Exposition is tough. At least some of it is necessary for any video game with a story and essential for story-heavy genres like RPGs. However, seasoned gamers know when it’s done badly and have no use for stories that bore us with excessive lore details. The “white text on black screen” intro cliche, once a staple of classic RPGs, has since fallen way out of favor and is considered lame. But unlike other potentially unpopular elements of a game, such as random encounters or escort quests, you can’t very well decide “well, I just won’t have any exposition” unless you’re making something like Tetris.
So how do we balance a story’s basic needs while avoiding “infodumps” that bore players? I’m going to try my best to answer that question while using some personal experience to add some detail. The first point to make is that what we call exposition typically divides into two categories – plot exposition and world building. Plot exposition is what players need to know to understand the story. As an example, take the treatment of mages in the Dragon Age series. You have to lay out the beef between them and the Templars because that tension plays a major role in the storyline. World building is the detail that makes the world feel more believable and complex but is not essential to the story, like the tales of famous heroes from the world’s past. The cumulative effect of world building can greatly increase how invested a player is in a game, but people don’t like all that detail shoved in their faces.
It sounds simple enough, but a lot of times writers and developers confuse the two. I’ve done it. In the very first demo of Master of the Wind, released almost a decade ago, there was an optional sequence where players could learn about the history of Solest (not even named at that point). This sequence did not have black backgrounds, but it might as well have since the overall effect was the same. On the one hand, I had enough sense to make it optional, but on the other hand, it was still just an onslaught of text, only some of which was crucial to the story. Needless to say, that little feature didn’t survive for very long afterwards. I continued to struggle with how to convey all the lore I had come up with to the players – MotW’s dialogue has a lot of exposition and not all of it is essential. Towards the end, I came up with an answer that I really liked and that I’ve used in other games since.
Having books that can give world building to players upon request is nice because it allows me to write freely about the world without worrying about whether it’s too much for the player. After all, now they’ve chosen to read this so it should be substantial. Other games often forego having the player even read it on the spot, instead sending the information to a “database” that can be sorted through at any time. Only the most invested players will take the time to actually read this stuff, so you have to make sure it’s not information that they absolutely need to know. Still, having the player seek out the world building themselves, rather than forcing it on them, makes a major difference. Books aren’t the only way to do this. As pointed out in the article I linked earlier, places like ruins or monuments can also accomplish this.
So I’ve already said that world-building and lore is important for immersion, particularly near the beginning in the game. But what about its role in the full scope of a story? What is the ultimate goal of having a convincing backstory for your world? Is it just about being able to fill the heads of players with names of past rulers and wars? Nope, the best lore goes one step farther – It gets the players to connect the past and the present. They can see that the issues that came up in the past are still what the characters are struggling with the present. Conversely, it can also highlight how much things have changed since the past. Either way, the player feels like they have had a true insight into the game’s world and that’s powerful stuff.
Now what about the plot exposition? How do we give the essential information without being too obvious about it? This is the part that’s hardest to do well. The reason it’s hard is the difference between what the character knows about the world vs. what the player knows about the world. For information that also happens to be new to the character, it’s a lot easier because you can incorporate memorable character reactions, making the information all the more memorable to the player. The basic information about the world, however? That’s harder. Unless you’re doing a “fish out of water” story, the character lives in the world, he doesn’t need a primer on basic stuff. You don’t want a situation where an NPC walks up to you and says “As you know, our world has three moons.” Of course the character knows that already. He’s grown up looking at them!
The other side of it is to insert enough details into character dialogue that the players slowly absorb it. If you can pull this off well and make it feel natural, this is ideal. Unfortunately, it is also very easy to make it feel unnatural. Case in point:
When I played Final Fantasy XIII, I was alienated fairly early on by just how heavily the characters relied on goofy-sounding jargon about “l’cie” and “fal’cie” and whatever else. Sazh in particular kept using the exact same phrase – “We’re l’cie! Enemies of Cocoon!” Why did he have to define “l’cie” every time when everyone around him is already familiar with how things work in Cocoon? Because the writers were dead set on making sure the players remembered it and it showed. Granted, I am a writer myself and more sensitive to this sort of thing. My complaints may come off as overly nitpicky, but I still would have liked to learn that crucial information in a way that didn’t leave me muttering “Yeah. I know. You’ve said it like 100 times.”
Balancing all these factors is a major writing challenge. I still don’t feel like I’ve totally nailed it yet. But we have an ideal to shoot for – character interaction and exploration that educates players about a world without feeling forced or annoying. As long as we keep reaching towards that goal, we’ll all slowly get better at exposition. Happy writing!