4 Ways to Tell Your Backstory Without Scrolling Text

in Tips and Tricks

We’ve all seen it. Load up a game made by a friend, random stranger on the internet, company, whoever, and instead of starting to play, you are greated with this:

Castlevania: Symphony of the Night by Konami

Castlevania: Symphony of the Night by Konami

The dreaded info dump. Now your eyes glaze over and you are force fed names and places and events that you will probably forget in about 5 minutes because they lack any context in the game world. You haven’t seen these place, these people, to understand any relationship with them.

Now don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of good games that start with an info dump scroll text: Xenogears, Final Fantasy VI, the above example of Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, and many more. But they sure weren’t made better by having this done.

But now that we’ve cut our info dump, how will we get all that information to the player? Organically through the game, and here are five ways you can do that:

#1: Remnants

If you were to ever wander around any part of the world, you’ll run across pieces of history. Castles in Europe, Cold War Era nuke shelters, the Sphinx! Need to talk about some important battle to make the current story make sense? Why not just have your party have to travel through the remnants of a town that was destroyed in the battle. This gives the characters plenty of time to talk about what had happened there in the past, without it just feeling like an info dump for info dumps sake.

Final Fantasy VII by Squaresoft

Final Fantasy VII by Squaresoft

Take the Northern Crater in Final Fantasy VII. It is a physical part of the world that illustrates the landing of JENOVA on the planet. It is a place that exists in the world that has the history tied to it, allowing discussion of that history to come up much more organically, even when most of the discussion happened before you got there, it’s existence as a destination fueled that discussion.

#2: Memorials

Phantasy Star IV by Sega

Phantasy Star IV by Sega

Memorials share a lot in common with remnants, but instead of being left over from the past, people built them specifically to remember the past. A statue to a hero in a location they did something amazing, or where they were born, gives you plenty of opportunity to talk about them without breaking the flow of the game.

In Phantasy Star IV, for instance, you can find a statue of Alis Landsdale, the hero of Phantasy Star I. This gives the game an opportunity to tell you about past events naturally.

#3: Character Reactions

History, especially recent history, has impact on characters. If two countries have been at war off and on for the last 100 years, how do you think a character from one country would react to a character from another? Take Knights of the Old Republic 2 for example. Think about the very different reactions that Atton Rand and Bao Durr have to Jedi.

Knights of the Old Republic II by LucasArts

Knights of the Old Republic II by LucasArts

Both of their reactions inform the player about the events that took place during the player character’s exile. Bao Dur has respect for you because of his personal experience, while Atton is distrustful of Jedi because of what he ended up doing during the Jedi Civil War. Their reactions to things in the galaxy helped tell the story of the history that is effecting the current events.

 #4: Books

You have to be a bit more careful with books. Books, just like opening scrolling text, ARE infodumps. But you can use them in a lot different way than opening scrolling text. For one, books can be scattered throughout the game, meaning it doesn’t happen all at once. Second, books are generally OPTIONAL encounters.

Because of that, books are best to deliver supplemental information to the player. Don’t use them to tell information necessary to understand the plot, use them instead to fill in details about the backstory of the world that help shape the world, but don’t have a direct impact on the story. Ever read all the books in the video game Fable? Some of them are just silly, other ones impart stories about various characters in the game, such as Twinblade or the main character’s mother. Tons of extra knowledge about how the world works is buried in there. Its a great place to put all that worldbuilding you did that isn’t part of the main story.

Infodumps are tempting. But nine times out of nine, there are way better ways to deliver the backstory of your game. Providing context around the backstory while including it organically in the game will not only be more natural, it will help the player remember it better.

Have any questions? Or maybe you have your own ideas on how to organically share information with the player! Join the conversation in the comments section below.

4 comments… add one

  • Kate L June 18, 2014, 3:23 pm

    The last one reminds me of the original Myst game: there were several journals in the library that you could read, giving details on the various Ages you visit in the game. Not necessary for completing the game, but they offered a ton to the backstory of the world. And yes, I totally read each and every one cover to cover. Actually, one book was needed for the plot, but it was deliberately lengthy (it contained the solution to one of the puzzles… and tons of other possible combinations), so it was tedious to guess and check each possible solution. When the puzzle needed to be solved, the page the player needs was identified for them.

  • ZarroTsu June 19, 2014, 11:01 pm

    #4 should be a REQUIREMENT. There is no harm in writing some context in a book or two. You can’t do it wrongly. Even if you’re illiterate, one would assume the writer of the book was simply illiterate. Even if the writing is insane and context-less, one would assume it may hold value later.

    I’ve played many an RPG, and many an RPG maker RPG, where there’re libraries filled to the brim with bookshelves and I can’t read a single one. And I can’t remember anything else about them.

  • Devin Watson June 20, 2014, 12:15 am

    I like the idea of throwing in red herring using #4. As in, you have a library, you *can* read all of the books, but only a handful in there might be useful to you. The others may relate to side quests you haven’t or won’t complete, or maybe have something to lead you in a strange direction you didn’t otherwise want to go.

    Some may think that’s cruel, but as long as it’s not done all throughout the game as a mechanic, it can serve an interesting purpose.

  • amerk July 4, 2014, 2:03 pm

    Wild Arms was a bit of an info dump when it came to books, but it really made the world come alive with so much history you wouldn’t have learned otherwise; and I made it an effort to read each and everyone of them.

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