Exposition in Xenoblade Chronicles
You know what’s rough? Exposition. It’s lengthy, boorish, and generally disliked. Allow me to prove it. Ever heard of Xenoblade Chronicles? It’s super neat. Created by Monolith Soft after it was acquired by Nintendo. Which happened right after it was abandoned by SquareSoft, or should I say Square Enix? The reason for this had to do with Square’s focus on the Final Fantasy titles as opposed to the Xeno titles, but that is a lengthy story I know little about. Furthermore, would you like to hear all about the Xeno series interconnected themes and it’s development cycle? Or I could tell you about how online fan petitions brought this series to the West after Nintendo never intended it to.
Isn’t all that boring? One paragraph in and you feel like you’ve been assaulted with knowledge. You’re suddenly weighed down with new information you now have to carry for the rest of your days. You’re ready to click away, already checking text messages and searching for the next time killer.
All too often when reading a book or watching a movie, you’re suddenly gifted with a gargantuan brick of ‘important’ story info that you need to mentally jot down. It’s just as tiring as reading the above paragraph was. If only there was a better way to communicate all this knowledge. Well, it turns out there is! Lucky you. This better way can be found in a little game commonly known as Xenoblade Chronicles. See what I did there?
Right, so Xenoblade Chronicles is a long game with a bunch to talk about, but all you really need to know for sake of understanding this is that it is a game with a story. Forget the exposition I mentioned above, it isn’t necessary. Over this quarantine season, I played through it for the first time and was immediately sucked in by the vivid world and characters. I was entranced with the environments, the music, the design, the way it was always Reyn time, and so much more. Even though it is a 60-70 hour story, I was able to understand everything that went on and empathize with dozens of fully realized characters. Upon reflection, I realized the story barely indulged in exposition.
This is a game with three seasons worth of story crammed into a single experience. This is a game with two parallel dimensions, a universal reset, two and a half gods, and the entire thing takes place on the bodies of two sleeping titans. Yet I understood all of it and the game never really paused to say, ‘Here’s what’s going on.’. I’d like to elaborate on how it did this and how we can actually tell better stories with this information, cause no one likes exposition. Yet it seems to always be needed. Full spoilers ahead!
Let’s start with the cardinal sin of most exposition: Science. All storytellers love to explain their systems in depth. They feel compelled to tell you how magic works on a molecular level, exactly how the special metal works, and every intricacy of the flying cars. To the creator, it feels wrong to leave it out. But the thing is, no one really cares. You, the author, care but no one else does. Xenoblade proves this well. At one point in the game the heroes encounter the floating city of Alcamoth. Their first reaction is, ‘Wow, that’s a floating city!” and their second is “How does it float?”. Since they’re traveling with the princess of Alcamoth, they ask her. She then explains in depth all that she knows about her floating city: She has no idea. The party finds this odd, but she says she just accepted it and never questioned it. Another character chimes in that they eat bread daily but couldn’t tell you how to bake it. They all agree and leave it at that.
At another point in the story, the robot villains create weapons capable of killing all biological life. The villain reveals it theatrically and says something along the lines of how he doesn’t understand it but those scientists back home sure are useful. Most stories would gladly say how the individual particles affect the flesh and blah, blah, blah. The thing is, if it’s not important, the audience accepts it. In fact, it’s more realistic if they can’t explain it. How many people do you know that can honestly explain how a car works or how a phone operates? You’d be surprised at the amount of people who simply accept things. We don’t need to know how the city flies or how the spears kill people better, simply that they do.
However, it’s acceptable to explain it when it isn’t exposition and is actually foreshadowing. Consider my Xeno info dump at the articles beginning. If this article were not about Xenoblade, that opening would have been an abysmal waste of space but once I revealed we were examining it, you realized I’d been easing you into both subjects at once.
One possible example of this is in RWBY Volume 7. There’s a scene where two characters discuss their own floating city and explain that it stays aloft with a magical staff that can do any one thing at a time. This isn’t empty exposition, as it comes with the implication of a scenario. If someone were to ever get to the staff and take it, they would drop the entire city down to earth. Here, that’s a relevant explanation because that’s likely what the villains plan to do. It gives context to what’s soon to come. In Xenoblade, it doesn’t matter how the city floats because it’s never relevant.
