This is part 3 of an ongoing series on the techniques that game designers employ to tell stories in video games. If you haven’t read part 1 or part 2, do that first.

I. Exposition (continued)

Aural exposition

I sometimes think of games as the narrative equivalent of a ratio level of measurement: they can do anything that a “lower order” medium can do, and more besides. If we accept this analogy, then we’ve already covered the in-game equivalents of film and written fiction. What’s left? Radio, of course.

By “aural exposition,” I mean dialogue that serves an expository purpose and is primarily delivered as audio. Many game offer subtitle options for spoken dialogue, and I don’t think that the presence of such an option disqualifies an example from being considered as primarily aural in nature. Spoken dialogue contains more information (tone of voice, other nuances) than subtitles. The experience of listening to speech and other diegetic story-related sounds while playing is also less distracting from gameplay in most games. In fact, this is the great strength of purely aural exposition as a storytelling device, and the thing which makes it potentially more effective than cinematic exposition, despite the greater range of tools at the disposal of a filmmaker: voiced dialogue need not break interactivity in the same way that fully scripted sequences do.

BioShock

BioShock, a first-person shooter (FPS) set in a failed Randian utopia, might fairly be called the “big daddy” of aural exposition. The game uses other narrative techniques as well (exploratory narrative, for example, due to the game’s brilliantly atmospheric mise-en-scène), but most of what the player learns about the compelling world and characters is learned by listening.

From the very first moment, BioShock talks to the player—or rather, for the first and only time in the game, the player character talks to himself.

These opening lines (and the sounds of the plane crash) set the tone for the game. The player character is special, but at this point in the game he has no idea why. BioShock is full of such lies of omission. The game’s plot is very much about what is being said and not said, and how previous statements and actions—even the player’s own actions, something that we expect to have control of in an interactive medium—are cast in a different light as each new truth is revealed.

As the game continues, there are two primary ways that the player receives exposition. Both involve listening. The first is through radio communication (or, occasionally, brief face-to-face communication) with the few other sane denizens of the underwater city of Rapture. This moves the plot forward in real-time, during the timeframe in which the game actually takes place. In the example below, the character named Atlas instructs the player to exit the metal bathysphere in which he arrived and take the first proverbial baby steps in the game. As an English major, I cannot resist pointing out that together, these two videos present a pretty clear birth metaphor.

Radio communication informs the player about what is happening, or at least why she is ostensibly doing the things she is doing (clarification: the player character in BioShock is male, but I always use “she” to refer to the player herself). However, everything that is compelling about the game’s setting is rooted in the past. Rapture is interesting on architectural, sociological, philosophical and technological levels, yet all of these aspects of the city are crumbling (literally and figuratively) at the time of the player character’s arrival. BioShock solves the potential problem of being present in its world at the least interesting possible time by giving the player access to a wealth of personal histories of the city’s (former) inhabitants, in the form of “audio diaries.” These short voice clips, represented in the game world as tape recordings, weave together to offer a picture of what the city of Rapture looked like before its fall. There are recordings from the city’s great men, but also from secondary figures whose lives were impacted by titanic conflicts in which they played little part. The video below features the first ten audio diaries that can be found in the game.

Both the radio and the audio diaries are forms of one-way aural communication. After the opening cutscene, the player never has a voice of his own. Most games would ignore this fact, taking it for granted as an artifact of game design conventions or technical limitations, but BioShock does not. BioShock is extremely well-regarded as an example of storytelling in gaming not due to the specific techniques it uses to tell its story, but because the game designers were smart enough to realize the implications of their choices, and to make them the ultimate focus of the game’s narrative.

Kane and Lynch 2: Dog Days

A note on the games I choose as examples: I pick them because I’ve played them. Kane and Lynch 2 is not a particularly good game, which is why I feel the need to explain its presence here. I played it because I had heard that it did some interesting things with visual presentation: it looks like a shitty cell phone video, complete with mpeg artifacting, slow reaction to changes in lighting, jarring camera movement, etc. Those choices are neat, but they don’t actually have much to do with the game’s narrative. The fiction does not account for a cameraman following the characters around, so it’s a purely stylistic choice (but one that may still fall under the umbrella of “interactive narrative,” where I plan to include a section on user interface design).

The way that Kane and Lynch 2 actually conveys its story, aside from brief cinematic sequences, is through a very straightforward but solid implementation of diegetic dialogue between characters. By “diegetic,” I mean that the characters are present in the scene as gameplay continues. The game does not always stop the action to convey information, but chooses to do so in a relatively naturalistic way.

In Kane and Lynch 2, dialogue is being used to drive the plot forward, but many other games use this same technique to provide deeper characterization or atmosphere. Many western-developed role-playing games, for example, take advantage of lulls in the action to allow non-player companion characters to interact verbally with each other, offering (frequently humorous) insights into their personalities, histories and worldviews. The example below is from BioWare’s recent Dragon Age: Origins. There is similar party banter for every possible combination of companions.

A note on western RPGs and branching dialogue

Western RPGs, which tend to be more open in design than their Japanese counterparts, often feature “dialogue trees” which allow the player to hold interactive conversations with non-player characters. These conversations are not entirely open—this isn’t ELIZA—but instead resemble somewhat more granular and permanent versions of Choose Your Own Adventure novels. It’s possible to revisit aspects of a conversation over and over—holding your fingers on the pages to make sure you’re choosing wisely—but it’s also possible to respond to characters in ways that have permanent effects on how they perceive and respond to your character. I mention this common game mechanic because these conversations are often fully voice-acted in modern games, and so it’s possible to view these conversations as aural exposition; however, I classify them instead as examples of interactive narrative, given the degree of control they offer the player over the progression of the narrative. I will discuss them in more detail in a future blog post.