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Matt Barton's picture

Better Exposition in Gaming

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.*

Matt Barton's picture

Matt Chat 94: Cordes on adventure games, horror, game narratives, the Ipad, and more

This week, Cordes is back with several fascinating insights into the world of adventure games and horror. We talk about the difference between horror films and horror games, storytelling, why adventure games should be sorted by their plot and not as a gameplay genre, and much more. There's quite a bit of meat here for anyone interested in designing an adventure game or wondering how they work. Download the audio here.

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