. And if you never hit it, you're bored. And I think you can kinda step back and look at a game and realise "this is good but I'm not immersed" or "this is not a great game but I'm totally into it." That's something I wish more gamers would realise — just how personal this hobby is.
Kirk: I agree. And it does seem to be something that publishers are going to become hip to.
I think that fantasy games, and other games that rely on a lot of fiction, are going to start finding it's harder and harder to get an audience, since there are so many worlds to which we can devote ourselves. I bet we'll see a lot more ad campaigns designed around teaching people about the world they're going to inhabit, getting people interested in the fiction early so that they're ready to make the investment.
Jason: Right. We'd all be in a better place if publishers stopped saying "this is immersive!" and started trying to show us how we can find ways to become immersed.
Kirk: If they tried to sell us on the world and fiction alone, I think that many publishers would find pretty quickly that a lot of their fiction is, frankly, terribly boring! Which would hopefully lead to more investment in creating worlds worth exploring and dedicating time to.
Jason: In other words, publishers need to learn more from JRPGs.
Kirk: You WOULD say something like that. Though of course, western games can do it too. Which you'll see as you play more Witcher 2. I recommend doing some arm-wrestling, some sidequesting, and maybe some light wench-ploughing.
Jason: Because nothing says "I'm invested in this world" like ploughing a wench.
Kirk: Ploughing in general, really. It's why Farmville.
Jason: Well, yeah. That's why their lore is so popular. Have I ever shown you my FarmVille fanfiction?
Kirk: Of course, remember? You emailed it to me and like 75 other people. Something about needing to do that so you could get enough points to go on to write more. I take it you finished the second chapter, then.
Jason: Yep. Send it to 10 friends and you'll get an exclusive sneak peek at chapter three, "You Can't Harvest Love."
Kirk: I can't wait to read it and then immediately regret reading it.