The RPG Scrollbars: The Rise And Fall Of Audio Logs

“Day 4. I’ve looked everywhere, but I can’t find anything to eat or a clue to get me off the ship. Just… more audiologs! They’re everywhere! For some reason I keep listening to every minute of every one thinking there’ll be some useful information but… they’re just filler! Filler that’s driving me to madness!”South Park: The Stick Of Truth

It’s hard to argue. They’re kinda dumb. But I’m still fond of this stupid little trope.

The irony is that originally, the idea of audio logs was to increase immersion in worlds. Games had had notes and the like before, obviously, but System Shock pioneered the idea of scattering tapes around empty levels for you to listen to at will. It was a good fit. It allowed you to literally put the backstory on in the background while exploring, to tell the stories of characters you’d never meet, and to explain what had happened far better than any environmental storytelling at the time could or I’d argue still can. Vignettes can be awesome and many games set up cool shots like the aftermath of a Fallout poker game gone bad, but I argue that the most effective ones are linked to characters and backstories that you know. Here for instance is a shot that on its own is simply cute, but becomes heartbreaking when you know what’s behind it.

Like most techniques, there’s no need to go with just A or B. A physical vignette rewards exploration and contemplation, allowing you to build an image in your head of what happened in a more effective way than actually seeing it – especially in a violent game where blood and guts are a minute-by-minute thing. However, it tends to be more powerful still if there is a character to put with it, to add context, a sense of justice or unfairness, or something more than a faceless victim. The sense of hope dying in the dark. The last moments of comfort before the inevitable. The fate worse than death wearing a former lover’s face. The knowledge that a hero never arrived.

The pragmatic origin of Shock’s audio-logs too came from the right place. While the Ultima Underworld games had offered conversation, it was only by cutting away to a different interface that would have broken the mood. Unable to think of a good way of doing it, System Shock’s designers simply murdered about 99.9% of the cast and never let you meet any that temporarily remained. There were still living characters around, but either they died just before you met them (Parovski), or were physically separated from you by millions of miles (Lansing, Brocail) or villains (Diego, SHODAN).

The problem is that the trick was so effective that it saw few big updates in the games that followed. System Shock 2 added ghosts and very occasional dying people to the mix, where sometimes you could see someone’s last moments as well as find it on a tape. Bioshock greatly improved the nature of the stories being told. But with every game that used the technique, the more awkward it became. Everything about it. When System Shock came out, everyone expected that by now we’d all be using videophones and the like, as opposed to even voice taking a back-seat to more efficient text-messaging. Even if you can accept that, the tapes being scattered everywhere is another obstacle. Why is that tender love story scattered over multiple floors of this ship/city where anyone could find it? Who would sit down and record their secrets like this? Like a lot of gameplay mechanics, it’s best not thought about, and lampshading problems rarely makes them go away. Mafia II for instance trying to jokingly justify main character Vito’s ludicrous recovery speed after being repeatedly shot. Computers in villain lairs that serve two purposes – to give out passwords, and have angry e-mails from the management about people leaving passwords up on their screen.

At this point, it’s kinda hard to take the whole thing seriously.

For my money, the death of audiologs came with Doom 3, which completely misunderstood their purpose and put them into a game that they didn’t fit at all. They worked in System Shock because it was a game where the quiet moments felt natural, rather than a distraction from the game. More pressingly, the logs in Doom 3 rarely actually said anything. You arrive before the invasion and so the majority of the stuff you find early on is just people complaining about things feeling a bit creepy and uncomfortable. No shit. You’re messing around with Hell. But they’re not even writing in an ironically creepy way, with far too many just dull, dull corporate reports that you only have to bother with because they’re probably going to have codes to locked doors in them somewhere. It was the design concept at its absolute worst, exposing the limits and revealing the artifice behind the gimmick.

After that, the only game that really drew any praise for using them was Bioshock and its sequel. These, as with some of the stuff in Shock 2, evolved the writing style in a fairly subtle way from System Shock. Compare the two games.

