Lore and the Codex – How to do it Better

I’ve been playing Pillars of Eternity since it came out last week. So far, it’s a great game in one of my favourite genres, and I’m enjoying both the gameplay and the story. As with most RPGs, it’s full of lore that’s just waiting to be discovered by the player and enrich the game world. But how much lore is too much lore? And why is it always delivered via walls of text in books, journals, or codex entries?

Last week there was an article on Paste.com about 5 narrative devices games should stop using. I’d like to throw in my 2 cents and say that overly long journal entries have got to go as well. I usually go into games with the intention of reading all the available lore, stories, and histories but it generally takes all of half an hour before I’m overwhelmed with text and start skimming. An hour or two later, I’m skipping them completely. And in-game libraries? Well those just instill me with feelings of guilt and malaise as I know I’m not going to sit around reading for half an hour. And there’s always a library in fantasy games.

Pillars of Eternity - library books

I started Dragon Age: Inquisition planning to read all the lore. But within a very short timeframe of being at Haven, I was quickly overloaded with codex entries. Probably 30 of them opened up after just a brief run through the area, and a look at the Dragon Age wiki shows there are 558 codex entries in the game. Even assuming a modest length of 250 words an entry, that’s almost 140,000 words of text. I just don’t have the inclination to read through all that. I want to play the game, not read a novel.

Unfortunately in DA:I, my aversion to codex entries meant I had no idea what the very end of the game meant. So I was basically punished for not wanting to read them all. Also I have to say that Bioware games, at least on console, have a poor UI for finding your unread codex entries, making me even less likely to want to track them down and read them.

I do think this is more of a problem in Action RPGs such as Dragon Age, Mass Effect, or The Witcher. In a game like Pillars of Eternity or Torment, you know you’re going to be doing a lot of reading – they are text-heavy games. If you don’t want to read lines and lines of dialogue then that particular category of RPGs is probably not for you. But with ARPGs there’s a huge disconnect between running around shooting things or smashing them with a sword and standing, unmoving, reading page after page of stories, songs, and histories. A lot of these codex entries open up in the middle of a conversation or even a fight, making them awkward to get back to.

Obviously, I’m not against lore-rich worlds, or reading in general, but there has to be a better way. There are a few ways I think codex entries could be more accessible and interesting to players.

First – editing. Edit, edit, edit, cut, cut, cut. Let’s be real here – 558 codex entries in a single game is ridiculous. Focus on what’s most important or interesting. Once the number of entries has been brought down to a manageable size, also edit for length.

DAI loading page

DA:I showed codex entries on the loading pages. Great idea, terrible execution. Unless you have the longest loading screens ever, no one will be able to read through this when it’s presented. And each loading screen has 3 entries! Yes, put lore info on loading screens to give the player something to read, but limit the entry presented to 50, maybe 75 words. And make the text bigger.

Second – organize. Make a clear distinction between text information that may have an impact on your game – whether it’s a map that’s pointing you somewhere, an enemy’s weakness, or who the hell that guy at the end of the game is supposed to be – and the stuff that’s mostly just flavour. UIs can also be vastly improved by things like adding a ‘show unread entries’ button, customizable sorting, or flagging entries so you can easily reference them later.

Third – read to me and let me multitask. I don’t share a dislike of audio logs with the author of the Paste piece. If you can’t convey information to me in any other way, then please, read it to me. Diablo 3 does this well. When you pick up a journal the author pops up in a little window and reads it to you, leaving you free to go about your grindy business as you’re learning something about the world.

Mass Effect codex entriesIn Mass Effect, the codex entries are read aloud (good!) but you have to stay on the codex page in order to hear the whole thing (bad). If I could select an entry, or even a whole category, and have it read to me as I run around The Normandy or shoot Geth, I would be 99% more likely to experience those codex entries. I’m trying to save the galaxy here, I don’t have time to sit in the menu screens for an hour.

