What I Learned at GDC: Minimizing Exposition in Games

One of my favorite talks this GDC was from Jeremy Bernstein, the writer on Dead Space 2. I had been to another of his talks during GDC Online this past October, but this talk in particular was very informative for me. Jeremy’s session was titled “No Explanation Necessary: Minimizing Exposition in Games,” which discussed ways for developers to eliminate bad exposition while maintaining and improving what is necessary.

Nine times out of ten, I want to hang myself because of having to listen to exposition in games.

– Jeremy Bernstein

We’ve all heard it: you’re playing through a game when a character suddenly reveals exactly what you need to do without even trying to disguise it. It happens in even the best of game, and it isn’t something new. Exposition in games removes the player from the game’s immersion, and makes everything feel very “gamey.” What were they thinking, you may ask yourself. Of course they didn’t want to do this, but it is something that is difficult to avoid. Jeremy explains the reasoning behind this, saying that good exposition is critical to telling emotionally satisfying stories, and although games do not need stories, we want stories in our games. There is a key difference between good exposition and bad exposition, and unfortunately, bad exposition is what players notice more often.

Understanding Exposition

In order to learn how to minimize bad exposition, we must first understand what exactly exposition entails in a game. Jeremy tells us that there are two distinct kinds of exposition: narrative and procedural. Narrative exposition is rather self-explanatory, as it deals with the actual narrative of the game, while procedural exposition deals with features such as interface, gameplay, and mechanics. Narrative exposition is the foundation that allows the player to understand the story, but should not be understood as the story itself. It is difficult to do, but if accomplished correctly, it can draw the player further into the game. This type of exposition helps to describe what is happening, with a focus on objectives and obstacles. Objectives are when someone wants something badly, which creates a reason for the story or a particular goal; obstacles, otherwise known as gameplay, is when the player is having a hard time getting what it is they want, presenting them with unique gameplay and story-driven challenges to overcome. Procedural exposition also incorporates objectives and gameplay, although this is a bit different from narrative exposition as it focuses on more game-like aspects versus story. There are three main questions associated with procedural exposition: 1) What do the characters want, 2) what’s in the characters’ way, and 3) why does the player care? Each of these questions translates into a game feature: the first question is about objectives, the second is in regards to gameplay, and the third is about emotional hooks.

Minimizing Exposition

There are three different techniques Jeremy discusses for minimizing exposition in games. The first technique is to control the exposition. You need to determine what is and is not exposition in your game and learn to adjust it accordingly. Remember that exposition is not synonymous with backstory, so try your best to keep exposition out of things involving backstory, such as game logs or other extras; otherwise, the player might just skip right over them. History and backstory are not necessary in games, but if you are going to add them in, try to put them in sequels, books, game logs, etc. Jeremy says that our overuse of exposition is partly to blame on Tolkien. In the Lord of the Rings, Tolkien does not answer the questions of procedural exposition discussed earlier, which is why so much was excluded when the movies were made. The point behind this is that you should avoid using exposition for backstory, and when it is included, be sure that it answers those questions.

The second technique is to control the story, which focuses more on the narrative exposition and design. You need to be able to construct stories well, and your story should have a general flow from character to obstacles to objective to resolution to new objective. This cycle repeats until the character meets the final resolution, thus ending the game. For this technique, you will want to minimize the amount of exposition needed to move the player and character from one objective to another. The resolution of one objective should lead directly into the next objective, so there is no need for any exposition. Jeremy provides examples of two different types of storytelling: “and then…” storytelling, and “because” storytelling. He explains that the “and then…” style is bad because it requires a lot of exposition, albeit simple, to keep the story going. On the other hand, “because” storytelling is good because it provides reasons and explanations, and the objectives flow in a logical order. When using this technique, you should be able to boil down all of the significant objectives into simple bullet points. With those bullet points you can create what Jeremy calls an exposition map. On this exposition map, the game can be divided into each chapter or scene, where each scene has its own list of bullet point objectives. By examining this exposition map, it will become easier to see where the bulk of your exposition lies, and you can adjust and shift things around accordingly. However, it is important to note that you don’t want to shift things around too much; taking things out of the logical order will confuse the player. You do want to find a good balance between procedural and narrative exposition here, and try to keep the player on track without explaining everything.

The third technique is to do it well. You want to be able to effectively mask or disguise the exposition and distract the audience. Jeremy notes several different ways you could accomplish this, which include conflict, comedy, action, imagery, and experience. You can mix and match which ways you use or you could use all of them, but no matter what you do, you want to find a way to disguise the exposition while maintaining the feeling of the world you’ve created. Examples of conflict can be seen in the Bioshock games or in the movie Aliens, while comedy is in Portal and Back to the Future, action is in Shadow of the Colossus and Back to the Future, imagery can be seen in Bioshock and Portal, and experience, which has the most procedural exposition, can be seen in Heavy Rain.

Regardless of which technique you use, or even if you use all three, minimizing exposition is crucial to creating more immersive games. Jeremy Bernstein did an excellent job demonstrating this, and if you get the chance, you really need to watch the session on the Vault. And as always, feel free to leave any comments, questions, or critiques!

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