Writing outside of the box by adversity
This article was originally written as a student essay.
How does one write for a video game which doesn’t let them? I believe I’ve scratched the surface with my first article on FINAL FANTASY XIV: Shadowbringers‘ storyline, but Shadowbringers was easy: despite occurring in a rather odd genre for it, it is nonetheless a linear traditional narrative told mainly through cutscenes and partly through gameplay. Such is not the case of the game featured in this article.
We like stories. The best shows have good stories and good visuals. The best essays feel like you’re reading a story, with an introduction, climax, and conclusion that the first two eased you into. We humans, love narrative. We narrativize everything. So here’s an interesting story: the first video game ever created, was an experiment. It wasn’t even meant to be a fun game, or whatever, it was just a tech demo of an oscilloscope. Physicist William Higinbotham thought the Brookhaven National Laboratory’s instrumentation division’s exhibit would be more interesting if he showed the innovations he had made with improving the device to have a sort of interactive game running on it, which was certainly a lot less dull than the rest of the exhibit. Higinbotham probably did not expect the medium he’d unwittingly invented with Tennis for Two on an oscilloscope in 1958 to become what it is today.
Come sixty years later, video games as an art form has become a common argument between video game players and the older generation of philosophers and critics. Let us posit that video games are an art form. Then what? Art is already a difficult word to define, and I’d argue it’s no one’s right to define it to exclude anything. What does it matter that video games are art? Well, it doesn’t, not really. Perhaps it’ll earn the player less scorn from his older peers when they’re playing video games instead of doing serious stuff, like reading Dostoevsky, but it’s not going to make my games more interesting. Games as art is a debate of the choir preaching to itself while trying to convince those who have categorically refused to change their minds.
If anything, video games being defined by art is actually detrimental to them, because many games who try to be “artsy” and focus solely on that aspect end up being lesser for it, and are clunky messes. It doesn’t take being drawn in Impressionist style — though it is probably very aesthetically pleasing — for a video game to be an interesting piece, and sometimes, video games have a fundamental misunderstanding of their medium. In an era of interactive medium and infinitely duplicitous media, where Black Mirror’s latest — at the time of writing — installment Bandersnatch, owing to its direct inspiration of gamebooks, features choices and different paths to go from there, this has raised the question: is Bandersnatch a movie, or a video game? I’d personally argue that the name of the medium matters less than what it does and how it tells the story. Also, the answer is a visual novel, obviously.
Video games of the last few decades, now that the technology has caught up to the ambitions of the developers, have become very interesting as a medium, and can possibly hold a candle to the other media. They very frequently feature even good music and art direction, and some essentially are Gesamtkunstwerk, “total works of art,” though I prefer the alternate translation synthesis of the arts, as they very effectively understand each medium and make it come together in a new way that exists beyond the simple, original medium. In a sense, the truest hybrid object. The video game used to be simply just a toy, a marketable product meant to entertain, and has evolved into a medium. After all, movies were used for entertainment first, then the medium was understood, and used to its fullest potential to truly tell interesting stories. However, while a writer and a director create art for the sake of art, it could be argued that a video game publisher and a movie producer create the art for the sake of profitability. Because the latter two are very often instrumental to actually getting a movie or game released, it means there is a material reality of having broad marketable appeal in both a movie and a game, and this often affects the object eventually. This here, is naturally also true, because my object of study was deeply affected by what kind of game it is.
This article will focus on two interlinked hybrid objects of narrative writing. The ‘Map of Runeterra’ and the Universe website that both pertain to the video game League of Legends. As such, all three will be analyzed, because it is impossible to describe the narrative approach of Universe before first analyzing that of League in general.
League of Legends was developed by Riot Games and released in 2009. It fashions itself as a multiplayer online battle arena, or MOBA, and is the spiritual successor to the fan-made game mode “Defense of the Ancients” for the real-time strategy (RTS) game Warcraft III. League of Legends is the thirteenth most-played video game in the world, with a peak of one hundred million monthly players, and is one of the most watched electronic sports on the video game streaming website Twitch.tv. League of Legends is designed around multiplayer, the only single player experience being offline matches that essentially mirror the behaviour of online games but with AI-controlled characters in place of other players. This dossier will focus on how League of Legends developed its narrative, and how this narrative is accessed through Universe and the Map.
There are three main things to understand about the game part of League of Legends. One, the game is designed and fine-tuned around its competitive and e-sports aspect, and every change that is made to the “main” game rule set must be viable in competitive play. Two, the game is not a finished product, and changes continuously, making the original 2009 League dramatically different to the 2018 version of the game. Lastly, and most importantly, the game comes first, and the narrative comes second. In a way, it was almost even “tacked on.” The question I ask, is how has the multiplayer-only, competitive aspect of the game affected its narrative, and sometimes lack thereof? How does this factor in with Universe, and what purpose does the latter serve? How can you build a narrative when the very way your game functions doesn’t let you?
League of Legends is not a finished product, and will likely shut down before it becomes one. Not only is the original 2009 League of Legends dramatically different from the 2018 League of Legends, it would even be faster to list what did not change between the two. The lore, gameplay, and aesthetics of the game are now dramatically different.
In 2014 and 2015, the three “maps” on which the game is played, the Summoner’s Rift, Twisted Treeline, and Howling Abyss, have received “reworks” that, while their layout remained intact, dramatically altered the visual aesthetics to make them look less dated.
There are frequent character releases, about every two months or more. Even the previously-released playable characters themselves get frequently updated. There are four listed different types of character updates, such as GU/VU (gameplay updates/visual updates) which are simply small, inconsequential tweaks to how a character plays or looks; VGU (visual and gameplay updates), the later being the point at which they start being colloquially referred to as “reworks” and greatly affect the way a character is played, while retaining the original “core theme” attributed to the character. The fourth type, also called a “rework,” is the Full Relaunch, in which a champion’s identity is dramatically altered, essentially making them into a new character altogether.
