There’s a movie called The Last Stand starring Arnold Schwarzenegger that I saw in cinemas many moons ago. Being just another schlocky action movie, I remember nothing about it except for one scene: a scene where one character in a jail cell talks to a police officer and the pair of them, suddenly and with no provocation, rattle off a ridiculous amount of backstory. This scene is a conversation that could only possibly exist in order to explain the relationship between the characters to an audience, and it’s so awkwardly crowbarred into the film that it accidentally becomes one of the best comedy scenes in film history. I almost died laughing as I watched this scene, listening to two people explain their entire history to each other apropos of absolutely nothing and in a way that sounded like they were reading out a Wikipedia synopsis of their own lives. The guy in the cell might as well have looked directly into the camera and said “just so you all know, ladies and gentlemen of the audience: I have a lot of history with this character, so pay attention to the next 30 seconds because it’s ALL going to be in there and I will NEVER repeat it”.

I was reminded of this scene recently when I started playing Valley and witnessed an opening scene where a gentleman on an answerphone expresses concern for our well-being and then proceeds to explain the player character’s own expedition to them, letting us know that our ultimate objective in this game is to find the fabled Life Seed and helpfully reminding us that old legends claim that the Life Seed has the power to shatter the entire world. We’re all familiar with the expositional prologue narrations that establish the stakes before the start of the film – the kind used by The Fellowship of the Ring and whatnot – and many of us will also be familiar with what Valley’s brand of ham-fisted attempt to make these narrations seem more natural by giving them real-world context. Of course it typically falls flat, as it does in Valley, because of how blatantly unnatural the monologue is and how little reason any human being would have to say most of the words contained therein, and unintentional hilarity ensues for anyone in the audience tickled by the uncanny valley.

But as much as I like to laugh whenever I see this kind of awkward exposition done – whether at the start of the narrative like Valley, a few scenes in like The Last Stand, or even twenty minutes from the end like the first Silent Hill movie – I have to admit I kind of understand where the writers are coming from whenever they do it. I’ve tried experimenting with a couple of narrative projects that I ended up scrapping, and I can confirm that when you’ve got a whole bunch of ideas you want to put out into the world, the compulsion to explain every single one in microscopic detail can be incredibly difficult to put a cap on. Not everyone can suppress their desire for the audience to understand every minute aspect of the premise they’re creating – to contrive situations in their narrative whereby every tiny detail can be explained to the audience – and while I maintain that it’s one of many skills a good writer should be expected to have, I do carry a little more sympathy for those who lack this skill than I do for those lacking others.

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Some readers who are interested in the creative writing process behind works of fiction may have heard the term “universe bible” once or twice. This is essentially a document containing every single detail of the world the writer has created, no matter how minute or inconsequential – a record of every single scrap of that world’s lore. Everything we see in the finished product – every big event, every minor encounter, every use of language, every tiny visual detail – has to match up with what’s written in the universe bible for that world. When done right it not only acts as a countermeasure against creating plotholes, but also instils in the audience a palpable sense that there is a vast, rich world beyond the fraction that they are being allowed to see. Souls games in particular are often noted for this – Bloodborne being my personal definition of a masterclas – and I’d also offer Enter the Gungeon as another excellent example of this technique done right.

But the point of the universe bible is to be able to achieve that effect without explicitly stating all the details. After all, contriving situations in which the entire universe can be explained will inevitably feel so artificial and forced that the audience is going to immediately know that it’s there for their benefit rather than because it makes sense for it to be happening. To avoid this, all the details in the universe bible have to instead be implied or subtly demonstrated. But doing that means there’s no guarantee that the audience will pick up on those details, and worse still: not everything in the universe bible is going to have a natural connection to the events of the story we’re being shown, meaning they can’t be implied or subtly demonstrated without the same contrivance that the writers are trying to avoid in the first place.

Long story short: there is going to be an ungodly amount of lore and writing that went into that world that the audience is never going to see or appreciate. Whether you generally sympathise with writers or not, it can’t be denied: you’ve got to be really bloody dedicated to your craft to put that much work into stuff nobody’s going to see.

There’s a lot of fears that stand in the way of any writer being able to commit to such high-scale subtlety: fears that all the hard work will go unnoticed, that nobody will pick up on all the background lore, and that all the clever ideas and intricacies will slip completely past most if not all of the audience. Subtlety means surrendering a lot of control over how people interpret the world you’ve created – but when you’ve got ideas that you think are good enough to put out into the public eye, it can be pretty crushing to realise that nobody’s picking up the same things you’re putting down.

That fear creates people like Hideo Kojima: the creator of Metal Gear who famously filled his games with hours upon hours of explanations for even the most tangential and seemingly irrelevant bits of information about his characters, story and world. There’s even a cheeky nod to the fear of having one’s work misunderstood in Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain in the form of a tape in which Big Boss is told that other PMCs have misunderstood his reasons for having armed himself with nuclear weapons in the past, and now all strive to attain nuclear armament in an attempt to emulate him – pretty much exactly what Big Boss didn’t want to happen. Obviously a nuclear arms race isn’t going to break out if Kojima doesn’t point out that Snake Eater features a HALO jump at the beginning, but one can infer that the worry of having people misunderstand his work and its themes has played on his mind a few times over the years.

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I’m not going to pretend that over-explaining every last thing that’s even faintly connected to the narrative is good storytelling. I’m not going to pretend that those Metal Gear codec conversations didn’t direly need to be reined in. But nor am I going to pretend that resisting the impulse to extensively explain your creative work is an easy thing to do. I would just recommend maybe saving that discussion for outside of the work itself. Set it aside for interviews and commentary tracks rather than letting the work itself suffer for it.

And to any writers, established or aspiring, who might be reading this, remember: you CAN convey the intricacies of your stories with subtlety. To suggest that you can’t isn’t just an insult to the intelligence of your audience, but an insult to your skill as a writer. Force-feeding exposition doesn’t make people think about how clever all of these narrative themes and world-building element are; it makes them laugh at how awkward and forced the writing is. It makes ME laugh, even as I feel sympathy for the poor writers I’m mocking with my calloused sense of amusement. Because it is awkward, it is bad writing, and that does make it funny. So don’t bloody do it.

Thinking back to Valley – you know, that game from nine paragraphs ago that got me thinking about this whole subject – its rush to present all the exposition for the expedition with little explanation for its sudden exclamation seems all the more daft for the fact that all the relevant details about the Life Seed get brought up later in tapes left by a previous expedition. As much of a trope as that method of storytelling has become, it does make a lot more sense for information about the Life Seed to be in them than in an answer machine message from some random guy, and it really does highlight just how utterly needless the comically awkward opening was. The rest of the storytelling in Valley has seemed pretty decent for what little I’ve played at time of writing, and the game itself is a lot of fun…but thanks to that one scene – that one hilariously uncomfortable first impression – has cemented a much less charitable image of the game in my mind; a perfect testament to how silly an over-eagerness to present every scrap of your story can look, and how completely unnecessary it is to do so in the first place.