The thing about horror games is that the protagonists are never on time. Your average big-bollocked flashlight-wielding space marine hero tends not to be around when most of the excitement’s going on, generally not showing up until after the main battle’s already over, all potential allies are dead and the monsters have taken residence and obligingly arranged themselves in ascending order of strength. As it should be. When horror is the intention you want the player in that panicky, hopeless position where there’s nothing they can do about their friends and the only goal left is to escape the nightmare their world has become, and that can’t be brought across while friendly humans are alive and the lights are still on.
But this does mean that the only way a story can get across is after the fact. With most English-speakers dead with their tongues torn off and tied around their winkies, the logical route is audio logs. And with BioShock 2 and Aliens vs Predator fresh in mind, lately I’ve had cause to think about audio logs a lot. When do audio logs actually work?
Because I do think they’re often rather clumsy storytelling. In most cases, audio logs littering the lonely halls raise more questions than they answer. For example, what the fuck happened to all the paper and pens? In your average monster-haunted installation it seems like the only methods of communication available are audio logs and smearing cryptic phrases on the walls in blood. Also, why does everyone feel the need to record every slightest thought that crosses their minds, continuing to do so even as monsters claw down the door? And distribute the recorders Easter Bunny-style as they prance down the halls towards their inevitable murder? And why do they only record ten seconds of speech on a device that could probably hold at least half an hour?
Some of these issues can be explained away if, like Doom 3 or Dead Space, the game’s set in your average scientific/engineering/military sort of facility where staff could be reasonably expected to keep detailed reports of their work, leaving aside the clawing monsters issue (and that one odd fellow from Dead Space who felt the need to continue commentating throughout the act of sawing all his arms and legs off). But what excuse do the citizens of Rapture have? Is everyone just taking notes for their future autobiographies?
Problem two is gameplay-related. Aliens vs. Predator and Doom 3 both demonstrate how not to do it – every time you collect a log, you can only play it by going into some kind of menu screen and selecting it. Which is irritatingly distracting in the same way text logs always were, the grumpy dad of today’s audio logs. The singular advantage of audio logs is that you can play them while you’re doing something else, hence why games like System Shock 2 and BioShock had a hotkey for activating the last log you picked up. Although roaring monsters and gunfire have a nasty tendency to drown out the words, so I always ended up sitting in a toilet waiting for the tape to finish anyway.
The third issue I have is less about audio logs themselves and more about some of the games that have chosen to use them. As I said, audio logs are a method of exposition, but in order for that to work there has to be something to expose. BioShock and Dead Space both had such a thing. The experience of BioShock is almost like a sightseeing tour of this extraordinarily unique world, piecing together fragments of history and public opinion to gain a full picture of what Rapture was and where it went wrong. Dead Space has a big overhanging mystery – namely, what the chuffing hell happened to all these poor spindly bastards – that the audio logs gradually unmuddy.
But where, exactly, is the mystery or the intrigue in AvP or Doom 3? Rather than answering the player’s unspoken questions, the audio logs in these games are just asking questions that the player could have answered yonks ago. “What the hell is going on here?” asks a nameless marine from AvP. “It’s aliens,” I could immediately reply. “Presumably some evil stupid dipshit is trying to farm them again for evil stupid reasons. I guess you didn’t see the fucking cover art.” In Doom 3, again, we know what’s going on: it’s demons from hell. There’s pentagrams all over the place and part of the station seems to be transforming into an endoscopic view of somebody’s colon. Is the mystery supposed to be that the station director guy is actually evil? Because I figured that out when he looked, spoke and acted exactly like Hannibal Lecter.
All of this has been leading up to what I believe to be the best use of audio logs: not using them at all. You don’t need to whack players over the head all the time. A story, especially an interactive one, is considerably enriched by letting me fill in a few blanks by myself. This is something my serial bum chums Valve have always demonstrated very well. The scene-setting opening sequences of Half-Life 1 and 2, for a start, and the way the plot is carefully tied into the level design in such a way that it osmoses into one’s mind without needing much expository midwifery. Left 4 Dead does that too, especially noticeable in the graffiti on the walls of the safe rooms. And then there’s that moment in Portal where you stumble across the makeshift living quarters of a prisoner who’s been trapped in the walls. A lot of the effect would have been lost if you’d found a tape recorder on the floor going OH BUM I’M TRAPPED IN A WALL.
“I wonder why they made the least interesting characters’ campaign the longest? Doesn’t seem like a very good design choice to me.”
– reg42, referring to Aliens vs. Predator
Well, this is the thing, isn’t it. The Marine campaign in AvP is not only the longest, but I suspect the template around which the rest of the game was built. I can’t think of any other reason that the Alien and Predator campaign would both be first person, when their respective mechanics both emphasized awareness of one’s surroundings that a third person viewpoint would have vastly improved (a third-person viewpoint is much closer to standard human visual range than a first-person one, which is more like the viewpoint of a man with one eye missing, or wearing a pair of VCRs as ear muffs).
If it weren’t already obvious, there are a lot of purse string controllers in the entertainment industries who think that you’re a retard. And a neurotic racist retard at that. They seem to think that any game that doesn’t have someone you can relate to (read: a white-ass pretty boy) will fill you with disgust, and that any new setting or idea beyond what you’ve grown used to from a thousand identikit shooters will cause you to dive under the bedclothes and moan like a fearful camel. No-one wants to take risks, despite the fact that there are plenty of weird ideas out there that someone took a risk on and which did perfectly well, like BioShock.
This is an inevitable consequence of the games industry becoming wealthy enough to matter. No-one wants to go back to the technology and pay packets of the Commodore 64 era, but at least developers were free to indulge their weird ideas. I’d like to see a mainstream game these days about a man in a top hat jumping down a toilet.
Yahtzee is a British-born, currently Australian-based writer and gamer with a sweet hat and a chip on his shoulder. When he isn’t talking very fast into a headset mic he also designs freeware adventure games and writes the back page column for PC Gamer, who are too important to mention us. His personal site is www.fullyramblomatic.com.