Exposing the Lore Dumps
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.
Let’s get the cat out of the bag immediately. There is a wonderful article on lore dumps by Alexis Kennedy.
In fact, I was directly inspired by it. Alexis, henceforth referred to as THE MAN, did a wonderful job outlying the issues and problems with lore dumps. I do recommend it as a complimentary reading.
In this one I’ll try to add more spins on what the man said and fill in the blanks. Because I believe an unwanted lore dump is just a design, production, or communication failure. It’s okay to fail, it’s not to be content with your arsenal and methods.
Before we go on, some housekeeping. There are no rules in writing. We choose and create frameworks to keep ourselves sane. Alright? Let’s dive in.
Lore dump is just exposition. It’s not a good one, but it’s exposition. In fact, all we do as storytellers is exposition. The rest is narrative design.
Dialogues are an exchange of exposition. Actions are exposition made moving flesh, environments are boundaries infested with exposition. It’s also the first part of the three-act structure, and the five-act structure, and every other structure.
1 Exposition Management
You have an hour - maybe two depending on the platform - to seal the deal and push the player beyond the point of no refund. It’s as simple as that.
You have to present enough information for a player to buy the game, but not too much so that a player isn’t overwhelmed or bored.
A mystery is a bare minimum to intrigue. Not too much - just enough to ponder, to spark the curiosity. You provide too much and it’s boring. Not enough and there is no purchase for a player. Afterward, you provide breadcrumbs bit by bit so that players can figure out the mystery.
An adventure is simpler. Where, who, how, why are all the questions you need to answer first. Arguably it all can be answered in a scene. However, mindless murder - which is sadly what adventures are in our medium - isn’t a natural fun pass-time. We get bored by everything, especially something as unnatural as killing hundreds for trinkets (Looking at you Uncharted). Reasons to keep playing should be provided regularly and in chunks.
2 Exposition Value
The offerings we make to the gods of drama and story are of different values. To make the leitmotif take root in our subject’s head we must present only the crucial and best.
Different information is of different worth at different times in different contexts. There is no number, that’s not how it works. You have to use your best judgment and assume what a player should know accordingly.
For example for the first act, you need to present only the crucial information. So ask yourself if we need to know when, how and why the Dark Lord turned dark. Perhaps it’s sufficient to know that there is one and that the Lord is to perish.
An important note here. I’m talking only about what you present to the player, not to the team. Think Mad Max: Fury Road. Only the crucial information is overtly presented, the rest is implied. Immortan Joe runs the world, Furiosa broke out the girls, Max is a blood bag and literally going insane, Nux is a victim of Joe’s society. On the other hand, George Miller explained everything to the actors.
You’re to choose the most important information and present it on the right occasion. Sometimes just to chase that “Less is More”, but usually to reinforce the spine of the story.
We tend to praise constraints, but sometimes there are none. You’re free to do whatever and however you want. You know your tools and people agree with you. That’s when you make Matrix: Reloaded.
Having a spine in your story alleviates that. Constraints imitate that. Spine - leitmotif, core, whatever - is what your story is about and key pillars of it. It’s your Dark Lord. If you accept him in your heart you will no longer kill your darlings, you will execute the unworthy.
Hellblade is about Senua and her struggle. Her psychosis, her life. Everything rotates around it, everything is contextualized by it.
The spine is the context of your exposition. You check every beat with the spine in mind and show the player only what is relevant to the spine. The rest is for side quests and shit. You know, like companion quests.
Now this all was fine but provides no actual tools to deliver the exposition. The man’s article has a bunch of useful advice, but I’m being impertinent here so I’ll pile a bunch on top.
Overall the main point here is that you don’t need to present everything immediately, you have time to develop your exposition. You always have.
1 Dedicated Segments
Scenes, levels, whatever. You can make a side quest specifically about a certain topic or a subject. A player will get in and will learn it at a proper speed.
For example, a side quest about raiding Dark Lord kitchen can tell you a lot about his eating habits and his relationship with his cook.
