Info dumps and exposition in your story writing?

Discussion in 'General Discussion' started by Kwerty, Aug 16, 2018.

  1. Tai_MT

    Tai_MT Veteran Veteran

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    @jlaakso

    I've seen that GDC talk. To be quite honest... It really only applies to "the casual gamer". The one who is just sitting around to beat your game and then move on quickly to the next.

    I'm the opposite sort of player.

    I don't give a crap what your game features are. What is your story about?

    I use the set up of your story to determine whether or not I will even give your game a chance. I use it as a measure of whether or not you even have the mind for creativity.

    "Evil X Stole My Y" is boring. Unless you're adding a unique twist on the story of that... I'll pass. Yawnsville. I don't care what features you have in your game if you aren't creative enough to even innovate a common trope.

    I'm looking for a unique experience that hooks me. Immerses me in your world.

    This is the primary reason I have loved RPG's for most of my life. However, the decline of them is in large part due to that "Nobody Cares About Your Story" mentality and the dumbing down of RPG's to the point that they don't really have any story at all, and are just a list of boring Progression Systems and cardboard characters.

    Let me go back to Mass Effect for a minute. As an example.

    Exploration, for the most part, is dull. Combat... not all that difficult or dynamic. But, the story and the characters? Knocked out of the park. Home run.

    I picked the game up for what the advertisement was telling me it had. "Many choices lie ahead, not all of them easy." Whoa, an RPG where I make choices and they matter? You could tell a compelling and interesting story with that!

    The game didn't disappoint. I spent several hundred hours in the game doing multiple playthroughs. Exploring every single aspect of dialogue. Reading every Codex entry. Listening to the ones that had audio. I learned a lot about the world and wanted to learn more. I explored every possible choice outcome to hear every last piece of dialogue in the game.

    I don't do that with many games.

    Because, frankly... most games don't even bother telling a story.

    I pick up your game because I want you to tell me a story. I don't want to be "Generic Hero #6754374696261235345189786" who saves the world from "Generic Evil Villain #5489648135189678431252158748765132135748786357204756513". This is not the crap that matters. Doing something interesting with your "set up" is what matters.

    I don't want to play, "Okay, it's a dungeon crawler, but you get a bigger skill tree". I don't want to play, "Okay, it's a shooter, but this time you're in the future". I don't want to play "Okay, it's a sandbox game, but this time you have an ending to the game".

    I want to play, "Okay, you're on a Road Trip, but you have to stay one step ahead of the enemies who want to track you down and keep you from marrying the queen of this other nation. Hang out with your friends while also trying to remain incognito". Where's that game? Oh, that's right. FFXIV is garbage, 'cause they decided not to go that angle and went with a generic "hero kills badguy" storyline.

    I want to play, "You rescue a girl who can dimension hop at will, and for story reasons, which are some serious reality-bending powers that can turn robots into real animals. People want you dead for trying to rescue her." Where's that game? Oh yeah, Bioshock Infinite was garbage because it was "escape and kill generic evil guy while protecting 'the princess'". It turned into "generic shooter, with magic" clone.

    See, I'm in it for the unique experience. I've played thousands of games with those weak set ups. Only a "casual" gamer who hasn't yet had their fill of those set ups would truly appreciate them. Anyone else? They're looking for a unique experience. A story is, quite honestly, the easiest and best way to set yourself apart from other games.

    I mean, sure... gameplay can be great. But, honestly... if you're doing the same thing everyone else does with your gameplay and mechanics (and believe me, everyone is copying each other... and GDC frequently promotes doing exactly that)… why would I play your game as opposed to the 500,000 other ones that do the same thing?

    Seriously, let's talk about Half-Life for a minute. Basically... it's a standard shooter. Played one, played them all. Half-Life 2 is the same thing. boring standard shooter. Played one, played 'em all. But, what honestly sets it apart from other standard shooters? The story. The characters.

    People aren't playing this game for the gameplay... because it's frankly not all that great. Other shooters do what it does better.

