Dote Night: Does Lore Matter To Online Wizard Fights?

Part of a miscellany of serious thoughts, animal gifs, and anecdotage from the realm of MOBAs/hero brawlers/lane-pushers/ARTS/tactical wizard-em-ups. One day Pip might even tell you the story of how she bumped into Na’Vi’s Dendi at a dessert buffet cart.

A few days back I was reading through Skeleton King’s lore and picking over his evolution through the years. It pulled me into a wider train of thought about Dota lore and how the game itself doesn’t go in for a particular obvious narrative conceit. You are a team of wizards – some of whom know each other – and you want to kick over the other team’s base. What the base does, what the team does after winning or losing, why the characters are on Radiant or Dire side – none of that gets addressed over the course of a match. But why is that the case, and would Dota 2 benefit from a little more lore?

Dota 2 started life not as a Valve property but as a part of Blizzard’s gaming scene. Not even in Warcraft 3 but StarCraft where a player-created map called Aeon of Strife ignored base building in favour of using a selection of hero units to push lanes against an enemy AI. This StarCraft map then got remade in Warcraft 3 using that game’s assets as Defence of the Ancients. It was then maintained and tweaked over the years by the stewards of DotA and its popular variant, DotA: All Stars. Eventually Valve hired mod developer IceFrog and acquired the rights to produce Dota 2 (although the process was not without a spot of legal wrangling over the trademark ‘Dota’ and a heap of copyright-related tweaks).

The more you pick through the history and stories of Dota 2 the more it reminds me of a sprawling city. Over time it has changed shape, bits have been reworked, events have left a mark on the world, people have moved on – Eul, Guinsoo… – but their names remain known. The important lore in Dota for me and a lot of other people is this stuff – the bits that involve an aggregation of real gaming history and real people rather than storytelling. It’s because a lot of it is very prominent in-game. You wonder why someone is calling Nature’s Prophet Furion so you end up reading about Warcraft’s Malfurion Stormrage. You have no idea why the sheepstick turns people into pigs so you look that up too. Then you add “why do these weirdos call a donkey ‘the chick’?” to your search history.

(Sidenote: my search history also includes “what’s so great about yachts?” “what the fuck is a salt pig?” and “best owls”)

There is actually some real in-game lore which attempts to explain what you’re doing with regard to protecting or destroying these Ancients. It’s hidden away in the Archronicus; a collection of short stories you’ll unlock in the tutorial section. The Mad Moon and the Ancients tells the story of warring ancient intelligences trapped in a glowing moon. Eventually the moon shatters and the shards which fall to earth turn out to have separated into either pure Radiant or pure Dire form. Those nearby become dependent on the shards’ energy and develop strange powers. Eventually the influence of the shards spreads sufficiently that it encounters its opposite and causes conflict.

This lore was only added into the game very recently (although it was present on the developer forum over a year before that). It sits in the tutorial section so it seems to be almost entirely for the benefit of new players. But as someone who got to grips with Dota without any unifying or justifying lore, reading The Mad Moon and the Ancients feels a little odd. I got into this game about battling five other wizards across three lanes because there’s a great deal of pleasure in the rhythms and interactions this map and those heroes create. Because it lets you show off skill and pick a preferred playstyle. Because it’s video games-y as all hell. You get touches of lore in that some characters have dialogue lines specifically aimed at one another but it’s a light touch and one I enjoy encountering.

Or rather it is once I’d sunk a certain amount of time into it. Dota is also obscure and inaccessible, with a steep difficulty curve. The jargon is so rooted in its own history it makes no sense. Why is someone shouting at you to “recrow” when what you’re trying to do is summon a donkey? The popularity of the Newcomer Stream at TI4 speaks volumes about how difficult people find it to parse a match or follow the regular commentator dialogue. I’ve wondered whether similar games use a central conceit to help players out at all so I ended up digging into League of Legends lore too.

League didn’t start life as a mod. It wasn’t a weird rebuilding of a different user generated map using someone else’s Lego so it was logical to start with a central, coherent idea rather than retrospectively apply one. (I should say that with League of Legends I watch and enjoy the pro scene but I don’t play the game myself.) As it goes, the pro scene doesn’t reference the lore beyond a few character interaction points so clearly it’s not central to the enjoyment or understanding of the game, but the basic idea is that you play a neutral magician working on conflict resolution for the wizard UN.

