One of the real advantages movies and games have over books is in their power to quickly explain character background without, well, explaining it. It can be enough to pan over a character waking up and showing his room to give a lot of backstory and character: is it messy, clean, full of collectibles, full of hot girl posters, does he slap the alarm or throw it across the room, does he sleep with a brother, in a bunk bed, a race car bed...all of this information is given during a very small period of time and it is something that just can't be done as easily in a novel.
I was thinking about dialogue-driven exposition, especially in novels. We are told that this is generally not the way to expose what needs to go on, because it feels unnatural: If John and David are needing to go to the store, it doesn't sound natural to have the conversation sound like:
John: "Hey man, I need to go to the store."
David: "Oh yeah? For what?"
John: "I need to get some bagels."
David: "Okay, let's go."
The conversation fits for functional purposes, but in terms of developing character, it does absolutely nothing. It can be easier and a lot more effective to restrict dialogue to character (and a small bit of exposition) and leave other clues for exposition:
John stands up and grabs the list off the fridge. A big red "Do this TODAY, John" is written on the bottom.
John: "Shit. She always makes me do this crap."
David: [glancing at the list] "Mom's really have no idea what's important."
We get basically the same information, minus the bagels, and we also get bits of each character. John's mom is clearly annoyed, or controlling, or tired of John never doing anything. John is tired of running around doing her errands, and we get a taste of the way he talks and thinks about his mom. David, in the same way, tells us that he thinks like John in not understanding his mom. We know so much more about their character.
I think games can get the movie-style of exposition down, in terms of placing helpful clues about background in the scene, and dialogue that reveals character, but when it comes to game objectives this almost entirely flies out the window. I understand, games, that you need to tell the player what to do, but surely there is a better way than just telling the player what to do every single time. Find 10 fairies, destroy the water silo, infiltrate the base and take the doctor's uniform.
Games should be turning, in a lot of areas, to letting the user do more work, or even less work. A quest-giver can be more character driven, only mentioning in passing that the house he has been staying in his haunted, and leave it up to the player to figure out the rest, or explore there if he wants to explore. It doesn't count if you do this and then it pops up in your journal "Go to the Haunted Westing House," either. Oblivion was pretty good about journal entries and quest-giving. On the flip side, I liked the ability Wolverine had, where he could turn on his feral senses and then see the direction to an objective. Army of Two had this as well. Why jerk the player around by making them switch to a map screen and seeing a bright "Objective!" marker on one end?
So I want either a very direct-press a button and follow this line-objectives or very vague, player driven options. Or, do both: Why highlight the movable statue in blue when you could drop a dialogue hint a mission back where a native mentioned how the ceremonial statues were often moved to create complex rituals? And if the player doesn't get it, let them push a button to see exactly what they need to do. This doesn't hold back from the gameplay, and it allows dialogue to be used for more detailed and character-driven exposition. Why throw players right in front of the door they need to kick down (with objective "breach the door!") when you could have the player wander around the town, full of tension and not sure which door has all the baddies behind it, and if they don't like this, give them the straight line to the door. Just don't waste dialogue on it.
Certain games work differently, and the way I'm suggesting is not entirely conducive to an action-packed get-me-to-the-next-thing-I-can-kill game, but designers really ought to be playing around with the way they expose objectives and give players direction. What if you were told by your commander your primary objective, but only by looking at the papers on his desk when he walks away do you discover some secondary objectives, and less clear directions on how to achieve them? What if you weren't told to "Head to the Science Building to Rescue 5 Captured Soldiers" but heard their screams over the comm as they were ambushed, and you were only aware of where they might be, and