You know what I love? Finding journals scattered around a game’s world that reveal fragments of a story and help me better understand that world and its inhabitants. These days, such journals are most commonly audiotapes of some kind, but they can also be written material like emails or newspaper clippings. When implemented properly, I don’t just feel like I’m exploring a physical space as I move through it, but I also feel like I am discovering a lived-in place as I come to understand the relationships of the people that live — or used to live — there.
Environmental storytelling is an excellent thing. Many games (from Half-Life to System Shock 2, from Morrowind to Dear Esther) embed some or most of their stories in their world, waiting for the player to stumble across it rather than stopping the player and forcing them to sit and listen to a chunk of story between each level. It can allow for a really organic unfurling of the story for the player where it can feel like you are discovering the story as you move across the world. It feels like the story is just what is going on around you, something you are experiencing and observing now, in the present tense.
The difficulty or weakness of such an approach to storytelling, though, is that it can prevent the game from being able to tell something specific to the player. The Half-Life games, trying to avoid exposition as they do, have incredibly vague stories. It’s clear that there is something concrete going on in this world that the developers have clearly thought about, but we as players only ever get to skim the surface. With the games’ reluctance to just sit us down and tell us what is happening, we can never really get to the core of it. This works for Half-Life; to be sure, one of the biggest attraction of the series is its ambiguity; but not every game wants to do that. Some want the player to be able to really get to know their world even while they want to stand back and not explicitly tell you anything.
This is where piecemeal bits-of-story scattered around the world in journals of one kind or another are useful. Just like our real world, most videogame worlds are covered in a veneer of information, and journals allow us to explore that different layer of an environment, the web of communication between citizens that can not only tell us something specific about a person, but hint at broader cultural or political aspects.
When I’m in a totally foreign virtual world — be it somewhere fantastical like Dishonored’s Dunwall or somewhere uncannily familiar like the near-future of Deus Ex — I love rummaging through emails or newspapers, slowly piecing together my understanding of that world. It feels like an extension of what I am already doing in these games as I move around an environment, figuring out how to use it to my advantage and how to better fit into it. The piecemeal stories available as various types of journals helps me to understand the context of that broader world deeper and more intimately.
But context is key. If journals are to make a world feel more real, more believable to the player, then I have to be convinced that the journal should have been where I found it. Otherwise, it can just feel like a gamey info-dump in itself. Audio-diaries are one example of this that bothers a lot of people. It’s implausible that all these people of Bioshock’s Rapture just left their most personal thoughts, confessions, and passwords recorded on audiotapes scattered around the city. The ones that are written as messages to someone, addressing some assumed listener make sense. They feel like leftover remnants of a lost civilisation that I’m now prying through. But the ones addressing nobody, the ones just conveniently lying there for the player, are nothing more than just pre-recorded exposition machines, doing exactly what environmental storytelling tries to avoid.
Which is why, often, I find myself more attached to those journals that are written, not spoken. Reading newspapers in Dishonored or emails in Deus Ex. The idea of these fragments being left lying around their worlds is something that is far easier to believe than an audiotape. I remember especially enjoying running around the UNESCO offices on Liberty Island in Deus Ex, following email chains from one computer to the next, seeing each person’s replies to the original email sent out to a broader group. These bits of data felt embedded in the world, not just sitting atop it. I could trace threads through them that made the world feel alive and deep and rich.
But on the other hand, reading can be jarring, forcing the player to pause the world every few minutes to read a business report or a diary entry. In a faster-paced shooter like Bioshock, the audiotapes probably make far more sense for the game’s tone than stopping to read a newspaper page every five steps, as they don’t interrupt the pacing. For slower, more considered games like Dishonored, you are already meant to be taking your time, carefully considering your every move, so stopping to read a newspaper to better understand your surroundings feels more appropriate. And then other games exploit this in another way: I’m currently playing System Shock 2 for the first time. While most of the information is still in audiotapes, occasionally I pick up something that requires me to read it. The thing is, the game doesn’t pause while I am reading, so I have to bunker down in a dark corner and read it quickly while mutated monsters are breathing and muttering just around the corner. It not only lets me understand this world in an organic way, it also adds to the atmospheric horror System Shock 2 is going for.
So ultimately it’s all about context. Journals can give a world context for a player, but they also have to be contextualised within that world. Each type of journal has to fit the world and the context it is placed in. If it doesn’t, it can feel like the very exposition that environmental storytelling is trying to avoid. But it also has to fit the tone and the pace of the game. It’s a tricky balance, but if done properly, it enriches the world even more for the player. Not just through what it tells about the world, but its very existence in the world can make that world feel more believable and present.
And that’s why I love journals. As I move through a game with a heavy focus on environmental storytelling, I come to understand that world as a physical space. As I read the bits of information convincingly scattered through that world, I get a sense of the invisible networks of communication and culture that makes that physical space an actual, lived-in place.