You know what I like to do when I'm extremely stressed? Write an absurdly long paper on a topic that will in no way help me move forward with my stress, but might distract me for a little while. So that's what I'm doing.
I mean this as a way to open discussion about the story, (And how it stands up to others) from both a literary point of view and a general lore perspective. Hold it up to high standards. Because of this, I will be avoiding references to information gleaned from Q&A things, and sticking rather strictly to the texts themselves. Similarly, feel free to tear apart this thing, if it furthers the discussion.
It is no secret that recent champion lore has been spotty. From the effective neutering of Leona and Diana's personalities, to the pompous, fitting introduction of Aurelion Sol, to the mixed bag of Taric's updated lore and his mandate to protect flowers, the quality has run like a dormitory shower: some hot, some cold, sometimes with the faint odor of sulfur.
When I see a lore update, I am not eager; I am braced. It can go phenomenally well, or mediocre. There might be insights into nations, the world, the expanding universe, and the relationships forming between characters from all three, or there might be a short combat scene that tells us more about how boring void creatures are to fight, night after night, than it does about the person holding the scythe.
Despite this, I still feel a thrill when I see a new story, and this time it was rewarded.
"The Bird and the Branch" marks a change in style of narration, more similar to Kindred's "A Good Death," than any of the lore released since: the focus of the story isn't on the events, it's on the characters. Over the course of the short story, we see how Taliyah lives with and regards another person, who, to our delight, is another champion. She grows from someone dangerous and threatening to those around her because of her uncontrolled abilities to someone who is comfortable using them as a means to an end, if not yet fully conquered, through the help of another that has walked a similar path.
The fact of MOBA games--more so than most other games with such defined characters because we face real, thinking people--is that we can play to a power fantasy. We can see the limits of what is possible with a character, and achieve that ourselves through diligent practice and time. Our greatest moments aren't locked away behind a cutscene.
What we _cannot_ see is how these characters live. Certainly, combat might have some part in their lives, they are characters in a fighting game, after all. They had best be good at it. But combat is not the only way they spend their time. Even Xin Zhao, when he was captive in an arena, would have some kind of relationship with his jailers, an inner life that sustained him through the trials.
Taliyah's story is a direct answer to this, and its interest and the reader's investment comes from how we relate to her. She's a girl, presumably young from the descriptions, homesick and alone in a hostile environment. We hope she finds what she's looking for, whether it's food, water, or a pulse in Yasuo's almost-corpse, because she doesn't deserve what's happening to her, just for refusing to follow orders to kill. As the story goes on, we get a peek into the life of Yasuo, someone whose present story has been all but unknown.
And then, what really makes this story interesting in my eyes: we see how they relate.
#The Trinity of Exiles
A.K.A. Yes, I See The Similarities To Riven, Too
Alright. Now we've gotten to Yasuo, which means, inevitably, Riven. I'll take the three as a whole first, to show the similarities that run through all of them, and then break it down into pairs, so we can examine what new has come about between Riven and Yasuo, and how this development helps increase the effect of the piece as a whole.
Note: If you do not care about the relations between them, which come down to my own close readings of the text, then you can skip to the next large bold heading. You'll know it when you see it.
First, the easiest: all three cannot return to their country, for one reason or another. The first because they don't believe she's alive (and she would refuse until such time as they have reformed near as much as she has), the second because he is being chased under pain of death, and the third because she is a danger to those she loves, who will accept her back once she is in control. None of them are forbidden from ever returning; there is a condition that each may satisfy to be welcomed back with open arms.
Second: The condition each must satisfy is a redemption. Riven will redeem her homeland and it's morals, Yasuo will be redeemed by bringing the murderer to justice, and Taliyah will be redeemed by proving her control.
Third: They are all victims of the Noxian invasion. A minor point, overall, but true nonetheless. If the invasion had never come to pass, their lives would have taken far different turns. Taliyah's would, without having met Yasuo, perhaps turned out the worst of the three of them.
Fourth: They are alone. Yasuo and Riven have their blades, but even they know that it isn't enough.
>Yasuo, VO: "A sword's poor company for a long road."
>Riven, VO: "A sword mirrors its owner."
>Taliyah: "The loneliness that haunted her..."
>Taliyah: "It had been so long since she had been around people...the man who now served as her teacher didn't count."
Being alone is part of who they are, so much so that they withdraw from those who are close to them the way Yasuo and Taliyah do, by even keeping names from each other.
And now the fun part, where I enumerate some of the reasons people will ship these three in all manner of ways.
##Taliyah and Riven
I will be using the present lore for Riven, as the Institution doesn't have quite as much influence during her time in the Noxian Legion as it does afterward, and the retcon likely hasn't affected her in quite the same way as it would those champions closer to the institute. Besides, we don't have any new Riven lore, so really, I don't have much of a choice.
Taliyah's experience with the Noxian Legion is that of an outsider brought in for her power. She would, if she had subscribed to Noxus beliefs, have risen to become quite a prominent figure as her power over the earth is nothing short of incredible. Instead, she broke from the legion for personal reasons, unwilling to commit the atrocities of war that they were asking of her. She was to be used as a weapon of mass destruction, rejected the notion, and left the legion for those reasons. It's unclear whether she was cast out and thrown into the sea, or if she jumped of her own accord, but the former seems more likely from the wording of the opening two lines.
