If You’re Reading This Then I am Already Dead

In Video Games on April 24, 2012 at 4:46 pm

Though audio logs have become a popular tool for filling the player in regarding setting and backstory (however didactically), this wasn’t always the case. Broadly speaking, the current generation saw this idea reintroduced through Doom 3 but popularized to near ubiquity through Bioshock, where now players can easily expect any reasonably tense game to possess them, though its inclusion has branched out to games that occur during or after major destructive events. Even Army of Two: The 40th Day had these as a collectible, though they did little to ameliorate the game’s nonsensical plot.

Back in the day, though, a little game called System Shock used these not to just tell you about the backstory, but to reinforce the actual moment the game takes place — an altogether more difficult trick to pull off.

Should be noted, I suppose, that I’m mainly talking about System Shock 2.

The difference can seem like splitting hairs, especially since Bioshock and System Shock are ostensibly very similar games, and their deployment of these logs is also similar. In both games you tend to find logs that showcase some inhumane tendency of its subject, just as you will also follow a trail of logs to either a corpse or enemy encounter, prying the final, often ironic log from their dead hands.

Popular log topics seem to be unethical doctors leaving clumsy paper trails regarding their casual disregard of oath and patient, scientists boldly reaching beyond the ken of mortal men while showing those fools back at the academy, and wisps of hope dashed by the cruel realities of living in a tiny box filled with cruel dystopian murderers.

I’m not even kidding. All of those show up in both games. I even think all of those show up in most games that have audio logs in them. But it’s clear that it’s not the topic or even really the specific contents of these logs that dictates the efficacy of their deployment, but rather, their implementation and the overall game.

Perhaps it was the graphics at the time, perhaps it was the intent to mar a clean future with its grim plot, but System Shock‘s corridors always seemed very sterile to me. Here was this space ship that brightly and boldly carried mankind to the stars — a much more reasonable venture than Bioshock’s Rapture. We’ve seen science fiction shows on ships before. We know the hallways have plenty of people in them, technicians doddering about in exposed panels, things like that.

But for the first couple of minutes, System Shock offered you a lifeless environment on top of sterile corridors. The first creature you encounter is only somewhat human, begging for death in its many voices. Sure, you had an ally in some comm traffic from Ms Polito, some many decks away, but where were the people? Even enemy encounters were sparse.

So then you found a log. It was a person, talking. Not to you of course, but they were discussing the irritation at having to change codes, the dislike of meeting up with people, the grind of the day and so on.

But this was literally your only real semi-frequent interaction with someone on that dull, lifeless grey and metal ship. You almost hoped they’d be okay, since this was before it was such a foregone conclusion that you obviously wouldn’t be meeting anyone alive on the ship.

The emotion and vitality of these logs played stark contrast to the “feedback” you’d get from your psi rig: ghosts. At more than a few points, a ghostly, whitewashed apparition would pop up and make a few movements, speaking in a dull, monotone and mildly echoing voice. Sometimes the moments were tense — shipmates turning on each other or shying away from unseen attackers — but other times they were wondering aloud why a door wouldn’t open, and suddenly the corpse curled up behind a few crates a room or two back made more sense.

System Shock truly isolated the player and offered logs as a window into a world scarcely different from the one you experience, a frightful world where people are alive and dying and running and screaming. The aesthetics and the corridors and the wrongness of the creatures you encounter sever your connection to that world fully, leaving you isolated and tense. This heightens the emotion of the logs, putting you on edge. It was a loss of something you’d never stood to gain, and somehow more tragic for it.

Bioshock‘s setting doesn’t help the logs as much. You’re picking up big tape decks somehow, and you’re fighting what for the longest time I just assumed were very hostile, very violent people. Near the end of the game you find out more about that, but there are actually people everywhere. Just not people you’re interested in talking to.

The logs here paint a very, very distopian picture, one that’s almost beyond belief. But the halls seem very lived in, very personalized, very full of the character of the period meshed with the aesthetics of displaced American objectivism. The scenes were actually eerily similar to other locations: you find what amounts to a detective’s office that has a desk and glass of whiskey and those old sorts of filing cabinets. The chair is still warm, the cigar still smoking. Bioshock paints a picture of a world you just missed, where two steps faster and you’d be having a reasonable conversation with someone.

So the logs seem insincere somehow pushing you to react. Like a funhouse ride.

Remarkably, outside of this “genre” Halo: ODST got this right. You wander the streets of the darkened nighttime city of New Mombasa as the unnamed rookie, having missed most of the action due to blacking out. What’s left are a few token Covenant patrols, crashed cars, emergency evacuation messages and a few logs about people desperately trying to escape and stay alive despite each other. Given the slow pacing, moody music and sheer unexpected isolation for what’s usually a fast-paced series littered with NPC “buddies”, the combination is very effective at producing anguished frustration at not having the opportunity to do more.

This is just a note of difference, a deft touch that few even suspect the existence of, to say little of its absence. Like never knowing how well a full bodied wine enhances a steak. Steak is still good — so is wine — and as we see it, we enjoy apocalyptic romps through dystopian settings, and we enjoy learning more about how we got there, but just imagine the synergy in the setting and the set pieces reinforcing the emotions you’re already feeling.

If you’re feeling a slight sense of loss right now, that’s a good place to start.


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