There’s a lot of writing that goes into video games from design documents, to marketing materials, to scripts. And I want to talk about it all, and I will.
But given this is the first episode of 2019 and the first in the new monthly release cycle, I thought I’d focus on one particular thing — exposition.
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“What is exposition?” I hear you ask. Why let me tell you…
“It’s like, in movies where you talk to the audience 90 percent of the time, it’s — you kind of want to stay away from that stuff. But, you know — but to write exposition brilliantly is hard.” — Richard Jenkins
Exposition in games comes in three forms and that’s not even talking about the marketing materials. In game we experience in some very specific ways — descriptions, lore and dialogue.
Now that all sounds the same, because in a lot ways it is, but each has very particular elements to making sure the exposition doesn’t feel like exposition.
They are user interface guides, tool tips, mission pointers and other methods of conveying to the player what needs to be done in the game.
One of the very first times you encounter the user interface that says something about the game is played is the difficulty select screen. Granted the background and the fonts of the main menu help a lot too but those are aspects that are determined by the UI designer.
Take DOOM 2016 for example. The phrases “I’m too young to die” and “Hurt me plenty” are so evocative of what this game is about. Even Ultra-Violence and Nightmare speak to a level of carnage that is all but unbelievable.
Compare that with Wolfenstein: The New Order and its descriptions. “Can I Play, Daddy?” and “Don’t Hurt Me.” are more dismissive of the players and do little to illustrate what the game is going to be like. DOOM’s descriptions spoke to the violence to be found in the game and how no matter what difficulty setting a player chose they were still going to encounter it.
Wolfenstein on the other hand is stating that the player won’t even see anything close to what the developers originally intended. But that’s not as bad as Metal Gear Solid 5 and the chicken hat, which is a constant reminder to the player that they’ve chosen to play on an easier difficulty.
The UI doesn’t always give you much to work with as a writer. Take Below for example. It’s minimalist in the extreme. In fact it’d almost fit within Star Wars. But there are so few details in the UI beyond the names for things that to expect to do storytelling in that matter is ridiculous. Plus it’s not like all the items have interesting names as they do in a game like Destiny 2.
On the other end of the spectrum for UI are games like Crusader Kings II where there’s so much of the interface to deal with and so much information to be conveyed that it can be difficult to fit story and world building details in. Even if you do get such writing into the UI it can generally be overlooked amongst the mass of data the player has to take in.
That’s not to say the work is a loss. Just that it won’t be as effective as you might hope as a writer. This is of course not talking about very specific UI elements which are story focused, such as pop-ups indicating events in games like Crusader Kings II.
Tooltips go one of two ways — dry and boring, or insightful and delightful. The latter being the exception. Why? Probably because they were written last minute by someone who’s already overworked. But also because the tooltips are often seen as a means of instruction to the player.
Longer descriptions do occur in the UI and outside of tooltips. Destiny 2 and Mass Effect are great examples of this. In the former, certain items don’t just have short descriptions but stories associated with them. The latter has the whole codex to explore. They’re both examples of lore.
Lore is exposition in games. It’s not knowledge that’s inherent to the player, though it might be come sequential releases. And for some reason it’s generally not even knowledge the player character has. Of course if it was, then how would the developers do any exposition?
There’s a difficulty when it comes to lore and using it in games. This is especially true of roleplaying games. I see this in the tabletop campaign I run — the player characters are meant to have a history and a knowledge of the world they’re in, and like many systems there’s there are stats associated with that.
If players don’t have an elaborate backstory written for their character, or they’re not well versed in the minutiae of the universe they’re playing in, you present them with a problem when they are called upon to have that knowledge. Star Wars: Edge of the Empire by Fantasy Flight Games, for example, has knowledge checks. But most players invest little to no points in those stats, meaning they collectively and individually know nothing of where they’re from.
My remedy for this has been a house rule that every character gets at least one rank in knowledge for the area of the galaxy they’re from and a certain amount of inherent knowledge about their specific planet. That works with the storytelling and improv nature of a tabletop RPG, but not with the structure of a video game.
Conveying that knowledge in a video game isn’t always possible through books and scrolls like in the Elder Scrolls series, nor is it necessarily the smart choice as it leaves it up to the player’s choice as to whether or not they read those items. So if it’s vital knowledge then it shouldn’t be hidden behind such a mechanic. That’s not to say there isn’t value in hiding knowledge from the player or character, that’s what twists are for.
Dialogue needs to do a lot. Take a look at any game writer’s twitter feed and you’ll see them talking about working late trying to shoehorn four different purposes into a single line of dialogue. That includes reminding the player of their goal, providing characterization, teaching mechanics, indicating game states, and more. And that dialogue isn’t even for the player character.
Player character dialogue tends to be very… not empty or vacuous, but beholden to the moment. If it’s a quip or a response it’s helping to characterize the PC, to a limited degree, but it rarely introduces new information.
