Games

'The Witcher 2' Does the Exposition Dump Right

All of the plot is laid bare in the final conversation of the game: a climactic Q&A session.

There’s a lot of bad exposition in games. Exposition itself isn’t a bad thing, sometimes it’s helpful and even necessary, but video games -- with their need to create entire new worlds -- constantly fall back on the bad habits of lazy execution: characters explaining things that they already understand or going off on a whole history lesson with the slightest provocation, purely for the sake of the player. It feels forced and leads to bad dialogue, since it’s hard to make an encyclopedia article sound like anything other than an encyclopedia article.

The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings ends with a massive exposition dump between the protagonist Geralt and his antagonist Letho. This political thriller fantasy game involves dozens of character, all with their own motivations and secret plots, interacting with each other, playing off each other, using each other, and betraying each other. One conspiracy mastermind might just be a pawn in someone else’s larger conspiracy. It’s an incredibly complex web of character relations, and it’s all laid bare in the final conversation of the game: a climactic Q&A session. Some of it is forced -- and horribly so -- but for the most part The Witcher 2 excels at doling out large doses of information in a very short time. It does the exposition dump right.

The timing of the dump and the nature of the story being told help a lot. As I said before, The Witcher 2 is largely a conspiracy mystery story, so it begs some very specific genre questions: who’s behind everything, who can you trust, who is working with whom, and so on. We want answers to these questions, and that desire pushes us through the plot to the end, where all of our questions are answered in detail. Since questions drive us through the mystery, the more answers that we get the more satisfying the conclusion. The exposition dump is then such a satisfying conclusion because it doesn’t feel like needless exposition: Its giving us exactly what we want. It’s rewarding exposition.

The characters’ relationship is important. Geralt and Letho are not enemies per say, just two people swept up in opposing tides. Since there’s no necessary hostility between them, it makes sense that they would take the time to talk things out. This isn’t like a monologuing villain in a cartoon, Letho isn’t exposing his evil plans just in time for Geralt to stop him. Again, the timing is important. The hero isn’t getting information in a nonsensical way simply because he needs that information to win the day. The battle is over, and everyone has literally gone home. The information isn’t being forced out for plot purposes. In fact, you can choose to just skip all the talk if you want. It’s optional.

This benefits the player and the characters. Since these revelations are optional, you don’t have to “suffer through” any explanation. If you’re listening to Letho, it’s because you want to hear him out. The characters benefit by not having to explain things that they would never logically explain. Everything about this scene -- the peaceful confrontation, the long answers, and the eventual outcome -- is in service to the characters.

This focus on characters even extends to the dialogue. Letho isn’t dumping information on Geralt, he’s telling his side of the story. He explains events from his point of view, and because he was privy to more information than Geralt, we end up getting answers to our burning questions. The worst kind of exposition is when one character explains something everyone already knows. So. by limiting this exposition to Letho’s point of view, the writer’s ensure we get a new perspective. Everything Letho says is something Geralt couldn’t have known.

It’s appropriate, then, that the one piece of awful exposition comes from Geralt. He can’t tell us things that we don’t know because we’ve been playing with him for a couple dozen hours at this point. We already know what Geralt knows, and Letho knows even more, so Geralt has nothing to reveal. Yet he ends up telling us things that both characters already know: Geralt explains the theory of the Nature of Spheres. It’s something we’ve never heard of, but Letho certainly knows about it. Geralt even asks Letho if he understands the theory and Letho says yes, but for some reason, Geralt still launches into a detailed explanation of the theory. Why? Not for him, not for Letho, it’s for the player, but since that’s the only reason for this exposition, the moment ends up feeling forced and unnatural. It stands out all the more because it’s surrounded by such well done exposition.

The Witcher 2 builds to this moment, so when it finally happens, there’s a lot working in its favor, including the nature of the conspiracy story, its timing, the characters involved, and how it’s told. But this moment isn’t perfect, and that’s what makes it such a great example of how to write video game exposition. You can see the good and the bad side-by-side, making it easy to compare and contrast, to see why one explanation works and the other doesn’t. It’s a fascinating bit of writing both for its feats and its flaws, and personally, I think that The Witcher 2 couldn’t have ended better.

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