The slightly longer version is that there were a couple of Rune wars which left the world in a sorry state. As a third war loomed the League of Legends was set up to prevent direct and catastrophic conflict and to mediate. Summoners (which is what the players are) are neutral forces in this but they mind meld with Champions who come from the various city states and control them in battle on the various Fields of Justice. These battles are used as part of the dispute resolution process and are also broadcast around the land as a kind of future sport – sort of rugby meets the wizard Hunger Games.

I’ve spoken to friends who play regularly and the general consensus is that none of that story is part of playing the game. It informs a few of the character interactions but you could play for thousands of hours and never know anything about the conflict situation in the land of Runeterra. Reading through all of it was interesting but the overall impression was that the lore was a remnant – a concept intended to head off any ludonarrative dissonance at the pass but which never developed into anything more. Perhaps that was because the players didn’t particularly need it, or perhaps Riot decided to prioritise esports and community development. Maybe a little from column A and a little from column B.

Regardless, beyond explaining the runes and summoner development side of playing LoL, the value of that central lore seems to be more in giving content creators and artists something to work from. The lore helps keep a semblance of internal consistency and offers a framework for the development of new ideas. Riot used to produce the Journal of Justice which offered “news” and other snippets from the wider world of Runeterra. The Journal was discontinued though and as far as I am aware, nothing ever took its place. Dota does that sort of thing too – you can find out more about the lives of the characters in side-projects like Valve’s “Are We Heroes Yet?” comic.

But I did find myself thinking about the political side of the LoL. The League of Legends was set up to mediate conflict but nothing ever changes on that front. You just pick characters you have unlocked or which are on free rotation and play those with no sense of what conflict they might be trying to resolve. It’s easier to just shrug off the lore as something irrelevant at that juncture (or as a trite comment on human nature). But I’d have liked it if Riot had tried to incorporate an ongoing sense of impact. Nothing massive, and not a temporary in-game event but maybe letting the overall number of wins for Champions from a particular city state dictate some change to that area’s story over time. It’s still superfluous to playing the game, but ties the two together and rewards anyone who does like to dig into that side of a game.

On that note, Games of Glory (a MOBA in super super early development) has been talking about exactly that. The battles in Games of Glory are pitched as recreations of a famous space battle and are fought in play arenas using clones from different factions (the main inspiration is the gladiatorial arenas of the Roman Empire). Lightbulb Crew who are developing the game want the losses and victories to mean something for the evolution of the story of the game although the exact form that will take will probably shift as the game progresses. When I spoke to the devs it sounded like they were keeping the way the game actually plays from being affected by those changes, though. There’s an understanding that lore is subordinate to game.

A narrative will help you stitch the elements of a game together and maintain internal consistency. It can also help a developer carve out a space of their own, giving a newer game its own identity regardless of its mechanical similarities to other games in the genre. Finally, it has a lot of value when it comes to the creative elements of the community who might want to use the backstory to inform comics or videos or fan art.

But with MOBAs the unifying lore tends to be about set dressing and battle justification while the games create their own narrative across each match. You’ll likely pick up snippets of wizard bios or magic politics after a few hundred hours but they’re not key to playing. I also don’t think making that lore more prominent would ultimately help newcomers. I do think there might be some value in including the other kind of lore – the weird history of Dota and its main protagonists because that opens up a lot of the language. It makes it easier to understand and be understood. But really, all you need to know is that computer wizards want to fight.

34 Comments

  1. int says:

    Wasn’t there a mode in the original dota which restricted Radiant to their heroes and vice versa for Dire? That mode would make the game a bit more lore-y but I suppose balance takes priority.

    • briktal says:

      That is/was the default mode in WC3 Dota and the All Pick mode (essentially the default in Dota 2) removes that restriction.

      • Winterunmute says:

        Just like there was a random and all-random mode, with the random only randoming radiant for radiant and dire for dire.
        Or Scourge and Sentinel as they were called in Dota.

  2. bv728 says:

    LoL experimented a bunch of times with the political stuff, running Demacia vs. Nox events and such. They even did one not too long ago when they introduced ARAM with a whole bunch of lore bundled into that. They don’t do the newspaper anymore, but I don’t think they stopped doing lore work so much as they’re incorporating it directly into the release cycle when they can.

    Which is a lot less often, to be fair.

