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The things we leave behind: Narrative hooks in large-scale story universes
Many of us, myself very much included, can be more than a little obsessive about the things we love and geek out about, whether it’s LoL, Star Wars, Forgotten Realms, 40K, WoW, Harry Potter, the Marvel universe, or whatever. These are all huge, rich universes with considerable depth, history, stories, and characters we love (or love to hate). Speaking for myself, when I get into things like these, I really like to get into them.
I’m sure many of you can relate.
Down the rabbit hole
I think a big part of the love we have for these universes is that the deeper we delve, the more there is to discover. That feeling of being able to go further and further down the rabbit hole and still uncover more is one of the key things that keeps me coming back. Every time I dive in, I see more tantalizing hooks, more hints of events and history, glimpses of strange creatures, or snippets of backstory that set my imagination afire. These universes are generally living ones as well – their stories are continuing to be developed through games, comics, novels, films, TV shows, and suchlike.
There’s something satisfying about seeing story hooks, ideas, and snippets of backstory that you might have been aware of for years, finally get paid off. Sometimes these things were originally little more than a throwaway line, but dammit, we real fans will grab hold of those lines, speculate on them, imagine what they could mean, and then be over-the-moon (well, if their realization lives up to expectations) when they come to fruition.
It’s like the excitement I had when it was revealed we’d finally learn what the hell the Clone Wars were all about, long after they were first mentioned so many years ago in A New Hope (the artist formally known as Star Wars…), or that an entire book series was being launched focused on the Horus Heresy, an era of the 40K universe that had previously only been written about as legend and myth.
Part of this is undeniably that satisfying moment of being completely in the loop with the writers/creators – being in on the joke, understanding what’s being referenced, and really getting the import of and weight of what’s going on. It’s that feeling of seeing an after-the-credits snippet and getting a tiny glimpse of a character that may appear in a later film and understanding exactly who that is – what it could mean – without having to turn to your neighbour and whisper, “Who’s that?”
While it’s fun and satisfying to see loose story threads pulled and explored, if everything is tied up, then there’s not much more for us to come back to. Now, in a story that’s being told as a singular narrative, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing – the author/writer/creator only gives you the details you need to know at a time that best serves the story. For instance, knowing which crewmembers are Cylons at the start of Battlestar Galactica would eliminate all the tension, and knowing the origin of Hodor’s name would seriously detract from the impact of that scene.
Things operate a little different in a big narrative universe, of course. By that term, I mean one that has an endless array of potential stories that can be told through multiple different media (such as games, comics, novels, etc), rather than through a singular narrative (such as a one-off book series).
The trick is to bake in plenty of hooks, but not leave them all hanging around too long
For an example of the two, think of Harry Potter (a singular narrative) and the Marvel universe (multiple stories, some of which may be re-told and re-imagined). The way we are developing League of Legends falls very much into that second category. It’s focused more on the world and the characters than on a centralized plot – which means there can be a virtually endless array of stories told. There may be some larger plots that connect many of our characters and regions (as the Infinity Stones do in the MCU, for instance), but it’s the characters that drive the stories. In a big, ongoing narrative universe, having plenty of hanging story hooks is most definitely a good thing.
For writers, story hooks that have already been worked into the history and stories are like mana from heaven – they provide a stream of narrative opportunities. They can provide that spark of inspiration that might lead to something as humble as a snippet of dialogue or a short-story, but also to things like amazing fan-fic, or be the trigger that launches an epic series of novels.
Every intriguing snippet, hook, or piece of history can form the basis for a potential new story. Some of those hooks and threads can be resolved and explored in a format that’s appropriate, while other big secrets might be held back and revealed in a way that’s suitably dramatic and does it justice – others may never be resolved, for one reason or another (that’s OK too, so long as they aren’t vital to a character’s story).
For the audience, dangling story threads and hooks provide areas of intrigue and speculation, a tiny glimpse of events that hint at bigger things yet to come, or suggest a deeper and richer world history/backstory. They can also function to suggest a much bigger world out there, one that is vibrant with stories just waiting to be discovered. Finally, they also give the audience a chance to voice what story hooks they’d like to see developed, giving the creators a better idea of what they should focus on.
The one thing that’s most important, however, is avoiding creating frustration by dangling out a million story hooks that are never developed or followed up. That kind of thing can be irritating, and can have a detrimental effect, not just with the audience, but on the narrative universe as a whole. It can start to feel like there’s nothing behind all those hints and nods – it’s just a facade of depth, with no actual substance.
So, the trick is to bake in plenty of hooks, but not leave them all hanging around too long without any kind of follow-up – particularly the big cliffhangers. To leave story hooks hanging indefinitely makes it feel like there’s no intention to come back to flesh them out – it starts to make the world feel static, like nothing is being developed, and that none of those tantalizing hints will ever be explained.
Hooks in League
Over the last year or so, we’ve been making a conscious effort here at Riot to inject a lot more story hooks into our background, while also looking to start paying off some of the hooks that have been dangling and neglected for too long (we know there are lot of them…).
Many of the story hooks we’ve started seeding have been appearing in our newer champion bios and accompanying color text stories, as well as through new champion VO, short stories, reveal animations, in the updated background snippets that appear in-game, and such. We definitely plan to come back to many of these hooks, while others have just been thrown out to be used (or not) by anyone who feels inspired by the opportunity they provide.
New hooks were being thrown out that could lead to other stories and developments.
At the same time, we’ve been looking to start resolving and exploring some of the plots and hooks that have been left hanging. For example, in Burning Tides: The Reckoning, we saw the story of Twisted Fate and Graves move forward, shifting them into a new stage of their relationship.
Likewise, we learnt in that story who it was that gunned down Miss Fortune’s parents when she was a child, something that had only ever be hinted at previously, and we saw her revenge getting played out – and then further developed in Shadow and Fortune. And while these threads were being tied up and resolved, new hooks were being thrown out that could lead to other stories and developments.
Similarly, stories like the Bird and Branch and Bloodline moved the timeline forward, and began to edge us towards certain conflicts in Shurima while further developing our understanding of the world. Meanwhile, the history of what the Ruined King did to create the Shadow Isles has been slowly leaked out through the bios of Shadow Isles champions like Kalista and Hecarim and the poem The Princeling’s Lament.
Of course, we still have a long way to go, and there are LOTS of hanging threads that we can’t wait to explore and develop (Who is the mysterious “C” that Caitlyn is pursuing? Where are the other Darkin? Who is going to come out on top in the Freljordian civil war? What is going to happen when Diana and Leona come face-to-face? Will Illaoi and Gangplank ever rekindle things? Will Renekton be able to overcome his insanity, and stop himself from killing his brother, Nasus? What is LeBlanc’s ultimate goal? And OH MY GOD what would happen if Ezreal kissed Shyvana’s leg? Etc. Etc.).
It would be kind of sad if every hook was resolved. As I said earlier, one of the key things that brings me back to some of my favorite story universes, time and again, are new things to discover – but we want to start finding the right balance of resolving some mysteries and advancing some storylines.
Many of the big mysteries and story hooks will be paid off, and I can’t wait to discover how they pan out and what they might lead to. We are definitely looking for our story to move forward. We don’t want Runeterra to be a place of stasis. Some hooks will not be fully played out until the time is right – to do otherwise would spoil some potentially really cool moments – while others will just be left to dangle for a while – something we (or you guys) could always come back to and explore in the future.
The League of Legends universe is a BIG place, with loads of wonderful characters – and we have lots stories to tell…