This morning Gunther was killed by one of the mutants. I have no time to dwell on the death of my husband, unless I want soon to join him. I think I understand now what SHODAN is doing. After destroying a bank of security cameras, the elevators almost came back on line. Somehow SHODAN must combine power from the CPU nodes with a constant input stream in order to maintain control over the station’s systems. If I can diminish the fiend’s “presence” here, I believe I can restore manual controls to the hospital level. Gunther, I’ll stop him, I swear.

That’s an early Shock log. Here’s a Bioshock one.

Another New Year’s, another night alone. I’m out, and you’re stuck in Hephaestus, working. Imagine my surprise. I just guess I’ll have another drink… here’s a toast to Diane McClintock, silliest girl in Rapture. Silly enough to fall in love with Andrew Ryan, silly enough to-

Back in Shock 1, the audio logs are literally diaries – an apocalypse log. They’re frequently intended to be read, heard, used. More technically, they’re diegetic. They actually exist in the world. What we get in Bioshock is something else. They’re snippets of conversation, they’re overheard gossip, they’re often taken straight from the character’s minds. The tape-recorders are more an icon than in-world artifact, and not something we’re meant to really think of in those terms. Fairly obviously. Few of them are willing to speak their mind while Ryan’s forces might be listening, never mind record their treasonous thoughts and leave them lying around. We collect them via audiologs, but it would make about as much sense as to say that we pick up a psychic echo or similar, in much the same way that we see the ghosts acting out scenes. (Another evolution borrowed from Shock 2, though neither game uses them that much.)

The use of ghosts does however highlight why the audiologs have stuck around. The idea of doing something more visual appeals, and it’s done okay in some games, like Everybody’s Gone To The Rapture – no relation. As a replacement in a more active game though they’re problematic, partly because of the extra time they take (say what you want about writing, but it’s cheap!), they can’t be easily replayed, they take away control of the player’s progression for something that’s often only ambient progression, they have to be in locations where the player can’t be disturbed, and they’re inherently hands-off. Bioshock 2 dropped ghosts entirely, though for a while it did continue the idea of ‘genetic memory’ by having playable flashbacks to Rapture in its prime. They were cut because they didn’t really work. (“What Rapture was like in its heyday appeals on paper, but it meant you really couldn’t play the game. Players sleepwalked through each scene, which was pretty, but not particularly convincing.”)

Bioshock 2 did advance the art in one way though, in a similar way to Deus Ex before it – putting more emphasis on ‘live’ characters. There were still audiologs to collect, but now far more of the plot was communicated through the case – Eleanor, able to jump into your head, villain Sofia, businessman Sinclair and the key members of the Rapture Family like Grace Holloway. Mechanically, their messages were no different from reading a log. The obvious difference is that as characters still with agency in the world, their ongoing stories were inherently tied to yours in a way that the audio-log leavers could never be. They could respond to your decisions, your evolving character, provide warnings, taunt, and as Deus Ex had demonstrated before it, give the illusion that things were happening in parts of the city that you weren’t personally in a position to see. It wasn’t entirely effective, and you really had to give the game the benefit of the doubt to think that the crazed splicers you encountered were part of a more civilised society when not shrieking and trying to beat you to death. But it was something. And with those messages doing much of carrying the main story and leaving the audiologs for backstory, it helped push them back where they needed to be.

Come Bioshock Infinite however, the trick wasn’t working so well. A big problem was that part of the reason we accepted audiologs previously was the acceptance that they were a means to an end. Games have plenty of them. Dialogue trees for instance. With Infinite though, having characters, having conversation, being able to show the world in all its glory, those audiologs became… well… ridiculous. At best – at best – they could be grandfathered in along with the new Plasmids (ignoring their shared origin, as revealed later on) as simply Something A Shock Game Is Expected To Have. At worst, they were a massive distraction from the action and a lingering sense of artificiality. The game already had so many methods to tell its stories, from conversations to tears to museums, it had outgrown them. Something which you can see it recognising simply in how few of them there are compared to the earlier Shock games – only about 80 compared to around 250 in Shock 2 and around 120 in Bioshock 1.