When she returns to Shurima, her intent is to protect her family and their current way of life, to keep them from being turned into slaves to a reborn god.
Riven grew up in Noxus, suffused with the Noxian ideals and way of life. She _did_ rise through the ranks by her skill and notable service. When she broke from the Legion, it was on the heels of being personally subjected to a weapon of mass destruction used by her commanders. She was given a first-hand example of what the Noxians were doing to the people of Ionia, and it was this revelation that drove her to break her sword and cast herself adrift.
If and when she returns to Noxus, it will be because Noxus has returned to their old way of life, an ideal that has not, perhaps, been present since the reincarnation (or even the death) of Sion.
##Yasuo and Riven
Alright. _Alright._ So this one requires a time frame of when "The Bird and the Branch" happens compared to the present time of Runeterra to know what's going on, and that is given to us by two things: the use of Taliyah's string as Yasuo's hair band, and the lack of a scar on Yasuo's face in the footer image. Putting aside the question of whether or not Yasuo's hair binding habits are being retconned to begin now, we know for a fact that the scar across his nose is very much present in the, well, present. So this _likely_ happens before Yasuo has a chance to meet Riven in person. If he knew where she was, it's more than likely he'd be chasing after her, anyway.
So, with that in mind, let's dig into this beautiful little tidbit said by him:
>Yasuo: "Nothing was broken that cannot be mended."
Yes. That does sound familiar. Anyone who has ever played Riven, watched someone play Riven, or looked up much of anything surrounding her, has likely heard her say "What is broken can be reforged." It's sort of her whole _thing_ in League. Hells, its her ultimate. And here, Yasuo paraphrases the line so closely as to mean almost the same thing. There are numerous other instances of this, scattered throughout, where Yasuo says things from Riven's VO lines, and some from her _League Judgement:_
>Riven Judgement: "Focus is essential," her drill instructor used to bark.
>Riven VO: "No more hesitation."
>Yasuo, excerpt: "You must focus," he said. "You cannot hesitate."
The parallels between the two are established here, suggesting that, beyond the similarities of their circumstances, they view their worlds in similar ways. This is an important evolution in the way they relate to one another, from the perspective of a reader. It presents to us that there is more similar than different, which can shed a new light on Yasuo's VO lines. If he sees in her something of himself, the way these lines suggest he would, then the talk of a reckoning in his VO when interacting with Riven, and more, the quote:
>Yasuo, VO: "You can't run from yourself, Riven...I've tried."
can be interpreted as an indictment of himself, as much as it is a warning to her.
##Yasuo and Taliyah
And finally, the one with the most textual evidence to support it, since, well, this whole thing is about the two of them.
The student/mentor relationship is a big influence in their dynamic as a whole. Yasuo grew up in a school, with his older brother as his great role model. Yone taught him the most important lessons in life, and Yasuo had so much faith in his brother, that he pressed down his own desires for glory just to take Yone's advice, and accepted the lesser post of a guard for a village Elder. If Yasuo had chosen his own way, or if he had decided to take the guard post not for Yone, but because it was something Yasuo knew needed to be done, then he wouldn't have ever left the Elder unprotected. Yasuo's very respect for his brother as a role model led to his downfall, and Yone's death.
In teaching Taliyah to control her abilities, Yasuo is giving her what she most wants in her life: a way to return home. Respect for a mentor is easy to come by, when the mentor is effective and not cruel. The respect is made most clear in her near-blind trust of him: blamed of a crime, without any knowledge of his past, she believes without doubt that he did not do it. This trust that "was almost painful to him" can be seen as a reflection of his own trust in his brother.
Once he recognizes it in her, he no longer enforces his will over her. She wishes to leave for Shurima, and he makes a passing effort to convince her otherwise, as a test of how much she needs to do this, but doesn't force it. When she raises the issue of protecting family, two words that have heavy meaning for Yasuo, she has won the argument. Taliyah doesn't make the same mistake of blind faith that Yasuo had, and this is symbolized by the light breaking through the night.
Taliyah is to Yasuo what Yasuo should have been to Yone. She recognizes that, if she is to live without regret, she needs to break free of the constraints her role model places upon her. To live for someone else against your will is not to choose the 'why' of your path, which Yasuo tells her on their first meeting. Alternatively, this could be seen as her breaking free of his model of the world and choosing her own path, rather than only choosing the 'why.'
#Why This Is Important
A.K.A. Stop Scrolling, This Is The Next Big Bold Heading
Alright, close readings out of the way, that's most of my own worries gone. On to how this is important.
A problem of the MOBA genre is that the story must happen outside of the game itself. The way Riot has previously decided to tell this story is by making things specific, split up into individual tales focused, mostly, on individual people, with the rare followup if the champion in question happens to be released near an event.
The way things are going now, though, characters are being grouped together into more complex stories, and the episodic nature of this format allows for these disparate plots to weave in and around each other, the way "The Bird and the Branch" dips into both Taliyah's and Yasuo's individual tales, furthering both of them without either overriding the other. It's a realization of where the format Riot has chosen can go, which, to me, is a long-awaited event. Top that all off with the added complexity they are able to work in when they aren't constrained by the summarized backstories present in the first paragraph of most champion lore, and I think they have finally found what works for them.
Now they just have to keep it up.