  3. vivlo says:

    the thing is, no matter what lore you try to attach to a moba game situation, it makes absolutely no sense. Beginning with the presence of such big forces of nature, willing to compete for… for ?… to their uncanny evolution in less than one hour for the state of harmless babies to killing machines, evolution which is driven through the shee act of killing monsters and others, and the quantity of legendary things you can earn in that time, and so on… It looks ultimately more like a set of rules that symbolizes rules of a fight between two ennemy armies, a bit like a game of chess. But it can’t be considered as purely symbolic either, what wiht the graphics and animations and scenery, all looking “realistic” – i mean, we wouldn’t play it as much if it weren’t for that eye candy, right ? And if you remove the lore, you realize it’s a lot more difficult to have that sense of artistic direction. The heroes seem to fit well together, in that scenery. But if you begin to think too much about the reasons why they would be there, and do that, and in another game make alliances with their former ennemies… and kill themselves repeatedly and always reviving… it just can’t make any sense. It’s a bit abstract and symbolic, but not entirely ; a subtle mix between arcade and storytelling. Probably each one is more attached to whatever dreamy interpretation he has of the story because it is so non-figurative and open to personnal interpretation, personnally when i began reading dota lore i had to stop because it didn’t make sense for me – especially the bit where the Elder Titan, a hero which i’m not too fond of, is supposed to be the great creator of the world and comes back to fight his own creatures because ..?… and he is just as strong as the other because ..?..
    During the game you don’t have the time to think about that, luckily.

  4. Tei says:

    Teemo will not be as fun, and DEMACIAA will not be has crazy withouth a lore behind.

  5. Banyan says:

    I would say no. Dota 2 has some backstory that I wouldn’t really dignify as “lore”: Kunkka and Tidehunter are nemeses; Skywraith Mage has tragic love for Vengeful Spirit; etc, which show up in in-game color dialogue when they’re both in play. But the drama of the game comes from the matches themselves. I wouldn’t be against some good fiction with Dota 2 characters, but I don’t know anybody is yearning for it.

  6. NikkorLass says:

    I never felt like League of Legends needed lore or an in-game narrative, but it certainly added something to the game. The newspaper in particular was pretty great, it never took itself too seriously and told some interesting little stories.
    While I’ve only played 1 or 2 games of Dota 2, I’ve still read all the champion lore, because I really like that sort of short form narrative.
    I don’t think a MOBA needs lore to be good, but it does cater to some people who like that sort of stuff and even if it only reaches a percentage of the people who play the game, it still seems worthwhile to put in.

  7. Tauemperor says:

    If you are looking for a moba with lore interaction and effect look no further than Dawngate, the moba coming out by Waystone games. A couple months ago Waystone started introducing living lore to the game which runs over a weekend and gives players the ability to use their wins as a way to influence hoe the game progresses. Examples of this include new skins, new character early previews, and even new voice work and interactions between characters.

    In fact id say one of the biggest hurdles to lore in mobas is a need and cost for returning voice actors, effectively taking one of the few static parts of development and putting it into the pile of ever changing and ever costing elements.

  8. PedroTheHutt says:

    I feel like the League of Legends being set up as a means of settling political disputes is directly contradicted by the gameplay, where champions of fiercely competing nations, up to and including crown princes can fight side by side with sworn enemies on the same team… so what is happening there exactly? (And as a personal pet peeve, the mind control side of the whole summoner thing always kinda rubbed me the wrong way)

    So they might’ve had grander ideas about their lore and how it should tie into their gameplay, but those have clearly been discarded in favour of eSports and selling heavily overpriced skins that don’t fit the aesthetic of the default characters.

    In Dota 2 there are no outspoken factions and there is no real outspoken tournament or political side of things going on so it’s easier to accept things like Lina and Crystal Maiden burying the sibling rivalry for a bit or Kunkka and Tidehunter striking up an alliance of convenience. That said, Valve have used changes forced upon them (probably by Blizzard) to make for fun events and make for a richer lore, like the change from Skeleton King into Wraith King, it was tied into the lore and at the same time it became their Christmas event and gave the community something fun to do. So now you can look upon Wraith King and think “Yup, that’s our doing”.

    But all in all I don’t think ARTS games need a deep narrative, not that they shouldn’t try and if there is one that can marry lore, narrative and gameplay expertly I’d probably play it, but as of right now I don’t think this is a necessity, and I say this as someone who typically devours lore articles of games.

  9. Ashrand says:

    actually skeleton kings lore is a brilliant meta-commentary on free to play in general and MOBA’s particularly, ” for as long as he is perpetually building and adding to his domain he cannot die.”

    I don’t suppose that was intended though

  10. Hypnotron says:

    The only reason to add lore I think is to set up a foundation for spinoffs, toys & miniatures, or to explain why various evolutions to the game occurs.