But does any of this mean that games shouldn’t use audio logs any more? I’d argue not. Like any technique, they can be used for good and ill. The problem with them is that they’ve been over-used; treated as the only way of conveying ambient narrative and setting up vignettes, even in situations where it wasn’t actually that practical. They worked in System Shock for very specific reasons, and when System Shock 3 comes out, I’ll be sad if it doesn’t do something similar to breathe life back into SHODAN’s victims. That said, it’s not enough to just scatter them around and party like it’s 1994. Maybe for instance there can be a twist to the formula where you snag chips from brains and then de-encrypt them, learning the story in a more non-linear order while interacting with the live characters. Different forms of notes, like the graffiti on the walls in Left 4 Dead 2’s safehouses being used to convey ongoing stories between familiar characters who you learn to differentiate via their handwriting and who they conduct conversations with in the dark, where SHODAN’s sensors can’t see. Tampered logs, leading you astray after so many games where dead men tell tales, but never porkies. Or overheard radio signals that you can’t tap into, painting a picture of the failed rebellion you’re about to walk into. Or many other extrapolations of the basic concept, either untried in a big game or yet to be fully tapped out.

Either way, new ideas were needed before South Park put a railway spike through the traditional form. Now, there’s no going back. We shouldn’t kill audio logs per se. As little chunks of narrative, they serve a noble purpose and nothing else quite serves it. But it’s not 1994 any more. It’s time for an upgrade, while people still bother listening.

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45 Comments

  1. Kefren says:

    I agree with all this. Currently replaying Doom 3, and it is just clunky every time I scan a PDA then have to navigate screens of possible emails, audio logs and videos. They break the otherwise forward momentum of a linear game. But System Shock 1 and 2 were generally not linear, so instead of forward momentum you had ever-increasing circles of exploration with plenty of downtime when you were fixing and upgrading equipment or thinking about skill upgrades or managing inventory or hiding (none of whic happlies to Doom 3), and those were perfect times to catch up on audio logs.

  2. GameCat says:

    I don’t mind a few audiologs lying here and there, but if you’re making a game in 2016 where all your narrative is presented through them, I will not bother to play it at all.

    • GameCat says:

      Hmm, but then I like how Dark Souls is presenting its story.

      Now I’m confused.

  3. Turkey says:

    I feel like every old-school PC gamer in the early ’00s made a wish upon an evil monkey paw that we wanted more Looking Glass type games, and now every AAA game is an unfocused mess of RPG mechanics, sloppy alternate stealth paths and audio logs that add nothing.

    • Samuel Erikson says:

      Oh christ, we really are to blame, aren’t we?

    • bill says:

      Be careful what you wish for.

      We also wanted cutscenes to be more interactive so we could actually pull off the cool actions ourselves… and we got quicktime events.

      And we wanted games to be more realistic and more cinematic…and we got Modern Warfare.

  4. Emeraude says:

    Bioshock greatly improved the nature of the stories being told.

    I don’t think I agree, but I have a hard time articulating properly why for now.

    Kinda amazed at no mention of Metal Gear V’s use.

    • Richard Cobbett says:

      I didn’t play MGS that much because it ate my save about ten hours in and I refused to play the hospital level again. But I didn’t like them, not least because they made the twist bloody obvious from the start.

      My favourites of late were the patient files in Arkham City. Really good secondary sources.

      • Emeraude says:

        But I didn’t like them, not least because they made the twist bloody obvious from the start.

        Oh, I definitely think they’re a bad example of audio log use.

        It’s the why of it I find interesting. Their clash with the need for attention on surrounding sound for stealth purpose for one.

    • Frank says:

      Kind of hard for Bioshock to have good stories when every character, living or dead, has a one-note personality, usually that of a Hollywood psychopath. That’s how I remember it, anyways.

      • Emeraude says:

        Not an issue with quality of execution or writing here. It’s about the idea that there is a difference in the *nature* of content in the audio logs on display in Bioshock that bring new value to the old trick.

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      Oakreef says:

      Moving the long codec conversations to tapes was a great move and lets players dig into the plot as much or as little as they like without interrupting the game constantly and letting characters have more relaxed conversations in more logical situations (i.e. no spending ten minutes explaining someone’s objective to them only *after* they’ve already landed in the warzone doesn’t really make much sense).

