"Audio logs", said a game designer, eliciting a chorus of involuntary groans from absolutely everyone. They're clumsy, they're silly, and they're usually badly done, to the point where it's tempting to insist that they be consigned to history altogether.
That would probably be overkill.
System Shock 2 benefited from being one of the first games to use audio logs. After two decades of games using them, I imagine new players may be less impressed. It's that thing where Mad Max 2 seems boring and obvious because it's been copied so much since, or Cracker comes across like another gritty 2000s anti-hero detective despite predating them by a decade, or people who insist that Nirvana are worth bothering about today (I will fight you all). But I maintain that even the most wearying, hackneyed uses of audio logs, those mouthbleating story breadcrumbs, haven't diminished what Looking Glass did 20 years ago.
There are some standard tutorial ones, but many are purely for flavour, and others combine both. It's the brevity of the characterisation that does it. The personality condensed into a mere handful of logs is incredible. They're short, simple, and full of distinct people.
Siddons and Suarez, the sickening power couple of low-rank nobodies who fight their separate ways to find each other and escape. Prefontaine, the audibly terrified biologist who clings to his diary, recording his observations to distract from the appalling death he knows is coming. Melanie Bronson, the uncompromising security chief who guns down the heroes because she can't tell whose side they're on. She would be a hateful villain in a lesser story, but she can only go on what she knows, and realises too late that "this is bigger than my life and the lives of my men".
Some audio logs serve no purpose but to tell you who everyone is, and what their part was in the incident. While engineers fret about safety hazards and corner-cutting, and officers jostle for political influence, others are just bored at work. It's a big ship. Most characters never meet, would never expect to meet, even after months on board. One of the engineers doesn't even know the captain's name. I can relate, I've worked for several councils. It's done with a light touch for such an early work, with no cut scenes, and a precious couple of scripted moments where you come tantalisingly close to meeting some of them. They allow us to fill in the gaps. And some are genuinely chilling - that one with Korenchkin beatifically calling himself "a voice in their choir" while disemboweling a man with a shotgun comes to mind. Brrr.
Tragedy runs through every entry, but it's tragedy on a personal level. It transforms Stalin's statistic of countless deaths to a dozen stories of brave resistance, shameful self-reproach, chaos and horror. One of my biggest impossible dream projects is a TV series about the people on the two conjoined ships during and leading up to the invasion.
The logs are also, of course, where we get to know the real hero of System Shock 2, the greatest hero in any game (remember when people voted Gordon "Nothing Inside" Freeman as the best game character? Christ, the 2000s were a wasteland). No, the real best hero, and my hidden agenda for writing this, is Dr. Marie Delacroix.
Delacroix invented the reality-altering drive that kicks off the game's plot. As chief engineer, she fought crooked corporate and military bosses to ensure the safety of the crew. "Why is it that no one listens to me?" she laments, in a voice that any talented administrator in a horribly managed bureaucracy knows all too well. She organises a guerrilla army to reclaim the ship, fighting the Many right up until the final act of the game. She sets up a computing trick to defeat SHODAN (who at this point is on the precipice of godhood) after her own death, and she's a warm and sincere friend. When you find her she has little but a handgun, contrasted to your years-long, interplanetary military training and illegal cybernetic enhancements designed by a creature that later threatens to rewrite reality itself. She's mentioned and respected more by other characters than anyone else, even the CEO and Captain.
Delacroix is one of my favourite ever characters, and we only see a glimpse of her thanks to audio logs. Once in a while I even get the urge to listen to some of them again, which is wonderfully easy thanks to the work of a number of fans over at systemshock.org.