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Exposure in Video Games: An Example
by Altug Isigan on 04/10/11 05:53:00 pm   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


Exposure Exposed

When we speak of video games, we rarely ever think of exploration and discovery as cases of exposure, that is, the calculated distribution of information to audience and characters. In drama, exposure is one of the most important and effective means of storytelling and lies at the heart of narration. When we speak of video games, we often prefer to speak of exploration instead of exposure, because we think player-centric, that is, we describe things from a player's point-of-view. However, exploration is often subject to the desiger's planning, and at this point, his manipulations in regard to how we explore and discover things is a matter of exposure.

Exploration is one of the most intriguing aspects of narrative, because it results in discovery. As a result of our exploration, we find out, or are being informed, about a new type of event or object, and the change in our knowledge changes also the picture that we perceive in regard to the status of things. We can speak of gaining a new perspective, and exactly this is the reason why in drama theory and narratology point-of-view is not only regarded as a matter of sight (like first-person or third-person), but also a matter of exposure of information. What we know, changes how we see things. And this in return, changes how we feel about things. In other words, exposure is closely related to the management of emotions.

The shift in perspective caused by discovery often results from the new complete picture , the story that we can reconstruct based on the information that the discourse (the narration, or storytelling) passed over to us. Until the discovery, we think that eveything that happened so far was  A, B, C,D; but the discovery adds something new to this picture. It turns now into A,B;C,D,E; and we realise that what we think was A, was actually B, and what was B, was actually C, and so forth. The chrono-logy of things has changed, thereby the things themselves as well as the whole gaining a new meaning.

Surprise and Suspense

The change in the picture we perceive may function in more than one way. For one, the moment in which we realize the change in the picture may create surprise; on the other hand, once we are in possess of the knowledge that changed the picture, we may experience things like anticipation and suspense.

An example from X-Com: Apocalypse

If you have ever played X-Com: Apocalypse, you will remember what an absolutely shocking experience it was when the aliens used the entropy launcher for the first time. More than that, once shocked by its exposure to us, in later missions it turned into a great source of suspense.

The exposure of the entropy launcher happens quite simple: During  a mission, one of our unit gets suddenly hit by a green goo-like missile, something we haven’t seen until that point. This is the first surprise. “What’s that?”, we say.But the surprise turns into shock, because within a few seconds, the protection shield of our unit melts away, our unit gets terribly wounded, and finally, the grenades it carried go off. Our unit is dead, and there is nothing we can do about it. We feel terrible vulnerable.

What we realize at this point is that something that happened prior to the mission wasn’t told us until this point: that the aliens developed a new weapon. So, based on how the discourse has chosen to inform us about the existence of this new weapon, we reconstruct a new story from it. The added knowledge has changed the picture of the whole.

To summarize: surprise is a result of exposure, and created through a reconstruction of story based on the information passed over to us by the discourse.

But it doesn’t end here.

This new information about the existence of the entropy launcher puts other things into motion: anticipation and suspense. We expect this weapon to be used again, and combined with the other knowledge we possess (that we are highly vulnerable against this weapon), on our next mission, we experience fear and suspense: Is there an alien hiding somewhere with that weapon? Will we be able to eliminate it before it can harm any of our units? How can I protect my units in the given environment if this weapon should be used against me? Will I be able to return from this mission, which seems to be much riskier than the mission before?

The designers of X-Com: Apocalypse did a great job. They reuse this way of exposure throughout the game. In terms of introduction of new weapons, the structure of exposure becomes best visible when we compare story to discourse (the highlighted letters indicating the new weapons, the others indicating the new missions):

Story                   A   B   C   D    F   G   H...

Discourse            B(A)   D(C)   F(E)   H(G)...

While in chronological order (story) the weapon exists before the mission (that is what our reasoning tells us, that it must have already existed), in discourse-time, we find out about its existence during the mission. Hence, while story is AB, the discourse puts us through BA, and this little difference caused by exposure is the source of surprise as well as the source of suspense that follow thereafter.

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Luis Guimaraes
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Very insightful stuff.

Altug Isigan
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Thank you, Luis! :)

Luis Guimaraes
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You're welcome. I mean, I'm almost 30 days from release and considering options for the next project, which I plan to have more narrative. This came weighty in the process, completing important parts of the vision. Thank you.

Altug Isigan
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Wow, great to know that this article will be helpful to a project...:)

Best of luck!

Jonathan Lawn
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I'm not well versed in the terminology you are using. I was assuming by exploration you were referring to geographical movement by the player's character. I don't think that is what you were referring to, but it does raise some interesting questions.

For instance, a linear narrative of story ABCD can have the more interesting discovery pattern C(B), and D(A), with presumably C providing some suspence, but D being the big revelation. However, if you allow the player to explore direction 1,2,3 and 4 in any order, and each location has a story AX BX, the designer can set the chronology of A1,A2,A3 and A4, but not B1,B2,B3,B4. Should the designer limit himself to suprises of the form discovery B1(A1), or can we afford to have B2(A1), on the assumption that 50% of the time B1 hasn't appeared in the narrative yet (and will be no surprise now) but 50% of the time it has, and that ratio is good enough for the designer in terms of narrative control?

Similarly, if B1 and B2 both lead to the same discovery A, does it matter what order they come in?

