By William Chandler
Were I required to make some weird and creepy human personification regarding video game storytelling (which I obviously am), I would say that storytelling in games is akin to a young teenager still in the throes of awkwardness and enamored with the idea of who they want to be. Developers are unsure of just how to communicate exactly what they need for the plot, so they sprinkle collectible notes throughout the environments that the player then has to pick up and read for lore, or they insert cutscenes between bouts of interactivity for a brief bit of movie like exposition. But that’s the cool part about games as a medium; they can blatantly rip off styles of storytelling from books and movies without anyone batting an eye because they’re young and developing. Hell, often times they rip off multiple styles at the exact same time. And while this can work, and indeed has, for a great number of games, it often causes you to forget exactly why games are unique.
I mean, audio logs were cool as fuck when you heard them in System Shock 2, Doom 3, or the original Bioshock, because they were a relatively fresh concept for delivering background information that was not immediately necessary for the plot at hand. For Doom 3, all you really needed to know was that demons from hell were invading your shit on Mars and that it was a decidedly necessary venture for you to stop them from doing that. And you could certainly get all of that just by playing the game. However, if you really wanted to know why this was happening and what exactly was going on prior to your unfortunate arrival to the space station, you could pick up the numerous audio logs spread around the base that might clue you in on such things. They were pretty much an optional addition to the story and they didn’t require taking control away from the player like cutscenes, and that is precisely what made them interesting at the time.
The inherent popularity of them in the original Bioshock is really what did in audio logs for me, though. After Bioshock’s release, you would often see the arbitrary inclusion of audio logs in games that, frankly, did not need them. Who honestly cares about the motivations of the Jackal in Far Cry 2? Neither the plot of the game nor his character within it were interesting enough to even warrant me finishing it, much less giving a remote shit about finding 17 collectible audio logs in a game world so massive that it was unlikely you’d ever locate them all without some form of guide.
Honestly, the biggest problem with audio logs, as well as the aforementioned notes and cutscenes exposition methods, is that they are all counter productive to the entire purpose of video games, which is to be interactive. Cutscenes literally rip control away from the player and force them to stare at the screen for a few moments (or an hour if it’s a Kojima product), notes take time to read once you collect them, and audio logs force you to stand in one spot for a moment if you’d actually like to hear whatever it has to say without being interrupted by pesky gameplay.
This is not to say that these methods are wrong. But after years of playing games that repeatedly recycle these same methods which tell you everything directly, it is really easy to notice when games get it right. And boy does the Souls series get it right. Being forced to infer much of the plot and lore of the game from the environments, enemies, items, and characters within the gameplay is not only a refreshing change, but it also enhances the feelings of accomplishment you get from completing a particularly difficult area. Not being told everything directly up front through top heavy exposition makes the player feel intelligent and is more natural to boot. After all, when was the last time someone in real life explained every bit of his or her honest motivations behind an action at the slightest prod? Rather, you often get bits and pieces and are then forced to fill in the rest on your own based on knowledge of their character, environment, past, etc. The STALKER franchise is great at this as well, although their writing quality and story structure are admittedly considerably weaker.
Gamers should encourage more developers to focus on perfecting the type of story delivery that complements the interactivity in games rather than perfunctory attempts at overly complicated, mature, and self serious plots (THE MULTIVERSE BOOKER) or pointless twists that only harm the game in the end (YOUR WIFE WAS THE BIONIC ARM THE WHOLE TIME).
Perhaps then storytelling in games can enter the young adult phase where it loses all motivation to improve and instead prefers to watch reruns of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air all day.