Riot Thursday rolled out two comics and a video to update the lore of Varus, a League of Legends champion first released five years ago but left slightly untethered from the refurbished backstory of the game since its overhaul in 2014. The new story, delivered in a poignant music video sandwiched between two richly illustrated comics, tells a tragic tale of the deep love between two men, death and their unmaking.
“Riot is very committed to telling stories,” Tyler Eltringham, producer at Riot’s creative development group, tells Glixel. “Our game is not built for linear narrative. We want to give players more story and comics and music videos are two mediums we are personally really inspired by and would eventually like to do more of.”
While Riot has created comics in the past to mark the release of a champion for League of Legends, it wasn’t until much more recently that the company started putting more effort into creating long-form stories and looking through the game’s backlog of 134 champions to offer more insight into some of their backstories.
That effort has become more important following 2014 when Riot essentially rebooted its universe to allow for more narrative and a more compelling through-story for those many characters, why they fight and how they relate to one another.
When the game first released in 2009, the story of League of Legends was very light. Essentially, it was meant to be a fight of summoners, another name for the players, who called these champions forth to fight for them. But a few years in, Eltringham says, the studio realized that they would have to overhaul that light story if they wanted to build on the narrative and story-telling potential of the game and its ever-growing roster of characters.
A big part of that was removing unexplainable bits of lore and reasoning that Eltringham describes as “because video games” logic.
While most of the characters now have more realized stories, some were left without fleshed out backstories. That’s something that’s something Eltringham and Riot have been working to fix. The team is currently in the midst of updating all of the bios with the intent of having all of the game’s champions neatly fit within the same canon and universe, he says.
In the case of Varus, he was originally described as a warrior tasked with defending a secret temple which contained an “ancient pit of corruption.” One day, a Noxus raiding party invaded his village, killing his family and friends, but he couldn’t leave his post outside the village. After stopping the attack at the temple, but not being able to save his village, he became slightly unhinged and decided to submit himself to the pit and its evil power in hopes of gaining the ability to seek revenge for his slaughtered family.
Earlier this month, Riot accidentally released a lore update for Varus that was incomplete. It changed that story but didn’t flesh it out.
The new tease to Varus’ background now says that Varus was a member of an ancient and powerful race who was imprisoned but escaped centuries later in the remade flesh of two hunters. “They had unwittingly released him, cursed to bear the bow containing his bound essence.”
The now official, new story, contains more weight and breaths some much-needed humanity into the character.
The decision to update Varus, one of a dozen or so still awaiting a major update, came after the team was asked by Riot Record group to come up with another music video.
“At the time we had delivered three music videos that players really liked,” Eltringham says. “We knew we wanted to do another one but to do something different. Rather than show fight porn or some vignette that is thematic, we wanted to do something that was linear and told a story from beginning to end.
“I was personally transitioning into the producer role, and the music video fell into my lap as my first opportunity. I was really excited about telling a longer story. I know a lot of the teams have been thinking about that. The idea of using a music video felt like a strong bet.”
Up until the new project, Riot hadn’t touched Varus lore, so he existed outside the 2014 overhaul. In reworking the character’s backstory, his look and abilities will remain unchanged; the team knew they had some really strong elements of tragedy and family and incredible loss to work with.
“In the original story he was just one dude,” Eltringham says. “We really wanted to make the tragedy element of the story the strongest bit, the part we remember. When we were thinking about how we keep it intact, we thought about romantic relationships. How do we tear that apart? We had our team put together some ideas, and we were beating up an early outline for the story. We had this relationship built that we were going to really, really tear apart. Someone in the room stopped and asked the question: “Does the gender actually matter?” We all sort of stopped and looked around and said, ‘No, it doesn’t.’ That was the impetus to do something a little different than we’ve done before in making that relationship be about two men.”
The story opens in the first comic, showing the close relationship between Valmar and Kai, both seasoned warriors and hunters who are deeply in love with one another. Through the first comic, the reader gets a better sense of their abilities, their relationship and families. That first comic also ends on a tragic note that is picked up with the powerful music video and then concludes in the second comic, which picks up directly after the music video ends.
Eltringham says that the story’s strongest elements of tragedy are seen in different points of the story, from an early encounter that puts one of the two in danger to the fear that someone might lose a person with whom they are deeply in love.
“That really only pays off because we spent so time showing the family, the battles, caring for one another and healing wounds,” Eltringham says.
The most powerful moment in the three-part story, though, is in the video, which puts into music and animation the concept of not only death but the literal breaking down of these two, body and soul.
The story ends with the two hunters trapped forever with the darkin, fighting to maintain a balance that won’t allow him to seize control and wreak havoc in their world, but also forcing the two to remain, despite sharing a body, forever apart.
“In the end, they’ve reached some sort of unity to control the body,” Eltringham says. “We wanted to make sure each of the three souls have a voice: Varus the darkin is all about bloody revenge, all Val wants is to break their bonds and take back their old lives, and all Kai wants is to make sure Val doesn’t give in to his anger and that things stay balanced.
“The tragedy is that they’ve lost their individual identities. Even though Val and Kai still have a voice, Val and Kai aren’t really there anymore. I don’t know if we’ll see them unbound. I don’t know if we will see a world where the darkin is in full control. But they understand that is what is at stake.”
In making a decision, in the writers room as they discussed the story, to have the romantic relationship be about two men rather than a man and a woman, Eltringham says it was just about trying to make characters that feel real and fleshed out, and that will resonate with their massive, global audience.
"Diversity is an explicit goal for our roster, but that isn't informed by checkboxes or quotas. “Marc [Merrill] and Brandon [Beck] didn’t come in and say we needed a gay champion -- these sorts of ideas come from a place of passion and opportunistic chances to deliver something cool to players."
Eltringham points to games like Blizzard’s Overwatch and its approach to diversity to a good example of expressing why they’re working to create a diverse line-up of characters in their games.
“It never feels forced or pandering,” he says. “And Overwatch is in a great position to do that, given that their game is set on Earth. Given that our game is in Runeterra and we get to create this world on its own, we also get to define what its norms are. In a world where a space dragon visited your planet, and someone just threw a flaming teddy bear at you, two dudes kissing isn’t going to make anyone bat an eye."
Correction: An earlier version of this story had a mangled quote in the third to last paragraph. We've updated it to reflect what was said.