Playground Lore

December 23, 2019

I’m not sure if others have coined this term before, but I keep coming back to this concept of “Playground Lore.” This term encompasses how information (specifically video game lore or rumors) is spread among friends, both in real-life and online.

I was feeling nostalgic and was thinking back to summer days in elementary school. Hanging out on the playground with my closest, nerdiest friends — we gossiped about video games, and shared “fish” stories about our best accomplishments. (For better or worse, publicly viewable achievements in video games didn’t exist then, so any tale told was fair game to be judged by the group as truth or a lie!)

One friend was enthralled with Mortal Kombat, and would share his experiences learning button combos (especially secret ones that no one else knew about) and beating bosses without losing any health.

Another would swear to me that Luigi was on top of the castle in Super Mario 64, and that he’d even seen him (on another friend’s system of course, outside of our group).

A third would tell of exotic Pokemon that were hidden deep inside of the code in the games (then Red and Blue). We would later discover most of these were just screenshots from the website Pokemon Factory… but I don’t think that really mattered at that point.

So, is playground lore anything more than just childhood exaggerations used to steal the show?

At first glance maybe not.

However, I ask you consider something else. For me, playground lore instilled a passion for gaming that has lasted my entire life.

It doesn’t really matter if Luigi had actually been on top of the castle or not (Orrrrrrrrr… at the top of the Volcano in the basement fire level… sheesh, Luigi really like climbing on top of things huh?). What that rumor did do though, was encourage me to try to find all 120 stars in Super Mario 64, and let me discover all of the great (and real) hidden surprises and secrets in the game.

Today, as a game developer, I wonder if it’s possible to create a space for an experience like that to exist again… or if these things just have to happen on their own. Or if they can even happen at all anymore.

The internet has changed things. For better or worse.

If 10 year old me had had a magic rectangle in my pocket that could verify any rumor my friends told me instantly… well, our group probably wouldn’t have gossiped about games so much. And if there are 1000s of videos online that I can instantly watch someone else get the 100% completion goal for a game, why should I bother spending my time doing it in order to see the “secret” end credit screen?

Maybe playground lore just isn’t relevant anymore in this day and age.

Or maybe, as game developers, we can bring a tiny piece of that back by making games a little more unpredictable.

In recent memory, the best game to have done this was Minecraft.

Minecraft didn’t have a strategy guide immediately. The team at Mojang didn’t detail every release with a walkthrough on how to do everything. Heck, even all the stuff you could craft was a mystery to most players. The small community at the beginning (circa 2009ish?) would post recipes for items online, but only once they had discovered them. That was a special time. It was a time of adult gaming for me that had the same sense of wonder and adventure as games when I was a young kid. Breath of the Wild comes in close at #2 for this kind of experience as well. My friends and I all bought it day one, and we had a group text going on like we were 10 again. Every day, each of us would send pictures of things we had found to one another and brag about our adventures.

In my mind, both of these more recent experiences happened because the internet didn’t have all the answers yet. You couldn’t just give up and Google what to do next. It just wasn’t there yet. In some ways, playground lore only has a certain window to live in, before the big brain compiles all the data and gives us the on-demand cheatsheet.

So, my question is this: what can we do as game developers to extend this window for playground lore to exist in? And, should we try to?

A couple of bonus thoughts: procedural generation is one thing, but it needs to be meaningful. And also, more random. Like, instead of every player finding some variation of a procedurally generated level, maybe only a few players ever find it at all. But is that even feasible for modern games? And what about story or narrative?

At some point this becomes an Icarus tale, and I fear that we will end up chasing this unscalable idea of personalized, curated video game content per player. Maybe this is why D&D is still so popular. Only the DM knows what will happen, and the answers aren’t online.