Narrative Analysis: The Basics
Game Discussed: Half-Life (Valve)
Another subtle way to deliver exposition is through the details of the environment. Audiences do not need to be told anything that they can see, so providing information via environmental cues saves time and keeps the story moving. While the easiest type of information to deliver through this method is information about the environment itself, environmental details can also be used to provide information about the characters. The objects in a character’s bedroom can clue audiences into their interests; their clothes can offer hints as to their occupation. The way a character interacts with the environment is its own useful source of information, as it shows the audience how familiar the character is with their surroundings. These subtle hints may not be as direct as narration or as engaging as dialogue, but they can still provide valuable information without interrupting the story’s momentum.
Due to their interactive nature, certain types of video games can rely heavily on environmental details to deliver exposition. Genres such as adventure games and role-playing games encourage players to explore their surroundings, which provides plenty of opportunities for developers to convey new information. Everything from sprawling architecture to broken signs can be used to say something about the world and its inhabitants. The first-person shooter Half-Life (Valve, 1998) conveys almost all of its introductory details through environmental details, using a clever combination of visuals and voiceover. When players first enter the game, they’re inside a train car. As the train makes a slow, winding descent into an underground facility, the Black Mesa transit system announcer conveys basic information about the environment over the loudspeaker. The deeper the train goes, the more the announcer delves into the security features of the facility, and the combination of the visual and auditory information makes it clear to the player that Black Mesa is hiding something incredibly important underground. Since this is information the player character already knows, using dialogue to convey it would have felt unnatural. Conveying it through narration would have been equally risky, as it would have delayed the start of the story. By integrating the necessary information into the environment, Half-Life provided all the essential information to the player without relying on unnatural dialogue or bringing momentum to a halt.
Game Discussed: Heavy Rain (Quantic Dream)
A more targeted method of conveying past information is the flashback. Flashbacks are cuts from the narrative present to a point in the past, typically to illuminate a previously unknown facet of the story or the characters. Flashbacks should be used carefully, as they can have the same negative impact on momentum as narration, but they can also be very effective when used at the right moment. In the writing guide Story, Author Robert McKee talks about timing information reveals, saying: “You do not keep the audience’s interest by giving it information, but by withholding information…[The] least important facts come in early, the next most important later, the critical facts last. And what are the critical pieces of exposition? Secrets. The painful truths characters do not want known.“2 Flashbacks are an excellent way to reveal these painful truths, as the characters experiencing them do not need to share the contents with the rest of the cast.
As video game narratives have grown with technology, game developers have begun integrating flashbacks into their stories. One game to use the flashback effectively is the interactive drama Heavy Rain (Quantic Dream, 2010), which allows players to alternate perspectives between four characters connected to one serial kidnapper. As the player switches perspectives to search for a missing child, they’re occasionally shown flashbacks of a young boy whose brother dies in a tragic accident. Without context, these flashbacks first seem to be from the perspective of a character with no relationship to the main story, but the flashbacks eventually reveal enough information for the player to realize that the young boy and the present-day kidnapper are one and the same—and they’re also one of the characters the player has been controlling. Without using flashbacks, the developers could not have revealed this information to the player before the rest of the cast unless they were willing to rely on outside narration, which would have thrown off the pacing and changed the story’s tone. As Robert McKee said, the most critical information to reveal is the painful secret, and Heavy Rain’s use of flashback allowed them to keep the secret as long as they could.
Game Discussed: Final Fantasy IX (Square-Enix)
The last common method of delivering exposition is embedded text. Embedded text is any form of fictitious media set within a pre-existing narrative, such as a play within a movie, a poem within a novel, or a television show within a video game. This media-within-media can be used to deliver short bursts of information, or it can be an entirely self-contained narrative, also known as a nested story. Nested stories are particularly useful tools for writers looking to reinforce a story’s themes while delivering exposition, as the miniature stories can have arcs that mirror the frame story one layer above.
Video games frequently use embedded text to convey information about the world at large, allowing the player to engage with the setting and the characters at their own pace. Players exploring open worlds will often find papers, books, or videos that give they can either engage with on the spot or add to an inventory for later study. The downside of using embedded is that players may not engage with it, either because they’ve missed it or because they’ve chosen to avoid it, and they may miss out on important information as a consequence. To ensure that players don’t miss important information, developers should make embedded text either unskippable or nonessential. Final Fantasy IX (Square-Enix, 2000) uses the former tactic with its in-game play, I Want To Be Your Canary, which is staged at both the beginning and the end of the game. Since the developers use the play to foreshadow key plot points in the framing narrative, they have the player engage with the play by taking part in a performance. As a result, players become familiar with the nested story, as well as the meaning it has for the characters in the larger narrative.
Exposition can be tricky to implement properly, as writers must find a way to share important information without slowing down the story or straining its credibility. Heavy-handed exposition will leave audiences feeling bored or insulted; sparse exposition will leave audiences scratching their heads. By delivering exposition with a combination of the above methods, writers will have the best chance of keeping audiences informed and invested from start to finish.
2 McKee, Robert. Story (p. 336). HarperCollins e-books. Kindle Edition.
* Reference Run (Half Life): StoryGamer. Half Life Full Movie All Cutscenes. YouTube, 2014.
** Reference Run (Heavy Rain): danthaman15. Heavy Rain – Plot Twist/Killer Revealed. YouTube, 2010.
*** Reference Run (Final Fantasy IX): Traveller in the Dark. Final Fantasy IX I Want to Be Your Canary for Completists. YouTube, 2011.