Video Game Exposition Techniques, Ranked

Video Game Exposition Techniques, Ranked

Good job shooting all those aliens! Now... did you ever stop to wonder just why you were shooting them?

Video game writers have gotten pretty creative with how they tell players what the heck is going on. Where are we? Where are we supposed to go, and what do we do when we get there? Why is she mad at him? Why are they mad at me? Why is the galactic senate convening an emergency session? Why does eating this flower let me throw fireballs?

Sure, games could just drop backstory into non-interactive cutscenes. They could do so by using any of a number of tried and true framing devices and hoary techniques. But video games are interactive, and open to a whole new set of creative backstory-filling tricks.

Which video game exposition techniques are good? Which are less good? Let's get ranking.

20. Codex Entries

Ah, the good ol' Codex. Stalwart communicator of fantasy and sci-fi lore. You press pause and navigate a bunch of encyclopedia entries. Fun! Rarely all that useful until someone transcribes it out of the game and into a searchable wiki.

19. Villainous Monologues

Take it easy, it's almost time for our boss battle. First, let's talk. Actually let's also have a flashback. Then maybe we'll fight some, then I can talk some more.

18. Discovered Documents

Welcome to the underground lair. We've grabbed some newspaper clippings and posted them on the wall; I think you'll find them all interesting and surprisingly relevant.

17. Audio Diaries

Because why wouldn't the evil mastermind detail his master plan in carefully edited recordings lying around for you to discover?

16. Loading-Screen Recaps

If you have to stare at a loading screen, it might as well have some lore on it.

Video Game Exposition Techniques, Ranked

15. Graffiti

So much potential, often wasted. Usually bad and obvious, with a compounding problem being that believable video game graffiti usually doesn't provide all that much plot information.

14. News Broadcasts

We interrupt for some breaking news related to a thing that you just did or witnessed, including some additional information and context on why it happened and what the fallout may be.

13. The Voice On The Walkie-Talkie

Hello? Is anyone on this channel? Oh boy, you've really come at a shitty time. I need you to get to Area C. Once you're there, I'll be able to tell you more.

12. Ghosts

Ooooh, turns out this spooky place really is haunted! Look at those ghosts, reenacting something important that happened in this room. Better stop rooting around for upgrade materials and listen to what they have to say.

11. Reading Strangers' Emails

If the game's going to have a hacking minigame, it should probably let you read random people's emails, too.

Video Game Exposition Techniques, Ranked

10. Your Friend, The Narrator

The voice on your shoulder, the whisper in your ear. Sometimes good (Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time), sometimes bad (Alan Wake), and sometimes great (Bastion).

9. Overheard NPC Chatter

Isn't it funny how those two guys on the street happen to be having a frank conversation about the local political climate? Wonder if that will be important.

8. Pop quiz!

Your apprenticeship is nearly at a close. It's time to quiz you on all that you've learned. First question: Which planets did the Sith originally call home?

7. The Mission Briefing Screen

Straight to the point: Here's what's happening, and here's what you have to do. Also, here's how difficult this mission will be relative to your current level.

Video Game Exposition Techniques, Ranked

6. Straight-Up Putting Huge Text On The Screen

You know what, sometimes the direct route can be charming. Hey, meet JOHN THE DESTROYER. Here is a jokey fact about him!

5. Scanning With Your Scanner

Turns out it's pretty fun to use a device to actively scan things in the environment in order to learn about them. Thanks, Metroid Prime!

4. Putting It In The Manual

Sure, putting plot and character information in the manual kind of counts as "burying" it. And sure, game manuals basically don't exist anymore. But while it may have been cumbersome and old-fashioned, it was always such a nice distraction while your parents drove you home from the mall. External lore apps and interactive comics kinda count as modern versions of this.

Video Game Exposition Techniques, Ranked

3. What Happened Next?

A nice interactive twist on the framed interrogation flashback where your present-day character actually gets to decide how to tell the flashback, or even dictate what happened. Did you fight the monster? Or maybe you fled the monster! Did you help your friend, or leave them to die? What happened after that?

2. Party Banter

If you were going to wander a vast wilderness in search of monsters and treasure, you'd probably get bored and strike up a conversation too.

1. Actual Environmental Storytelling

Sometimes a game doesn't have to write it on the wall or yell it in our ear. Sometimes we'll just notice that the thing is next to the other thing and draw our own conclusions.


    The best version of the What Happened Next was the entire framing device around In Cold Blood, it even let you die and he'd say words to the effect of "No, that can't be right" and that's where you restart the section. It feet a lot nicer for it to be Cord's fragmented memory under torture (nicer narratively that is, it's not nice for him) than just reloading a game.

      They did the same thing in Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time.

      I always got a laugh out of picturing him telling a story, and saying things like "...and then I jumped into a pit and impaled myself on some spikes."

        Haha, glad I wasn't the only one.

        "...and then I fell several stories and broke my neck. Wait, that doesn't sound right. Let me start over..."

    The rankings of these techniques varies wildly depending on the game and how they are implemented. Take audio diaries for example - if you use the Bioshock audio diaries as an example you would rank that a lot higher than 17th.

      Actual game writing tends to be underrated a lot of the time.


      I always thought the diaries were lame. Why would you record your thoughts on a device and just leave them strewn all over the the place? You just wouldn't.

      Finding one device with all the entries on it, I could believe that.

        Its always the cost factor to me - who buys 30 tape recorders and then records only 30-40 seconds of sound on each one and then places them around the world...?

