Info Dumps and The Fresh Prince

I'd like to take a minute.  Just sit right there.  I'll tell you about how I became the prince of a game that's full of hot air.

There was one thing in particular that I loved about Metro 2033.  And that was the lack of info dumps: protracted scenes that the writer/director/android feels that the audience has to know before continuing the game.  Metro presents a world that could have spawned hours and hours of non-interactive cut sequences that provide answers to questions like…

A) How has the world ended?
B) What was Artyom’s life like growing up underground, surrounded by monsters?
C) How have the mutants and “dark ones” come into being?
D) Why can Artyom communicate with the “Dark Ones” through his mind?
E) Who are the rangers?
F) So on.
G) And so forth.

Few of these questions are answered directly.  Metro 2033 leaves you to either speculate on the answers to these questions through short pre-level narratives or through environmental dialogue, such as in the example below:

The story of Metro’s world emerges naturally.  In the previous scene, it just happened that you come across someone who was retelling their own story of how the world came crashing down around him.  You might miss a scene like that entirely, but that moment of discovery is something special in a game, where the player can feel that they’ve uncovered something important for themselves rather than having it thrust upon them.  Finding details like that becomes a game in and of itself.  But yet, sometimes, the answers are simply left to the audience’s imagination, which has the ability to be far more vivid than any number of polygons can hope to be.

I wouldn’t go as far to say that the entire story should be emergent in a game, but when info dumps reach the scale of Metal Gear Solid 4’s, or Final Fantasy XIII’s, playing the game feels more like having a having a mediocre bed time story read to you by an android (who also happened to write it.)   Nothing is left for the player to think over that’s immediately relevant to the plot at hand; only abstract subjects like fate and war.  It’s exhausting, disengaging, and leaves little more for the player to look for outside what is thrown in their way.

When so much content is fed directly to the audience then it stands to reason that perhaps the writer doesn’t trust the audience to collect that information on their own.  Undoubtedly because there is just too much information the consume and digest, or it’s too confusing to arrange the details in a meaningful way.  So it is pre-packaged and dumped on regular intervals.  It ought to be an indication that the scope of content being presented should be narrowed or revised.  Or it’s a warning sign that the underlying plot is floundering.

So I’d like to propose a rule of thumb when considering if an info dump is just going to be too much: if it takes longer to convey the required information than it does to play the intro for The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, then you’re probably doing it wrong.  If the idea you want to present using an info dump takes that much time then either break it apart, boil it down, or leave it in the environment for the player to find on their own. Otherwise, you’re making a movie, and it needs to be written and edited like one (which generally isn’t the case.)  And that still won’t make the game intrinsically any better.  Consider the following comparisons; which one keeps your attention?

Example #1: Final Fantasy XIII

Example #2: Metal Gear Solid 4

The rule isn’t meant to suggest that players have a limited attention span, but info dumps conflict with the natural appeal of games.  The intro to Fresh Prince conveys to the audience all the critical details that they need to know to enjoy the show, which is exactly what info dumps should accomplish in games: telling you what you need to know to enjoy the game (not its story.)  You can substitute The Fresh Prince intro with anything else that’s brief and to the point, but I think it does a good job of putting things into perspective.  It cuts down overwrought scenes in games that believe that their epic posturing gives them license to overwhelm the audience with nonsense.  It doesn’t.  The Fresh Prince has a better story and all it’s about is a 90’s goof ball going to live with rich people.  Either narrow the focus of the content being presented, or cut it out.  Too much time and effort gets wasted in trying to make games into movies.

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