Narrative Analysis: The Basics
In every story, there are key facts an audience must learn in order for the narrative to make sense. The act of conveying this background information is known as exposition. Exposition is primarily used to flesh out the basics of the story’s world, allowing the audience to develop expectations for how the plot will impact the characters and the setting. Conveying this information comes at a cost, however, as a story’s momentum can falter when too much exposition happens at once. It also runs the risk of seeming unnatural, as it exists specifically for the audience’s benefit, rather than the story. To counteract these pitfalls, writers can use various techniques to weave exposition into the background of the narrative, disguising it in such a way that the audience doesn’t notice it. Some of the most popular methods of hiding exposition are narration, dialogue, environmental details, flashbacks, and embedded text.
Video game stories rely on the same methods of introducing exposition as other forms of narrative. To convey critical information, developers will use a combination of narration, dialogue, environmental details, flashbacks, and embedded text. Although the specific audio-visual techniques can vary based on the game’s age and style—older games lack voiceovers, for example—the fundamentals remain the same. Even the most straightforward stories require some degree of exposition, and there are only so many ways to bring the audience up to speed.
Games Discussed: Mega Man 2 (Capcom), Mother 3 (HAL Laboraties/Brownie Brown)
The most straightforward type of exposition is narration, which is when an outside source provides commentary on the story. Sometimes this narration is delivered by a specific character; other times, it is delivered via disembodied voice or text. This type of exposition has the benefit of being efficient and direct, but it also negatively impacts momentum, as the story stops when the narration is delivered.
In the early days of video game development, game narratives were constrained by graphical and memory limitations. These limitations made narration the perfect choice for conveying important story information. Developers could introduce their entire world in two or three sentences, giving players a chance to engage with the story without a high technological cost. One early game that uses this method is Mega Man 2 (CAPCOM, 1988), which begins as follows: “In the year 200X, a super robot named Mega Man was created. Dr. Light created Mega Man to stop the evil desires of Dr. Wily. However, after his defeat, Dr. Wily created eight of his own robots to counter Mega Man.” In three sentences, the players have the basics of the world and its occupants: the protagonist, super robot Mega Man; the antagonist, Dr. Wily; and the setting, the year 200X. They also have the core conflict, which is Mega Man’s fight against Wily’s eight robots. These details give players everything they need to connect with their avatar (in this case, Mega Man) and help them achieve their goal.
Technological advancements have opened the door for less efficient methods of exposition, but game developers will still use narration in their stories to achieve a particular style or tone. Almost twenty years after the first release of Mega Man 2, the GameBoy Advance game Mother 3 (HAL Laboratories/Brownie Brown, 2006) used omniscient narration to emphasize the story’s novel-like division into chapters. At the end of each chapter, a text scroll of omniscient narration described how the events that just unfolded impacted the world at large. Due to the setting’s closed-off nature, none of the characters could have provided insight into the larger world. Hence, the omniscient narration offered the player unique insight into the story. For situations like this, narration continues to be a powerful tool, despite its impact on the momentum.
Game Discussed: Final Fantasy VIII (Square-Enix)
Another common way to introduce exposition is via dialogue. Unlike narration, dialogue can convey information without breaking momentum, but exposition through dialogue still has its own pitfalls. Screenwriter John Yorke sums up the problem with expositional dialogue thusly: “Exposition is awkward to present because it rarely occurs in real life. Exposition, after all, is telling and drama is showing – form and function are fundamentally at odds.”1 In other words, the kind of expository information that characters relate to each other through dialogue can come across as unnatural when actual people would be unlikely to exchange such information in real life. Fortunately, writers have developed a variety of methods to get over this hurdle. Introducing a character who is unfamiliar with the area creates a logical opportunity for sharing information, just as staging a scene in a lecture hall provides a platform for an authority to do the same. When used appropriately, these methods can disguise otherwise dull exposition; when used poorly, audiences will see them for what they are and feel their intelligence has been insulted.
Video games frequently use dialogue for exposition, as the seamless nature of delivery allows the story to develop around the player while they’re absorbing important information. As a result, the same expositional dialogue tricks from plays and films can be seen in video game scripts. Final Fantasy VIII (Square-Enix, 1999) makes liberal use of these expositional tools by setting the game in a school with exchange students from distant locations. New students rely on characters to explain the basics of the world to them; professors provide plot information for students taking on new challenges. While these dialogue set-ups may seem obvious to people who are familiar with common methods of delivering exposition, they nevertheless remain true to the established world and allow the player to learn important information without breaking their immersion.
1 Yorke, John. Into the Woods: A Five-Act Journey Into Story (p. 153). Harry N. Abrams. Kindle Edition.
* Reference Run (Mega Man 2): Morn. Mega Man 2 Complete Playthrough. YouTube, 2013.
** Reference Run (Mother 3): Lazy Blue. MOTHER 3 #1 – Full Gameplay – No Commentary. YouTube, 2017.
*** Reference Run (Final Fantasy VIII): Shirrako. FINAL FANTASY VIII Remastered – Gameplay Walkthrough Part 1 – Prologue (Full Game) PS4 PRO. YouTube, 2019.