    That's not to say we should dump all our story at the beginning. But, honestly... players want to hear your story. They want to be engaged and immersed in your world. A massive info-dump at the beginning of the game breaks immersion. It keeps the player from getting engaged.

    It has more to do with talent and skill as a writer than it does with people "not caring about your story".

    But, I mean... we are talking about an industry that wants to get rid of Singleplayer Games entirely. An industry that wants to turn all video games into "online only" affairs. Or "Games as Service" proposals. The same industry that wants to legalize gambling to children.

    Do you think maybe game devs and publishers are trying to promote the feeling of "nobody wants to hear your story" because it's cheaper to create a game without one? Requires hiring less people? Requires less skilled labor that you can't easily replace once a game is done? Allows them to sell a multiplayer only game with one sixth the amount of effort and content by removing a "story mode"?

    Just some food for thought.
     
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  2. CraneSoft

    CraneSoft Filthy Degenerate Veteran

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    It's less about "Nobody Cares About Story" but more about "Majority of RPGMaker players don't search the whole 500,000 catalog of crappy & generic RPGMaker games to hopefully find one or two with a good story" and "Finding an RPG I can have my fun with."

    If you are worried whether or not too much info-dumping and exposition will hurt the game's writing, it's time to start considering if RPGMaker is really the right platform for your storytelling.
     
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  3. jlaakso

    jlaakso Warper Member

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    My point is that you need to make the player care. They care automatically about the things they signed up to do when starting the game.

    Another way to look at this: your story needs to be about what the player is doing. If all you're doing is killing monsters and picking up loot, well, that's where your story better be centered. Look at the player's verbs (what they actually do in the game) and expand on those.

    Players don't automatically care. They need to be shown something they're into, and then build on that.

    You're very much on point about FFXV - it worked brilliantly when it stuck to the premise, and fell apart rather spectacularly when it didn't.
     
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  4. Tai_MT

    Tai_MT Veteran Veteran

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    See, that's sort of the problem with that corporate way of thinking, "Your Story Doesn't Matter!".

    The genre of RPG typically attracts players that are into these things:
    1. Story.
    2. Characters.
    3. Exploration.
    4. Making choices.
    5. Customizable Characters.
    6. Progression Systems

    If you are trying to sell an RPG and your company motto is "Your Story Doesn't Matter!" then you have no clue how to do your job. You're now trying to market a game to the wrong fanbase. It's tone deaf at is very best and outright offensive towards your customers at its worst.

    These are usually called "Dungeon Crawlers". They're for a different crowd than the RPG crowd. Dungeon Crawlers, by and large, do not need a story at all. You can have one, but it's often not necessary or important. The genre of Dungeon Crawler typically attracts players into:
    1. Cooperative gameplay.
    2. Heavy stat investment.
    3. Combat challenge.
    4. Exploration.
    5. Loot. Lots of loot.

    Except, they sort of do. You have the initial investment into the genre to work with. If your game is X, you market those aspects of your game. As in, if you've got an RPG, you need to be designing around those six aspects listed. You can add more than those, but those are the key reasons someone will even take an initial glance at your game. "I'm looking for a new RPG to play". The player is looking for Reasons 1 through 6 right there. If you fail hard on the first three, someone isn't likely going to pick up your game. You're not marketing to your audience at that point.

    Many game companies are trying very hard to convince game devs to stop marketing to their Installed Playerbase because a lot of features with a lot of depth cost money to implement, maintain, test, and hire people to create.

    There's also the prevailing attitude of a game company wanting not to just make a profit, but to "make all the money, ever".

    This is why "Your Story Doesn't Matter!" is so incorrect.

    There are plenty of genres where the story of your game doesn't matter. Design a game in that play space. Don't try to wrench a genre that relies heavily on story into being "not story driven". You're only going to kill your potential customer base and then your game will also drown in a sea of mediocrity and clones.
     
