In-game exposition dumps are nothing new – so why is ‘Deathloop’ so good at it?

Dusting off the reading glasses

It didn’t always use to be this way. Back in the day – back when games came on cartridges* and I didn’t even own enough games to create a Waiting To Be Played pile, let alone maintain one – things were a little different. Time was my own and I revelled in it, crawling across every inch of those early adventures, soaking up the ambience in those big digital worlds, carefully taking on my enemies, and scouring every in-game note I could find.

Today, video game stories are told as much by their visual language as they are by their action and dialogue. Capture technology is so advanced, we can replicate even the tiniest changes in facial expressions to convey subtle emotion. Even the faux graffiti scribbled onto derelict buildings can help make a make-believe world feel real.

Back then, though, graphical limitations inhibited environmental storytelling. We didn’t have those kind of tools, and unlike movies and TV, game developers can’t be 100 per cent sure that gamers will do what they’re supposed to do. By their very nature, games let us explore a story unshackled and at our own pace, and if we’re not thorough, there’s every chance we’ll accidentally miss something. Rarely is it something vital – at least, not these days; developers are more skilled at drawing our focus and helping guide the way – even if you’re a contrary little arsehole like me and intentionally turn left when a waypoint wants you to turn right – but just to be sure, video game designers found a shortcut to help support worldbuilding: in-game notes and voice memos.

Deathloop
Deathloop. Credit: Arkane Studios

You’ll find them secreted around your imaginary world, packing flesh onto the bones of the tale, detailing the backstory of your characters, perhaps, or the big bad corporation you’re tasked in taking down. Sometimes they’ll be read aloud by the character; sometimes, they’re not. They come in all kinds of shapes and sizes; notes, newspaper clippings, radio shows, medical records, voice recordings, emails, diaries. I suspect we’ve seen it all by now.

It got a bit too much, though, didn’t it? There were too many of the bloody things. They were too long. The older we get, the less time we have to play, so the fuck am I sitting here for an hour, wading through pointless exposition dump after pointless exposition dump when it’s painfully apparent that no single note will propel the story onwards or reveal a spicy secret. It felt as though developers were so concerned that we’d miss that all-important note that they stopped giving us important notes. So I stopped reading them.

And yes, I’m a little embarrassed by that. I know it’s not a great admission. To my chagrin, I do it in books, too – if it looks like there’s a hefty exposition dump on the horizon, I flick forward a few pages until the action’s cooking again – because I don’t have time for this, my friend. I haven’t emptied the dishwasher or fed the dog or done any of the eleventy bazillion things I was supposed to do, so just get me to the action, please.

And then came Deathloop.

Deathloop
Deathloop. Credit: Arkane Studios

I love Deathloop for the same reasons you probably do. It boasts an unparalleled blend of satisfying combat, skilful puzzling, and weightless exploration, offering a delicious brew of my favourite things in one stunning, stylish package. But an unexpected fallout from all that wondrous stealthy sleuthing has been a renewed appreciation of the humble in-game note. Because halfway through my adventure in Blackreef, I realise I’m reading them this time around. I’m reading all of them. Every word. And I’m loving it.

There’s the chatspeak sass of the Visionaries’ private message Minicoms, and the mysterious incorporeal oneliners that haunt Colt’s jaunts around the island. But there’s also the Visionaries press interviews, and their personal diaries, and that hastily scribbled note stuck onto a malfunctioning gate that erroneously opens each time a particular phone rings. Not all messages will push your story forward, no, but every one adds a little spice to Deathloop‘s recipe. A little extra flavour. Despite its curious, supernatural premise, Blackreef feels like a real, flawed place inhabited by real, flawed people and that’s in no small part down to the exquisite voice-acting and fascinating insights sprinkled around the place.

Of course, you don’t have to read everything to help Colt break the loop and complete the game. There are a lot of voice memos and notes, and even though I figured I’d carefully scoured every inch of that island, it’s clear from the handful of livestreams I’ve watched since launch that my exploration was sloppier than first thought.

That’s okay, though; I don’t need much of an excuse to jump back into the game and experiment with another loop… and the more notes I find, the more fun that experiment will be.

* Yes, pedant, I know Nintendo Switch still uses cartridges, thanks

Deathloop is out now for PC and PS5.

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