Before we do anything else, let’s define what an RPG is. According to Technopedia:
A role-playing game (RPG) is a genre of video game where the gamer controls a fictional character (or characters) that undertakes a quest in an imaginary world. Defining RPGs is very challenging due to the range of hybrid genres that have RPG elements. Traditional role-playing video games shared three basic elements:
- Levels or character statistics that could be improved over the course of the game
- A menu-based combat system
- A central quest that runs throughout the game as a storyline
Modern and hybrid RPGs do not necessarily have all of these elements, but usually feature one or two in combination with elements from another genre.
Off the top of my head, from my own experience, my favorite RPGs have been The Mass Effect series, the Elder Scrolls series, and the Dark Souls series. I’m pretty fussy when it comes to video games, generally speaking, and I think the open-world aspect of RPGs has spoiled me on games with more linear story lines. In each of these games there’s a sizable region to explore with a multitude of choices to make, and (aside from the red/green/blue light escapade of Mass Effect’s ultimate ending), those choices result in differing outcomes. Sure there’s a central storyline – Stop the Reapers /Defeat Alduin / Become the Next Monarch – but the real fun is deciding just how you get there.
So where does the lore of the story come in? Does it have to? Is a player’s experience lessened if the lore isn’t immediately accessible directly through the game?
With Dark Souls, it’s a bit confusing as to just what’s going on or where you are.
From Software / Flickr.com
Going by the intro’s information and what NPCs that you must interact with will tell you, you are dead, you’re in a kingdom that’s fallen to an undead curse, everything is in ruins, and you need to fix it. Why do people go ‘hollow’? Why is the only playable race human if there are so many other creatures in the world? What exactly is human anymore? Who am I? Who did I used to be? These sorts of questions are left up to the player’s imagination. Tidbits of the lore can be found mostly on the items you collect, and if you’re diligent and read through every item description and keep note of where you got it all and off of whom or what, you may be able to knit together an intriguing story… that’s still half-conjecture. EpicNameBro does a fantastic job of just that, and his lore videos (okay, all his videos) are a lot of fun to watch, wherein he generally has a play-through of a previous stream while he narrates a prepared essay that’s truthfully academic in nature, linking the clues that he’s found. On the other end of the experience spectrum is Pewdiepie‘s play-through of Dark Souls 1 (and currently Dark Souls 2), wherein he even states in this episode here that he wasn’t quite sure what the story was, but it didn’t matter much to him – he really loved the game mechanics and just wanted more and more of it.
But that’s Dark Souls, a game likely left intentionally vague because, well, you play a zombie with magical and progressive dementia. Why would you, as a character, know everything? Skyrim, and its predecessor Oblivion, are a lot kinder to the player in terms of laying out what’s going on in the world. The opening cinematic of Oblivion is narrated by Patrick Stewart The King, and in Skyrim you have that nice long wagon ride to your own execution at the hands of the Imperials (and they always act surprised when I join up with the Storm Cloaks). In the Elder Scrolls games there aren’t just NPCs that are happy to provide exposition – there are literally readable book objects in game that will lay out absolutely everything you could ever want.
There’s even a romance novel series, if you’re into that sort of thing.
Bethesda / Flickr.com
In some places you’re practically tripping over more lore than you can handle – some NPC houses have bookshelves that are fully stocked with unique and readable content. There’s even a quest to go and collect books and return them to the mage’s library in Winterhold. Thankfully the story is fully understandable without having to read every single page, and Skyrim fits sensibly into the universe that the previous games have established.
Bethesda / Flickr.com
The Mass Effect series is the only one of these game series that take place within one human generation of time. It follows the heroics of Commander Shepard and the fight against the coming apocalyptic plague of the Reapers. The lore in this game is easy to suss out, thanks to long dialogues you must have with the key NPCs. The game forces the lore upon you, and you have to respond with sufficient understanding in order to get to the next spot. It’s an interesting way of making sure the player knows what’s going on in a chaotic atmosphere of war on an enormous scale. It’s fairly realistic, all told, to the point that you are free to wander around a strip club that would make James T. Kirk a regular customer.
BioWare / Flickr.com
All three parts of the ME series are woven together tightly enough that there’s hardly room for a huge amount of lore to occur between each game (as compared to the time spans between the games in the Dark Souls and Elder Scrolls series, where centuries pass between each installment), to the point that there are recurring characters throughout who are more than happy to catch you up on any points you’ve missed.
BioWare / Flickr.com
There’s even a series of novels, available in most book stores in the sci-fi section, that lay out the first contact scenario for human beings in the ME universe, just in case you were curious. I was. I read it all.
For all three series, I should mention, there are enormous wikis full of information, maps, and lore… just in case you’re a junkie for it like I am.
So, back to the title’s question – Does an RPG need to have accessible lore to be enjoyable?
I’d say that, given the nature of what an RPG is, there needs to be at least a little. Additionally, if there is only a little, there needs to be a reason why. I think Dark Souls neatly dodges that bullet by giving the main character amnesia due to being an undead. Is it a cheat? Yeah, a little bit, but there’s certainly a ton of lore there for a dedicated player to find. They didn’t make it vague because they had no ideas, certainly. I will admit, though, that I think a Dark Souls game with the lore availability of Elder Scrolls and Mass Effect would blow my mind, and I’d like it even more than I already do. Part of what keeps bringing me back to Elder Scrolls games, and what kept me eager to play more of the Mass Effect series, was the story. I wanted to know what happened next, and I still do!
And if Elder Scrolls and Mass Effect could incorporate the precision of the Dark Souls movement and combat engine I’d be totally thrilled… just sayin’…