There have been fifteen Full Relaunches so far, and another two are already in the works. The reason for a small rework or Full Relaunch is that a character has fallen behind and is no longer fitting with the current design of the game, or is simply greatly unpopular. There is an easily observable chasm between the game, visual, and narrative design of the earliest characters, and that of the most recent ones and the reworks. The problem this poses, is how can the narrative be consistent, if the game itself is consistently changing by design? Riot Games have a simple answer: it doesn’t need to be. The narrative is consistently being adjusted and reworked. It has been streamlined to avoid the risks. This is in part a result of an initial failure to have a proper narrative, but also a deliberate design choice that stemmed from logical conclusions about the game.
In 2013 to 2014, the core background lore was even reworked entirely, and some parts of it were removed altogether. One of the key aspects of it was the titular League of Legends and the Institute of War. In the core background lore, the Institute of War existed to prevent conflict from escalating to a point where apocalypse was a possible outcome, and did so by creating the League of Legends, a ‘game’ of sorts where the two parties solved their conflicts by summoning their “champions” and having them fight a match in an easy to contain environment, therefore giving an in-lore justification for the game and it having game-y rules in the first place. The player was the Summoner, and was referred to as such in the lore and the game. This lore explanation was completely phased out altogether as non-canon, despite there being many remnants of it in the game mechanics and “lore,” such as the Summoner’s Rift being named as such, and even some characters whose voice lines have not been re-recorded since directly referring to the summoner — for example, Sona, “the Maven of Strings,” a mute character whose voice you only hear because she was meant to have a telepathic connection with her Summoner has a voice line that says “Adagio, Summoner.” Veigar, “the Tiny Master of Evil,” responds with animosity when the player controls him, saying “Your commands tire me,” despite there being diegetically no one supposed to control him anymore as Summoners are supposed to have been retconned out of the game.
This is a major problem, as the only “narrative” taking place within a game of League of Legends are quite literally character interactions through voice lines. In fact, some of the earliest-released characters do not even interact with other characters, and only have a minimal amount of voice lines. Lulu, “the Fae Sorceress,” released in 2012, and whose voice lines (and lore, gameplay, and visuals) have not changed at all since, has exactly one minute and twelve seconds of audio, most of which is laughter. Comparatively, most champions released in 2018 average at thirty minutes of audio.
In fact, most critics of the game’s narrative use the above example of the Institute of War retcon as the most egregious example of Riot Games simply not knowing what it wants to do, and having “given up” on narrative. In fact, most of these problems were caused by internal and executive mismanagement, and a harmful “gamer first” culture, prioritizing gameplay over narrative — there are some ethical implications about this, because it also means Riot have a significantly male monoculture, and there have been several accusations of sexism and sexual harassment at Riot; unfortunately, this isn’t a paper about the inner workings of the company unless it affects the narrative, though I felt it should be addressed for an understanding of how it effectively sabotaged Riot’s own attempts at narrative.
All this is a fair criticism, but League of Legends has, in fact, never actually been about the narrative, and attempting to was only detrimental to them in the long run. Instead, they have since chosen to focus on fleshing out two things: character backstories, and the environments they come from.
When it comes to video games, there exists the concept known as ludonarrative dissonance which is essentially an unnecessarily complex way to say that what the story of the game is telling the player, and what the moment-to-moment gameplay says don’t match, or worse yet, contradict each other. Usually, it is a result of the “fun” and “game-y” parts being quite necessary to the game, because it is a game, and it should be fun. Or should it?
Most of the Call of Duty games have included in their narrative a rather negative representation of war, and the rather consensual message that war is bad and senseless. But Call of Duty is a war game. It sells itself on promising the player a power fantasy of going to war without actually going to war. The game mechanics make war fun while the narrative tells you that war is not fun, which makes the game an empty vessel as an art form. The message it wants to give is hindered by the way the player experiences the game.
There exists a direct deconstruction in Spec Ops: The Line, the very premise of which is to resemble a war shooter, but then halfway through, deconstructs it to truly display the horrors of war, its most famous scene involving the player finding out that they accidentally killed civilians with white phosphorus. I am, however, rather interested in a game that uses ludonarrative dissonance to serve its message, Dennaton Games’ 2012 Hotline Miami. In Hotline Miami, murder and extreme violence is made fun. Not only is the game flashing with colors, and shaking vividly to give the sense of an adrenaline-fueled acid trip, the most brutal the execution, and the fastest the player can chain executions, the more points the player gets. This is a rather common game mechanic, but it violently clashes against the narrative of Hotline Miami, in which is frequently asked to the playable character — who goes progressively insane, and starts having morbid and gory hallucinations — the following question: “Do you enjoy hurting other people?”
At the end of the game, it is subtly made clear by the people giving the character these kill orders that it was “all just a game,” and them having the appearance of the game’s developers make it clear that there is actually no difference between the avatar the player embodies and the player themselves. The end result is that the game questions the player’s intentions, and whether they don’t actually enjoy violence themselves, and if it being a figurative representation of violence rather than real violence makes it okay. The ludonarrative dissonance is deconstructed in order to question about the medium itself.
Hotline Miami is an extreme example, though more and more in video games, the ludonarrative dissonance is being progressively erased, or at least utilised more intelligently by game designers. Now, narrative dissonance itself, is not inherently a bad thing: any and all figurative representations will have surreal quirks due to being fiction. If movies were realistic, most protagonists of action movies would likely die in the first twenty minutes from a stunt that’s just not possible in real life, and the movies would be very short. However, it shows an understanding of the specifics of video games as an artistic medium, and not just a consumable product. All media have their specific “language” through which they communicate message and intention; actual language in literature, light, composition and colors in paintings, soundscapes in music, and whatnot. Video games have one defining factor which makes them different from the rest: interactivity. Which is why a video game should arguably not be told like a movie, but like a video game. The player must feel the intention through the way they play the game. Game designers, in that sense, are a mix between illusionists or con artists and emotional manipulators, as they use smokes and mirrors, visual and mechanical artifices to trick the players to react in a certain way, and impose on them their intended emotional experience.
