If there’s one thing I’ve noticed as both a writer and ingester of all sorts of fiction, it’s the hard shift our culture has taken towards literal, surface-level readings of any form of art and entertainment that would make the most conservative of stuffy old upholders of literary canon blush. A Christopher Nolan movie comes out and the core audience appears to be deep divers into the minutiae on Reddit, doing so in the name of discovering the “true meaning” to his work through context clues and on screen doodads. When it comes to science fiction and fantasy at large, across multiple mediums, it gets a lot worse.
Somewhere along the way the shift happened within these spaces, where exciting and interesting stories weren’t enough. Oh no, we had to *WORLD BUILD* everything. World building, in and of itself, is a cool concept that almost every piece of fiction does, unwittingly or not. While I’m not sure when this started exactly, it’s clear that the idea of “immersion” is partially at fault for this. Escapism with holes in it would no longer suffice. Every last piece of kipple needed a rich backstory and ties to the world and characters that inhabit it.
Now before you get your pitchforks ready, hear me out.
This comes, in part, from role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons and others that have spawned in the wake of D&D’s popularity. Seasoned role players know the game can be fun when played with the right group of pals, but that the experience is also enhanced when the world is more detailed, allowing you to sink further into the muck and mire of an orc-infested world and experience that full immersion. Immersion and this level of world building is not a bad thing, but it also didn’t exist in such an oppressive manner as it does now before. Tolkien had the Silmarillion, but that was a rough work developed prior to publication of the Hobbit or Lord of the Rings and served as more of a passion project that publishers saw for what it was: a history of a fictional world that appealed less than more stories about Hobbits and orcs.
As a writer, you should understand the world you’re writing in, but that doesn’t mean everyone else needs that information always. Following the release of Mad Max: Fury Road I remember reading interviews with the actors and revealed within was that for every character—yes, every character—George Miller had written about a paragraph or so of backstory to help flesh them out. He gave the actors these to help them understand their character and become more immersed in their performances. Did you know that Coma Doof Warrior, the mutant in the red bodysuit wearing a mask of flesh playing a flame-throwing double-necked guitar, was wearing his mom’s face over his own? Probably not! Did the actor? Yep!
Stuff like this is cool, but largely unnecessary to the grand plot of Fury Road. Coma Doof was a cool character that played a killer, chugging death march that helped define the story and had that one, brief fight with Max on the rig near the end, but at the end of the day, knowing Coma Doof was wearing his deceased mother’s face does nothing to enhance the story of Max, Furiosa, Knux and the Wives. Me buying a face wash at the grocery store and the guy at the register nodding and saying “oh, I use this stuff” is certainly an interaction in the world. Knowing the lore of grocery man and that he had bad acne growing up or dry skin and was made fun of for it and that his casual endorsement of it carries a weight to it doesn’t change my life. I need to get home, pick up my kids from preschool, get dinner ready and fold the laundry.
Knowing the history of this guy won’t change those core parts of my life. If I did, could we be friends? Is he a great guy? Is it worth my time to stop and get to know him better? Maybe! I don’t know! For right now, though, for my core narrative, our brief encounter doesn’t enhance either of our lives in any meaningful way.
In the realm of storytelling, lore and deep world building have become a standard expectation for media properties. The most recent case I can think of is Mortal Kombat. A video game series that was developed to be a fun, ridiculous, over-the-top homage to old martial arts movies with a lot of gore. What began as a simple fighting game series spawned a lot more video games, a series of films in the 90s and now a rebooted film series with the first movie just released at the end of April. In the age of COVID, where there aren’t four new films a weekend, the release of a moderately budgeted action film based on a ridiculous game series has gotten a lot of attention. Some of the core talking points?
That’s right, people are somewhat furious about Mortal Kombat‘s lore and how it was either omitted or changed within the realm of this film and how it doesn’t do the series justice. You… can’t make that up. I’m not ragging on people for being fans of something ridiculous. We all do it. I’ve consumed enough Star Wars material for a few lifetimes already, even if most of it wasn’t very good. Still, that’s not the point. The point is lore and world building have become so omnipresent that more than just George Lucas and his midichlorians or “Greedo shot first” nonsense exists now.
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Katrijn Freeman, the daughter of slain Emperor Jonah Freeman, is in exile after her brother claimed the throne for himself. She now must find new allies and a way back home to enact her father’s dying wish: restore freedom to the galaxy.
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Literally, I don’t care about whatever the ninja clan Scorpion and Sub-Zero belonged to was, I don’t care what their relation is to each other in the games or whatever. I don’t care about the magical realms and their histories, or why Reptile or Goro exist. The original characterizations of most Mortal Kombat characters from the early games do exactly what they intended to do. Johnny Cage is a movie star and an egoist! You know how we can tell? He’s wearing his sunglasses and does ball shots. Scorpion is a cool ninja with a knife on a chain and is a skeleton that can breathe fire. Sub-Zero is a cool ninja that looks like a color-swapped Scorpion but while Scorpion represents “fire” Sub-Zero represents—GET THIS—ice and he has ice attacks! Goro? He’s a giant monster with FOUR ARMS. FOUR ARMS!
