David Nottingham talks Valorant lore, fan theories, and what to expect in Year 2

David Nottingham talks Valorant lore, fan theories, and what to expect in Year 2

Beneath the intense gunplay, fast-paced rounds, and ticking time bomb of Valorant lies an intricate and immersive universe complete with extensive lore and origin stories. Intentional in every way, shape, and form, Riot Games' most recent videogame is not just your typical tactical shooter. 

Valorant takes place in a distant future version of Earth, one that follows a mysterious event called First Light. Spanning the entire globe, First Light transformed everything in sight – from developing a new technology called Radianite to creating government administrations.

The event notably spawned a select group of newly formed inhuman individuals called Radiants, who together with other Agents using Radianite-powered technology are on a secret operation, called the Valorant Protocol, to respond to the aftermath of First Light and a new "evil" organisation called Kingdom


Following its first year anniversary, Riot Games are slowly peeling back the curtain on Valorant's immense lore and universe – starting with the release of their most recent lore cinematic DUALITY. 

Axis Studios on how Valorant's DUALITY cinematic was made

Bandwagon caught up with Valorant's Creative Director David Nottingham to talk about Valorant's storytelling and creative process, his favourite fan theories, how they put together each Agents' Spotify Playlist, and what we can expect coming into the game's Year 2. 

Let's start from the beginning, how did you get your start in the gaming industry?

I did not go to college for video games. I played a tonne of video games when I was a kid, and I loved art and creating stuff. So, I went to art college and studied photography. When I graduated, I didn't want to be a photographer professionally and I just kind of fell into working games.

I got my start in quality assurance testing games, which is still a really good way to kind of break into the industry. From there, I worked on a lot of console games over the years and PC games and moved to the States, sort of in the late 90s. I was always passionate about creating new IP so I went to LucasArts, where I headed up a team there – that was a really exciting time.

After that, I started my own game studio with a friend who I had worked with in Lucas, and we made a game for PlayStation. That was really hard, probably one of the hardest times I had working games in terms of running a business, building a team, and creating a game simultaneously. We didn't get our second game greenlit and that left me really conflicted because I always thought I wanted to start a game studio but I was actually not super happy.

It really made me go back to the fundamentals of what makes me happy and gives me purpose. The more I thought about it, it was about working with great people and working on something where I feel like I'm learning but also having a good impact. And that was how I got really interested in Riot Games.

For Valorant, was the lore something that was established early on during the game's development?

It was not established early; in fact, it was the exact opposite of establishing early. From my perspective, the gameplay is such a complex undertaking to nail, especially with the type of games that Riot makes that are designed for thousands of hours of playtime. There's a level of complexity there but Riot nailed that with Valorant. Where the challenge had come from was there been a lot of restarts on the IP and the world that emerges from this – that was basically why I came over because I've had a lot of experience in that area.

I joined the team probably about nine months before launch, but the game has been in development for  five to six years. When I joined the team, there was a lot of really great pieces there but someone just needed to come in and tease out, unify, and pinpoint a direction, and be like this is this is the type of game that it needs to be. Some of that was deciding on the lore and universe for sure but it was also the tone of the game.

I think with great games, every aspect of the game sync together and they all have a harmony with each other that makes the overall expression has a soul. That's how I think about these things, which can make people look at me a little weirdly at times but because of that, players tend to have really deep emotional relationships with the games that they play. These are characters, these are worlds, these are platforms for players' own creativity and imagination and things like that; so I tend to think of it through the lens of that relationship, and the relationship with the player.

You need to make sure that all of that stuff connects up together. The good thing about the universe was that I pretty quickly had this epiphany about a way we could stitch it all together, so I was able to come in and be pretty confident about the entire process. 

We recently released the DUALITY cinematic and that was something that we've been working on for a long time, and it was really something I wanted people to understand about the game. Yes, Valorant is a tactical shooter and for a lot of people, the universe and the story is incidental as long as the game is great they're enjoying it.

But I wanted people to know that there was an intention behind the conflict. If you're playing as Phoenix and you have a Phoenix on the other side, that's not just a video game device but that that's actually part of the lore. That was one of the most central things that I wanted to make sure we tackled with the IP was like.

Since the games launched last June, there have been new maps and new agents. How do you integrate them into the existing lore?

Valorant is a gameplay-first game and everyone in the creative department, whether it's the maps team or the character team, is thinking about how we can support the gameplay and the game experience. For players, a new map and a new agent are really meaningful expansions of the play space. So, for me, if we can think about how our universe now lore threads through the maps and the agents, then it will be much more valuable to players.

We tend to take our cues from the work that the other teams are doing. For example, the maps team are super creative and they come up with these great ideas for the maps. Those ideas will then become catalysts for the story and lore. We craft the whole story, and we can expand and grow the universe in that way. Similarly, with the agents, there's a lot of supremely talented, creative people on that team. So it really is looking for their creative ideas to be the catalyst and then just thinking of ways to stitch it all together.