As an example using only two locations (and which I hope explores some of the above), you could have location 1 where your first exposure to automatic weapons (B1) leads you to jump into a tank treadmark for cover (C1, which relates at least to A1, the revalation that there are tanks), and location 2 where your first exposure to tank fire (B2) leads you to take cover in an building full of machine gun belts (which relates to A2). If the player goes to 1 then 2, then the machine gun is a surprise at 1 (which is validated at 2), but he's prepared for the tank at 2 because he's been worrying about it since 1. I think this improves the binding together of the locations, and only loses half the surprises.

I realise this is a tangent to what you were concerned with, but how do you (and game narratology gurus) view this sort of mixed up, open-world story discovery? Too complex and uncontrolled, or within the scope of theory?

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I think it's about the interactive conceptual breakthrough. Bit of information work in a system, as the conceptual system fill up, an image form or change.

Consider the premise of romeo and Juliet:

Romeo is a Montaigu

Juliet is a Capulet

Capulet and Montaigu hate each other

Romeo and Juliet love each other

Took out one bit of info and there is no surprise, the breakthrough come from the contradiction (conflict) between the state of each character (hate/love) that create drama. That bit of information is not told but EMERGE from the sum of information. If the player learn those information in any order it does not change the breakthrough, the puzzle reveal itself only when it's complete, when there is a "closure".

In the Xcom example, the drama emerge from the fact the player think he is safe (he got shield and is well armed) and a weapon negate that safety therefore creating drama.

The article basically say to present information nugget in a way that the conceptual puzzle create drama. If the Weapon was disclose before the mission, the player could have prepare itself and it would be bland (no emotional response), the order in which you reveal information is a way to break into a puzzle straightforward information.

Gag work entirely on this process.

Altug Isigan
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If the player learn those information in any order it does not change the breakthrough, the puzzle reveal itself only when it's complete, when there is a "closure".

That's exactly the point, thanks for this nice summary, Tim! :)


Thanks for reading. Good question as well.

From a narratology perspective it doesn't matter whether the story is open or closed. (Issues in regard to open structures have been adressed already in the 1960s, if not earlier, and the conceptual arsenal is quite huge). So, where it really interests us as a design choice to whether go open or closed is what experience we want to achieve for the player. This gives you a reason for whether you want to control the process or not, whether you stick with open, relatively open, or closed.

When we traverse a narrative, we are constantly busy with measuring discourse (the things we are being put through) against story (the complete, chrono-logical picture of those things). In other words, whenever discourse provides us with a new information, we update the mental picture of the story-so-far. The information-update cycle lasts until the narrative comes to an end, where we can construct the ultimate complete picture.

This process can be used in many ways by the designer: to create anticipation, to set up expectations, and even to lure the reader temporarily into constructing a wrong/incomplete picture of things in order to create a very big surprise for him(as is the case in "red herrings") . Think of the end of Sixth Sense by Night Shamalayan, or Blizzard's Diablo. Until the end we update the story with some faith into our ability to solve the conflict, only to find out the complete picture, which makes us realize that the case was lost right from the beginning.

Drama theory is fully aware of this mental process and has created many techniques to use it against the player, to shock him, surprise him, to make him feel suspense, tension, fear etc. Actually most of the stuff here is really just Storytelling 101, and not narratology-guru-stuff. And being interested in it, or thinking about games within these terms isn't anti-game at all. To me it was always helpful and improved my understanding of games. I think it shouldn't be called "narratology stuff", its part of games, I'd never doubt that. And it also doesn't mean that I ignore gameplay, it's just one of the many lenses that I can use to improve my game's design.

Altug Isigan
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I really do hate it when a very detailed comment gets lost! *Grrr*

Edit: reposted the comment. Please, read above :)

John McMahon
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If you use Firefox I recommend Lazarus Recovery as it remembers entries in forms even if you did not submit.

BTW, I never played Xcom, but this article has raised my expectations for the new game in the franchise.

And I love this kind of storytelling, where not all information is known and there becomes nuggets that change your perception as you progress.

Too many times, that exposure is lost when developers/publishers/PR reveal what would otherwise be a surprise in terms of how the story. For example, in Halo: Reach going into space was intended to be a surprise for the player's experience, but since they revealed it during E3, it became an expectation and changed the experience.

This is one of the more troubling issues facing the industry when you have PR that want to advertise the best thing sin a game versus keeping the experience as it was intended.

Altug Isigan
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Hi John!

Thanks for the tip, would really spare me a lot of trouble to use Lazarus then :)

X-Com: Apocalypse is a MS-DOS game from the mid-90s, around 80 MBs of size. It looks a bit old-school compared to today's games, but in terms of story and gameplay it's one of the most intriguing and challenging games you can play (especially if you are a fan of the stategy & tactical combat genre). I think there are still version of it to be found on the internet that run on Windows XP.

What I know about the new game is that it will be a FPS (correct me if I'm wrong). That is already a turn-down for me because I'm not a great fan of the genre. I played an earlier FPS remake of it and I think it was very badly designed, let alone the genre difference.

I see your point about PR. I think stuff like this needs more coordination between marketing and developers. You need to lure in players, but not at the expense of part of the experience they were supposed to get from the game. Should be done better.