The inner workings of these worlds, the relations between them or their personal hardships are all things that could be explored in a film setting if done well, but the reality here is… there’s only so much room for plot, characterization and backstory in a film. Fans cried out that surely, if any property deserved more time—at least three hours—it was Mortal Kombat! THINK ABOUT THE LORE!
Sure enough, the film featured about 45 minutes of weighty exposition dumps and world building that ultimately led nowhere. They dragged the film down and took away from the core conceit of the series: over-the-top archetype characters fighting to the death in entertaining and gory ways. I’m not saying you couldn’t make a thoughtful, personal story within this universe, or that there’s no value in that, though. Just that trying to cram as much Mortal Kombat lore into a story where it doesn’t fit, never gets properly or fully explained and tries to please many masters achieves what’s seen in most Hollywood productions today: nobody is satisfied because the creators tried to please too many masters.
If this was always going to be a film series that means there’s plenty of room to explore the lore and history within those confines, but that it shouldn’t come at the cost of telling compelling stories, or else what’s the point of making a film in the first place?
The Alien series has a very similar problem where the original Alien movie did a fantastic job of explaining the Xenomorphs. They’re scary aliens in space! They do X, Y and Z and they’re scary. Alien, the film, isn’t somehow better or more interesting by delving deeper into the history, etymology or minutiae of the aliens and their relations to humanity. Alien is about a sad future where humans go to space at the behest of the wealthy, risking their lives in the unknown to make money, only to find the limitations to this greed through a force of nature that they don’t understand.
Simple, right? Effective, too.
So as much as I did like Prometheus, the fact that the series just kept going and kept diving deeper into the lore of this universe only bogged down the original films intent and effectiveness.
When us writerly types write stories, intentional or not, we use metaphors to help make them better. Alien had some pretty great metaphors in it that helped give that story weight beyond SCARY ALIENS and IT BURST THROUGH THE GUY’S CHEST. Those were certainly parts of the story, but the film resonated because there was more to it than raw jump scares. For folks interested in jump scares and cool effects, those were there, for people who wanted to ruminate on what happened. That was there, too.
I encountered this recently when I read Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation. It’s a short, surreal science fiction novel that was adapted into a film of the same name I wasn’t super into, but definitely saw the value in. There was an interesting thread woven through the story about personal relationships, control and humanity’s own relationship with its physical world. Again with the metaphors, right? The book’s ending had this amazing weight to it, which only helped to put a period at the end of the metaphorical ideas explored in the story.
What killed it for me, though, was knowing there were more books in this series and the protagonist pops up again. Even that the books go deeper into actual explanations of Area X and the people looking to explore it. Knowing that made the first book so much less interesting and meaningful of an experience, instead it turned into another series that had to stop to explain itself instead of making a statement and letting it simmer. I can’t begrudge VanderMeer making a living for himself by striking while the iron is hot. Being a writer means making these sacrifices to artistic vision to please audiences and keep your bank account from over drafting.
These are genuine struggles I’ve felt as an indie author. Series are cool and my interest in books, films, television and whatever else runs a strange, expansive gambit. Sometimes I want to experience something short, thought-provoking and interesting that’s not a part of some thoroughly investigated universe where everything has in depth explanations attached to them. Other times I want some pulpy, ridiculous stuff in my life. Read about a witty Murderbot? I’m down! But… not always. Writing deep, lengthy series is how indie authors make a living and something I’ve been doing because, well, there aren’t any other options, right? Still, I find myself not wanting to explain everything away and ripping away the mystery the unknown adds to these stories.
I still remember the fervor over the Mass Effect trilogy’s ending years ago. Fans wanted something exact, precise, and not some “bullshit” ending. I vividly remember the argument from fans that they didn’t want “magic in space” as an ending. If you’ve yet to experience these games and want to, don’t read further because I’m going to spoil them (I have big opinions on spoilers, too!), but that’s precisely what the creators did at the end of the game. They left some mystery in the universe of Mass Effect and it made people furious. They cried because what was the point of branching storylines, moral decisions and permadeath of characters they loved if there were only three real endings to the series that were all pretty similar?
… Do you see the lack of introspection here?
Don’t worry, I already know the arguments that fans wanted—no, deserved—a real ending to something they love.
This unhealthy obsession with knowing everything and never being satisfied until every last corner of relevant information is available to viewers/readers/listeners/consumers reflects who we are and where our culture is headed. It’s a very capital L Libertarian view of the universe that the correct way to live is to always be “logical” and to only make informed decisions after reviewing as much data as possible, not to trust “feelings” or intuition because those are not based on facts. Not everyone obsessed with lore and world building is going to reflect a political ideology like that, no, but the roots are the same and the parallels are clear. The ceaseless quest for meaning through mere logic alone strips out meaning and interpretation entirely. It creates a bland, lifeless world where personal exploration is cast aside and stifles creativity. This doesn’t mean casting logic aside entirely, just that there should be room for whatever works best.
World building and lore, when used with care and understanding, can be magical and add to an experience. The belief that lore is a signifier of something being “good,” though, is a rather restrictive way to view the world, entertainment and art. Lore should be freeing and allow for deeper understanding and expression, not lock creators into rigidity and uniformity. Lore for the sake of lore can be fun, like the little hidden journals and books in RPGs or whatever that grimoire stuff is in Destiny if you enjoy it. As a bludgeon of truth, though, count me out.