Now League of Legends isn’t devoid of ludonarrative dissonance. In fact, it’s full of it, with archers buying swords to strengthen their attacks without ever wielding them, or the fact that Aurelion Sol, who is as per the lore a literal galaxy-sized dragon deity responsible for creating the universe, is, in the game, most certainly not a galaxy bigger than any of the regular humans, and can be killed fairly easily by any of them. The above retcon of the Institute of War is the foremost example, seeing as nothing justifies any of these champions being able to die and revive more than a thousand times across games. Ludonarrative dissonance is not by any means a flaw, and in fact, is sometimes integral to the experience. League of Legends perhaps has some narrative issues, but at the same time, the game mechanics tell you exactly the story that they want to tell you and then again, not, because League is an unpredictable, multiplayer game.
There was one, in fact, very interesting case where ludonarrative dissonance didn’t happen in League. The Bilgewater: Burning Tides event is something I’ll mention again later, but it featured an interesting story where a champion of the game, Miss Fortune — first name Sarah, though it doesn’t appear in the game — a corsair of sorts, killed another champion, the pirate Gangplank. In League, there is a warning area in the client which displays error messages such as game modes being disabled due to server outage, and once in a while, champions being disabled and impossible to pick until their bugs are fixed. After the Burning Tides story released, League players logged on to the following error message: “Gangplank is dead and has been disabled in all queues.” This was quite the amazing thing to see; Gangplank was literally unplayable in the game as a result of being dead, and it was announced with the same coldness and matter-of-factness as “Kha’Zix has been disabled because of a game-breaking bug.” Now, of course, Gangplank is now very much alive, and his death was only an excuse to have him come back good as new for a Full Relaunch, but this was one of the most extreme, and most interesting examples of promotional events tie-ins in League. This is also one of the boldest examples of it, as it orphaned many zealous Gangplank players of their favorite champion for quite a while.
When you play a game of League, you should feel both as a strategist, whose every decision counts — and due to feedback loops built into the game system; errors cause more errors, and successes make you more prone to succeed, they actually do — and a powerful warlord directly going into battle. The second part is very important, because in League, you do not control an army from outside the way you would in Warcraft or any other regular strategy game, making you only a strategist, but a strategist who micromanages every thing outside of the playing field. In League, the only strategizing you do is macromanagement, in the sense that your every choice and action influence the grander state of the game as a consequence of the way you play, rather than because you have chosen it from a menu. You aren’t a general, you’re a commanding officer, fighting alongside your soldiers.
League is a game about the player’s stories of grand conquest, of steamrolling over the enemy team, of hardship against the enemy team, and maybe of making an unexpected comeback at the last few moments. The mechanical narrative is probably more that of the extra-diegetic player, than that of the intra-diegetic characters. This is in fact, a rising trend in video game design, the “anecdote factory” school, in which developers want players to experience something unique of their own, a small micro narrative event that they can tell their friends about, an anecdote: an emergent narrative. In order to do so, League makes you experience this by giving you a specific role and power fantasy. Each character has a specific power fantasy that fits their theme.
League of Legends was originally a very amateur project, and this was self-evident in the way things were done. Now that Riot Games have more production value, they have finally settled on the game’s identity. The game is called League of Legends for a reason, and every single interaction in the game is designed around champions. The gameplay of League of Legends is character-driven. If the gameplay is character-driven, then so should the narrative.
The fact of the matter is, there are two narratives to consider. One is the character, and second is the player. The grand comeback anecdote I just told about? Riot are fully aware of it, and use it as promotional material. Excitation for the feeling of playing the game and getting a great story out of it, which I’ll call “building hype,” is extremely important. Riot is one of the only few companies that I know of who first started making documentaries about their professional esports players. This has existed previously with Super Smash Bros. fans making a documentary about the pro scene of Super Smash Bros. Melee, but never has it been done by Nintendo. The League of Legends player who watches competitive League is not just a soccer player, they’re a sports fan. They have a favorite team, and favorite players, and watches them religiously.
Riot has perfectly understood that, and has tried to do its best to build hype for the World Championship, the Mid-Season Invitational, and the LCS — League Championship Series, which are essentially qualification matches for Worlds — and has done so by working with Formula One composers to create an anthem — plus an original, frequently electronic, song, such as Imagine Dragons’ Warriors or Against the Current’s Legends Never Die — for each year’s competitive season which is then modified and orchestrated differently throughout this season. I remember noticing this when Riot designed a Worlds cup with dragons and dragonslayers meant to represent how the winners of the previous Worlds had dethroned the winners of the two previous editions before then, making them “Kingslayers” as per Riot’s words, and how this factored into the promotional material and appeared on the first screen on the League launcher, the login screen. The login screen music is also interesting, seeing as 2018 was started by The Climb, a promo trailer matching the login screen — which had two versions, a slower, introspective, almost darker and brooding version for preseason, titled “Anticipation” and the true beginning of the season, “Commencement,” decidedly more epic — in which was featured Season 8’s competitive anthem, and feature the word “climb” often used by the players to refer to trying to get a better rank in competitive play — climbing the ladder — but that was here given an almost mythical, mythological dimension of a monomythical journey changing the hero. And in hindsight, it makes sense. In League, the player and character narrative come together. They must, because the game must make you feel like a hero on an epic journey despite the redundancy of League of Legends matches, and they do so through every promotional and contextual material possible.
In order to offer variety of gameplay, there are, at the time of writing, currently 142 champions in League of Legends, the last released being “Neeko, the Curious Chameleon.” Each champion is designed for one of the five roles, though most champions are flexible enough to fit two or even three roles. Each champion is designed around a thematic, identity, or archetype. For example, Neeko is designed around being a trickster chameleon, and her main gimmick is obviously her ability to disguise herself as one of her four allies, her personality matching the colorful and eccentric epithet she has. Lulu, while dated, plays and feels as whimsical as a “Fae Sorceress” should, and plays tricks on her enemies. Her personality is just the same, and she beats to her own drum. League wants you to truly be the character. Veigar is indeed tiny, but his funny voice makes him no less of a “Master of Evil” who plays like a powerful archmage. This is a deliberate part of the design, as Riot Games have themselves explained in their development blogs that the Champion Design team starts with either a gameplay idea in mind, or a character archetype in mind, and the gameplay and/or aesthetic are then fine-tuned to match each other.
