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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.*

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.


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