Good job shooting all those aliens! Now, did you ever stop to wonder just why you were shooting them?
Video game writers have gotten pretty creative about how they tell players what the heck is going on. Where are we? Where are we supposed to go, and what do we do when we get there? Why is she mad at him? Why are they mad at me? Why is the galactic senate convening an emergency session? Why does eating this flower let me throw fireballs?
This article originally ran on 5/06/2015.
Sure, games could just drop backstory into non-interactive cutscenes. They could do so by using any of a number of tried and true framing devices and hoary techniques. But video games are interactive, and open to a whole new set of creative backstory-filling tricks.
Which video game exposition techniques are good? Which are less good? Let’s get ranking.
20. Codex Entries
Ah, the good ol’ Codex. Stalwart communicator of fantasy and sci-fi lore. You press pause and navigate a bunch of encyclopedia entries. Fun! Rarely all that useful until someone transcribes it out of the game and into a searchable wiki.
19. Villainous Monologues
Take it easy, it’s almost time for our boss battle. First, let’s talk. Actually let’s also have a flashback. Then maybe we’ll fight some, then I can talk some more.
18. Discovered Documents
Welcome to the underground lair. We’ve grabbed some newspaper clippings and posted them on the wall; I think you’ll find them all interesting and surprisingly relevant.
17. Audio Diaries
Because why wouldn’t the evil mastermind detail his master plan in carefully edited recordings lying around for you to discover?
16. Loading-Screen Recaps
If you have to stare at a loading screen, it might as well have some lore on it.
So much potential, often wasted. Usually bad and obvious, with a compounding problem being that believable video game graffiti usually doesn’t provide all that much plot information.
14. News Broadcasts
We interrupt for some breaking news related to a thing that you just did or witnessed, including some additional information and context on why it happened and what the fallout may be.
13. The Voice On The Walkie-Talkie
Hello? Is anyone on this channel? Oh boy, you’ve really come at a shitty time. I need you to get to Area C. Once you’re there, I’ll be able to tell you more.
Ooooh, turns out this spooky place really is haunted! Look at those ghosts, reenacting something important that happened in this room. Better stop rooting around for upgrade materials and listen to what they have to say.
11. Reading Strangers’ Emails
If the game’s going to have a hacking minigame, it should probably let you read random people’s emails, too.
10. Your Friend, The Narrator
The voice on your shoulder, the whisper in your ear. Sometimes good (Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time), sometimes bad (Alan Wake), and sometimes great (Bastion).
9. Overheard NPC Chatter
Isn’t it funny how those two guys on the street happen to be having a frank conversation about the local political climate? Wonder if that’ll be important.
8. Pop quiz!
Your apprenticeship is nearly at a close. It’s time to quiz you on all that you’ve learned. First question: Which planets did the Sith originally call home?
7. The Mission Briefing Screen
Straight to the point: Here’s what’s happening, and here’s what you have to do. Also, here’s how difficult this mission will be relative to your current level.
6. Straight-Up Putting Huge Text On The Screen
You know what, sometimes the direct route can be charming. Hey, meet JOHN THE DESTROYER. Here is a jokey fact about him!
5. Scanning With Your Scanner
Turns out it’s pretty fun to use a device to actively scan things in the environment in order to learn about them. Thanks, Metroid Prime!
4. Putting It In The Manual
Sure, putting plot and character information in the manual kind of counts as “burying” it. And sure, game manuals basically don’t exist anymore. But while it may have been cumbersome and old-fashioned, it was always such a nice distraction while your parents drove you home from the mall. External lore apps and interactive comics kinda count as modern versions of this.
3. What Happened Next?
A nice interactive twist on the framed interrogation flashback where your present-day character actually gets to decide how to tell the flashback, or even dictate what happened. Did you fight the monster? Or maybe you fled the monster! Did you help your friend, or leave them to die? What happened after that?
2. Party Banter
If you were going to wander a vast wilderness in search of monsters and treasure, you’d probably get bored and strike up a conversation, too.
1. Actual Environmental Storytelling
Sometimes a game doesn’t have to write it on the wall or yell it in our ear. Sometimes we’ll just notice that the thing is next to the other thing and draw our own conclusions.