For example, the two characters Xayah and Rakan were meant to be lovers from the get-go, are League’s first concurrent release of two champions at once, and their gameplay design was built from the ground up to allow for the two to synchronize well with each other and work together. Xayah has an ability that gives its powers to Rakan if he is in range, and affects only Rakan and Rakan can leap to an ally, and will be able to leap from a greater distance only if the ally is Xayah. Good synergy is not infrequent between two League characters, but prior to Xayah and Rakan having abilities tuned to have powered up effects when used with each other than with other characters — it was emergent gameplay and not by design.
Emergent gameplay, which is strongly associated with the anecdote-making mentioned earlier, but predates it, refers to any aspects or elements of gameplay that were not a deliberate mechanic from the creators, but that have been developed by players as a possible or even inherent strategy to play the game; and in League, it is frequently synonymous with metagame, a competitive game term which refers to both how the players analyze every interaction of the game systems — that are emergent or not — and devise an optimal strategy with that information. One of the simplest examples of both emergent gameplay and metagame is rocket jumping in Quake; wherein the player shoots a rocket at their feet while jumping in order to use the blast to gain mobility at the cost of health. Not only was this not intended by the developers originally, it has become such a prevalent game mechanic that it becomes necessary at high level play, and the developers have designed their games to allow for rocket jumping in subsequent releases. Sometimes, those emergent elements are bugs that are left in by the developers because of their prevalent use in competitive play.
The narrative follows this principle of building thematic. Many characters, upon their release — or even afterwards, receive different media materials. The most frequent ones are written short stories, but there have been online comics, trailer videos, (some hand-animated, some rendered in 3D, and some rendered in the game engine) and music videos. Many have criticized it as making the narrative barely more than promotional material for the game characters, and in a sense, it is effectively that, but it is also what works best for League. In essence, League of Legends is not focused on one grand, conclusive narrative with a beginning, climax, and ending, but a perpetual continuity of micro narratives, a character-driven, sometimes bordering on “slice of life.” League of Legends is not about the story. It’s about stories plural, and how each character interacts with it. Several playable characters are friends, work together, live together, know each other. Several playable characters are sworn enemies who vow to end each other, and this is written in both their backstories and in-game character interactions — though again, there are some quirks due to characters whose backstories involved previously released characters, such as Lucian who thoroughly hates Thresh — both of them are featured fighting at the end of The Climb trailer — for having stolen and tormented his wife Senna’s soul, while Thresh doesn’t even acknowledge Lucian’s existence.
As such, these small snapshots of existence in Runeterra, need a Runeterra to be fleshed out in order to happen somewhere. This is where Universe and the Map factor in. Does League of Legends even need to have such a thing as the Universe website and the Map of Runeterra? Well, no, it doesn’t. In fact, most things that have surrounded League of Legends are essentially Riot Games’ talented artists, writers, composers, and whatnot, quite literally trying things because they wanted to. In truth, most video game companies have a culture of their own, and a few big names such as Valve or in this case, Riot, do things differently. Riot is unique in that it only has one, consistently maintained product, League of Legends. League can be the building block for quite literally anything, and Riot’s culture seems to be iterative experimentation. To put simply, most people who work at Riot Games — even if the company’s primary intent is, as with all companies: making money — are simply just passionate about their creations, and League cosmetics — while the game is free, you can purchase “skins” that offer alternate appearances for your champions — being as profitable as they are, have the means to pursue those passions. In fact, Riot have put a lot of effort in skins, writing stories surrounding the alternate universes they take place, or put out other forms of media, like K/DA, one of League‘s fictional bands, receiving its own skins along with a music video. Riot could very well not have made Universe and the map, and the game wouldn’t be lesser for it. Arguably, they could go less of an extra mile in creating lore-related content, and the game would still not start to be lesser for it, though the characters would lose their weight and charisma, and eventually the intended experience would suffer. The story isn’t part of the product, but the personality that transpires from it, is.
Riot Games are quite good at communicating with their players. Even before launching Nexus, a platform similar to Universe for development-related blogs and articles, which is filled with interesting insight from Riot employees of all sides on the creative and technical processes, they frequently took part in those development blogs, explaining their intent and decisions, and this is why everyone knows about their creative process, and how Riot functions. This article is essentially based on a knowledge of Riot that wouldn’t have been accessible if it weren’t for their communication.
Very frequently, the release of a champion may be followed by a retcon of some faction or concept they are associated with. With the rework of Galio, a stone colossus associated with the country of Demacia, Riot have started reworking the lore of Demacia to make it from its uni-dimensional “good guys with swords” aspect, into a real, fleshed out country, with politics and a proper culture. This was done previously with an event around her country of Shurima following the release of champion Taliyah, complete with two “short” stories to match; and made its, yet again, uni-dimensional “Ancient Egypt with playable animal-themed Gods” flair into a fleshed out culture, though still very much associated with the tropes of the representation of Ancient Egypt in popular culture. The uni-dimensional “Pirate Island” of Bilgewater also received its event, Burning Tides, which yet again, fleshed it out into something different. Lastly, the release of Xayah and Rakan has had the effect of Riot creating a new race from scratch, the Vastaya, which are essentially any and all anthropomorphised animals except Shuriman gods — interestingly, two of these Vastayans, Ahri and Wukong, allude to real East-Asian mythos, Ahri being a nine-tailed fox of East-Asian (and in this case, specifically the Korean kumiho) folklore, and Wukong being quite literally a take on the famous Chinese tale, Journey to the West, which features the Monkey King, Sun Wukong, in fact, three other MOBA games feature their own version of Sun Wukong — and which then retroactively included League characters that existed previously but did not really have any category to explain their design oddities not found in any other characters.
This is this deliberate fleshing out of the world of Runeterra that led to the existence of Universe and the Map. Quite simply, because there was no proper worldbuilding to put in a website like Universe prior to the lore rework. There was a story, but it happened in a two-dimensional, nondescript world with no interesting features to speak of. Riot have simply turned the tables on this concept, and instead created a world where smaller stories happen. Interestingly, this had frequently led to fan reactions to lore discussions being along the lines of “When are you making a movie/series?” and sometimes even asking for a singleplayer game focused on narrative, or a multiplayer game which would allow the players to explore the world. Riot Games managed to get their players excited for a world that the only way the players interact with in the game, is only by knowing their current playing field, the Howling Abyss is located in Freljord, with the Summoner’s Rift in a forest not far from there; the Twisted Treeline in the Shadow Isles, and the Bilgewater event-specific Butcher’s Bridge — which has the same exact layout as the Howling Abyss and replaced it for the event — was located exactly where the name implies.
