Last week, I discussed the unfortunate tendency a great number of developers seem to have- the need to turn their inward creative process straight outward, with little modification or filter. Players find themselves under fire from mortars of seemingly irrelevant and excessive information. This bombardment leaves us with an oversaturated, shellshocked mindscape, unable or unwilling to devote any neurons to thoughtful consideration of our games.
A great host of people enjoyed Lost (myself among them, although the last season was a bit ragged). Even if one doesn't care for it, it's difficult to argue that those first handful of episodes weren't tremendously engaging. Structurally, Lost worked so damn well because it didn't front-load its information. No great prologue or origin story got in the way of the action. In started immediately with tension and led us into the pure unknown, slowly dispensing more information and more mysteries. By being mindful of the audience's "Why should I care?" perspective, we were presented with a mystery and left to ponder it. Once more information was finally manifest, we'd been given a reason to care- because we had formulated our own ideas and want to see if we're "right."
In his book Everything Bad is Good for You, Stephen Johnson argues that television today is leagues more complex than it was, say, 20 years ago. In direct contrast to the "TV is so dumb now" contentions heard by many, Johnson argues quite convincingly that we're getting smarter as an audience. Audiences are able to understand and engage with more complicated storylines involving far more plot threads and characters. Part of the reason he argues is writers have become more adept at keeping their audiences engaged and interested, rather that simply marching forward with de rigueur plotlines.
If it wasn't Lost for you, imagine a show, film or novel that instilled that feeling of engagement. Not just wondering "What will happen next?", but a deep pondering of what was going on and why. What the work really meant. Now think about how many times that's happened to you playing a game.
There's a handful of canonical examples (e.g. Shadow of the Colossus, Braid, Planescape: Torment), but the ratio is far, far lower. I hate making games vs. other media comparisons, but I beg your indulgence on this one. As games have become more playable, readable, they've also adopted the least appropriate ways of communicating a message. I don't mean a plot necessarily, I mean something more fundamental than that. The core thing a game is actually about, what an architect would call the "parti" of a building's design. Having a plot with characters and events is certainly one way to communicate that message, but there has to be something there to begin with. Otherwise, it's just sound and fury signifying nothing.
Even if such a core does exist for a game, it's so often communicated with no more nuance than a Styx concept album. Rather than subtlety, players are drowned in information and exposition. This seeming irresistible urge to explain strips all mystery from a game. It also establishes a tone of interaction that should the player need to know something, even something thematic, they'll be told it explicitly. They're given no reason to consider what the game could be trying to express, and adopt a passive mental stance. Many will just switch off and sit back, waiting to be told and likely ignoring most of it.