Better Exposition in Gaming

Matt Barton's picture

More code, less codex, thank you.More code, less codex, thank you.I was recently kvetching about Dragon Age II for various reasons, but then decided to zero in on something that seems to be a problem for almost all modern games: crude exposition. By "exposition," I mean the parts of any narrative where you have to break from the action and provide context. For example, if you're describing a spy breaking into a safe, you might need to stop for a moment to let the reader know who the spy is and what he's doing there, where and what time period this is taking place in, etc. Most authors break this stuff up and distribute it throughout the piece, so you aren't just suddenly hit with page after page of facts, but get them piecemeal as you proceed through the story. For instance, the author might mention in passing that there's a flag with a swastika above the safe, thereby letting you know this is probably taking place in Germany during World War II. Then she might put you in the spy's head, imagining scientists building a missile based on the schematics in that safe. Without any kind of exposition, the reader will have no reason to care about what's taking place and probably stop reading. One sign of a good author is that the exposition doesn't impede the action too much, but maintains a certain flow that keeps us turning pages.

I've encountered so many examples of crude exposition in games recently...the "codex" in Dragon Age 2, the tape recorders in Bioshock 2, the consoles in Halo ODST, the pages in Alan Wake...It seems when confronted with presenting context, the first instinct of a game designer is to make it superfluous.

As you can imagine, the business of exposition is tricky for any medium. Watch some of the early X-Files episodes and you'll see a lot of rather blatant expositions, usually something like this: "Stonehenge? Oh, yes, the ancient druid stones that researchers think may have served an astronomical function, but some conspiracy theories think could not have been built by anyone but extraterrestrials," etc. I mention this show because the exposition is usually so blatant that it feels forced and thus obvious to viewers. Obviously, they didn't expect the audience to know much, if at all, about the subject matter of the show. Games shouldn't ever have this problem because designers know exactly what the players know--assuming they have done their homework and not made the context superfluous to the content.

Let me say here that it makes no more sense to interrupt the gameplay with a screen full of text than it does for a bag of fried chicken to include an instruction manual. If your game requires players to read text, re-design it so that it doesn't.*

But anyway, back to the kvetching about Dragon Age 2. I was upset because even in a modern game like this, the designers still expect us to read static pages of text if we want to understand the context of the narrative. Some people complain about the cutscenes, too, which are another form of exposition, but I'd argue they work better than just text. Consider also the tape recorders you find in the Bioshock games; they serve a similar purpose, but instead of just showing you a screen full of text, you hear a recording. Both are very clumsy; arguably, it makes more sense to stumble across a book or journal than a tape recorder, but neither way seems particularly fun or interesting to me.

So I was trying to think of ways that Dragon Age 2 could have done better than just displaying those pages of text. I came up with a few ideas, none of which are original to me. Firstly, they could have just all the text in the mouths of the characters, so if you came across a book, one of them might have picked it up, flipped through it, and given you a summary (or let you ask them more about it). The same could have been done for character-specific stuff; so say the Dwarf finds a book or statue about the city, he could have said something like, "Hm, now that's interesting--I could tell you a story about that statue," and clue you in to talk to him. The game does a little of this already, so I see no reason why it couldn't just be extended to cover anything that ended up just being shown as text. Still, just sitting there listening to a character tell a story in this way doesn't seem very fun or innovative to me.

If you're gonna have them read, at least print it.If you're gonna have them read, at least print it.Another way is the old school manual or journal that used to ship with games (back in the ancient times). In the 80s, it wasn't uncommon for a game to include a lengthy introduction in the manual or even a separate novelette. Some games, such as Pool of Radiance and Wasteland, came with printed journals of numbered entries. Intermittently throughout the game, you'd be told to "look up journal #42," and you were supposed to stop playing and read that entry. This might sound a bit contrived, but it did have the advantage that you were reading print, which is better (in my opinion, at least) than reading something lengthy on a screen not designed for it. A more modern way to do this would be to "unlock" PDF files or some type of ebook that could be accessed on a Kindle, iPad, or whatever. It'd be a bit tricky, but theoretically this technique could help deal with the old problem that some people would just read the printed journals cover to cover and learn the secrets. Supposedly you could do a better job locking them out of parts they weren't supposed to read nowadays.

Still, both of these approaches will probably fail because they involve taking you out of the action; the worst sort of exposition. I have little interest in stopping the gameplay to hear the dwarf talk about the history of a city than I do reading about it on screen, hearing a recording, viewing a cutscene, or looking at in on a Kindle. Ideally, I wouldn't have to resort to such tactics to learn what I need to know to savor the context. How then, could the game be designed so that I can get at all this detail without exposition?