    There’s a pointlessness to MOBA battles that seems to need to be explained one way or another…

    Possibilities:
    1) They are slaves of the gods doing battle in the “great game” for all of eternity. Maybe these “heroes” don’t know they are slaves. Maybe they do. Maybe one day these gods will have the tables turned on them?

    2) Same as above but instead of slaves of gods, they are slaves of aliens. (see Planet Hulk). Maybe one day these aliens will have the tables…

    3) These heroes are lost in purgatory. They are trying to find a way out so they try all these various combinations of battles hoping to find the one that will release them.

    4) These heroes are gods or spirits that get summoned to fight by various creep factions that have aligned to form just two opposing sides. Each hero has their own distinctive looking creeps which represents the faction that worships them and has summoned them. The alliances never seem to last very long.

    5) Like witnessing the Q Continuum, these battles are just the perceivable visual manifestation of an epic raging war between super powerful gods. No slaves required this time.. unless you count being a slave to petty emotions as these gods are constantly switching their allegiances! One day it’s brother against brother and the next it’s father against son or husband against wife! Oh my noes!

    6) Truthyness. More than meets the eye? No! They’re just units brought to life by a team of game developers. They may look like godsbut they’re actually golems made from quantum-nano particles.

    • Malibu Stacey says:

      1) They are slaves of the gods doing battle in the “great game” for all of eternity. Maybe these “heroes” don’t know they are slaves. Maybe they do. Maybe one day these gods will have the tables turned on them?

      That is basically the Dota 2 lore.

  11. mashkeyboardgetusername says:

    Silly Pip. All owls are best.

    It’s funny talking about lore with Dota 2, because it’s what really bothered me about the whole last hitting/denying mechanic. Whenever I did it I was just thinking “Why am I doing this? What sense does it make for my wizard to kill his own troops/refuse to fight so they can finish enemies off?” I know it’s a funny thing to get hung up on, but it really bothered me, I dunno, I think whenever I feel like I’m playing a game’s mechanics rather than setting it just spoils my enjoyment somehow. Weird I know.

    • Malibu Stacey says:

      It’s funny talking about lore with Dota 2, because it’s what really bothered me about the whole last hitting/denying mechanic. Whenever I did it I was just thinking “Why am I doing this? What sense does it make for my wizard to kill his own troops/refuse to fight so they can finish enemies off?”

      Which if you now go read the Archronicus in Dota 2 has a “sort of” explanation (more of a justification really).

  12. steves says:

    I have little interest in MOBAs, and yet you make the subject interesting. Good writing!

    More importantly, I had to Google “Best Owls” because of this. Was not disappointed – that’s some serious staring eyes.

  13. Capt. Eduardo del Mango says:

    FAO John.

    Walker, you bell end! You’ve done this damnable TF2 Horace hat deal up there in your ivory tower, except as the RPS group chat room is the only thing that comes up if you search for ‘Rock Paper Shotgun’ on Steam, we’re the bloody help desk for the stupid thing. Put up an explanation somewhere! We’ve got every ritalin-fuelled hat-collecting TF2-idling teenager on Steam beating down the door thanks to you.

    PS – we’re telling them to e-mail you if they’ve got any questions. We’re not going to sit there fielding questions on your hat shenanigans!

  14. Hypnotron says:

    The next MOBA will be based on Celebrity Death Match. Transported to the land of the lilliputians, the celebrities are free to fulfill all of their most base and depraved desires without fear of persecution from the authorities. THEY are the authoritays.

  15. Detrian says:

    Boy, I sure hate the whole “wizard fight” thing.

    • Ross Angus says:

      If you mean you have no interest in MOBAs, I’d agree. But I’ve been drawn into Pip’s writing. She’s like an embedded anthropologist, who’s gone native. This and her previous article were excellent. Still not going to play one, mind.

      • Banyan says:

        Meanwhile, I’ve gotten very tired of gaming writers who don’t play MOBAs and their “This genre is totally weird, amirite?” RPS’ Dota pieces are appointment reading for me.

  16. grom.5 says:

    That’s an interesting article because it’s the reason why I play Lol and not Dota.

