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.
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.
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.
In 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?