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  5. jlaakso

    jlaakso Warper Member

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    What I'm trying to get across is that "words for the sake of words" does not equal "story". It has to be grounded in your game.

    I guess we're going to have disagree here. I wouldn't be on an RPG forum if I wasn't into RPGs! I've been playing and making RPGs for more than 30 years now, and I'm a professional in the industry and I'm probably more jaded than most of the audience. I feel that for every word you throw at the player, it has to matter. The player's time is sacred to me. For me, it always works better if you're building on something concrete, not just "story for story's sake".

    It's a videogame; it's interactive and should build on that. That's why I spend a lot of time thinking about what my stats and skills and equipment and classes are called: they are the foundational building blocks of the player's story in the game. You can do a lot with just naming things carefully!

    My problem with lore dumps is that they exist in a vacuum and expect the player to care about things they've usually not even seen, much less interacted with. Once you've introduced elements in gameplay, the player is likely going to be more interested in learning more about them. But since we're discussing lore dumps here, that's my issue.

    Having said all that, I've now spent a couple of days on my current game's opening cutscenes. It's a lot of story to chuck at the player, but I'm doing my best to pace it and only ask the player to wrap their around one thing at a time. So far I've had to use one bit of exposition I'm not happy with (describing a bit of recent history in the game world in dialogue), but at least I managed to prime/tease it a couple of times, which I hope is enough to make the player like it when it comes.
     
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  6. Tai_MT

    Tai_MT Veteran Veteran

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    That's the difference though. A "Lore Dump" sometimes needs to exist. To prime the audience.

    However, when it's excessive... that's when you get into problems. But, this is a problem of the writer and not a problem of the game or the genre itself. If, as a writer, you can't "condense" what you need the player to know at every stage of the game, you're sort of failing as a writer.

    The saying should never be, "Nobody cares about your story!". Because, frankly, they do. They likely picked up your game because of the story. Or, at the very least, because of the premise. The saying should instead be, "Seriously, just learn to be a good writer and stop dropping exposition freakin' everywhere and expect the dry delivery of it to get the player invested in your world". It's a little wordy, but it's sort of what you should be aiming for.

    The ones who use "Nobody cares about your story!" are the AAA publishers who honestly don't give two craps about anything to do with your game beyond whether or not they could hire someone to actually market it and make sales. They don't care what features are in it. They don't care what the story is. They don't care about how immersive the experience is. They only care about whether or not they can market the freakin' thing on TV. Then, they pay a bunch of people way too much money to do marketing... when their art staff could've probably put together a Trailer for the game for about 1/100th the price and advertised it better to the playerbase than some "marketing guru".

    The trick with delivering your story, your lore, your everything to do with writing... is to do it well. Do it in such a way that the player is invested.

    I've been chopping up my own intro cutscene to "get it down to size", but much of it is frankly necessary to the start of the game. Rather than tell the player about the important war... they see it. They see how it started and why. They see the devastation. Then, they meet their cast of characters as the war has touched each of their lives. Finally, the game begins. The entire opening is about 20 minutes long. I keep looking for ways to make it shorter. But, to get everything across that I need to... it needs this level of set up.

    I don't know of any other way to get this information across to a player without just giving them 14 separate scenes early in the game at nonsensical points that take up the same amount of time.

    The question for me then becomes:

    "Is it better to frequently interrupt gameplay with cutscenes of necessary information... or to deliver it all up front and let the player have free reign afterwards for quite a while?"
     
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  7. kirbwarrior

    kirbwarrior Veteran Veteran

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    In that situation, I'd probably look into how I might adopt In Medias Res. If the story is there and the characters are already a part of it, you can break things up over more time and use the early time to get them invested in things. It also depends on how what the player is doing for those 20 minutes. If it's all basically cut scene with no input, I'm not sure a game can pull that off. You're effectively watching the pilot of a show.
     
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  8. Tai_MT

    Tai_MT Veteran Veteran

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    The problem with starting "In Media Res" is that it's a very bad tool to use. A player requires a certain level of investment before you drop them in the middle of something.

