A challenge to game developers: let the first thing the player sees on starting a new game be the game itself. Let the player be immediately in control. And let them keep that control at least until it has at least become familiar.
I love gaming stories. Stories have always been my primary interest in playing games, from the first text adventures in the early 1980s, through the glorious adventure years of the ’90s, to the dynamic and impactful environmental storytelling of the 2000s, to today’s glorious open worlds packed with freely explorable plot. And interwoven throughout all these eras, the RPGs that have delivered their epic plots across space and time. I love stories. I am not, and would not, argue against the narrative aspects of gaming. I just, more than ever before, want to experience those stories while I’m playing.
Exposition is not a bad word. But it’s the means of communicating a narrative that’s most often abused, most frequently done badly. While we’ve all become annoyed at a game’s over-use of cutscenes at some point along the way, and while that’s still a primary sin of bad gaming storytelling, it’s a much broader issue than that. What was the last game that, after you’d waited for all 20GB to install, after you’d sat through the unskippable vanity cards of every company tangentially involved in its development, and after you’d been told at excruciating length not to switch off power to your house when this symbol is displayed, you were able to just start playing. You started jumping to the right, or running forward down the corridor, or walking from your house, or driving down the road, or placing units on the map, or… Chances are, you didn’t get to do those things. The chances are, you were required to have the game’s pre-history and establishing plot bellowed at you, against your will, while you sat there impotently stabbing at the Esc key or hammering on A, just wanting to bloody play the thing.
It obviously doesn’t help that so much of a game’s expository plot is, so often, empty banalities to the player who’s yet to start playing. “The seven queendoms of Balalatzar have worshipped the moon god Pittth for thousands of years, foretelling the coming of the Gooseborn…” It must mean so much to the development team who’ve spent three years embroiled in this world, entangled in this lore, that they’ve lost sight (and sound) of what it’s like to sit through for someone coming afresh. In fact, I cannot think of a better analogy than that from Cool Ghosts, where they compare it to having to listen to someone telling you about their dream. Yes! Yes, it’s precisely that.
But worse, when someone starts telling you about their dream you can at least walk off. Or hit them with a spoon until they stop. With a game you’ve just bought, you’re forced to sit there, putting up with it, hoping that at some point it’ll just shhhhhhhut up and let you play. “Oh, am I getting the controls now? Uh… Am I? No. No I’m not.” Again and again, until it’s done, belching its narrative burps directly into your face.
And that’s before it starts stopping every three steps to give you an unwanted tutorial in how to press A to jump.
Perhaps expository dumps are, if we’re being generous, a misguided attempt to get the player prepped for playing as quickly as possible. “If we just give them the core history and circumstances in these cutscenes/dialogue boxes/required NPC conversations, then they’ll have everything they need to get on straight away!” Except it’s not straight away. And it’s not embracing what gaming offers so majestically above and beyond that of other media: interaction.
But the reality is, it’s a dreary hurdle, and if anything, an emblem that the game itself has failed from the opening moment. It’s failed to be a game that can tell its own story, if it needs a movie, or a man holding up a series of flash cards, before you’re allowed to start playing it.
And who the heck is listening? So few people are in Listen To Exposition Mode when they load up a game. Because they want to play. They’ve finally found time in their day to sit down and enjoy themselves with a game, and as much as their primary intent might be to enjoy that game’s narrative, they want to be playing to get at it.
I find it so maddening that me – someone so sympathetic to gaming’s role as a storyteller, someone who would never skip key dialogue mid-game to get on with shooting bats or whatever – even I am hammering at Return or A or Esc, or entire hands simultaneously pressing every key on the keyboard, just to get past whatever this grim loredump thinks it’s trying to say. I want to experience the game’s story as game. And if it can’t tell me it as game, then my argument today is that it has messed up.
I want to be sympathetic. I understand, as I’ve said, that the games’ creators have been living every element of this thing for years of their lives, and communicating vital information to the player feels so essential. Perhaps they’ve even focus tested, and found that players weren’t picking up on who they were, or why they were there, or some key element of the plot, and to fix it the decision was made to just bloody scream it at the start. But even leaving aside the horrors of designing for focus testers, if key information isn’t being communicated as people play, then the mistake wasn’t made in the opening seconds, and the solution isn’t tying them to a chair, and pinning open their eyes Clockwork Orange-style.
The answer is figuring out how to naturally convey that information to the player as a consequence of playing those first moments of the game. And no, that’s not easy! This isn’t a “Why didn’t you press the multiplayer button?!” argument – this is an acknowledgement that conveying your game’s initial story through play, rather than a dump of text or video, is much, much harder. But goodness me, worth it.
Do you know what? There’s even a way around it. Let me play the game for a bit, get used to the controls, get familiar with things, and then have the magic porcupine walk up to me and blather on about the history of the Sparkle Children for ten minutes. At least I’ll be the tiniest bit invested in what I’m hearing at that point, rather than only annoyed to have this story being smeared all over my face.
It’s for the game’s greater good, too. Out-of-context (for the player, if not the developer) exposition is incredibly hard to take on board. Lore is a difficult meal at the best of times, but when you don’t know anyone or anything involved as it’s being told, in a moment when you thought you were about to start jumping, shooting, investigating or exploring, it’s like being force fed Jacobs crackers. If the motivation behind the up-front dump is a fear players won’t pick it up, it’s only making things worse.
Trust the players. Learning a game’s background, setting, and foreshadowing through play is not only enormously more satisfying, it’s a far more effective means of having that story taken in and understood. It’s meaningful at this point. And most of all, it means we can just start playing the game when the game starts, not sit there punching our keyboards in the hope that at some point, it’ll just shut up and let us play.
(And yes, it’s rubbish when Star Wars does it too.)