Exposition is, by nature, a weird thing. In fiction, it is effectively the author, whether through prose, dialogue, or (in video games) incidental environmental encounters telling you stuff about The World you’re visiting. It could be something as mundane as Ted and Jack used to be dating but now Jack’s into Sheila and that’s when Ted decided to quit his job or something as subtly major as “Years ago you served my father in the Clone Wars. [need better example]” You need exposition so the audience know what’s going on, but when done poorly it can feel like infodump, that is a whole lotta information dumped at once, usually just to keep the audience in the loop. It can be clunky and heavy handed, transparent in its purpose to the point where the immersion in the narrative is disturbed. It’s especially an issue in fanatical stories where a world’s gotta be established whole cloth (though stories set in the real world do sometimes stumble on the issue).
But sometimes it works.
Let’s talk Star Wars, because I want to. After the opening crawl (which, holy crap, is a magnificent narrative device in its own right that deserves its own essay), we’re told really freaking little about this world until Luke sits down with Ben — a solid quarter of the way into the movie. And so comes the exposition. Leia reminds Ben that he served her father in the Clone Wars. Ben tells Luke about his father. For a thousand years, the Jedi Knights were the guardians of peace in the galaxy. But it works. Why? We wanna know what’s going on! After this big space battle we’ve been following a couple droids around and met this kid named Luke. Luke wants to get off this nowhere planet and be a part of something bigger, and we wanna tag along on that journey.
So there’s Horizon Zero Dawn, a video game I’ve only been able to put down because my girlfriend really wants to know what happens next and I’m waiting until we hang out to progress. One reason I love it so is that it uses one of my favorite settings: it’s post-apocalypse, but it’s been so long since that a new society has developed and there’s a mystery about what came before (see also: Mega Man Legends and The Chrysalids). The setting and its history, though, is wonderfully tied into the game’s narrative. In the game I’m Aloy, an Outcast from a matriarchal tribe who doesn’t know who’s her mother. My quest to discover where I come from reveals a connection between me and the Metal World of the Ancients (that is, the ruins of 2066) and starts to raise more questions than answers.
Over the course of the game I uncover more of what caused the apocalypse, and Aloy’s link to it all. There is a lot of expository information thrown around, both through the narrative itself and old records Aloy finds and can read or listen to. But it doesn’t feel like an overwhelming barrage of useless information. For starters, we’re more than halfway into the game when we start getting this and we’ve spent hours surrounded by these mysterious ruins and machines. At this point, we’re ready for some answers. And, it’s all related to Aloy. I’m connected to this history, and that connection might just help me figure out who I am. Assuming you’re invested in her (and why wouldn’t you be, Aloy’s great), you wanna know who you are. The exposition is important because it serves as a narrative catharsis to the character’s arc. In other words, the answers are the answer.
The worst effect of the story is for the recipient to not care. When people monologue on about the geopolitical state of whatever, it’s easy to zone out. But when it’s personal, when the history of an apocalypse is relevant to your character, then it’s easier to care. And it helps when the world’s pretty dope.