There are three basic techniques that authors commonly employ to this end. A good example of this is Homer's Iliad, where almost every bit of exposition takes place as actions. If he's describing a shield, for instance, the description will include something like "spear-shattering shield" or some such, not just "metal shield" which shows no action. There's not a moment in Homer when nothing's happening. Unfortunately, almost all exposition in games is like that--whatever IS happening stops so that the designer can tell you stuff he or she thinks you should know. This is rather odd considering how easy it would be to make all exposition in games of this type, so that you never see a textual description--only how it works. So if I find a shield in a game, instead of seeing a label or stats for it, I just see what happens when a spear hits it. There's no need to show stats or numbers or anything when I can just look at the screen to see what's happening to it (and to the character using it). You can also show this by the characters' reactions to things; perhaps they gasp or laugh if the player isn't grasping the appropriate context and doings things out of place. For instance, if you're entering some sacred site, one of the characters could admonish you for running instead of walking. This would be a lot more effective at giving you the context that this is a sacred place than just putting up on the screen, "The Sacred Place of Spaghetti, blah blah blah." When you realized that the place was special this way, you might slow down and start paying attention to the details such as the statues representing a historical event (again, the statue should depict an action, not just a figure with a plague beneath explaining it. If it needs a plaque, design the statue better so that it doesn't).

By the way, if you haven't read Homer's Iliad, get a copy right now and read it. There is no better sourcebook for learning how to show, not tell.

A second approach is to let the player be the detective or archaeologist, piecing together or deduce the context from the clues you present. A lot of games do some of this, such as showing a bunch of corpses or blood in the room to let you know a battle has taken place there. But so many still rely on the clumsier form, taking you out of the action to show a cutscene in which someone proclaims, "There was a battle here!" or, worse, showing some text letting you know what should be clearly evident. Is it better to have text on the screen saying, "Humans and orcs fought it out here!" or, show some human and orc corpses strewn about? Likewise, is it better to show a lengthy textual description of an ancient elven city, or just depict the city on screen in such a way that you can see for yourself that it is quite old? I think this is why a lot of us like the open world games, since you frequently encounter interesting stuff here and there and get to imagine your own scenarios. I recall this happening frequently to me in Fallout 3, such as stumbling upon a children's playground (or think of Charlton Heston seeing the Statue of Liberty in the first Planet of the Apes). In such situations, you're better off leaving the deducing to the viewer or player rather than slamming him with exposition.

A third approach is unique to games: literally putting the action in context. Some games are already doing this; instead of a cutscene flashback, for instance, we get a flashback in which the player is suddenly at an earlier point in time, performing some important historical action himself. Imagine that at some point of your game you want to tell the player about the execution of Joan of Arc. What's better, then--they find a book and six or seven pages worth of exposition are there for him to read? Or a "flash back" kind of thing where the player is performing the execution, or perhaps a member of the audience, walking around and witnessing it? (Probably not as effective just to witness something, but still a lot better than just reading about it or having it told to you).

As I've said, a lot of this is being done already, but not nearly enough. In almost every modern game I play, when it comes time for exposition, we get something clumsy--some kind of text on screen, or at best a pre-recorded, non-interactive segment such as a voice recording or cutscene. If this were the 80s or the 90s this would make sense, since there wasn't enough memory or storage. But now that these things are basically unlimited, why not get rid of exposition altogether? Why have anything told in a non-interactive fashion when you're working with a medium that is inherently interactive?

In most writing classes this is all summed up with "show, don't tell." Instead of writing, "Famine is a terrible problem in Somali," for instance, students are instructed to describe the scene--show us some kids that look like walking skeletons are fighting over a rotten piece of bread. Ideally, if you do it right, the reader will realize that "famine is a terrible problem in Somali" without you ever having to write that out. Furthermore, the impact will be more profound and long-lasting.

To finish up, my message to game designers is that any part of the game's narrative that cannot be shown in the context of a performable action by the player is not important enough to distract him from the parts that are.

* Unless you're designing a text adventure. Perhaps, though, in that case the more conventional sense of exposition applies, and it is still just as important to avoid description divorced from the player's own actions.

Comments

Matt Barton
Matt Barton's picture
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Fable

I've been playing a lot of Fable 2 lately (I only toyed with the first one, but I assume it's similar), and see that the designers are trying to get at what I have in mind here. To a large part they're successful, though it is far too easy to see the randomness at work here. Like The Sims, you've got slider bars for the NPCs, and instead of dialog, you have "expressions" that you can learn and practice on them to adjust the sliders. The goals could be getting a discount or even winning a spouse. However, while it's a logical system, it does seem very "game like" and abstract. I don't want it to be so obvious that I'm just dealing with a game and a numerical system for getting people to like or dislike me. In a word, it's too mechanical. Nevertheless, I think this is the right path to be on--just keep working to make it more natural and less artificial.

