Exposure in Video Games: An Example

[This article has been selected as one of the Top 5 member blog posts on gamasutra. Read about it here.]


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.

Is Your Notion of Unreliable Narration Reliable?

[This blog article has been featured on gamasutra]


Communication between Game and Player at the expense of the Narrator

The issue of unreliable narration in video games has been addressed many times. Often the given examples revolve around  game instances in which the player was deceived by an in-game character or a narrator’s voice in a rather non-sensical way.

Other examples are marked by the player’s perceived discrepancy between the actions that he believed himself or his avatar to have carried out and the rather non-sensical way in which the actions were framed by the narrator.

However, most of these instances are not valid as examples of unreliable narration and we need to understand the concept better to find more reliable ways to discuss it. 

Theoretically, unreliable narration should not result in the story feeling flawed since it is a storytelling technique aimed at enhancing the joy of the experience rather than destroying it.

Unreliable narration embodies a consistent story that simultaneously develops (at least) two versions of itself of which one  (told by the narrator) loses credibility as the other one (resulting from the established norms of the narrative) crystalizes.

Unreliable narration can only emerge against the reliable version that is communicated to the reader via the broader lines of the narrative. What takes place is a secret communication between implied author and reader at the expense of the narrator. It is irony that is achieved: a consistent story about someone whose version of the very same story isn’t reliable.

This is quite different from a story feeling inconsistant because of flaws in narrative design. If the story we experience doesn’t seem to add up, it is not because of unreliable narration: it is because of bad narrative design.

Two Interesting Instances

In a recent gamasutra blog, Eric Schwarz threw up the question whether it is possible at all to use the technique successfully in games. While I would refrain from answering the question with a “no”, there are two instances that show that the technique might not yield always the expected results or may emerge unexpectedly:

The “Stupid AI” case: We said that in unreliable narration the narrator’s version of the story loses credibility as the norm of the narrative suggests the existence of a credible one, as the discourse continues.

What might happen here is that the player may interpret the unreliable narration as the AI being incapable to interpret the situation rather than seeing it as the “distorted” version of a narrator who was designed as a character who suffers from such incapacity. The technique then could turn against the believability of the story.

Cheating: In the case of cheating we can speak of some sort of secret communication between player and implied author. They “share” an information that changes the truth in regard to the story.

In other words, the version of the narrator (unaware of the cheat) loses credibility in regard to the second and true version of the story that was brought into circulation with the very act of cheating. When the narrator praises the success of the player who cheated, it starts to feel ironic, because the narrators “naive” version of the story is no no longer credible and has turned unreliable, since he is incapable to see the truth.


You played Mario I guess, so you know that the princess is in another castle. Well if you took the time to read until here, then don’t be surprised if there is no conclusion: the truth is in another article. ;)