Firewatch, good ol’ but not really old, Firewatch. It does so much so well. It’s partly why I can keep looking to it to make my arguments or for inspiration. But it doesn’t start with dialogue to illustrate who you are as Henry. That only comes later.
The early dialogue in the game is more focused on who Delilah is, setting up her character and her relationship to Henry. In part because we as players are quite aware of who we are — a late-30s slightly overweight white dude who’s running away from a problem.
Like Henry, we as the player are in an entirely new setting. So everything we encounter is about learning, but the world isn’t so new to us that we have to ask about every tree or rock. Rather our questions are saved for the elements of the world that have significance associated with them. A great example is the medicine wheel, which you can encounter on day one.
In writing this episode the thing I kept coming up against was that I’m trying to describe a conundrum that’s best experienced. And not necessarily through clips of games that I haven’t personally written. Why? Well because we don’t know the constraints the team who worked on that game were under.
So while I can direct you to a video like this one. The fact is we don’t know why the writing comes across as so poor. Was it lack of time for edits? Was it only one round of translations? Are the lines actually okay but the voice actors were given poor directions? There are so many variables that can make a single line as read as poor yet fit nicely within the scene, do everything it needs to story-wise and provide a bit of characterization.
Really the best thing to do at this stage is to give you a writing exercise. I know, something new for 2019, homework. With that in mind having watched that short video of Resident Evil Revelations, the link for it is in the show notes, take a single scene and rewrite it.
In doing so you need to do three things: 1) Convey the relevant information to the player, be it about a backstory, an enemy or the environment. 2) Keep it short. No more than a single sentence. And don’t cheat with run on sentences. 3) It needs to fit with the character.
Having done that, try reading your work out loud. Or get someone else to act it out. Is it any better than the original? No judgements if it’s not. Don’t worry I won’t be subjecting you to my own attempts.
So back to exposition proper. The best explanation of it and how to use comes from Shawn Coyne, author of the Story Grid. Here he is talking about it on the podcast, The Story Grid.
“Save the secrets, save the information. Remember, information is power. Your reader doesn’t have any information. So when you choose to give them information, make choices that you can use to turn your scenes as opposed to just making stupid dialogue decrees[.]” — Shawn Coyne
It’s a book with really solid advice when it comes to crafting stories. And it can be as readily applied to games as it is to novels.
Saving information for key moments has to be balanced with laying the ground work for further story. Where exposition goes wrong is being so deliberate about it that any mention of something not directly related to the main plot tells us as the audience that this will come up later.
The original Destiny did a lot of exposition during the campaign and strikes. Often with the Ghost reciting some sort of lore for the sake of the player to have an understanding of what they’re going in to. While the writing was ostensibly okay, the presentation in this manner was stilted. Case in point.
So there’s mention of a sword, a soul-stealing sword as it were that was wielded by the big bad, and we have to dispose of it. All fair enough. But the fact is we’re told this. We’re not shown it. So this exposition falls flat and it’s made worse by the lack of further story elements regarding the sword and it tying into the defeat of Crota.
The Destiny series to date has a lot of interesting lore, but it’s so hidden from the gameplay and the player’s experience, or presented through exposition that it does little to enhance the story.
Far Cry 5 for all its faults does far better that the use of exposition to expand the world, direct players and make for interesting stories. Saving random NPCs in the world can net you stories of what else is going on in the world which results in quests. And it’s never a simple “go to location A to get gun B” bark.
Speaking of barks, those inane comments you hear from NPCs when things change in the world. And that change can be as minute as you walking past an NPC, not just they’ve been shot or mauled by a bear. It’s characters reloading, or flanking, or commenting on you walking past. Those are not easy as they seem. How many ways can you think to say hello?
Well you’re going to have to. I’ve got some more homework for you. First — write five greetings for two different characters. The genders, ages, ethnicities, etc can be different. It doesn’t have to be just Guard A and Guard B. And the reason for that difference is to help you keep track of them as characters. Make sure the greetings are different but also say something about who those characters are. If it helps, act them out.
Second — Write five lines for each character where they are talking about something other than their job. So it can be a local sports team, their kid, their favorite taco joint, etc. But Each of the five lines has to be about the same subject. So that’s five comments about tacos, how hard can that be? Tacos are awesome.
Third — Write five lines for each character, but about the other character. So it can be a question they’d ask, a comment they’d say behind their back, an in-joke between them, etc. You can provide context for when such a line would be said should you need to.
There you go, world building and exposition that isn’t downright terrible. Now the trick for that exposition is to work it into the rest of your game and tie it to your story. There’ll be more on character dialogue in a future episode.
If you’re wondering, no I did not come up with the term “exposition as ammunition”. That’s all Robert McKee and his book “Dialogue: The Art of Verbal Action for Page, Stage and Screen”. I haven’t read it, so I can’t recommend it.