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 …“
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 clichés. 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 …“
The mother of the modern audiolog is System Shock, the critically adored but commercially ignored 1994 PC adventure so dense with first-person gaming innovations that contemporary designers are still filleting it for ideas. By the time its sequel came out, System Shock‘s “log discs” had officially become “audio logs.” But it was in the series’ spiritual successor, BioShock, that they reached a new height of expressiveness and atmosphere, contextualizing what happened on that fateful New Year’s Eve in the submerged city of Rapture. According to early reports, audiologs are still in the mix for BioShock 2 – messages in so many bottles, breathing life into a twice-broken city and shading in the philosophical backstory.
Once a novelty, audiologs are now so prevalent in games they generally receive little more than a cursory listen, usually just long enough to determine how best to categorize them. Will this amateurishly concealed mini-cassette be The One Containing A Piece Of Information Vital To The Mission or The One Providing More Background About The Game World? Will this sonic data crystal abandoned atop the blood-spattered navigational controls be The One From Your Beloved With Her Last Sobbing Words or – my favorite – The One That’s Just Indistinct Gunfire And Inhuman Screaming?
Actually, scratch that first category. Based on my recent gaming experiences, it seems it’s become unfashionable for audiologs to contain any “vital” gameplay information. If you’re a publisher chasing the mass-market, there’s an assumption that your target audience just wants to breeze through your divertissement; burying mission-critical intelligence in a discarded recording could be construed as unsporting. But the technicians tasked with creating these assets can take comfort in the fact that audiologs have become quite the thing in terms of in-game collectibles. They’re at least guaranteed a frazzled audience of Achievement junkies – think of the millions trying to squeeze some value-for-money out of Halo 3: ODST‘s campaign, Mongoose-ing around in search of all 30 audiologs for their VISR.
So if audiologs are becoming more like trophies, what’s the best way to display them? In Fallout 3, you activate collected audiologs on your inventory screen, and they’re so well-produced (and relatively rare) that it’s tempting to linger there and give them your full attention. But most players prefer to listen to a retrieved audiolog while getting on with the messy business of eviscerating space pirates. It’s comparable to a 1940s housewife tuning in to a wireless washboard weepie while she hunkers down to the ironing; there is a weird satisfaction in doing two things at once, even if in the modern instance they both basically boil down to “playing a game.”
Poorly executed audiologs rarely sink a title, but they can make a game seem pretty soggy. In the otherwise very fine X-Men Origins: Wolverine (Uncaged Edition), the notoriously abrasive mutant berserker can scoop up glowing orange laptops to get a sniff of backstory, but the recordings are so bland and characterless that even hardcore Wolverine geeks – myself among them – find nothing worth obsessing over. Yet in another recent superhero game, Batman: Arkham Asylum, the scattered audiologs, consisting of psychologist interviews with various deranged supervillains, complemented the overall experience. The majority of Arkham Asylum‘s universally glowing reviews even took care to praise the “Spirit of Arkham” subplot, in which a series of cheerfully hammy monologues dangle a meta-mystery in front of the Dark Knight.
Whatever the genre, well-executed audiologs can enhance the experience. Sometimes it takes more than just the Unreal Engine to make your game world seem truly three-dimensional.
If this written monologue makes it sound like I’ve been thinking too much about audiologs recently, it’s probably true. Back in June, I pitched to provide pre-recorded segments to One Life Left, the U.K.’s pre-eminent (and now officially award-winning) videogame radio show. Early attempts at recording high-minded games reviews and commentary on my battered laptop resulted in files of such astonishingly poor audio quality there was no way they could be used on the show. But that initial spasm of frustration became a lightbulb moment. For in videogames – even those set in some breathtakingly advanced future – don’t audiologs always sound like they’ve been recorded on a scratchy gramophone rather than a crystal-clear digital device?
With the appropriate crackly GarageBand filter, my monologues could pass for broadcast quality (in sound, if not in content). And so, the Science Officer was born – an anonymous, exasperated know-it-all serving on a Behemoth-class Alliance starjumper, doomed to exist in a painfully generic sci-fi videogame in which he is clearly not the protagonist. There is no attempt at continuity – the Science Officer has already perished twice – but his grouchiness is fairly persistent. After being forced to record regular audiologs by his higher-ups, he gets disproportionately resentful when ordered to hand over the transcripts so they can be more professionally dubbed by Liam Neeson. (“Liam Neeson!? All that guy does is die in movies!”)
And after just five faltering instalments of “Science Officer,” I finally got to realize a long-cherished ambition: to create an audiolog that could be accurately categorized as The One That’s Just Indistinct Gunfire And Inhuman Screaming. This humbling achievement involved a surprisingly detailed description of the anatomy of space crabs and a gleeful melange of machine-gun fire, lion roars and horror movie scream samples, all cranked down to half-speed.
Coming up with new scenarios for the Science Officer and attempting to record vaguely appropriate sound effects has given me a new respect for those videogame professionals charged with creating pocket-sized playlets, be they writers, performers or sound engineers. There is a tightrope to be walked between – and above – histrionics and hysterics. So if I secretly enjoyed audiologs before, I’m even more appreciative of them now, poring over their hiss-filled recordings in search of inspiration. Now if I could just get that glowing blue princess out of my head …
Graeme Virtue is a freelance writer based in Scotland. You can follow his spicy eating habits at Trampy And The Tramp’s Glasgow Of Curry.