    It is also farily "overused" at this point. Game devs just dropping the player "in the middle of the action" without explaining anything. Even as a game player, I find it tiresome and annoying. Your story isn't more compelling when I know very little about it. Your mystery isn't any more interesting because you've deliberately not given me any information about your game world. In fact, once I finally do get that information, your "starting in media res" aspect looks even more foolish and terrible later. Because, what I imagine to be going on is ALWAYS going to be better than what you actually TELL ME is going on.

    To be quite honest, it's better to have "In Media Res" in a movie, rather than a game. It's just a medium that works better for it.

    But, even then, you have to manage it VERY WELL. As in, the action is very quickly and effectively explained mere moments after it is presented.

    So, let's look at "done well" for a game. Farcry 3. It's a shooter that has an opening intro showing you, your brother, and your friends partying and setting up the trip to the islands you're going to. It sets up the skydiving. Then, the game reveals to you that it's all recorded information on your phone. You've been caught by the pirates and they're going to ransom you and enslave you. You start in the middle of the action with an explanation of what is going on and who the people are.

    Let's look at one that is "done poorly". Final Fantasy 7. An RPG that starts out with your character jumping off a train. You are told very little except you and this group are pulling off a job at this location and you have to fight security. So, you fight security, and a robot, and then they reveal you're planting a bomb and this is a power plant. It blows up, you escape, and then you're dumped in the middle of a slum. Information you have in this world so far is as follows:
    1. You're a terrorist.
    2. You're blowing stuff up for some sort of eco-plot.
    3. Your main character is an Emo Edge Lord devoid of any and all personality.
    4. You're working with some childhood friend.

    See the difference?

    The first game gets you invested by starting in the middle, and cleverly disguising that you're starting in the middle of the action. The second game provides next to nothing except some combat and vague objectives. The first game immediately tells you what the point of the game is and what your goals are. The second game gives you zero direction and zero reason to care. What is the goal? You're hired to blow stuff up. Okay, to what end? We're never told. Not until much later. The answer given, much later? Not satisfying at all. "We're burning up the life energy of the planet with these power plants". Well, that's underwhelming compared to what I had imagined we were blowing stuff up for.

    My game opens with the credits and "thank yous" to people. After that, you're thrust into the first scene where two people devise a plan about an event and allude to a bit of the world. The next scene is one of the main cast doing something tangential to the upcoming war and showing off who he is as a character. The next is the plan from the first scene going off "without a hitch" and showing the absolute devastation that started the war. Every scene after that is the years during the war. Children growing up to be soldiers in it. People having to deal with the military ramping up. The main character's role in that war. Then... once the last of the Main Cast is revealed as well as their role in the story... you're dumped into the gameplay "In Media Res" and given your goal.

    I can't think of a better way to do it. I cut dialogue down quite frequently and it does get shorter. But, it's hard to cut dialogue and cutscenes without losing something vital for the player to know at the beginning.
     
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  9. kirbwarrior

    kirbwarrior Veteran Veteran

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    Oh, it always seemed much better for a game than movie, movies can far more easily get away with early explanations. But a game is to play.
    I'd really argue that about everything. There's a famous critic quote where "95% of everything is crap" that always sticks with me.
    That is generally what I imagine when people want to do In Medias Res.
    I'm not entirely certain how much of the bolded is necessary. People don't need a full explanation up front of how bad war is, both reality and fiction have already shown that quite a lot. I'm honestly imagining the second bolded part being a wordless montage where just showing parts of events is enough to hammer home how terrible it is. The reason I bolded the first part is that it and the first sentence of the next bolded don't need to be both shown (or in terrible depth) from what I'm seeing. The first part can be used to set up part of the world or these two characters, but if it's not doing too much there, then showing the results is plenty. I'd imagine the last parts will be shown throughout the game often and brought up by people who are frustrated and venting. The last part that's unbolded is needed, absolutely, while the earlier part can be shown off but also can be used later to build background of the character.

