I have proposed three different methods of conveying the story and narrative of Protocol Aurora to the player. The first I have already discussed in a previous post, narrative branding. The second is environmental storytelling, where the placement, or presence, of objects in the environment tell a story about what happened there in the past. Finally, there is the most traditional method of storytelling, dialogue.
As you can probably guess from the title of this blog post, I spent this week working on first pass dialogue, which would be scattered throughout the game. This dialogue can be activated by planting the amplifier in an “echo”, a strong memory from the past stored within the Aurora. When the player triggers this, it will bring up a text box, and display a conversation that took place between two or more people, back when the Aurora Station was still inhabited by humanity.
The primary purpose of this dialogue is to provide the player the most important information about the history of the world, and explain to them what the things they see means within the context of the rest of the game. However, this starts running the risk of running into dialogue that becomes purely exposition.
For instance, one of the things I have to explain to the player through a snippet of dialogue is the purpose of the giant pipes that are scattered throughout the landscape. If I want to make absolutely certain that the player knows what the pipes are for, I might write something like this:
Looking at this dialogue solely for its ability to communicate the purpose of pipes to players, it is completely functional. There’s no way a player could read this and not understand that the pipes carry a liquified version of aurora energy from the tower to the rest of the world. It says so right in the piece. However, looked at as a realistic, engaging conversation, this snippet of conversation has so many problems. For one, it is far from engaging. It is nothing more than an info-dump on the player, providing them the information they need without taking the time to bring in the personalities of those speaking. Another problem is that I am essentially treating Jiao like an idiot. Information as important as this is something that would be common knowledge. She is ignorant simply to give me a means of dumping information on the player through her.
While it is by far the easiest way to communicate information to a player, having a dialogue be full of little but exposition is among the worst things I can do as an author. It doesn’t engage the player, and certainly doesn’t give them reason to want to read the other dialogue snippets that they’ll encounter as they play. Exposition bogs down a reader, and interrupts the pacing of a story.
However, it is also possible to go too far in the other direction. Here’s the same scene with a different focus:
This is a stronger piece of dialogue, in the sense that it gives greater characterization to both Dillon and Chao-Tai. It is more engaging to read than a simple info-dump, and flows better because of it. However, in its original purpose, it completely failed. The purpose of this piece of dialogue was supposed to be to inform the player about the nature and the purpose of the pipes, and not only did it fail to do that, the characters didn’t even bring up the pipes until right at the end.
The simple fact of the matter is, exposition is necessary to some extent to ensure that players are able to get the information they need. A piece completely without exposition drops the player in the middle of a conversation that will not provide any new knowledge, even if it might be interesting to read.
Finding a way to convey the necessary information without bogging the player down in needless summary thus becomes a balancing act between the two. Here’s what I currently have written for this scene:
This piece has its own problems, mostly in the fact that it is much longer and wordier than it needs to be to get my point across, which is a tendency I have in most of my writing (have you noticed the run on sentence yet?). But it does manage to walk the fine edge of exposition much more accurately than the other two examples posted above. Linkovich is undoubtedly still providing exposition when he describes what would happen were the pipes to break. However, this time it is done in a format that not only fits with his character, but doesn’t require Jiao to be ignorant of common knowledge in the process. Yet, it is still able to successfully convey the important information to the player.
In order to have compelling dialogue in a game where the characters are supposed to be vehicles to tell about the world, every conversation is going to have to find a way to walk that same line. It is undoubtedly going to be a challenge, because I’m going to have to bury the exposition so that it exists without the player noticing or feeling like it intrudes upon their enjoyment of what they are reading. However, when I can get it to walk that line correctly, it will help create strong, engaging, and informative conversations, which the player will enjoy seeking out, and will find rewarding every time they encounter another fragment.