Exposition, in which we expose or explain a bunch of facts that are important to where the story is going, is inherently boring. Games have a particular problem with exposition since the user expects to be able to interact with the story. This expectation often leads to genuine frustration when we’re denied interaction for even a short stretch of time.
So, what do we currently do when the player needs to be told a whole heap of backstory? We do the simplest interaction possible: break the exposition down into a few ‘topics’, then either A) allow the player to select those chopped-up chunks of exposition from a dialogue menu (Skyrim), or B) distribute each topic to a different character or object in a space and allow the player to burn shoe leather walking from one to the next (Batman: Arkham). The player pressed some buttons during exposition, so job done! Problem is, once we’ve seen this a few times, most players recognise these situations as flat chunks of exposition and listen to them one at a time, in order. We’re almost back at square one.
Much of The Red Strings Club’s cyberpunk story happens off-screen or prior to the game’s events, and is reported to the player through discussion with characters. It’s an efficient conceit which allows the game to tell a broad story about an entire society for four hours without the budget to actually show all that.
To solve the ‘canned’ exposition problem, writer Jordi de Paco first takes delivery back to basics: each character has a moderate number of topics you can discuss with them exactly once, and this looks a lot like any other game’s menu of discussion topics. I could ask the whereabouts of an important person in danger, or about the character’s reason for choosing their line of work.
THE NEW THINKING
But crucially, inspired by the manga Bartender, this game also allows me to mix the character a supernatural drink which can change the character’s state of mind. If I serve the person a drink that puts them in an egotistical mood, their response to the ‘line of work’ topic is likely to include lots of juicy details; egotists love to talk about themselves. But if I ask them the ‘important person’ question in this state, they’re likely to fruitlessly steer the conversation back to themselves. For that, I should put them in a compassionate mood, and in each state, their language changes markedly to assure me that my choice has had an effect.
This is revolutionary for two reasons. Firstly, the introduction of a metachoice (like emotional state: a choice whose purpose is to modify other choice results) branches the outcomes of what would otherwise be fixed, linear content. This could equally apply in 3D spaces. For example, Dark Souls’ item descriptions could yield different text if you killed the previous owner for it or were given it willingly. Secondly, how much I learn from the topics depends on my ability to successfully pair a metachoice with a topic, and the exposition is therefore gamified. Now, when I look at the menu of topics, I no longer need to get through them one at a time, I’m thinking about whether the pairing is correct. The choice is interesting rather than banal, despite being sort of an illusion. I asked de Paco about this, and he told me he uses “a ‘failing forward’ narrative design philosophy”. He explains that “the player is rarely punished by choosing an inadequate option, it mostly affects the flavour of the content, and I tried to always provide something […] stimulating no matter your approach”, but that the “anticipation of matching topics and emotions is exciting enough”.
If we think about what exposition is, you can see why this is such a radical improvement. Exposition is a bunch of facts which lay out context for understanding upcoming story events. In attempting to maximise my performance at metachoice-to-topic combination, I‘m thinking deeply about the other exposition I’ve learned for context, and I’m paying close attention to the result to see how successful I was. My absorption of the expositional information will be better.
Red Strings gives us the blueprint for copying its success, too. Later in the game, you play as a hacker, rather than the bartender. You’re presented with a new mechanic wherein you have access to a phone and must socially engineer your way through several people to steal corporate secrets. Again, each person has a menu of topics you can ask them, but this time, the metachoice has a new flavour: you have the ability to mimic the voices of anyone you get decent vocal samples of, and you choose whose voice you’re speaking with. Naturally, people will discuss the same topics differently depending on who they think they’re speaking to. It feels new, but the structure of ‘metachoice + topic’ is the same as before.
So, if you’re telling a story which leans on exposition, consider introducing a metachoice which both personalises the texture of the writing and varies the amount or quality of information yielded. The nature of that metachoice is up to you, and should feel relevant to your story. A character or system could respond to you differently based on your outfit in a fashion game, or what sort of weapon you hold in a shooter, or simply based on where or when you speak to them in an open-world game.
What about lore?
One of the hottest game writing trends of the past ten years was the Dark Souls-ification of exposition, primarily telling the story through item descriptions (or collectables, in the case of Destiny). The vague and puzzle-like nature of the lore in Dark Souls helps it feel like a treasure hunt, but at its core, attaching exposition to items is a whole-game-wide form of the shoe leather burn method, spreading chopped-up exposition across physical space. In my opinion, gating lore detail behind a metachoice could have made it more engaging.