Fiction is a Three-Edged Sword

Fiction, interactive fiction and narrative

An exposition about exposition


Starting on a new project has got me thinking about how games handle the business of exposition.

All stories need some exposition, and generally is serves to enrich the world and setting and save your from reader from the curse of generica. In a game, your exposition has also got to tell the player what to do next – usually in no uncertain terms – and how to set about it.

But at the same time, most readers don’t enjoy exposition – while some want to know the details of Elvish customs or the exact whereabouts of each of seven characters at the time of the crime, most would like to get on to the sword-fighting, or the bit where the aged aunt breaks down and reveals her cousin’s secret. (That’s not exposition, right, because it’s actually plot).

In a game, this problem gets worse, because if the player gets bored they might stop pushing the game forward, and that’s a negative feedback loop there. At worst, your player will put your game away. At best, the player will feel left out by a long stretch of cutscene / several pages of info-dump and wonder why the game designer didn’t just make a film / book instead.

Games need tricks to get away with loading the player up with facts, especially story-important, gameplay-irrelevant facts, like why the Russian mobsters want to shoot you this time. Rockstar’s recent games have used a neat mechanic of having exposition delivering while the player is driving across the map (Red Dead and LA Noire both do this).

It’s a great excuse for it: the driving is a semi-automatic process for the player, the player can’t run away mid-story, and the game designers know how long the journey is so can be sure the exposition will be finished before the player gets where they’re going.

(A text game could replicate the same thing: an AI buddy who delivers information to you, one line at a time, as you move from point A to point B.)

But there’s an observable problem with this idea, that you quickly realise if you try playing a Rockstar game, or watch someone else do it. No-one pays any attention. Your AI partner will supply you with several pages’ worth of backstory and information but by the end of the journey, it’s really hard to remember anything about what was said.

That’s why games need mission/objective displays: because however hard they try to tell us through the cutscenes what it is we’re meant to do next, we never know. And in a game, we have to know. We can’t afford to skim the exposition and work it out later because we’re in control.

Is this a fundamental problem with interactivity? As players, are we so well trained to sift important, gameplay-related features from unimportant, scenery-detail (that’s a door I can open, so I’ll try; that’s not, so I won’t), that when listening to backstory or anything that feels like it might be backstory, I actively throw it away instead of remembering? Is it because, when the exposition stops and I’m into gameplay, I don’t rehearse, practice or consolidate what I’ve learnt, so it slips away again? (The same thing happens every time I try to learn French.)

Is it simply that I’m driving, and probably couldn’t take in the same information if I was doing the equivalent task in real life because I’m busy?

I’m going to say no to all of these. Firstly, consider Uncharted 2. For all its bullet-by-numbers gameplay, U2 had really good cutscenes and really good characters, who delivered backstory and mission objectives but, mysteriously, I can still remember all of it. And that’s because it was well-paced, witty, it had twists, and it didn’t outstay its welcome. It was, first and foremost, an elegant piece of writing, but just one that happened to tell me what I needed to do next.

Of course, the exposition there wasn’t interactive, but it does show that moving from watching mode into playing mode doesn’t actually wipe my brain, and it also shows that I wasn’t impatiently ignoring the cutscenes either (and I wasn’t, because they had jokes, and characters I liked, and all that kinda stuff).

What about interactivity? Well, LA Noire has a ton of plot-related exposition which comes out during the interrogations with the characters. But that stuff goes in and I remember it because, as in the detective story example I gave earlier, it’s actually plot that just looks like exposition. It’s part of a tense scene in which I try to outwit the suspect with my use of evidence.  I’m learning and doing at the same time because the designers have come up with a mechanic that allows me to do that.

So in the end, I think the problem with exposition in most games is really simple, and it’s that the exposition in most games is bad.

There’s a screenwriting adage: exposition as ammunition. Unpacked, it means don’t have a character do exposition unless it’s targeted at someone in a dramatic way. That is, turn exposition into action. That’s not always easy, which leads to a corollary: keep your exposition simple.

Games, for some reason to do with the legacy of RPGs, tend to feel like their backstories should be encyclopaedic, and then try to tell the player all about them. This is exposition as cushion-stuffing; it’s there to make the world feel bigger than it is. It’s ammunition against no-one but the player and it has no dramatic wallop.

Games are usually blessed by flat, bland characters who have little dramatic arc or chemistry. In LA Noire, my protagonist and his partner discuss the case together as we drive between places, and get into arguments, but since they’re both so unlikeable and so unlikely, it becomes a slightly embarrassing exchange of first-draft-quality wise-cracks. The exposition can’t be characterfully interesting because the decent characters have all mysteriously disappeared.

So for my new project, I think I’m going to conclude that:

  1. Exposition needs to be clear, and delivered as well as it would be in a well-written film (Inception, I am not looking at you).
  2. When exposition can’t be simple, the player had better do something with that exposition in the form of a game mechanic.
  3. Since a new mechanic will meaning changing the design of your whole game, see point 1.

Author: joningold

Jon Ingold is a writer and games designer from Cambridge, UK. He is co-founder of inkle, a company specialising in interactive narrative for mobile devices. He has written prose, plays, short films as well as interactive fiction, both in hypertext and parser-based systems. His short stories have appeared in Interzone magazine and his IF works have won competitions and awards.

3 thoughts on “An exposition about exposition

  1. > (A text game could replicate the same thing: an AI buddy who delivers information to you, one line at a time, as you move from point A to point B.)

    This immediately reminded me of Wetlands, when on the final train trip, exposition is provided by the conductor, which I thought worked really well. Unfortunately, there was another exposition sequence soon afterwards where the PC is mired in mud (and thus can’t leave in mid-explanation) which felt a bit more forced, although still within reason. Perhaps it would have seemed less forced if the second sequence hadn’t happened so soon after the first.

    Frankly, I wish I was half as facile with exposition in my own WIPs, though. I have two unfinished games that have stalled for years partly because I can’t solve the exposition problem. I know it’s poor form to lock down the PC for several turns and yell the plot at them, but I can’t seem to dream up decent alternates.

    • It’s not an easy problem, but I don’t think locking the player down is too far off a good way of doing it.

      You could, for instance, lock the player down on a puzzle which simply takes a minimum of four turns to solve. Then as they perform each successful step, they get one of the four lines of exposition. It might even have the effect of turning exposition into a reward, which would be superb.

  2. I’ve thought many of the same thoughts as you. My own personal line of thinking hadn’t really got further than… “however hard they try to tell us through the cutscenes what it is we’re meant to do next, we never know” … “Is this a fundamental problem with interactivity?” 🙂 And I had tentatively answered “yes” in my head.

    But I think you’re right. Uncharted 2, and a few other rare examples, HAVE managed to pull this off. Is it simply that when playing a videogame, we have less patience? Is the minimum standard bar raised compared to other media? Or has that bar simply never caught up with the general minimum standard of film and books?

    It’s true though, delivering small nuggets of exposition as rewards for small game mechanics is a great idea.

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