Lesson 1: Don’t explain things unless it is relevant. Keep the science to yourself unless it is actually important to the story and not just to you. Unnecessary information should be cut. No one needs to know how airbending works or how the DeLorean time travels. They simply do or they have an amusing explanation.
Xenoblade has a second interesting exposition lesson, this one about actually necessary exposition. Whereas before the info was just fluff, it also reveals how to have meaningful explanations of necessary info, such as the villains history or motive.
In Xenoblade Chronicles, the story holds most of its cards close to its chest until the very last moment. It has the big opening flashback that introduces us to the world and a flimsy version of its history that is often used to great effect. Think the Fellowship of the Ring. But after that, we don’t get information until it is relevant to the main characters. That’s the thing about exposition. We authors love to stop the story dead in its tracks to give out pieces to the audience that they don’t need. Xenoblade holds out until the characters are affected by it.
Example time. We discover the side villain, Egel’s, motivation about 40 hours in, right before the boss fights against him. Why do they wait so long? Because the exposition/flashback we learn that the main character, Shulk, is using the weapon of Egel’s best friend who is super dead. And Shulk has been following orders from the guy who killed him. It’s a long sequence but, because it happens right before fighting Egel, it moves the plot forward, impacts the characters, and doesn’t stop the story. Suddenly, it gives context to Egel’s behavior, his hatred of Shulk, and it burdens Shulk with doubt about his choices right before he needs to be the strongest.
The same thing happens with the main villain’s motivation. Klaus, better known as the Architect, and better known as the god Zanza, doesn’t have his backstory revealed until after Shulk defeats him! Why? It shows Klaus as an ambitious, prideful human and explains how he got his godlike powers. That info wasn’t needed before the final fight. It wasn’t important how Klaus became godlike. It was needed afterwards, when Shulk inherits that power and has the freedom to recreate the world. What would have been novel, but unnecessary, information prior to the fight becomes an intentional foil to Shulk and what he chooses to do with his new power.
Here’s another example, this time from a different source. In The Last Airbender episode ‘The Storm’, we learn Aang and Zuko’s backstory, told in two different stories to two different groups. This impacts neither of them, but it begins to reveal how their arcs are intertwined. By showing their similarities, it reveals an important duality that affects the rest of the story. This concept of exposition being revealed when it affects the perception of the story works best in segmented media, such as shows or a book series when you can devote an entire instalment, be it a book or episode, to the exposition. It works far less when it takes up a portion of a single instalment. However, if the exposition goes over information that will directly affect what the characters do next, it is acceptable. But this is only valid if it changes what they immediately do, which is difficult to pull off. Rarely does old, previously unimportant history become suddenly relevant in stories unless you’re introducing a new aspect such as a character, place, or group. For example, when in FMAB they discover that Scar is an Ishvalan and they go a quick history lesson on the Ishvalan race and their near genocide. Basically, only give history when it gives immediate context.
Here’s another neat thing about history exposition. Much like science, most people don’t know their history. Ask anyone off the street to explain basic history and they’ll blank. Why do we assume every fictional character is an encyclopedia of knowledge? Be careful how you use characters to explain history.
Lesson 2: Don’t reveal exposition until it directly affects the characters or the plot. If it only affects the reader, it’s usually best to hold off. And be careful how you reveal the information; make sure it makes sense.
That’s about it when it comes to Xenoblade Chronicles and exposition! I highly recommend the game to anyone and it’s available on Switch now so there’s no excuses. Exposition is often unnecessary for non-plot details such as science and fluffy worldbuilding, and it’s best to wait on meaningful exposition until the information directly affects the plot or the characters.
In a barely related conclusion, Xenoblade Chronicles 2 has a segment where a Nopon merchant dignitary resembling a fluffy pear with wings tries to assassinate a foriegn head of state, who is a child, by gifting him an inconspicuous, twenty-foot tall, murder mech that’s dressed as a maid. It’s exactly what it sounds like. It all goes down to the tune of a sick bop too. Most memorable boss fight in the game, 9/10, not IGN.