    I get you don't want to talk too much about it since it's your game's story and that would start to derail the thread (if you do have a thread going on for it, I'll head over there). But those are just my thoughts based on what you posted.
     
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  10. Tai_MT

    Tai_MT Veteran Veteran

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    Yeah, I don't want to get too deep into the weeds with it.

    The thing used to be a lot longer with a lot more explanation. What I have is essentially the "bare minimum" to get the players on board with the setting and then get them a bit invested with the characters.

    It is one thing to tell the players what happened, quite another to show it. I'll use the (now famous or infamous) scene from Call of Duty Modern Warfare 1. The one where you're nuked. The previous level has you rolling into town as "a hero" to find the badguy, get the nuke, and save the day. But, you don't make it. The next scene is the explosion knocking your helicopter out of the sky via the shockwave. And, after that, you've got a lengthy cutscene in which you're the only survivor, injured to the point you can only crawl... and your actions no longer have consequences as you watch the billowing nuclear cloud a short distance away and you succumb to radiation and die.

    It's impactful because you get to see it. Far more than if the game had just told you, "Everyone who went to the city died by nuclear explosion. It was devastating".

    The opening is being used to give an introduction to the characters as well as to flesh out a small part of the world. As such, it is difficult to know how much of it can be cut down without impacting what is necessary to tell the story.
     
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  11. Anyone

    Anyone Veteran Veteran

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    Prolonged exposition (info dumps) are the result of misconceptions and should never happen.

    1. Write the background & lore seperately from your story. Doesn't matter if you're writing a book, a screenplay or a video game script. You do not let characters explain the world, you do not write passages about how the world works. You create one version, for yourself, that's seperate from the actual product and helps manifest the concept of your world & story in your mind. Anything you put into your actual story will be informed by your understanding of it.
    The worst thing you can possibly do is develop the lore & background story inside your product. Any experienced audience immediately realizes: he's explaining the stuff to himself.

    2. Words have a weight. If you throw them around meaninglessly, to fill blank space, as if they're valueless and convenient stuffings for gaps, expect the audience to share that sentiment.

    3. In all writing, necessity is your guide. If something is not necessary, it should not be there at all.
    Does the audience need to know this now or can I weave this into the world later?
    Small bites are always easier to digest. And if you give them the right proportion, they create an appetite rather than bloating.
    Anything needs to have a purpose. It needs to serve an important role. Without it, the scene should suffer. Otherwise, it will make your scene suffer.
     
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  12. kirbwarrior

    kirbwarrior Veteran Veteran

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    That seems really key. The player is already in the game, already being pulled in, then shown how they failed.
     
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  13. Tai_MT

    Tai_MT Veteran Veteran

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    That sort of depends though. The scene itself had no impact on me other than, "When is this freakin' over, so I can go to the next stage?". The scene only has impact on those who were already immersed.

    Up to that point, I had no idea who my squad even was, who I was meant to be, what I was meant to be doing, or anything. I was just given a series of short-term goals and orders as each level progressed. I didn't even know I was looking for a nuke until I was told, "We're evacuating, a nuke is going to go off! The badguy got away!". Up until that point, I had simply been shooting everyone who had shot at me through an entire office building and before that, some dusty city streets.

    It only has an effect if you've managed to already draw the player in. So many reviews said it was one of the best moments in video games. But, here I was, entirely in the dark about the entire storyline of the game... until I'd been forced to sit through a slow death from radiation and wondering when I could move along to the next mission. I couldn't even care about my own character's death as I knew nothing about them. I couldn't even care about the deaths of my squad as I knew nothing about them.

    Honestly... if you can show the player something, that's better than telling them. Is isn't good or fun to have characters stand around in a room and debate the morality of war with each other for 10 minutes. It's better to have a series of cutscenes that equal 10 minutes, which show the dubious morality of the particular war you're explaining.