That means even things as clichéd as Shurima with its Ancient Egypt flair, Bilgewater and its pirate island theme, the Freljord and its frozen landscapes and Norse mythos have been fleshed out enough to be more than just that, and excited players enough that they asked for more ways to engage with an originally simplistic world that existed just to give a context to characters — Egyptian-themed characters come from Shurima, pirates and sailors hail from Bilgewater. It is helped by the fact that — at least I personally think so — Riot has very talented and creative artists whose artwork really sell the look, and writers have created, good, consistent worldbuilding with the time. The artwork for Shurima has an amazing sense of depth, and there are pieces of lore about the nomads of Shurima, their culture, the local fauna and flora, that all make it seem more alive than it really is. The same could be said of Bilgewater. Ionia and Piltover — my personal favorites — are quite unlike anything else. While Piltover is simply just League’s version of the clockpunk aesthetic, mixed in with Magitek, it is perhaps the most unique version of it I’ve seen, and now my go-to image when I think of clockpunk. Ionia is undescribable, justified in-lore as the land where magic first appeared, and which has therefore been permeated and modified by it. While this is found in many works, none manage quite as well as Ionia, which clearly looks like something out of the normal world, and not just “magically beautiful.”
The main reason for the existence of Universe is essentially to chronicle and conveniently store all League-related lore in one place. The reason why this wasn’t done before was, put simply, because it could literally not be done. One of the problems that are mentioned about Riot’s internal culture in the video from footnote #2 is that they did not have any internal form of a similar archive, because the company had started from an independent background, and as such, were doing things in a similarly informal way. Whenever someone needed to access the lore, they had to comb through all of the artists and writers’ personal work computers to find the resources they needed, and so until 2015, six years after the release of the game. Universe is, in essence, a way to make up for that, after the internal database has been built up, but also giving players an easy to navigate external database.
Universe is functionally browsed like a wiki-type site a la Wikipedia, though it does not have one of the most important components of wikis: viewers have no agency on modifying the content. The main three categories of content are regions, races, and champions. Champions are the most important element, as they are articles who also individually belong to a region and race — making them categories. Some characters do not have a “race,” as regular humans have no exciting genetic quirks to be written about, they’re just regular humans. Region pages contain artwork about the locale — all artwork used in this paper comes from Universe, which makes its usefulness as an easily accessible resource about League of Legends lore self-demonstrating — and general bits of information about the locale which expand in smaller, illustrated articles. Race articles exist effectively only for the Vastaya, as there is effectively enough content for a Vastaya page, but not a Yordle page, for example. The main appeal of Universe is the multimedia content each page links to. The Vastayan page links to an illustrated short story written by a pretend explorer about the discovery of the race. Short stories are the most frequent form of media, but there are a few comic books, video trailers and short films, sometimes music and music videos. Most are promotional work, but some, especially the Ryze cinematic and comic tie-in were not designed to promote a Ryze rework — as he has seen no less than five reworks and probably doesn’t need one anymore — but rather to tie in with the Map. The Map was an internal initiative in order to help the writers work on the narrative while knowing their geographical constraints to remain consistent.
The reason why I used the Wikipedia comparison, is because Universe is in effect an encyclopedia of Runeterran lore. It could also very easily be explained diegetically as having been made by several of the characters included in the game, as quite a few of them are curious explorers and knowledge seekers. The player is one of these knowledge seekers, as they can engage actively with the game universe outside of it. Many single player games have a codex or database of information and lore tidbits the player can easily access, but the presentation in the case of League is interesting. League’s Universe and Map is only accessible through a Web browser, and outside of the game. Of course, the game being essentially a video game equivalent of a sports match poses the same problem as if one of the eleven soccer players — five, in the case of League — could and were reading lore elements while they’re playing, because they need to actively concentrate in helping their team. A goalkeeper in a soccer game is reading up on the history of soccer while their team is under fire, the game is certain to be lost in advance. This is the main, obvious reason for having Universe exist outside the game, and effectively, a singleplayer game can pause the action at any time so the player can engage with reading in-diegesis books and whatnot, but I personally think the League way is actually more interesting as a possibly unintended consequence of this simple constraint.
Most, if not all writers, will tell you that the best method of writing is to show, don’t tell. This means a movie or series’ screenwriter, instead of having a character explain to you in long paragraphs an element of the story and its implications, will show this element happening, and show the implications of the element, perhaps as a background event, or as an active part of the story. In a book, this also exists by justifying the long paragraphs with the element happening in front of the character’s eyes, so as to explain why they’re giving you an information dump, and giving such information a contextual necessity. When it comes to video games, I believe the same should apply — and this seems to be a consensually held opinion. When I am reading a book, I know I’m going to read. This is part of the contract because, as obvious as it sounds, a book is a book, and it will probably not contain much more than a lot of words. Being a writer, it is expected of me to actually enjoy reading, and I do. When I’m playing a video game, however? I want to play the story, not read it. When I’m playing Deus Ex: Human Revolution, I want, and expect to sneak around in ventilation shafts, silently get rid of obstacles using my various biomechanical augmentations, and actively engage with the cyberpunk narrative of the game as an acting protagonist, or simply see it unfold before my eyes, it’s part of the contract, and I do not expect to read about all this. What is the point of having an amazing art direction such as Deus Ex’s if this world is an empty vessel and all narrative happens in ebooks and pocket secretaries? It is not to say that Deus Ex should be devoid of emails in which you read micro narratives that give the world of Deus Ex more depth and organic background events. However, the fact that myriad important geopolitical events that do not happen directly in the foreground are locked behind reading every ebook in the game and therefore breaking the action for several tens of minutes to read them, leaves a bitter taste.
In fact, many large-scale, open world games with large amounts of worldbuilding way too often fall into the trap of separating it from the main narrative. The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim has 337 books, some of which are not the least bit interesting, and can quite literally all be skipped altogether. It turns out, there is often not a place for micro narrative in the main narrative. After all, why would the player focus on hearing the story of a background character that has literally no relevance to the main plot when the world is about to meet an era-ending calamity and the player must hurry?