The main story can be viewed in the same way. A series of dedicated segments all reiterating on essential stuff. Developing the lore further. A scene about where the character comes from, a scene about the inciting incident, a scene about the romantic interest, a scene about the antagonist, a scene about mechanics.
You can switch modality and appeal to different audiences in dedicated segments. You have time and you have space. If you only care about showing what a character is about, an hour-long sidequest is plenty of time to make sure everybody gets it.
In Max Payne 2, Vlad Lem is introduced in a mission all about saving him. We know what we need from that episode. Their relationship, who Vlad is, etc. All because there is nothing distracting us from exposition at hand.
2 Talk to Players
You’re exposing your story to a Player, not to the character they play. If you’ve done your research then you have an idea about who your players are.
In a bluntest example, a fantasy game can safely assume the awareness of The Lord of the Rings or its derivatives. A sci-fi game assumes the awareness of Star Wars. Everybody knows that London is the capital of Great Britain.
You don’t need to explain this stuff if you use the tropes of the genre. You don’t explain elves unless you have weird elves. People have their stereotypes about them.
What I’m trying to say is that you don’t even need to tell or show the player that your fantasy world has elves, orcs, dwarves, and whatnots. People will assume that.
It’s when the whole represents the parts and parts represent the whole. “The Dark Lord is evil” represents the murdered villages, civil rights violations, and clothing choices. Murdered villages represent that the Dark Lord is evil. All hands on deck, we gotta kill the guy.
Broader bits of information are generally easier to explain to players. Wanna show somebody is good? Save the cat. (Put down your pitchforks this instant!) Or just have somebody say that they are good. Players have no reason to distrust you. They will demand confirmations though.
4 Reiterate Exposition
“We’re not sure our players will get that. Can you repeat it again?”
This is a valid request. Players might miss one bit. If the information is important you gotta repeat it.
A series of cats saved (Oh would you please.) shows someone’s goodness. Helping a friend in need also does that. Being polite does that. Dressing in red, white and blue does it (Not a read on U.S. it’s a very common color choice for flags). Attack players in different directions.
This makes sure everybody gets it and also allows to show the goodness from different sides.
Don’t assume your players will get all of your cleverly laid exposition. I didn’t read almost anything in Cultist Simulator. I have a vague idea what I’m doing and it’s enough for me to enjoy the game a lot. Even though the man writes exquisitely.
I also recommend watching Black Mirror season 3 episode 2 Playtest. Take note of all the information given and how it is developed over the course of the episode. Nothing new is added in the end. Stuff gets recontextualized and to the darkest extent.
5 Creeping Exposition
Watch Pulp Fiction and think how much you learn about Marcellus Wallace before you actually meet him. Avary and Tarantino covered the exposition about him with more exposition about foot massages and big macs. You can sneak your exposition in minutiae details too.
It might be a weird effect of subtext, but I like to think that players just like to work for their exposition. It also allows you to write dialogue about stuff that actually concerns your characters, and splice actual useful information between the lines. Or just there.
Another way to sneak in stuff is to use exposition as an action. We all know the tragedy of Darth Plagueis the Wise. Why did Palpatine tell it to Anakin? To seal the deal.
Another important infiltration method constitutes its own segment.
It’s a neat way to shove some exposition in. Really. Twist is something that changes the mood of the player. There are loads of way to do that. The one we’re interested in is just new information or recontextualization.
You’ve been killing people for 6 hours in a video game. You finally manage to steal some orders off a dead officer. These are civilian evacuation orders. It’s exposition, but before players can roll their eyes they need to come to terms that the enemy is evacuating their civilians in the face of you.
You’re dating somebody and that person is asking you for flowers. You provide said flowers. You go to their house and there are no flowers. You find a diary. You peek in. There is a recipe that requires all the flowers. The recipe will turn your liver into a ravenous demon. It’s exposition, but before players can roll their eyes they need to save their livers.
7 Dialogue Options
If you have branching dialogues then you can hide exposition in the choices.
“You can’t bring those bananas inside the country.”
1. Why? This is bonkers.
2. According to article 17, I can bring one crate of whatever I want.
3. Don’t give me this elven bullshit. How much to get’em in?
Players will read the choices before choosing one. They will get some information from that while they’re doing the puzzle.
