In today’s world, where World of Warcraft is getting a new expansion with major worldbuilding implications, Hearthstone is expanding the story of the maniacal and enigmatic Dr. Boom, and Fortnite builds narrative hype in a game that doesn’t even include dialogue, it begs the question: what’s everyone else doing? Just sitting on their hands? Of course, there are the games that are self-contained stories, like most AAA games released nowadays, and there are the old games that don’t really need any sort of ongoing narrative to serve their purpose, like GTA or Minecraft. But what about the games that had such rich lore and potential, then just ignored that momentum? Now I know what everyone’s thinking: “I can’t believe Overwatch refuses to acknowledge that D.Va was a Starcraft player! That’s so unfair after they explicitly confirmed it multiple times!” I understand, and I’m just as upset as you are. But I’m not talking about that. I’m talking about League of Legends.
When League first came out, it was cartoony, silly-looking, and most of all, it hardly took itself seriously. There was a serious structure to the game’s lore, that designated champions of political city-states fought in symbolic combat to settle disputes between these powers. There were reasonably fleshed out backstories for most of the characters and they had motivations and reasons to be part of the League of Legends. And that’s basically where the good lore ended. I’ve heard people complaining about retconning Varus’s backstory (FYI: They added it back) and whining about the cultural erasure when they changed Ahri’s lore. I’ve never heard anyone complain about the other 75% of the lore, things like Blitzcrank’s Fleshling Dating Service, the fact that Taric, Morgana, Nasus, and Nocturne all game from different, distinct dimensions, or even that Twisted Fate and Evelynn dated for a while. It’s like Riot’s writers took the original structure for the League of Legends, threw darts at a board full of champion names and verbs, then wrote bad fanfiction about those champions and those verbs. League of Legends’ lore was off the wall, sparsely linked together, and generally off-topic.
Now that’s not to say I didn’t like it. For a game as ridiculous-looking as League was in its early days, with pizza feet galore, pretending that everything was serious business and you couldn’t laugh at anything would have been a death sentence. And for every piece of lazy writing or poor design (Valoran is a big circle, anybody?) there were some truly awesome pieces of lore. The Judgements that were written, detailing how the League of Legends (which used to actually be a thing) surveyed and determined whether each champion was fit to fight and whether their motives were pure, were never anything less than spectacular. The Journal of Justice, the cutesy slice of life newspaper that came out regularly with short snippets about champion life and interaction, was adorable and gave some real life to these fun-filled lovingly designed characters. But the problem with the old lore was that it was so damn inconsistent. For every amazing piece of champion backstory, there were five of Taric’s lore. By the time that Riot decided to scrap the old lore entirely and redo it, there were more champions “from a distant world” that “joined the League to further their own aims” than I could count. And by that time, my hopes and dreams for League of Legends’ fleshed out world were crushed.
It’s been more than a couple years since then. Half a decade ago, League of Legends had a lore event. This was the first lore event since the Ionia vs Noxus showmatch that gave us the Ionian Boots of Lucidity, back when names like Guardsman Bob were commonplace and Phreak still had hair. Nobody really knew what to make of this new event, especially since it was pretty unexpected. It coincided with the release of Lissandra and the Howling Abyss, plus it gave out nice icons as rewards, so people got involved. Most were just looking forward to playing ARAMs on a map other than the Proving Grounds, but some of the hopeful lore junkies like me saw the event for what it really was: a chance to right all of that horrible, cobbled-together lore than plagued the game since its release. But it was slow starting. The Freljord event barely covered half the champions that actually came from the Freljord and left the ones not featured in the event with two lines of backstory in their profiles. It was bittersweet: on one hand, we got to read about the tribal politics of the Freljord and how Ashe, Sejuani, and Lissandra came to power with beautiful backgrounds of the frozen wastes that made up the Freljord. On the other hand, characters like Brand who previously had a full story were reduced to “Kegan Rodhe was a sailor. He found a magic fire that was ice too, not just fire. Then he touched it and now he’s Brand.” Everyone knew it was just a placeholder lore, but nobody knew how long it would take to replace that placeholder. League’s lore sputtered along for two more years after the Freljord event, with new champions really only being released with a short cinematic and a few paragraphs explaining where they came from and what they did. Then Bilgewater: Burning Tides turned everything on its head.
Burning Tides combined the interactive portion of the Freljord event with actual worldbuilding and plot progression for these characters that some of us had been interacting with for six years at that point. The Gangplank rework that began the event brought everyone out of the woodwork to play the new champion, then handed out free rewards and icons for playing the other Bilgewater champions, encouraging people to actually learn who was from Bilgewater. Then they killed Gangplank and physically disabled him in game, leading more and more irate new Gangplank mains to figure out what had lead Riot to this decision. And finally, he crawled out of the sea with a new skin, releasing a new set of skins that coincided with the lore event. I still believe that Burning Tides was their best lore event to date, but then they dropped the ball for another year. It took 16 months for them to realize that they couldn’t just release these self-contained lore updates and let them rot in the archives for the rest of time. That’s when the Universe released, and that’s about the same time that my hopes were rekindled.
The lore team put it perfectly: “We’d release new content, get really excited about it, then immediately disappear it into the interwebs when new stuff came out”. League’s lore was fractured and scattered across a bunch of different subsites that made it almost impossible to find the thing that you’d been looking for. Not to mention they’d been quietly deleting most of the old lore, opting to brush the ancient garbage under the rug, as it were. So they released Universe, where they compiled all the concept art, music, videos, and, most importantly, stories. It looked like League finally was taking a real step toward having actual lore. Then for the next two years, there were smaller updates, with a batch of stories for related champions or regions being all released over a few days, then a commemorative icon in-game for visiting the Universe page for the region. There wasn’t hardly anything on the scale of Bilgewater: Burning Tides. And there had been one question that sounded for the past three years ever since the lore officially rebooted: Where’s the map?
Maps are the lifeblood of good worldwide storytelling. Being able to point out where something is and what’s near it means you can add so much depth to your world without having to stick within a mile of a landmark. There’s only so many times you can read “They were at least four days’ march from Demacia” before you close your browser in disgust. And in true League of Legends lore team style, they responded, it just took them a few years. Ever since a merchant map of the coast around Piltover and its trade routes surfaced, avid readers have been clamoring for a complete map, not just a coastline and vague directions (This way to Shurima). And two days ago, Riot delivered. A full map of Runeterra, right down to the floating portal that leads to Bandle City, showed up on the League of Legends website, and everything came together. On top of that, the Brand backstory that had been down to a few lines since 2013 ballooned into a beautiful interconnected story linking Kegan Rodhe to Ryze, plus a half-hour story that made me tear up a little. The world map finally puts a picture to the name Runeterra and went from a series of really good writing exercises to a fleshed out world that any Dungeon Master would almost literally kill to take credit for. Riot is running down the last couple of regions that need a good look at before they can start officially working on building around their base, and they’re fully committed to it. Riot Games President Tryndamere even hinted at developing a League of Legends MMO. It’s been a rough five years, but it looks like Riot has finally got it together and is going to deliver on one of the largest out-of-game interconnected worlds that the video game industry has ever seen.