Of all of the games you would expect to pull a narrative reboot – put on a list, perhaps – I am sure that League of Legends would be near the absolute bottom.
After all, League is almost never associated in the popular consciousness with its narrative or indeed its lore and universe in general. The fast paced, hyper competitive MOBA is instead associated with, well, that it is perhaps the competitive gaming phenomenon of the 21st century. Its tournaments attract 32 million viewers worldwide, two million dollar prize pools for its winners, and has paved the way for a form of resurgence for e-sports in the last 5 years with games like DOTA 2 and Counter-Strike: Global Offensive. Among all of this hubbub, its easy to forget that Riot has dedicated a lot of time to fleshing out the narrative of their strange universe, with Summoners and the Institute of War and a surprisingly level of detail (though not too much; it is, after all, a game dedicated to gameplay).
Which makes today’s news that Riot will be completely retooling its narrative universe rather surprising (perhaps there is a little bit of influence from the recent decision to expunge the Star Wars extended universe from canon?). In a long post on the Riot Dev Blog, Tommy Knox highlighted a key problem with the way League of Legends has expanded over the last few years; “Story has the potential to affect every element of League of Legends, so the decision to venture into new narrative territory wasn’t made quickly or capriciously… The background we’d created to explain in-game action was ultimately restricting the potential narrative development of the game’s defining characters.”
That last line is critical. The tacit admission of a conflict between gameplay and narrative is an admission that very few games are willing to cough up when criticized for it. The bizarre tonal dissonance, for example, between the anti-war messages of the Modern Warfare series and their borderline fetishistic love of military technology in the series’ massive set piece action moments is little more than shrugged off by its developers when mentioned, and is almost never taken into account when the next title in the series comes around. That Riot, a developer not known for flexing their storytelling muscles, is mature enough to recognize this pitfall and adapt to it is remarkable and worthy of recognition.
But perhaps the implications of the narrative reboot of League of Legends go further than just being a nice piece of maturity on behalf of Riot. I think this is a great example to be set for gaming on the whole. Gaming is at a narrative crossroads, one of many crossroads this industry faces in the modern era. There is a lot of debate over the place of storytelling in gaming, whether or not it should be considered on equal grounds to the gameplay, and whether or not the new breed of narrative focused indie games in the vein of Gone Home actually qualify as games on the whole. It is an important conversation that will permanently change the gaming landscape probably without our realizing it, and the League reboot could play a bigger part in the proceedings than it seems.
What the League reboot represents is an important step forward for narrative’s importance in gaming on the whole. As a game, League of Legends is almost infamous for its pure gameplay focus that has made it a force to be reckoned with on a global scale. For Riot to retool their entire standing universe in order to accommodate new narrative ambitions for the game sets a remarkable precedent for the industry. If Riot is willing to make narrative a greater focus in their multiplayer arena battle game, then narrative can be of far greater importance in gaming overall.
A small step, sure, but an admirable one that is, I think, an important one for gaming.