    Lol hook me with his lore. I will be the first one to say that everything is not perfect, but we have enough to fill the gap and have a coherent world behind.
    Each hero is from one part of the world, each faction got his own artistic style. Demacia is more or less European, Zaun is the steampunk/chemist russian city, Piltover is FOR SCIENCE, Bilgewater is pirate and sea creatures, Targon is Sparta like etc.. (To note that, usually, skins are Alternate Universe. Except for some)

    Many of the heroes have some back-stories and relations. My main, Singed, is a mad chemist who was the apprentice of another hero, destroyed the squad of another one, killed the village of another one, business partner with another. I choose him for the relations first, mechanics after.

    And that’s what prevent me from playing Dota. I don’t have any feelings for this world and their strange Lore which seems to be a monstrous patchwork every time I try to dwell on it. (But I like their voice acting. Pudge and his britsh accent is something to listen)

    P.S : Also, context/lore allows many artists, musicians, writer to work and create on the universe. I think that’s one reason why Lol works so well.

  17. Philomelle says:

    The situation with League’s lore was actually explained by its developers. They felt the Journal of Justice wasn’t adding to the game because while it existed within the client, you needed to go out of your way to dig it up and it wasn’t entirely consistent. So what they’re doing is trying to find a way of lore delivery that feels both interesting and natural.

    So far, one attempt was made in the form of the Howling Abyss, which brought out a lot of lore concerned with Freljord (the northernmost province of League’s world). This September is expected to bring with it Ascension, which will focus on explaining the backstory behind Shurima, an ancient Egypt-themed civilization that was destroyed thousands of years ago but still influences modern events.

    I do agree that you don’t need the game’s lore in order to play it effectively. But it does heavily contribute to the game’s culture (some of the best in-game banter I encountered was silly roleplaying), and a lot of players do feel that we could use way more lore-related things, even if they’re not delivered through the game itself.

    So basically, the reason League’s lore team is being quiet is because they’re still a young studio and delivering a narrative of LoL’s scale would involve turning it into a multimedia franchise, something they’re not quite prepared for.

  18. Premium User Badge

    RaveTurned says:

    “What the fuck is a salt pig?” is now part of my history too. I still do not fully understand.

    • Colthor says:

      It’s a device used to turn salt into brown mush, I learned from experience.

      “Why the fuck is a salt pig?” as yet unknown.

  19. Billzor says:

    I was curious as to your thoughts about MMR in Dota, Philippa, and perhaps rankings in general in MOBAs. Useful, junk, doesn’t matter?

  20. Gog Magog says:

    Sometimes the lore is the entire point.

    Why would anyone want to play Jax, for instance, in League?
    Because he is wambam-happy-chappy-tango-mango-chachacha awesome. He’s so awesome the League didn’t even bother checking for credentials or the typical magic brain-rummaging they do and just let him in. At which point he rocked the boat so goddamn hard they restricted him from using actual weapons. In response to which he uprooted a lamppost and fought with that because PUNKSNOTDEAD.

    He’s Kanye West if Kanye West had any sense of self-worth and saw being the greatest gladiator as his only raison d’etre.
    That’s hype. Also he has a cool voice and sweet boasts (“WHO WANTS A PIECE OF THE CHAMP”).
    Jax does not tie into the lore otherwise except when Rito hints that he does.

    See? Simple, fun. This guy fights because FUCK YEAH.
    Truly the undisputed champion of Online Team Arena Fuck ’em Up writing. (or OTAFU, you’re welcome)

  21. Jallford says:

    I love the rivalry between Doom, Shadow Demon and Shadowfiend, there are certain ‘factions’ in DOTA2 which are cool to read about even if they’re slightly less than coherent. Wikilore, that’s basically what it is.

  22. zgtc says:

    It’s much the same as with fighting games; at the most basic level, there’s a roster of people, and they fight each other. Lore exists, mainly as coloring, but there’s no real way to put it into the game in any real way without either genericizing the characters (e.g. everyone is clones, everyone is everyone else’s enemy) or forcing gameplay limitations (e.g. two ‘allies’ can’t be picked by the same team).

    Just as with Guile/Charlie in Street Fighter, or Jax/Sonya in MK, the necessities of cleaner gameplay mean that you’re just as likely to see two “enemies” on the same team as two “friends” hunting down and killing each other.

  23. spretofrek says:

    Psh, the only way to explain it is that millions of battles are occurring simultaneously in a realm outside time, using the strength of heroes from multiple dimensions and even representations of the fundamental forces that created the universe (KotL, Enigma, Chaos Knight, Io) to achieve and maintain perpetual balance. There will never be a winner; all that matters is that the battle never ends. On the grim lanes of the second DotA, there is only war…