The Lore Keepers: Keeping Track of Who Begat Whom

Apr 12, 11 The Lore Keepers: Keeping Track of Who Begat Whom

A lot of players care about the histories of the fictive worlds they spend their time in. Case and point, a handful of World of Warcraft books have made it on the New York Times Bestseller list.

As I have been thinking about these game world histories it strikes me that there are two different modes here, and I am curious to see what you guys think. A book about Arthas would represent one end, a rich story about a set of characters. On the other end we have things that I think are best exhibited in this kind of video.

Here are what I think the important focal points of this video are. In the rapid fire, almost breathless, explanation of the history of this universe we move rapidly from character to character. There is something old testament about this kind of who begat whom sort of thing. To illustrate this history the video presents the history by laying out cards. This brings a real, “my pokemons let me show them” to you feel to it. We aren’t deeply exploring characters, we are establishing a lineage.

The more I think about this the more it seems like a strange kind of storytelling. I mean, yes these are stories, but in a lot of ways they feel more like textual descriptions of a map or a tree. As we watch the noun cards come in and out of view it is a bit like working our way through a set of flash cards, committing a rough outline of events and people to memory. Person 1 fights Person 2 in Place 3. Person 2 wins moving on to meet Person 3.

When this happens elsewhere

I see this kind of story, this kind of verbal description of a family tree, in all kinds of places. As I already mentioned, there is something very Deuteronomy about it. The contrast between the best selling books about Arthas as an example of a rich character driven kind of narrative and this lore video and the lore video’s family-tree style approach shows up all over the place. Tolkien gave his readers books that had a fair amount of histories in them, (everything from the hobbit on) but he also gave them the Silmarillion. The starwars universe includes the epic stories in the films and many books but it also includes the kind of books that chronicle every Jedi ever. In many of these cases, when you give people a rich story filled world a contingent always wants to ask “then who was the first” or “what came before that” and this kind of family tree, ordered list, branching node mode of describing the past comes out.

 

When this happens in history

I can’t help but think Hapsburg succession. The history as ordered list mode does have strong resonance in historical knowledge. I would have loved to have this kind of card based video when I was required to memorize the Hapsburg succession in AP European History.  (Yes, I had at one point committed these kinds of charts to memory).

As I went on to study history in college I learned to think like a historian. To delve deeply into how context matters in any given case. While we spend a lot of time with these kinds of trees as we commit sets of historical facts to memory students are often bewildered by what history becomes in college, a series of open ended arguments about what counts, about who’s story should be told and what evidence should count for telling that story. With that said, I don’t begrudge my experience committing the Hapsburg succession to memory. That tree served as an invaluable skeleton on which I built out a much richer understanding of particular historical moments and contexts.

The trees are skeletons, they are abstractions, they can serve as maps. When I committed this tree to memory though, I don’t think I knew history. Every node on the tree becomes a kind of stock character card. Motives for actions become singular. Motives become the most base things we can imagine. Causes are nearly always straightforward and familial.

Tell me about the Dwarfs, and this time start at the beginning

I don’t know enough about Folklore and Mythology. However, I know some of the bloggers here, and some of the followers here, do.  I would be thrilled to hear from some others on this particular genre of past-telling. I would be interested to hear about some other examples, but I would also be interested in hearing about some explanations. What is it about these kinds of family-trees and our imaginations? Does this sort of thing let us quickly generate a feeling of a lineage, a connection to an ancient world? Is this kind of chart like story something we enjoy thinking about and committing to memory?

 

 

 

3 Comments

  1. I am probably in the minority, but I happen to really enjoy this kind of storytelling. I think that you characterized it quite well as having something very Deuteronomy about it. It’s a kind of storytelling that we don’t really see much in modern writing. It’s the kind of storytelling you get in the Völsunga Saga, the Lebor Gabála and to a lesser extent, in Beowulf (since half of the story isn’t talking about Beowulf himself, but about the ancestors of characters in the story). In one sense, it’s not really storytelling at all, as it doesn’t so much tell a complete story as it does chronicle dozens of different stories and inform the audience how they all fit together.

    In one sense, it is kind of a shallow way of conveying information. We know the characters, the locations and the events, but motives and even choices themselves are erased, leaving a series of seemingly inevitable causal links. On the other hand, though, if we look at this lore-telling not as creating a single story, but as a method of weaving different stories together, it becomes a way to give stories a depth that they could never achieve on their own. This is probably why the Silmarillion is my favorite of Tolkien’s works. Though each of the stories in the book are fairly short on their own, even a minor detail in one story could have a wealth of background that comes from another story. It’s like reading the Elf Bible.

    The case of Warcraft lore is an interesting one because it not only weaves together individual stories (such as a book about Arthas), but missions from the games themselves, which many of the readers have played themselves. I suppose it could be roughly analogous to reading in a history book about an event you experienced first-hand, though the various procedural constraints of the medium make this relationship considerably more complex.

  2. While I’m not always interested in tracking these histories, some games really lend themselves to this kind of play. Back in the day, we played Games Workshop’s Blood Royal almost exclusively for the way it tracked family histories across medieval Europe. The only “unbreakable” treaty in the game was a marriage contract (as a rule we were an otherwise backstabbing lot), so tracing who was married to whom and what specific agreements were tied to which nuptials was of critical importance. Along with the game box, a large sheet of poster board became an essential piece of game material, and tracking the ever expanding family trees was as important strategically as what and where pieces were placed on the game board. Perhaps more salient to this discussion was that our alternative history became almost as complex and interesting a narrative as the real history. And to this day if you were to ask us the historical significance of 1095 my bet is if any of us have an answer, it would read something like: “Ike married his king’s daughter to Chad’s 2nd son in exchange for a luxury resource for 4 turns.”

  3. In one sense, it is kind of a shallow way of conveying information. We know the characters, the locations and the events, but motives and even choices themselves are erased, leaving a series of seemingly inevitable causal links. On the other hand, though, if we look at this lore-telling not as creating a single story, but as a method of weaving different stories together, it becomes a way to give stories a depth that they could never achieve on their own. This is probably why the Silmarillion is my favorite of Tolkien’s works. Though each of the stories in the book are fairly short on their own, even a minor detail in one story could have a wealth of background that comes from another story. It’s like reading the Elf Bible.

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