The other thing is, from a storytelling point of view, it might not have been immediately clear but we're actually on a journey. The game from when we launched has a specific start point and we're moving in one direction so each time we release a map and an agent, we're taking another step towards something. We have a story and a backstory that extends way back even before the launch of the game.

This mystery box approach we've taken to storytelling means that it's not always clear what that story is or where we're going, and that leads to a lot of theory crafting and players are really creative about figuring stuff out.

What's exciting about us now, as we go into our second year, is we're really looking to start to deliver more in terms of storytelling. We're using different mechanisms in the game, different ways that we can just create little nuggets of information.

There's this awesome backstory to Breeze that I'm really excited about. We didn't quite manage to get as much of that into the game for players to be able to explore and discover as I wanted but we'll definitely look for ways to flush that out for players.

We're constantly figuring out how do we get the story out to players in a way that is still fun to explore, and discover, but also making sure that we're not just leaving stuff on the table.

You mentioned seeing theories about Valorant's lore from players and fans. Has there been a particular theory that you've enjoyed?

I've been kind of blown away by how quickly people have put stuff together when I feel like we barely gave enough information, but people would just go so deep and they hit on these theories. There's a lot of stuff where I've been like 'yeah, they pretty much got it', and then there's stuff where it's like, 'oh, that's not it at all but that's actually kind of cool'.

An example of that recently was with the release of KAY/O. He has a really interesting backstory that I am really excited about and it's something that we will tease out and reveal over time. There was this theory that someone had that he was part of the training bots in The Range but he got really mad that his family, the other bots, were constantly getting murdered. So, he got himself programmed with all these military skills and now he's on this crazy revenge arc for his family. It's not our story but it's a player story and it's a really good one.

The other thing is that sometimes there will be theories or people start to make connections about relationships that might change the way that we think about a character or a backstory element. That's something that I think is really cool too when you have a game like this where you have that relationship with the players and the community. There's that feedback loop.

I love seeing the conversations, the theories, the art and all that stuff. It does act as a catalyst for us and sometimes it helps us think about new ideas. Sometimes it helps challenge some of the things we're already doing. 

Every agent has their own Spotify playlists that give players a little more insight into all their personalities. What was the idea behind creating these playlists and how were they put together?

The playlists were really kind of an organic evolution really. I tend to always use music personally in my work because I find it really useful. One of the first things I tend to do for a game is put together [my personal] soundtrack of the game, it captures so much in terms of the tone, the energy, and the vibe. That was actually one of the first things I did when I joined Valorant, was put a playlist together for the game itself.

Then with the Agents, as we started developing them, we were thinking that the music you listen to reveals so much about you as a person. It reveals a lot about your interior life and it's very personal. So, just getting into that mode of what music every Agent listens to was part of the creative process already. Music was such an important part of the game's DNA anyway, where it became this thing that we became really interested in.

The Publishing and Marketing teams liked the idea as well and they thought that we could actually put these playlists together and make that part of the release. So that ended up being a collaboration, they would take our early ideas and concepts, the bios for each Agent, and then they would work with the music team to craft, edit and curate the playlists. The process just always came back down to what music is true for this character.

I love that we do those and I think they're amazing. We're deliberately setting out to have a global, diverse cast of Agents and what I love about [the playlists] is it's another way of showcasing the diversity of our global player base and our characters. It also shows our similarities because even if we have our own distinct cultures, everyone will listen to a banger. 

Finally, what can we expect from Valorant in this coming year? 

I'll start with something we're not going to do, which is we're not going to change our approach. You won't see us suddenly producing short stories and comics, and like building a big universe page or doing that type of stuff because we still really like playing around in this mystery box storytelling and just giving people bits and pieces threaded throughout the whole ecosystem of the game.

What we will be doing is kind of really doubling down on that [mysterious storytelling]. I want players to start to learn more about Kingdom and who they are. Kingdom is just a symbol in our game right now when actually, they are a key instrumental force that has propelled our universe forward. There's a lot of theories I've seen amongst players who think they're the big, bad evil company that's behind everything but things are not quite that simple in this world. People will start to see that as we start to reveal a bit more.

I definitely want to start taking players on a journey through the world. Like, DUALITY ended with this shot of Earth and a parallel planet right beside it – what does that mean? So, in year two, I want players to start to understand a little bit more about where these other agents are coming from.

We're telling the story through the perspective of our world, which is a world that is being attacked by these agents that are coming in. They're planting the spike and trying to steal Radianite, but why are they doing this? Why is Radianite so important? What even is Radianite? There's definitely a story there we're waiting to tell.

That's what gets us back into this whole origin story, going back to the First Light, and what that event was.  We're gonna start to provide some more of that information soon but I don't want to necessarily go back in time so I want to find ways to reveal those bits to players in the course of the journey we're on.

Valorant is a free-to-play first-person shooter game, available for download through Riot Games' official website