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Altug Isigan, Blogger

April 10, 2011

4 Min Read

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.

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