In truth, the calamity will often wait for the player to trigger the next cutscene or scripted event to happen, in yet another perfect example of ludonarrative dissonance — though Deus Ex: Human Revolution famously avoids this pitfall by making the first mission actually time-sensitive and gives you consequences for being late. Interestingly, only the first mission has that many fail states, to give the player the feeling that there will always be consequences going forward. Deus Ex does feature plenty of background, secret “missions,” both in Human Revolution and its sequel, but frequently, the emails that you read lead nowhere. Every time, the ebooks that you read most certainly lead nowhere. The best kind of worldbuilding, is often through the world itself, in environmental storytelling. Environmental storytelling is defined by giving anecdotal, environmental clues in the diegesis about events that have happened or are happening. Now, environmental storytelling is something that a lot of games excel at and have excelled at for years, because it is something game developers have been acquainted with very early on as a necessity of low cartridge space and technological limitations not allowing for elaborate information dumps.
Valve Software and specifically their Half-Life series is famously prone to this, and it even has environmental game mechanic teaching, though even From Software’s “Soulsborne” — the Dark Souls series, largely considered to be the most influential game series of the decade in terms of design and Bloodborne — games that are infamous for being mysterious and unknowable, and only ever telling the player about the lore through cryptic item descriptions which requires them to stitch up scraps of information earned from several objects to get an understand of the lore can actually do this, and many independent game developers have experimented with the formula, as Hyper Light Drifter is a heavily stylized indie game in which no words are spoken and that relies almost solely on environmental storytelling. And in fact, through environmental storytelling almost exclusively, Deus Ex: Mankind Divided, the sequel, has mostly fixed its show, don’t tell problem. The fact of the matter is, DX:MD uses the same emails as DX:HR, but now, they factor in better with nearly all of the available content, they’re not just sometimes tacked on, and ebooks have a purpose past collecting and reading them all for achievements. Essentially, the difference between the two is a Chekhov’s Gun that is fired, and one that isn’t.
Now, there is virtually no environmental storytelling to speak of happening in League of Legends, though it is interesting to see that it still needs for an author to flesh out a world where the story happens. The problem in Deus Ex: Human Revolution stems from a choice of presentation. When I engage with the narrative of League of Legends in Universe, I already know that I’m going to read a lot. It is part of the contract. Perhaps it is a “better than nothing” consequence of there being no place for narrative within the game itself, but I think this helps the reader be more patient and interested in their reading. Presentation matters, and most importantly, context matters.
The Map of Runeterra is considered a part of Universe, and is even in Universe’s navigation bar in some — but somehow, not all — of its pages, along with Explore, which lets the user access different media such as the above listed videos and short stories if they were published using Universe — some existed prior, and while they’re linked in related champion pages, they do not appear in the collections proper — and Alt Universes which contains all media pages specific to non-canon versions of some characters, for example the Star Guardians universe, a skin line corresponding League’s take on magical girls — and on the villain side, the Dark Star/Event Horizon skins, all featuring short stories set in their own version of Runeterra.
It should be noted that Riot has since partnered with Marvel to create an actual, consistent comic book line that actively evolves the lore, which are published to Universe a few months after their paper publication. This means that in the future, Universe will be home to even more narrative material made specifically for it, or rather, that uses the fact that there is a consistent Universe in the first place to catalogue these comics on.
All this makes Universe prone to “wiki walking.” The Wiki Walk is a sardonic term invented for people’s tendency to lose track of time and go on tangents when looking for information on Wikipedia or a Wiki-type website, which I experienced myself when looking for some information on a train for a story, and found myself learning more about the different subways of the world than I originally intended. Another site which is especially prone to this is TVTropes, a Wiki indexing works of fiction and the tropes they contain with a rather informal style. TVTropes is liberally used throughout this paper because of how useful a resource it is when documenting the discussion of fiction — perhaps more so than Wikipedia — but it also remains a very time-consuming website.
The reason why, is because knowledge is exciting. People, even those who will argue that they hate learning, actually love to do so. Curiosity is a basic human trait, and narrativizing also is. People like knowledge, because facts tell stories. Someone interested in League’s narrative will hunt down tidbits of information about their favorite characters, locale, or race. In my case, I care a lot about characters I played a lot in the game, such as Lulu — whose lore is unfortunately quite lacking — or locales the aesthetics of which appeal to me, such as Piltover and Ionia. This is facilitated by the Web component. Universe is not a paper art book or encyclopedia, like say, FINAL FANTASY XIV’s “Encyclopaedia Eorzea” books. It is not printed in the codex format, and while Square Enix has a lot more lore to put in a book than Riot has to put on a website due to Riot’s lack of internal consistency, there are still things that make it more interesting. A website can be perpetually updated, and articles can be added, tweaked and changed, while I would have to buy the second edition of Encyclopaedia Eorzea or Encyclopaedia Eorzea II to get more information about XIV’s equally ever-expanding lore. Secondly, a codex is read from start to finish, and it means I will always begin on chapter one, and end on the final chapter. This is not to say that my reading of Universe is not constrained by a chronological order of sorts, but my starting point can be any article. Finally, a codex does not contain hyperlinking and tabbed browsing. While there are appendices born out of necessity to postpone non-essential content for later reading — this article uses footnotes and hyperlinks — which are essentially simulacra of background tabs; there are no convenient ways to directly access another piece of content simply through augmented hypertext — gamebooks where you are the hero try to remedy this by having you “go to page 15,” effectively its own simulacrum of hyperlinking, when you pick a choice over another, but this isn’t by any means a convenient way to read content found in several places. This means the Web-based narrative is nodal.
