Exposition is the worst. I don’t know a single author who wouldn’t give their right arm just to make the challenge of writing decent exposition all go away. We're not here for technical writing. We're here for drama! But because we writerly folks care, we write it anyway. We write and rewrite; we pray that through our sweat and tears, our own exposition might not be so noticeable; we study our heroes and try to emulate them; all in search of some elixir that will make it slightly less horrible. We want our readers to love the stories we tell, but we know that boring exposition is toxic to that.
Alas, I do not come with such a miracle elixir. Instead, I come with a game. But it’s a game I love dearly and a game whose solution to the problem of exposition is both utterly strange and powerfully potent.
As you may have guessed, I'm writing about Dark Souls.
Ask any Fromsoft fan why they love Dark Souls and you're bound to hear the same two things. First, you’ll hear that the game is outrageously challenging, living up to its tagline of “prepare to die” with flying (falling) colors. Second, you’ll hear about the lore. It’s rich and engrossing, and possibly even better than the game itself. I don't know about you, but as a fantasy writer I hear "I love the lore," and my ears prick up. "You don't say?" as I pull out a pencil and paper.
This is, after all, every fantasy author's dream: to get their readers to feel the same way about their own lore. We spend days, weeks, years slaving over our world building, and we want our readers to appreciate that hard work. We painstakingly craft our exposition to that end. Here is a rare unicorn of a story where the audience actually does.
You may be surprised, then, to actually see how Dark Souls doles out its exposition.
Once Upon A Time, There Was A ____
First, you watch the prologue. Fortunately, this one is short. And in just a few minutes, the opening cutscene manages to make one thing absolutely clear: you have know idea what just happened.
You remember some names... maybe. You remember something about fire... maybe. And there was a knight two seconds ago who dropped a body in your cell because your character is locked up in a dungeon... for some reason. You don’t really know. Nothing is making sense. And you think you might be zombie.
This whole experience is odd because you, dear reader, are a seasoned fantasy expert. You've read a thousand prologues and you've supposedly seen it all. In fact, you're sure you've seen this prologue before, but to tell exactly where would require somehow solidifying in your mind what you just saw. And you can't.
You wonder if it will start to make sense soon.
But then you play the game, and you stop wondering. You know it won't. Not now, not ever. Oh, you'll start connecting the dots, eventually, but there will be open questions you'll never quite answer. That will infuriate you because you’ll know there are answers somewhere, there just not in your current run of the game.
Yes, this game requires multiple runs. It is not a game for casual players.
And as you struggle to obtain all the game's tokens and defeat all the bosses, you’ll realize something funny -- something you're not used to experiencing in high fantasy. Dark Souls doesn’t play by the normal rules of exposition. It tells you things when it thinks you aren’t listening. It withholds information it knows you want. And when it finally relinquishes some morsel of data for your bulletin board of important names and events, it does it in the most cryptic way it can manage. Like Thimbletack or Rumplestiltskin, Dark Souls is a game that is deliberately, nay, pathologically incapable of delivering any kind of information in anything other than riddles.
And it pulls you in like a spider does a fly.
As much as Dark Souls is a game about chopping enemies, Dark Souls is a game about scouring countless item descriptions for an obtuse, barely parsable clue. It's a game about fulfilling NPC quest lines to obtain new weapons, or more hopefully, a stray dependent clause about the history of Anor Londo (come on baby, daddy needs a new dependent clause). In that way it’s a game that holds more in common with Animal Crossing than Castlevania 2. It’s a game that makes you work.
Here's the thing, Dark Souls lore isn't especially brilliant. Or rather, it is brilliant but only in places. The reveal, if reveal you can call it, of what dark souls are gives one chills. But this is also a game in which a woman named Gwenevere sends you on a quest to replace the king, so on the whole it's pretty similar to a lot of other grimdark fantasy lore. It's not the details that make Dark Souls lore gripping. What makes it gripping is that the game withholds almost all of that lore from you for as long as possible. It hints at greater things, and occasionally it gives you glimpses of greater things — things that you know are big and important — but never for long and never in detail. It is up to you, the player, to fill in the blanks.
A Tricky Dish to Prepare
Exposition is a tricky dish to prepare in writing. Your story can't start without it, and yet it's the one thing most likely to turn your readers away once they've started. The usual advice for giving exposition is to make it snappy and to make it tell a story. I emphasize this all the time in regard to Full Metal Alchemist on my podcast, Brotherhood. Short exposition is digestible, in the same way that small portions of beets are digestible. Exposition via story is essentially the art of covering your vegetables in jell-o.
But Dark Souls shows us another possibility: just don't bother. Instead of dedicating a scene to explaining your world's strange mythology, make your readers figure it out through stray bits of dialogue scattered across the world. Instead of explaining the mechanics of your magic system outright, leave it up to the readers to infer everything on their own. Let them earn their meal. Give only what is necessary as it is needed, and hide only pieces of the rest in the corners of your story. Make your readers work.
This adds an element of mystery to the narrative that wasn't there before. Not every story benefits from this, of course, but most do. Mystery, I would argue, is the most compelling of all genres. It taps into the only instinct of ours more powerful than the need for survival: our curiosity. And insert joke about curiosity killing the cat here. When we limit our exposition to only a portion of the bare minimum, the exposition becomes a puzzle, a curio to be solved. We'll put ourselves through just about anything to satisfy our curiosity (even a fantasy novel). That's an impulse worth exploiting as a writer.
Sometimes the best exposition is no exposition at all.