A lot of concessions are already made for stories. There’s an entire plot device, after all, that does little else but give a name to random events kicking off subsequent action. Characters often act in extravagant or over-the-top ways so as to manufacture drama that can later be resolved in (hopefully) some meaningful way. And that’s not to mention we all experience these things in a largely default state of assuming the good guys always win, which is far from the truth of real life. When was the last time you saw a big ol’ headliner film that ended with the world blowing up and the terrorists/aliens/d-bags won?
In video games, we give up even more in the way of reality. Detachments from our tangible world become our norm and yet we cling to what’s left so as to make sense of these digital realms. For all its militaristic verisimilitude, what, exactly, is the strawberry jam covering our faces in Call of Duty supposed to be? If it’s blood, then are we to believe that when it clears up, we simply stuffed it all back into us and we’re all better now? If it’s really fruit preserves, then how are we losing to enemies that only use jelly-based munitions?
That, however, is the soup du jour of video game concessions. Or at least it was for the longest time. Before, you had to give up whatever fondness you had for accurate medical science when bullet wounds could be healed in a matter of seconds by picking up a little box with a Red Cross symbol on it. But that was just the tip of the iceberg: an endless amount of ammo magazines await you, you got a PhD in Visualizing Grenade Trajectories, and dead bodies fade into the ether.
Those are all concessions we regularly agree to and happily endure when playing most video games. A recent article by Kirk Hamilton over at Kotaku, though, made me think of the more personable, non-mechanical ones that we similarly and joyfully play through. In that piece, Hamilton talks about a bevy of games that both succeed and fail at making compelling in-game graffiti. He tears down Tomb Raider‘s admittedly poor decision to recycle and then needlessly highlight its dire survivor graffiti and then points out that even larger, more critically well-received games like The Last of Us fall victim to nonsensical wall art.
That all is in service of an overarching trend, though, called environmental storytelling. Or I guess it’s not a trend and more just a fact of narrative-driven games now since it is a very potent technique and technology is capable of rendering such things. One of my first experiences with the narrative tactic was in System Shock 2, a game that Hamilton also points to being one of the first aboard the graffiti train. But I specifically remember walking down a curving hallway—lights flickering—with a blood stain smeared across the wall next to me. That alone told a frightening story. It was, however, old-hat then in films and old-hat now in games, but it still does the trick.
One of the points Hamilton makes, though, is rather poignant and salient to my original conceit: most in-game graffiti makes no sense. What’s the purpose of writing “what happens when the food runs out” just outside of a city? Do the members of a fire-loving cult really need a spray painted reminder to “embrace the flame”?
It seems, however, that beyond the graffiti-covered zeitgeist, the bigger trend is for environmental storytelling to depart further and further from a staunch veracity and go deeper into irrationally suspended disbelief. Consider all a hallmark of the BioShock series: audio logs. A great deal of them both in Rapture and in Columbia (much more, it seems, up in the sky) contain the last words of dying men and women. Whether holding the front to some firefight, bleeding out from a sneak attack, or simply fading away with the flowing sand, they leave their mark on the world in a touching way. They’ve got family and friends untended to, they’ve got stories with unhappy endings. They all paint an appropriately grim and dark picture in these flawed and fallen utopias.
That is, of course, until you remember that they had to have been carrying these large audio recorders to do that. These big ol’ boxes of arcane technology seem to be both single purpose and single use, only being able to record a single message from a dying man before they’re tossed aside onto a shelf or behind a box or next to a pool of blood and loot. They look to be roughly the size and shape of a Ghostbusters proton pack, so think about someone lying on their side, their own blood slowly but surely running out of them, and they unhitch this behemoth from their back, rewind the tape, and press record to leave a message so perhaps someone other than a Splicer or nutso religious fanatic finds it. It is, without a doubt, absurd.
But this is the recent conclusion to years of experimenting with environmental storytelling, and it amounts to little more than overt narration, the laziest method of relating information to the viewer/player. It’s a handy relabeling to dodge the tired bullet of narration, similar to how The Office and Parks and Recreation fake documentary-style talking head segments to do the same thing.
Dead Space, Dishonored, Borderlands, Spec Ops: The Line, Deus Ex: Human Revolution, Singularity, and so many more all fall victim to audio logs, and none of them make much more sense than BioShock. Giant Bomb’s concept page for audio logs lists 76 games, a density distribution curve with respect to time looking an awful lot like an exponential growth function. It is a growing trend and a rather subtle subversion of reality, but it is still a disconnect from what we know to be true.
That’s not to say, however, that it needs to be fixed for that particular reason. Breaking from the known and jumping headfirst into the unknown is perhaps the greatest strength of video games. Intuitive understanding—seeing that blood smeared across the wall—sticks around a lot harder than discrete understanding because we make the connections subconsciously, which then bubbles up to the forefront of our minds. It covers all bases of understanding and learning while reading and listening must be digested and extruded in reverse.
These audio logs fall into that undesirable latter, and when they begin to fail to make sense, they detach from our curiosity of the world we’re in and crumple into a pile of questions about the framework of the game. From improbably handy information to impossibly well-timed death rattles, those are concessions we shouldn’t have to make when we’re learning about our environment. We should be asking ourselves “what happened” instead of “how did this get here” but that’s far too often what we end up with.