      On the other hand the contents of the tapes were extremely boring due to bad writing, dull characters and one-note deliveries.

      • Emeraude says:

        Moving the long codec conversations to tapes was a great move

        I don’t know, given they tend to get into the way of gampelay and you basically have to stop playing to listen to them without being hindered, I fail to see a difference with cinematics you can skip. It’s empowering you get to press a “on” button instead of an “off” one I guess.

        But while the heart was in the right place, I think it didn’t really work.

      • Pink Gregory says:

        Metal Gear is my favourite game series and I love everything about V; but you’re not wrong, I struggled to consistently take in any tape conversation over a minute.

        Never the case with codec conversations, though. I suppose it’s because the codec conversations are static, with no distractions; whereas even the possibility of interacting with the game with a tape playing in the background makes the attention wander.

    • Waltorious says:

      I also disliked the writing in Bioshock. I think it’s related to what Richard mentioned in this piece; namely, that the audio logs didn’t make sense as actual logs, seeming more like inner thoughts. I kept wondering why anyone would record this stuff and then leave it on a random park bench. Also, did people really carry these huge, clunky tape recorders around with them everywhere?

      Unfortunately, asking questions like that makes the whole game fall apart, because none of it actually makes sense. The city doesn’t feel anything like a real city, the story (and especially it’s twist) is absurd. It’s like the game operates purely on a symbolic level, but forgot to make any kind of sense on a literal level.

      Contrast that to System Shock, which paid great attention to making sense. The station layout makes sense, the plot makes sense, even the audio logs make sense. They are often found on people’s corpses or in their lockers / dwellings, but other times characters have deliberately left them in a trail for you to follow to help you out. In all cases, their locations make sense; no random innermost thoughts left on park benches here, these are messages for you or someone else, made deliberately and in a logical way.

      I was much less impressed with Irrational’s work in this regard. System Shock 2 was still pretty good at feeling like a believable place, but not as good as Looking Glass’s design in the original, and Bioshock was a huge step back in this regard (to me).

  5. Victor A Yorke says:

    Random idea, although it doesn’t much update the concept of audiologs and it’s likely been done somewhere else…

    Remember that library two-parter in the new Dr Who? Each of the redshirts exploring the library had communication gear that tried to save their brain patterns, but ended up repeating their last words over and over.

    Perhaps there’s a variation of this to be used in a action-horror title? You pump some power (Metro Last Light’s dynamo or ZombiU’s inventory systems seem a good fit for this) into a dead body, and it plays you an audiolog of that person’s last 30 seconds of life. It doesn’t even need to be an expodump, 2/3 of the time – just a fragment of natural-sounding conversation before everything exploded, or even the sounds of panicked escape while aliens/monsters/whatever hunt down the last few survivors.

    • Richard Cobbett says:

      It’s a good idea. The main issue is you only get one per person rather than scope to tell their story in pieces.

    • Turkey says:

      A game called Cryostasis already did this, and the concept is sort of making a comeback with RE7 by allowing you to play during flashback sequences found on VHS tapes.

      • Victor A Yorke says:

        I remembered Cryostasis just as I hit send. My mistake entirely.

        However, both Cryostasis and RE7 make a point of playing as the log recorder – in the former it’s to avert their death as the ship takes damage or the monsters emerge, and we’ll find out about the latter soon enough. Merely hearing their deaths (or watching them, in a cutscene perched on the player’s hud somewhere)

        As for dealing with characters over multiple scenes, I guess you could either make studies of the leaders from the perspective of the increasingly endangered underlings, or you could follow an unusually savvy individual or two as they dodge (or sacrifice fellows to escape) the threats.

        For example, you’re following the path of a doomed expedition, or exploring a shipwreck (something both Cryostasis and Obra Dinn do), hunting for a notorious criminal who joined the adventure to lie low for a while…?