    Likewise, it is often better to show events in their actual time than it is to show them as "flashback", unless that flashback is vital in some way. It isn't very effective to constantly throw a million flashbacks at a player when you want them to know something. It is usually better to have them experience those events in order, if you can. At least, if it makes sense to do so.

    It is important to only dump as much information as needed. And, if you can, "pretty it up" so that it isn't clunky and intrusive, and instead feels like a natural progression of the game and the plot.

    You don't need to say, "Every 1000 years, the Demon King comes back to terrorize the world. This is the fourth time the Demon King has returned. Brian has been summoned to the castle to see if he's this cycles "Chosen One" and is able to pull the Sword of Fate from the hands of the Goddess Statue. Brian has 3 siblings, two sisters and a younger brother. His younger Brother Hates him. The kingdom also oppresses his village and taxes them very high, so they are poor. If he can pull the sword, he'll be showered in riches and his family can eat again!"

    There is no sense in an "info dump" like that at the beginning.

    Instead, you can turn it into a cutscene, probably starting with the soldiers showing up at his house, his family complaining about how much the kingdom already takes from them and now they want to take Brian too. The soldiers maybe show off their abuses with physical violence and take Brian anyway, since it's law that everyone of age needs to try to pull the sword. Then, the cutscene is of him waiting in line to pull the sword, maybe third or fourth as others fail and are escorted out. Maybe guards making more snide comments about "filthy peasants". Then, maybe as he takes hold of the sword, the statue itself speaks to him. It tells him that he's the one destined to defeat the Demon King in this cycle and to pull the sword with confidence. It is his birthright. So he pulls it... it comes free... shocks everyone there... and the game begins". The cutscene may actually take longer than the information drop... but it's far better executed. It is more likely to engage the player.
     
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  14. Basileus

    Basileus Veteran Veteran

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    While I'm against long info dumps, I don't think a game needs to introduce and hook its player on gameplay before it can tell a story.

    Final Fantasy IV proves this. The game begins with a cutscene showing a fleet of airships flying over the world map. We see a knight and his soldiers seize a crystal from another kingdom, killing several innocent wizards in the process. Then we get to know this knight and see his struggle with the guilt of following these orders. We get to know the important current events that directly lead into the story we are about to play. We get to know Cecil a little bit before we can control him. We get to talk to his girlfriend before we ever get into combat. This was a game with a story to tell and that story is front and center as the main thing the game is concerned with. The story isn't there as an excuse for the gameplay. The gameplay is there to tell the story.

    FF4 is almost 30 years old and still talked about as one of the great influential RPGs. That tells me that players that like RPGs don't need to get into combat in 1 minute or lose all interest in your game. You don't need to introduce these elements in gameplay first. Players care about them just fine as a quick intro cutscene. You invest the player in the story by having a story worth telling and knowing how to tell it.
     
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  15. kirbwarrior

    kirbwarrior Veteran Veteran

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    I agree, "Show, don't tell". What I'm saying is "Play, don't show" is even more important. That doesn't mean it has to be all action kind of thing, as Basileus said, FF4 doesn't have combat, but it does have interaction. You're in control pretty quickly, and even given some ability to explore and take things at your pace while also being led through the story pretty linearly and concisely.
    As for your first example, I think that debate could be interesting by bringing the player into the debate. Make them choose what the cons and/or pros are. Make them feel like they are dragged into this war. Use cutscenes in the choices and talk to tie it all together. You could even make what cutscenes are shown based on player input (bringing up the affect on innocent people could show the scenes about the terrors on people just trying to survive, while bringing up how the war is working can show your side mowing down the enemy easily).
    No, it's not going to work perfectly each time, but I just can't think of a game that has a 10min+ opening cutscene where the player has effectively no control that takes good advantage of it. I'm not saying it can't be done, but that doesn't mean it shouldn't be a 'general' rule to avoid ("Exceptions to every rule" is important to know and understand).
     
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