        Wo, I ask you?

        You're not alone -

        The reason why things like audio diaries and letters and things like that keep appearing in games is that there are many business benefits. The work for the audio/text can be separated out from main development. It could easily be outsourced or given to a separate team. Then in the actual game design, it is just about putting x number of tapes/letters/whatever around the environment.

        Sometimes the level design will tie in to the audio/text - such as finding a tape at the scene of a violent death and it turns out to be the guy that died. More often, they just seem to be a good way of churning out content. Order X quantity of content from a third party and tell the level designers to put in X number of content containers. Easy to manage, you just need to properly spec the content authors and quality control the content you are getting.

      Reading Peoples' Emails deserves to be MUCH higher than 11, too. It was probably one of the better things about Deus Ex: HR.

      I wouldn't. For disclosure, I played Bioshock long after massive hype for it told me it was one of the best games of all time, and thus it was probably somewhat inevitable that I would be disappointed in it, but I thought the game (already somewhat short) only had enough substance for a 4 hour campaign, the graffiti and the audio logs were horribly over the top, just bashing you over the head with the self-same themes that are pretty much fully explored in the first hour or so, and beyond that the whole game wasted almost all the potential it had by failing to utilize the unique setting for gameplay (I mean how cool would it be if you missed an enemy, hit a window and had to run from the area before it got flooded, even if it was a partially scripted event) or the interesting ideas and themes for a single twist that wasn't half as intelligent as the devs thought it was.

      I really can't express how disappointed I was with Bioshock, when it took a beautiful and unique setting and left it as merely set-dressing, took some excellent and under-explored themes and turned them into a parade of awful audio logs and written-in-blood-to-make-it-look-more-edgy-graffiti that left me totally uninterested in the themes I was originally interested in. There was not a shred of subtlety in the whole game and that was tremendously disappointing for me.

      Now Deus Ex and DE: Human Revolution did a lot of the same stuff, for example, but did it really well (for the most part). You could find scientific papers describing how Augmentations were made, technologically deterministic praise for advances in trans-humanism, religiously charged fear-mongering over playing god, innocuous emails between (unseen) employees that were talking about their families and even 50 shades of grey style erotica that portrayed a sexual attraction to augmented people, and the wonderful thing about it was that for the most part the game(s) didn't push you towards this or that ideal as good, almost every thing you could read had a clear agenda, and you weren't told how to think about any of these agendas (again, for the most part; in the first game it's fairly obvious that the "terrorists" aren't that bad from the get go etc.).

      Any way, obviously I didn't much like Bioshock (I also thought the gameplay was pretty weak and the game was far too easy on normal) so this ended up as a bit of a rant, sorry about that.

        Good rant! But dont play infinite then, it's weaker in every single way.

          Ha ha that's kinda funny, because I actually quite liked infinite, perhaps it was that I wasn't trying to read all the back story or diaries (indeed I pretty much avoided them), perhaps it was just that some of the characters were still alive, and perhaps it was just that the location actually played a part in the game play (swaying that affects aim, a movement system in the world that affects approach to combat).

          I'm not a big fan of the ending which I thought was a pretty average "twist", but other story elements I really liked (being able to chose Elizabeth's necklace was a nice little open ended moment, even if it didn't matter at all). The visuals also might have helped in my enjoyment of the game, the bright, sunny appearance was really refreshing compared to the I'm-trying-very-hard-to-evoke-atmosphere-so-I'm-killing-all-the-lights-and-spattering-everything-with-blood look that the original partook in. Lastly it might be that Infinite was far less ambitious than the original and managed to deliver on the thematic promises in a way that I feel the first game might not have been technologically capable of.

          I've actually heard the same criticism of infinite many times, and I can understand pretty much every argument, but I'm yet to quite understand why I liked Infinite and not the original, but it might just come down to more variety in a shorter game, which admittedly did less for the mood of the game, but it did keep me engaged with it, so who knows?

    Destiny - Give an inkling of a back story but have the characters who can explain it to you be too busy to actually tell you about it. Now lets throw you into the next mission!

      You must have no end of questions Guardian. I could tell you about this interesting thing, and I could tell you about this interesting thing but I won't. Just go kill stuff ok?

        "I don't have time to explain... why we couldn't stitch together a story from the hacked-apart remains of what was probably a better game."

        Wait... did I get that quote right?

    The ranking seems pretty arbitrary and is pretty pointless since it's always more how it's done rather than what is done. Personally I find anything that's not straight up annoying like "Oh, look at that thing over there. Maybe you should go look at it. No don't walk away, you should REAAALLLYY look at that thing." and not forcing exposition (useful or useless) on you to be preferable. Natural discovery is the best though (NPC chatter, party banter, notes, books, environmental cues, etc.) as long as it's believable and not a hamfisted "That Wizard's from the Moon".

    10. Your Friend, The Narrator
    The voice on your shoulder, the whisper in your ear. Sometimes good (Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time), sometimes bad (Alan Wake), and sometimes great (Bastion).

    ... and sometimes the whole point of the entire game (The Stanley Parable)

    Alan Wake has a bad narration?

      I thought it was pretty good.
      Also, I think it was more like internal monologue than narration.

    What, what the hell is game-external lore doing at position 4? That's WORSE than codex entries, which are sitting at 20. That's shittier codex entries because you can't even view them in-game! Like Destiny's lazy-ass vignette cards.

      I think that one is more about nostalgia for the days of physical manuals than praise for out of game ap bullshit.

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