    • Daymare says:

      SOMA by Frictional Games did exactly that. People have chips (I think) implanted that you can to tap into when you find their bodies and experience their last moments. Often these are conversations between them and other people. I thought it worked quite well.

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    DrollRemark says:

    Excessive audio logs, or the many other ideas that teams have to communicate to you the world as it was before your shooty rampage, are just the frustrated designers of the game wanting to show you how clever they were to think of all this. It’s like a dreary sci-fi novel that insists on lengthy backstory just to tell you exactly how the world came to be like it is, rather than throwing you into it. The best books, and thus good games (if more of them did this), don’t tell you things that their characters wouldn’t know, because they have the confidence to exist in the world of their making.

    I get it, you’ve made a really unusual and cool world. Just show me that, not the fluff.

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    Sid Sinister says:

    How about instead of the audio logs being a physical in game items but instead have them being recoverable computer files. The files could be in the from of deleted files or from the system cache. You could explain why they were recoverable in game along the lines of a computer virus or due to a rogue AI, like SHODAN corrupting the computer system.

    This would mean that they could a range of different files types including audio/video logs to email, to voice/video chats, video footage, etc. This would eliminate the problem of why the logs were left all over the place as the would be made on the computer in question. This files could be made so accessible again as they could downloaded to the player character’s own computer/phone/whatever.

    Granted it doesn’t solve all the problems like the players losing control when accessing them, maybe they could be a “reward” of some time of mini-game, but there again there has been some awful mini-games so this could make the problem even worse.

    I must admit this work of games, for example it won’t make sense in Bioshock has it was set before modern computers. This has probable been done before but I at the moment can’t think of an example.

  8. Don Reba says:

    I adored Alexandra Drennan’s audiologs in The Talos Principle. I was so happy every time I found a new one.

    • theapeofnaples says:

      Horses etc. I found them to be atmosphere destroyingly mawkish.

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      InfamousPotato says:

      I did love those audio logs. They never felt like filler- and they really helped in understanding the world outside, especially as the player slowly realizes the reality of the situation.

      Man, the writing in that game was fantastic. After playing it, I found myself wishing I could just replay the conversations on the computer terminals. I didn’t even really care for the puzzle aspects of the game (don’t get me wrong, they were well done- I suppose puzzle games just aren’t my cup of tea). The story was enough to make the pursuit worthwhile.

  9. Zekiel says:

    Good grief, Bioshock Infinte’s audiologs were stupid. I listened to them, of course… but – why were people more eloquent talking a tape recorder than to a real live human being standing in front of them?

    I actually decided I kind of hate audio logs because my brain doesn’t multitask well enough to use them. To actually take in an audiolog I basically have to shut my eyes and just listen to it. If I try to continue exploring the level, looting a box or whatever, then the audiolog will finish and I’ll realise I haven’t actually taken any of it in.

    To my mind Dishonored did it best – very sparing use of audiologs, much wider use of notes and books which you can read (or indeed scan-read) at your own pace.

    • Eddy9000 says:

      Dishonoured did it best, but not with the books and logs. The talking heart that could tell you the secrets of random npcs was just one of the best narrative tools ever.

      • jonahcutter says:

        Agreed. Dishonoured’s heart is a masterful riff off of the audiolog trope. They were smart and went with poetic and abstract, instead of describing and telling. And being well-written helps.

        The problem being, it’s still a magic power. Which fits fine for Dishonoured’s world, but leaves the problem unsolved for a non-magical or non-future-tech environment.

      • C0llic says:

        Dishonoured really was incredibly good. This is just one reason why. Fingers crossed for later in the year.

    • April March says:

      There is a point in Bioshock Infinite where whoever was in charge of placing audiologs was like ‘eh, fuck it’ and then you find a log containing the innermost thoughts of Rapture’s most wanted criminal in a rail station bench.

  10. Faxmachinen says:

    The Witness ruined audio logs for me. They were so vapid, irrelevant and long that I couldn’t even pick them up for the sake of completion.

    • Person of Interest says:

      I thought they were well-voiced, and am fond of several quoted writers, so wouldn’t describe them as “vapid”. Also, the pace and environment of The Witness seemed well-suited for audio logs.