Behind this barbaric neologism of mine, I mean to speak of points of convergence and divergence on a map. While this could be an obvious segue into the Map of Runeterra, — and the choice of word here is deliberate — I mean to refer first and foremost to the Web itself. Websites do not use the term sitemap, links and Web for no reason. If you were to view the website in three dimensions, as a globe or an atom with the main page as its central node, it would branch out into divergent nodes. This is in fact, often the way the Web is represented graphically. Several stories have attempted to have branching, micro narratives within codices, which on top of a single, grand narrative, with a proper beginning, climax and conclusive ending, had small subplots, side stories, or sometimes disjointed short stories part of a collection. Those are all effectively simulacra of the branching, nodal narrative I am speaking of, but they are inherently limited by the codex format, in the sense that they couldn’t be separated from each other. Even when it comes to Universe, each of these stories could be compiled into a book, for they are in effect simple short stories that do not try anything out of the ordinary with their web-based medium. However, the very context and design of how these stories are presented, the Universe website, evolve the narrative from something that could exist on a paper-based medium, to something that is interacted with differently because of the Web Browser and its tools, the tab and the hyperlink. The Universe website is both immaterial and virtual, and at the same time, surprisingly material in its approach to how content is browsed. I can read any number of stories on Universe without having read them all. There is no grand narrative in League of Legends, but small, disjointed narratives that only have links between them.
I previously mentioned that there are several characters that are curious explorers and knowledge seekers, which could diegetically explain the existence of Universe as a compendium of knowledge, but Riot has actually experimented with this. Not only is the Vastaya short story written as a scientist’s travelogue, there are other occurrences of this. In fact, Ezreal, the “Prodigal Explorer” is something of League’s own Indiana Jones, and the Map of Runeterra contains his “field notes” in a few places, which makes it appear as if the information of the map was filled organically, in a way that makes sense within the diegesis. This allows me to talk about the Map and how it interlinks with Universe. The Map is essentially an intrinsic component of Universe, a sort of second interface for Universe. I just demonstrated how Universe works best through node-based exploration, and what better than a Map to do so? The Map of Runeterra is filled with points, and as Riot themselves mentioned in the Exploring Runeterra dev blog, infinitely expanding. From the fact that the entrance to Bandle City moves around regularly, to the frequent additions of content, the Map of Runeterra is never the same. Lately, Riot have been adding to the map points matching the locales visited in stories written after the map was made. Ezreal’s field notes were also an addition that did not exist originally and give more flair and factoids to some otherwise unvisited locales. Some content is directly mirrored from Universe, but the ability to zoom in and see the flora, fauna, climate and facts about each area give a special understanding of how the world of Runeterra functions, and factors in with the way the user reads League stories, with knowledge almost close to — or better than — a denizen of Runeterra’s own cognition of the world they live in.
I, as a writer, find the concept of the Map and Universe immensely interesting. My favorite part of writing, is, in effect the practice of world building. Creating populations, cities, lives that exist outside, or rather, aside of the main narrative, but give an understanding of how the world in which the characters live their stories works. To explain why that is actually a problem, is a simple story. I once had to write a “Gothic horror short story with a twist ending” for a writing class, and given that the Gothic genre essentially seeped into a story of mine titled The Apostasis, I figured I would write a spin-off short story happening during or after Apostasis. The reason why, was because I already had a building block for a Gothic horror short story, and figured it would make my life easier, and it would simply just be more fun for me to build from it instead of creating a completely unrelated story. Plus, I’d have an easy, short gateway point for newcomers to my works. I went all-out on the short story, The Atlesiansward, — both Apostasis and Atlesiansward are prefixed by the title of their subseries, “The Chronicles of Providence” — and in a few months before the deadline, wrote an entire thirty pages of a short story split in smaller parts. From there came my first issue. Atlesiansward was naturally written by myself, that is; someone who knew about Apostasis and had an in-depth knowledge of the lore and worldbuilding of my very own Providentian universe.
Atlesiansward was not the easy-to-get-into gateway piece that I had first intended. Uniquely to the short story Atlesiansward, came an appendix which I entitled “Excerpts from the Encyclopaedia Providenzialis,” which were essentially a short recap of the history that had happened so far in Atlesiansward, and an explanation of the concepts that were touched upon in the story. I am a fervent defender of the show, don’t tell policy, and never explain my concepts in ways that don’t make sense narratively, which means that sometimes my readers are left in the dark for some time, until there is a place or moment in the story in which it makes sense for me to explain them. Essentially, if the reader becomes familiar with a term or lore element in Apostasis, then I will make sure they will read what it means in Apostasis.
This wasn’t the case with Atlesiansward, because I couldn’t make it any longer without making the life of the teacher supposed to correct me her personal hell, and the context of Atlesiansward is a grueling march deep into the mountains — I had gotten the inspiration from Lovecraftian stories which always feature a normal protagonist going through an epiphany and accessing some deeper knowledge about the world, and Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, itself inspired by Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, which both feature a dark journey into wilderness and madness that changes the characters on a deeper level. There simply was no place in Atlesiansward for exposition dumps, because I wanted the moments of peace to be quiet and soothing, not scholarly. This meant I had to exclude the worldbuilding from the story, which happened in the form of an appendix clumsily tacked on at the end so as to ensure my teacher would at least understand what she was reading before she gave it a grade. The point of this story is that I have several stories, and, because there are that many stories’ worth of worldbuilding and concepts being explored, they go all over the place. It is something you can see with this very article, being that my ADHD mind would love to explore all the concepts I introduce and go even further in-depth into narrative in video games in general, but I still have to stay on track, and even then struggle not to go on tangents.
Understanding every bit of the background takes at least being the author or reading long-winded paragraphs of explanation in every story, with how much of a complicated mess everything is. It makes the need for a Universe-like encyclopedia or compendium of knowledge about the lore self-evident. Most works of fiction have their own Wikis, but they are frequently authored by fans, and not by the original creator, which makes the information only what is canon, and therefore redundant with the works, while the creator literally is the one to decide what is and isn’t canon, and an author can fill such a resource however they want while adding content that is not found in the source material. Wikis also generally lack a map that works like Runeterra’s. I do not have a map proper either, only a general knowledge in my mind, as the writer, of where the continents of Affluence, Confluence, Evanescence and whatnot are situated in comparison to each other and the Isle of Providence, which cities and kingdoms all these continents contain, and what are their geopolitical relationships at a given time. This sentence also makes obvious a main difference between the Providentian universe and the lore of League.
