Embassy of Time

Telling a Story vs. Exposition?

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I'm not sure if this will be a blog post later, but I felt like airing it, anyway! Also, I'd love to see this corner of the forums get a little more action :)

I am in the midst of a somewhat ambitious project, because, well, I've found the time and have the ambition. In short, it's a cross-media fictional universe, and it is what I am building my game around. It's about time travel, ghosts, alternate Nazis and a lot of other yummy stuff. But the more I work on it, the more some things occupy my mind (no, not the ghosts, they are behaving nicely. At the moment). The project involves books (I am a somewhat experienced writer), comics (I... uhm... still struggling a bit on that front), audio (already got people wanting to make audio books / audio theater from the source material, yay!), a few other media, and of course, the game.

What bothers me at the moment is that I have never woven a story into a fully interactive game, and I am getting a bit bummed out by what I see out there. Don't get me wrong, I loooove the story aspects of the Deus Ex games, the Fallout series, and other story-heavy franchises. But what I have a problem with is the delivery. It always seems to end up in the "go play some of the game, then wait for a cutscene to end, or read a small wall of text connected to an item or such". For those not familiar with story jargon, that's called exposition. It's when someone in your movie comes up and tells the characters everything that's going on. "We are aliens from a world that has been watching you, and now we blah blah blah". I dislike it in movies, but I really hate it in games. It breaks immersion (just IMHO). It also feels awkward, like the story is tagged on.

So what are the alternatives? I have been looking for some juicy stuff on indirect storytelling, which a series like Dark/Demon Souls seems to be heavy on, but since I come from the writing environment, it's a bit new to me. The idea of hiding the story inside item descriptions, character smalltalk, even the way that the environment (from single rooms to whole worlds) looks, is fascinating to me, but I feel a need for more inspiration if I am to try it myself.

I also have a thing for meta-narratives, which I understand is the idea of telling one very complicated story by examplifying it inside a smaller, more manageable story. Like having complex world politics be symbolized in the way a group of people treat each other. But again, I have a hard time finding a lot of stuff to expand the idea.

Does anyone know where to find some good reads or, better yet, well-crafted videos about said ways to tell stories without relying heavily on blunt exposition? I think the main ideas about indirect storytelling was something I caught from an analysis of Dark Souls by ShoddyCast, and the best description of meta-narratives I got was from a video where MovieBob analyses The Avengers. Anyone got anything else, or some ideas on the matter??

Edited by Embassy of Time

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I always through "show don't tell" was the first thing they taught when you were learning to write, but my experience is most people weren't paying attention in that class.  Since it's a repeated motif all through your education, that's a lot of not paying attention.

Exposition is also the hardest part of writing.  It's not action, it's not character development, it's not descriptive writing, it's just slogging.  I've hear writer say "I have a great story, no all I have to do is write some exposition so my characters can get to the action" the way a graduate student frequently says "I really should be working on my thesis instead of playing this."

Of course, the best storytelling in games has got to take into account the dynamic nature of the interaction and the emergent nature of the narrative.  Few games seem to do that:  the writers want to channel you into a set path with cut-scenes and voice-overs and generally non-interactive segments in which the author attempts to control the player's thoughts.  Non-linear storytelling through emergent narratives is the place where interesting work is still being done, and a good future direction for games that aren't really just shoot-em-up eyecandy.  For example, I was reading an interesting paper on this the other day, and it has a bunch of interesting references to follow up on.

Anyway, there are a lot of good references on how to write well, whether novels or games.  I wish some of the people who write commercial games would familiarize themselves with them.

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Of course, the best storytelling in games has got to take into account the dynamic nature of the interaction and the emergent nature of the narrative.  Few games seem to do that:  the writers want to channel you into a set path with cut-scenes and voice-overs and generally non-interactive segments in which the author attempts to control the player's thoughts.  Non-linear storytelling through emergent narratives is the place where interesting work is still being done, and a good future direction for games that aren't really just shoot-em-up eyecandy.

My problem precisely. The medium of games still seems welded to traditional "I tell you a story" narratives, rather than story by exploration. Stories remain very liniar and dominant, or insignificant background noise. I don't want that, but ironically, as a writer, it's what I 'grew up with', too. My goal is to unlearn some of that....

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I'm afraid I don't have time to respond in more detail at the moment (sick kids keeping me busy!) but I just wanted to share these couple of articles from our archive that seem relevant:

 

Thanks, I'll get on these ASAP! They seem like worth a lot of focus to understand, cool that there's stuff of that magnitude on the site!

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Like the first comment says, "Show don't tell."

One alternative I can think of for you is to create the story, then weave the environment around it. For example, if you wanted to show how a church was corrupted, leave a dungeon for holding people somewhere in there. If you want to show that an ancient civilization was obsessed with a certain animal, leave a bunch of murals of the animal around in a sort of altar like area.

One thing I like to do when I make levels is create a level narrative. It's the story behind the level that you want to convey to the player without words. You write as much backstory as you want on your level. It doesn't even have to be related to your story. So long as it fits within the context of your game, there's no problem.

I hope this helps! Good luck my fellow writer!

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