What do you think about lore told via codex entries and in-game books? Do you read them all? Is it too much, or do you appreciate having access to everything? Can it be done better?

9 responses to “Lore and the Codex – How to do it Better

  1. Ooh, good topic. Not many games have found a good balance for this so far. I love WoW’s little lore books but not being able to read them at my leisure is awful!

    The lore entries in Wildstar were both very interesting from a narrative perspective, and more often than not, they were genuinely very funny, so I definitely wanted to read them. They also had an archival system where I could go back and read older lore logs or if I was busy at the time, simply close a new log I found to read later. (However the actual interface to find out entries was terrible…)

    Maybe the best I’ve seen is Diablo 3? Where it was voice-acted, and started playing when you found one, but you were still free to continue murdering demons while it played in the background. And you could stop it if you didn’t care or had heard it before, AND could bring it up later, I think? Compared to ME’s method of being stuck on that screen that you described, I don’t think I’d learn ANY lore, being trapped like that.
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    • Oops, I mean “find OLD entries was terrible”, regarding Wildstar data logs.
      Rades recently posted..Transmog Spotlight: White & Gold or Blue & Black?

    • I think another part of what makes lore in Bioware games so hard to get into is that there’s nothing immediate about it. It’s not a book you pick up and open immediately, it’s a little message pop up saying you’ve unlocked a codex entry and then you have to go into the menu and read it (and it’s not always easy to find especially if a few open up at once).

  2. I have to admit to being a compulsive reader as well as a history buff, so I actually like all the text-heavy lore in RPGs. I am very focused, so I cannot handle playing the game while lore is read to me – it’s the same reason I rarely listen to podcasts, and can’t watch tv while playing; I have to sit there and give them my full attention, else I miss everything. In D3, when a lore entry pops up I have to either stop what I am doing, or – more likely, since I’m usually in combat and can’t concentrate – go back and manually replay the entry.

    In Oblivion, I spent a good 2 hours in various shops just pulling down books and reading them. I loved it. It made the world seem more real and detailed.

    The caveat for me, is that I am really only interested in actual lore, rather than background info. Bestiaries don’t interest me; I don’t want to read a 200-word entry about the habitat, mating habits and behaviour of some animal or monster, no matter how fantastical it is. I don’t care about the technical specs of the premier capital ships of the fleet. I don’t care about the geological and climate profile of a planet. Give me history, give me treatises on economic or political issues, give me rumours and legends. I will read it all and beg for more. Bonus points if, like in TSW, the lore is presented in a way that leads to more questions, more curiosity.

    If a game is going to hide its lore in books or databanks, though, it had better make them appear in sensible places (no stumbling across a tome in an abandoned barn or out in the middle of the wilderness, for example), and easy to spot.
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  3. I prefer shorter bits. I don’t want to break from a video game to read for 15 minutes, especially when these lore bits are littered throughout the game, often in intense or more dangerous areas.
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  4. I’m somewhere agreeing with all of you on some levels 😀

    Gonna agree with Rades that I as skeptical about D3’s use of it, but once I played it I thought it was PERFECT. The pace of gameplay for that particular game made reading not even an option. The voice acted history was really awesome.

    I like the way WoW used to do it, not sure if it still does: finding books in dungeons and even being able to collect some of them into my inventory was really cool. Loved that.

    Dragon Age Origins totally made me interested in codices again. The story and world was really fascinating so it wasn’t a drag at all to read them.

    All the same I definitely agree with you. I’ve played games where the codices were too long, ill-placed or just uninteresting. Makes the game feel like a slog at times. I haven’t gotten far in Pillars of Eternity yet, but I’m loving the feel so far.
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  5. Reading old entries (heard you on CMP), I think one thing they all need to do is make the lore/codices available outside the game, whether it be through the Web or separate files in the download. Then, when I am in the mood to read, I can enjoy the efforts of the writing team, rather than be interrupted during my killing sprees. 😛
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    • That’s a good idea. As long as they don’t go the Destiny route and only make them available outside the game.