While League exists in a comfortable, intemporal status quo where micro narrative eventually has little incidence over the grand narrative, — because there isn’t one — Providence stories are long novels that span over the course of several hundreds of millenia. If the geographical world hasn’t changed much in The Blackrise, The Apostasis, The Atlesiansward, and Providence Online, it is radically different than that of The Eschatogenesis, which had different continental layout, different countries within said continents, and even a different orbit, as one of the planet’s three moons is broken into shards by the end of the story. Similarly, even if Apostasis and Atlesiansward are barely twenty years apart, the latter being a short sequel story of the former, the geopolitical situation of the world will have changed dramatically. This could be fixed by adding a timeline slider of sorts, though it would make a map of it an even grander ordeal to actually create. Regardless, it could be an interesting way to engage with a narrative, as some stories within the Providentian universe could easily be translated to other media — as they were thought with other media in mind in the first place, and writing was chosen instead because that’s the easiest medium to start working in — which would make the stories something entirely new, and a way to engage with it that is both comprehensive and sporadic, exactly the way I meant for Providentian stories to be consumed — Apostasis was originally two lines of text in Providence Online that mentioned a background event, and was therefore fleshed out into a thirty chapters-long novel detailing how said event came to be and occurred because it would be interesting to do; Apostasis is absolutely non-essential in reading Providence Online — then again, Providence Online itself is non-essential in your life altogether — but if you are slightly interested in hearing how the Reformation of the Church occurred, then you can read the full story.
The Blackrise and the Eschatogenesis are similarly part of the “Chronicles of Providence” subseries.
The de facto chronological order for the few stories mentioned is Providence Online (real world events) → Eschatogenesis → Blackrise → Apostasis → Atlesiansward → Providence Online (in-game events).
Interested readers can view my current works here, although only parts of Apostasis and a story set after Providence Online are accessible, the rest being under rework or construction at the time of writing.
An interactive map and website such as Universe would simply help the story transcend the codex format, walk into the branching, nodal narrative, and would have nearly infinite multimedia potential. Not only would it solve my Atlesiansward appendix problem, by essentially giving proper presentation and context to a larger and more comprehensive version of one such appendix; it would make it possible to have the readers visit the Alhtrezaiman Empire they have read about, and its capital, Archaenesctrant, and then its many markets, engage with its fauna, flora, its inhabitants and their culture, and the same could be done for the Saint-Enclave of Novi-Lucentia and the Saint-Order of Paladins and Priestesses that inhabit it, and it would be possible to read about their history, their ethics, to listen to their music, and to watch their ceremonies, all with multimedia. The possibilities are infinite. With the advances of technology, it doesn’t seem utterly unlikely that this is what storytelling will eventually be heading towards. I mentioned context and presentation earlier, and it is simply easy to see that these words are stand-in for the medium and the way it is usually consumed, as well as the para-text. The fact of the matter is, if this gives new context and presentation, then it gives a new medium altogether, and a new way to consume this medium that is simply natural and logical when faced with the multiplicity of the Internet and ease of access very specific to our Information Age.
The potential of such a medium is infinite for League, if they know how to use it. Surprisingly, League works very well as a game and as a narrative, not because of deliberate choices, but the consequence of constraints. The external, player narrative blends in very well with the diegetic, character narrative, and they complement each other. There are multiple aspects of narrative surrounding League of Legends, its Universe website, and its Map of Runeterra. At first, there is the aforementioned metanarrative — narrative about the game rather than within — surrounding the game, and the stories the players live, and Riot Games actually encourage them.
People love telling stories, because they appeal to our emotions, and they often help make sense of the chaotic. However, this dossier is — admittedly unfortunately — focused rather on the internal, diegetic narrative of the object, and it turns out League’s narrative is plural, consumable in small fragments, and branching out.
It is a multinarrative of smaller micronarratives, which makes it nodal narrative. There was an interesting context about how the narrative came to be, in a sense another definition — narrative about the narrative — of metanarrative, which wasn’t a direct part of the analysis, but necessary to understand it, as things do not exist in a vacuum, and context matters. Universe, League, and the Map, are profoundly aware of their medium. It’s perhaps even accidentally, but by designing by subtraction, and focusing on the essence, they have created something integral to the experience, where the superfluous can be built up to better the essence and not overload it. People enjoy narrative. People narrativize their lives and everything around them all the time. The reason why things like a fictional video game where nothing is real matters to them is because they narrativize everything. From stories are born media, and from media are born stories. Understanding the medium is a key aspect of creating the proper story.
League of Legends has, one way or another, understood its medium. Perhaps League is not a Gesamtkunstwerk, or an amazing, incredible tale that tackles themes of death and rebirth as well as Dark Souls does it, or how Hyper Light Drifter in many ways alludes to the difficulties of living with a disease, because its creator, Heart Machine’s lead developer Alex Preston, has several genetic conditions affecting his heart. League of Legends is not BioShock, trying — though BioShock is arguably clumsy in its attempts at this — to ironically echo Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged and deconstruct her theories by writing a game about its flip sides. League of Legends is perhaps not an amazing work of art, but it has given people stories and emotions that matter. League of Legends has understood its medium, perhaps not so because its diegesis tells a particularly pregnant story with strong themes by itself—in fact, it doesn’t. It’s a game first, game second, and maybe a story third. I certainly don’t expect my soccer goalkeeper to stop us both to give me a heartwarming tale about his country of origin, so I don’t expect my jungler to tell me about how his character, Kayn, has a “deeply touching” story of trying to keep the sentient weapon that may take over his body on a leash — and then watching my teammate willfully subject him to being taken over by the sentient weapon because it’s more efficient against tanks. However, it doesn’t mean League is entirely and completely devoid of any narrative reach — some character stories are very well written and have strong subject matters, and essentially, they help contextualize the player character’s myths and context, give their skins more depth and charisma, and therefore, they help the unique, player-driven narrative shine through like a personal, deeply emotional diamond polished out of high-pressure charcoal. It just so happens that, mostly serendipitously, Riot has done the best possible with the constraints of writing for a multiplayer game where each play session exists in a narrative vacuum where nothing happens in diegesis, and the story is kept in a constant status quo, and hinted at a possibly revolutionary new medium without knowing anything about it.