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Bill Loguidice
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I haven't played the first

I haven't played the first one, though I think I do have it now on the Xbox 1. I do have Fable II and III, though on the Xbox 360, though I've time to play the former more than the latter. They're actually quite excellent game experiences, though one wonders if Molyneux could reign in the ambition a bit on these and scale back the scope a tad, if they couldn't be superior, paradigm shifting experience. They're certainly close, but I'm not sure Molyneux will ever really be able to pull it all together in the way that he wants. I guess we'll see with the next one if he's getting any closer, particularly with the potential with the Kinect integration and the Milo-demo like possibilities...

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Chris Kennedy
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Joined: 08/31/2008
Fable
Bill Loguidice wrote:

I haven't played the first one, though I think I do have it now on the Xbox 1. I do have Fable II and III, though on the Xbox 360, though I've time to play the former more than the latter. They're actually quite excellent game experiences, though one wonders if Molyneux could reign in the ambition a bit on these and scale back the scope a tad, if they couldn't be superior, paradigm shifting experience. They're certainly close, but I'm not sure Molyneux will ever really be able to pull it all together in the way that he wants. I guess we'll see with the next one if he's getting any closer, particularly with the potential with the Kinect integration and the Milo-demo like possibilities...

Not to get off track, but I really enjoyed the first Fable and found that the second one fell a little short. My interest in the first one is carrying what small bit of desire I still may have to play the 3rd one. I suppose I may pick it up when it is available on the cheap, but I will still have to deal with a loud 360 unless I crack the thing open and replace the fan.

As for the main topic - I do appreciate long narratives or exposition of any kind in an RPG, but reading a long narrative vs. reading dialog on screen is rather boring. I found scanning things in the Metroid Prime series to be extremely tedious, and they didn't really add much the "story" for me because they were so numerous. Volume of these sort of things plays an important part in how interesting it is - Do I really care to read journal entries that were scattered across the land? Not really - but one or two sentences per scrap might not be bad. But then what about ONE item - a "device" if you will - sometimes that one book or tape recording can really enhance something.

I think you guys touched upon this, but sometimes the situation demands a non-action situation to dictate exposition. I haven't played Dragon Age, so I can't connect there - but something like Resident Evil - or a survival horror game (as mentioned in this discussion) can use a tape recording or journal entry as a really cozy storytelling device - You know that someone exists or did exist, they are leaving notes/information of some kind, and you can't interact with them - you are all alone. That really enhances the story in my opinion.

Unfortunately, ideas like that do not work quite well when applied to a different gaming situation, and you are left with something that just gets in the way of your enjoyment.

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Matt Barton
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Joined: 01/16/2006
I agree, Chris. It just

I agree, Chris. It just depends on whether it makes sense, but I still think that lots of journal entries, logs, tape recordings, etc., are usually just lazy storytelling. I liken it to what some have complained about Tolkien; you're immersed, but then you get hit with four pages describing the scenery in vivid detail, right down to minute descriptions of the flora and fauna. If you think that's bad, though, you should read Moby Dick, which interrupts the narrative with what amounts to reference material about whales and whaling, or Jules Verne, who likes to give you scientific papers in the midst of the story.

I think game designers need to take a closer look at their medium. How can they best capitalize on its capabilities? It doesn't affect just how you tell a story, but what kind of stories you can tell. You can tell a much different story with writing, for instance, than you can with a film, since you can go into the heads of the various characters, use vivid language to evoke feelings, or even draw attention to the style of writing with elegant flourishes of expression. Obviously film has its own "language" for telling stories, some necessitated by the technology, others by tradition, convention, genre, and so on.

If I were writing a story for a game, my first thought would be -- okay, I need a story that I can tell using interaction. The player must always be doing something, and by doing those things, learn the details of the story I'm trying to tell. If the narrative depends on a bunch of cut scenes, journal entries, etc., then I may be better off just writing a novel or making a film.

I forget who it was, but one of the designers I interviewed said that Star Wars was much better for games than Star Trek because it had dog fights, light sabers, and The Force, things that could easily be adapted into fun game mechanics. Star Trek, on the other hand, has little unique about it that would make for great games. That's a problem with science fiction in general to a large extent; there's not much of it that is easy to make into a fun game.

I've been piddling with a bit of fiction writing lately, and the one thing I'm working on is trying to incorporate a lot of elements that would translate well into games. It's easy enough to invent a sport (i.e. Quiddich) or fictional game, for instance, but I'm also trying to think on a more basic level of how to tell the story through actions that are interesting in and of themselves. So I need to avoid the "perilous journey" trope so common to fantasy, because getting from point A to point B is usually the dullest part of a game. On the other hand, if I can invent some fun weapons, fighting styles, magical systems, costumes, or places--that could all be interesting to see in a game. So if I create a monster, I could do so with a boss battle in mind, and give it an interesting vulnerability that would be fun to exploit.

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