Patterns are very neat. I love’em. My favorite example is Finnish and Swedish towns.
Gothenburg, Stockholm, Kristianstad for Sweden.
Helsinki, Kajaani, Tikkurila for Finland.
Now if the player gets said pattern, which is simple - you just repeat them and associate properly - then they will correctly associate Karlskrona and Vantaa without extra exposition.
They will, of course, fail to put Uppsala into a proper country. But that also gives some information.
Ultimately you don’t need a player to make a mental note. Our brains are magic. They store shit without us micromanaging the process.
Make exposition stand out, but don’t call attention to it. Repeat names and facts, but don’t shove them in our faces. Sprinkle the ambiance with it, but don’t highlight it.
Play Hollow Knight is what I’m saying. Nothing is said overtly, everything is delivered via the feeling and atmosphere.
Writing for games is a very parasitic way of life. We can’t earn the living on our own. Well, we can, but that’s not usual. As such we cling to other people.
You need to talk to them and convince them to avoid unwanted lore dumps. For that you need ammo. I’ve given you some, the man gave you some.
To wrap things up I’m gonna leave some advice on handling the communication.
1 Don’t Mention this Shit
Or books! Or the man’s article! Or fancy terms! Or pop culture! Or memes!
I once used Kuleshov’s effect (Google it) as an argument. A legit one. It was dismissed and I came off pretentious.
People may not know what your cool argument means. Barraging them with even more never works. Walt them through. Don’t assume, educate. Rely on the meaning of the tools and tricks, not their names. Cite examples, mention your experience. Wanna sound smart? Find other writers! We all sound smart.
Exposition just wants a hug. Embrace her. Let her inside of you. Inside your heart and your liver. Let it build an embassy in your left kidney. Feed it with offerings for your Dark Lady of Information. Let it grow on you, in you.
But then don’t forget that useless exposition is just posing as your friend. I like the passage above, but it makes no sense whatsoever in this context. A friend whom I’ve shown this pointed it out. It has to be cut or tied into the narrative. If I hadn’t found a way to use it as a bad example, I would have cut it.
3 Compromise Smart
When a producer asks why did you put some exposition in episode 3 instead of episode 1 you say:
“It’s in both. We foreshadow it in 1 and fully develop in 3.”
“But what if the players miss it?”
“There is no way. I talked with sound people they will add required feeling in the ambient track. The art folks are in too. They will incorporate it in character design episode 3 onwards.”
“Maybe we should tell it directly anyway?”
“That would be very blunt and players will resent learning. How about we make a sidequest about it? Game designers wanted one between 2 and 3 anyway.”
“I still think we need to do it in 1.”
“Frankly, we don’t have any space for it in 1. We’re already doing the tutorial, the exposition about magic and antagonist, we can compress them into a Star Wars crawl, but nobody will ever read it.”
“But it’s the player character’s past. It’s very important.”
“I hear you! But if the player doesn’t know where his character comes from the story still works. Let’s keep it in low priority.”
“Alright, let’s go talk to game designers.”
If you expected some dramatic finale for this one, you’re missing the point. Not everything is Studio 60. It’s also not the end of that conversation. Producers job is to prod at you to find shortcomings, you’ll have defend your shit for eternity.
If you keep track of your tools and your story, you can navigate these conversations with ease. But you gotta keep track and keep your cool. Everybody wants to make the best game they can. Work with everybody. Talk to everybody.
IV What’s Your Story About?
In conclusion, I’d like to talk about the most important and dreaded question. What’s your story about? This is how you figure the spine of your story, this is how you judge the exposition value. This is how you write.
There is no clear-cut way to answer that question. When you know, you know. It might be a logline, might be the key pillars, might be as simple as “We shoot shit.”
But you gotta know. Nothing works if you don’t know.
“But it’s the player’s story?”
Well, what the player’s story can be about?
And when you know you see the structure. You know what the player needs to know, you know when. You see the light of our Dark Lady Exposition. You can show her light to others.