Editor's Choice

Editor's Choice
Snap, Crackle and Plot

Graeme Virtue | 24 Nov 2009 12:22
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There is a message inside you so deeply embedded it will never be erased. The fragmented audio - mysterious, pleading, persuasively looped - shunted Luke Skywalker onto a new trajectory of destiny and jump-started the greatest space adventure of them all: "Help me Obi-Wan Kenobi, you're my only hope ..."

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Blue hologram Leia has plenty of company. The deep space distress call, the late night answering machine confession, the time-stamped captain's log - these isolated, inviolable communications have been so extensively road-tested in fiction, they've become comforting clich├ęs. No wonder, then, that they've been co-opted by videogaming, a kinetically evolving art form that routinely rolls all over movies, TV and books like a big, bouncy katamari to see what useful tricks and tropes it can pick up along the way.

Make no mistake: Videogames love audiologs - a catch-all term for pre-recorded messages discovered while exploring a game world. If you ask game designers, they'll tell you it's because audiologs can perform so many different functions: add some hinterland to your barren nuclear wastes, unobtrusively expand the mythos of a nascent franchise, break up an action game's pacing and - if everything comes together and the gaming gods are smiling - even engage the player on some emotional level."Help me Obi-Wan Kenobi ..."

All of these may be true, but there is a more fundamental reason why audiologs slot so well into the nuts and bolts of videogame mechanics. Even though technology has progressed to the point where exhaustively motion-captured avatars look eerily real, any attempts to interactively recreate how two people might actually chat with each other remain embarrassingly basic. Games just can't do small talk, and conversations too important to be left at the mercy of clunky three-branch dialogue trees are generally reserved for cutscenes.

The beauty of audiologs, though, is that they're essentially in-game monologues - a very distant echo of the illuminating soliloquies so beloved by Shakespeare and his dramaturgical homeboys. Characters can expound and info-dump all they want in an audiolog. The format even helps suspend disbelief by being plausibly one-sided; players can't interrupt the speaker even if they want to. A quick thought experiment: If your attractive co-worker casually mentions to you on your lunch break that she's going off alone to investigate that sinister Umbrella Corporation lab, you'd probably try and talk her out of it, right? But if she leaves a voicemail message to the same effect on your S.T.A.R.S. communicator, all you can do is set your jaw and head for the munitions cupboard. "You're my only hope ..."

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