Who was there: Supergiant Games creative director (and former GameSpot editor-in-chief) Greg Kasavin. He has also worked at 2K Games on Spec Ops: The Line and Electronic Arts on the Command and Conquer series.
What they talked about: The Austin Powers films lampooned the idea of exposition by having the character of Basil Exposition show up at the beginning of each movie to lay out the conflict and then disappear, his usefulness concluded. However, Kasavin's talk was built on the notion that developers should strive to make exposition a near-constant part of the game experience.
Exposition, Kasavin said, is pacing from a narrative designer's point of view. He defined it as "the precise order in which the structure, narrative, and systems of a game are doled out to the player."
The benefits of exposition are difficult to quantify, Kasavin said, but the effects of it are most clearly seen in player attrition. Game developers want players to experience all the content they worked so hard on, and exposition helps keep players engaged to the end. After all, why bother putting an awesome capper in at the end of the game if nobody's going to stick around to see it?
Players today aren't a captive audience, Kasavin said, and exposition is a way to keep players from turning to other games as soon as they hit a stumbling point. Games like the original Mafia and Star Wars: Force Unleashed had some rough edges and difficult segments as far as gameplay was concerned (circuit racing and taking down a Star Destroyer among them), but Kasavin said he endured those tough bits because he was invested in the stories being told and wanted to find out what details the developer had been holding back.
Well-crafted exposition presents an internally consistent gameworld, and it makes the audience feel clever. It uses subtext, induces speculation, and withholds all but the most crucial information. People love to speculate, he said, and creators ruin that by telling people what's going on before they absolutely have to.
"If your goal is to write an interesting character, then never have him say exactly what he's thinking. Leave a little room for interpretation," Kasavin said.
Kasavin also talked about using the structure and systems of a game as exposition. The structure is the meta-game, everything from the main menu to the end credits, while the systems are the moment-to-moment mechanics. If structural exposition is about the framework of an experience, Kasavin said systemic exposition is about the gameplay that tells players about the nature of the world they're playing in. The fact that players in Gears of War can saw enemies in half tells players about the grim nature of the gameworld and draws them in that much further.
Kasavin encouraged developers to look at Plants vs. Zombies as an example of tying it all together. The game constantly introduces new structural exposition with gameplay twists and minigames. Right from the start, it communicates what it is to players through its menu screens. After a simple ramp-up through tutorial stages, the game opens up. Systemically, Plants vs. Zombies adds exposition with new plant and enemy types at a steady pace. The game's narrative exposition may be a bit lighter, but it still builds to an identifiable climax.
Kasavin pointed to his current project, Bastion, as being guided by that approach to exposition. He said the team couldn't do story in a traditional sense with expensive prerendered cutscenes, so the narrative had to be conveyed through gameplay. To that end, the game features a narrator reacting to the game in real time. The narrator never repeats a line, and he reacts to the player's actions, Kasavin said. Systemically, every weapon in the game introduces its own wrinkle of new gameplay.
Kasavin explained a series of tools and techniques being used on Bastion to test if the game is using exposition well. Exposition isn't just in the beginning of the game, Kasavin said. It needs to be an even coating throughout the game so players are consistently discovering new and interesting things. He cautioned developers not to assault the audience with too much at once; rather, they should dole out a breadcrumb trail of new things to keep players engaged without being overwhelmed.
Kasavin also said developers need to foster suspense by getting inside the players' heads, predicting what questions they think they'll be asking themselves throughout the game. If a developer can figure out what questions the player is asking at a given moment and echo it or dole out a little nugget of information along those lines, they can hook players deeper.
Gamemakers also need to make sure they're paying off on their exposition, Kasavin said. That can take the form of act climaxes, but those revelations also need to bring up compelling new questions to keep the audience involved for what's coming up next, like the season finale of a popular TV series. Along those lines, Kasavin also stressed the need for developers to have an outline for a game's story ready from the start. It may change during development, but creators should know where the story is going and deliver a good, solid ending rather than leave a cliffhanger for the sequel.
Finally, Kasavin said, "Make sure the chopping block is well fed." Developers can't be afraid to throw things out. Some good ideas just aren't compatible with each other for a variety of reasons, so they need to focus on the ones that work well instead of struggling to make them fit.
Quote: "Exposition is the secret sauce connecting the narrative to the game."--Greg Kasavin
Takeaway: Whether it's with story or gameplay, players need to be given a steady stream of new things to digest throughout a game experience. If the developer gives up too much too soon, it overwhelms the player or kills the suspense. If the developer doesn't parcel out the new exposition frequently enough, players are bound to get bored.