      But yes, I never understood how they tied into the game, and some were comically long.

      • OnlyAnAlligator says:

        I don’t think Faxmachinen was calling the content of the quotations, themselves, vapid, just their usage in the game. They were being quoted vapidly.

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    Oakreef says:

    I enjoyed Silent Hill Shattered Memories take on the audiolog/diary pages trope. Like many things in the series it moved them into the main character’s phone. As you wander around you get texts, MMSs, and voicemails on your phone. They’re not actually directed to main character, they’re other people’s conversations and answering machine messages that you somehow end up getting.

    It kind of drops them into this odd place where they have a reason to exist but they don’t actually have an explanation as to why they ended up on your phone. But ghostly phonecalls are a well established trope and it kind of fits with the general technological interference throughout the Silent Hill series (why is there radio static when monsters are nearby? Don’t know but it’s a handy mechanic and sets the tone effectively).

    Just pretend the messages have a persistence in the world because of emotional resonance or something. That or be boring and invoke the ending to explain everything away.

  12. Tacroy says:

    I think it’s telling that Bastion did audio logs so well that you don’t even mention the game in this article, and honestly most people probably don’t even think of them as “audio logs” despite Rucks’ narration serving the exact same purpose.

    • Emeraude says:

      Matter of taste, to me it’s an example of audio log so bad it killed the game.

      When you start shouting “oh shut up, will you” at your screen, something bad happened. Reminds me of the first Legacy of Kain on that front.

    • Richard Cobbett says:

      I liked Bastion’s. Couldn’t stand Transistor’s though.

  13. TheAngriestHobo says:

    I’m reminded of that section in Life is Strange where you’re given the option to delete a message on Chloe’s answering machine. I think that a natural evolution of audio logs (and their equivalents: emails, journals, etc.) would be to use them to communicate information to/between NPCs, as well as to the player. That would open up a whole new metagame of intercepting, modifying, or deleting communications (which could possibly go both ways if the player has allies they need to coordinate with as well).

    VTM:B had something akin to this in one of its quests, which could be resolved by hacking into a doctor’s email account and blackmailing him with the contents. I’d like to see more of that sort of thing… essentially, gaming the information, rather than reducing it to an appendix of unnecessary facts.

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    gritz says:

    So in Fallout 4 we have a fully voiced protagonist. We also have an enormous amount of text in the form of notes scattered around the world in the Bethesda fashion.

    Is it just inevitable that those notes become audio logs read by the protagonist, as a kind of internal monologue?

  15. Gordon Shock says:

    I was first introduced to audio logs in System Shock 2 back in 1999 and I was floored. It told me that video games were stepping into the big arena as it now had a way of telling a story in a unique way that no other medium could duplicate.

    The logs were so well written and so expertly sparse and scattered that whenever I found one I would quickly find a quiet spot to listen to it asap.

    Not only were all the subplots rich and mighty interesting but they collectively made you catch up to the present. Prefontaine’s cold and stoic analysis of the situation, Malik’s acceptance of the Many…for pete’s sake to this day I am still haunted by Korenchkin’s transformation.

    I still believe there is a place for them so long as the stay logs and don’t become, you know, novels (looking at you a whole bunch of games).

  16. merzbau says:

    Speaking of brains, I thought the first Prototype did this quite well. The story was kind of garbage (when it wasn’t busily ripping off Alan Moore) but the way that you could glean cut-up nonlinear nuggets of story in any order by nomming targets of opportunity was very well handled.

    • April March says:

      Prototype is one of many games that managed to stumble into making a bad story look great by accidentally drawing into one of the yet unexplored strenghts of storytelling in games. Though I’ll admit I actually liked the final twist, and will say it was probably the best possible outcome for the super-cliché dude-with-amnesia start.

  17. April March says:

    It’s funny to see you saying text messages have become more common nowadays. They have, but as I see it they’re now losing ground to audio messages from Whatsapp and similar, better messaging apps. Also, this is a transcript from an audio log I made to myself relating this experience and will leave under a bench in a library.

  18. bill says:

    I still like audiologs…