About the Use of Audio Logs in Video Games

I personally like audio logs as a storytelling medium. You can stay in the action while you listen to it, rather than having to pause the game and read text. Audio logs also don’t take control away from the player, like a cutscene does. And they are cheaper to produce than fancy cutscenes with animations, art and explosions. As well, with audio logs there are no excuses for not having more female characters; with cutscenes there are always pathetic excuses like extra animations, but an audio log is voice only. However, games fail at even this, so obviously it is not a just matter of cost. Audio logs can be used well, or badly or turn out to just sound hilarious in hindsight. I would like to focus on three similar “horror” games in particular, all of which use audio logs for the same reasons but to different effects.

An audio log in System Shock 2, with a visible CD.

First off: System Shock 2. System Shock 2 had great audio logs. They made sense. People were recording memos for themselves or sending messages to each other. They told a story of people trying to survive on a space ship in the middle of nowhere while everything was turning into a nightmare. You got to know several of the characters through their audio logs over the course of the game, if not by name, then by voice. Even the placement of the audio logs sometimes told a story. For example, one of the many mutated enemies that you fight is revealed to have been carrying one. The woman recording it is clearly undergoing some kind of transformation and attempting to document it. She ends with “If someone finds this, don’t have any regrets about punching my clock. I was already gone.” The implication is clear, and that message sent chills down my spine when I found it.

An audio log sitting on a shelf in Dead Space.

Secondly, let’s look at Dead Space. I feel that Dead Space tried to emulate System Shock in many ways, particularity with the audio logs. You’re on a ship in the middle of nowhere with a bunch of mutated/mutating people. You (this time playing the role of an engineer rather than a nameless soldier) also show up late to the story. As in System Shock 2, much of what happened on the ship is told through audio logs and the player also gets hints and door codes through the logs. But here the audio logs don’t feel quite as natural. I was often wondering “Whhhhyyyy are you recording this???” Like the audio log of two men listening to a third having a strange fit and pulling his own teeth out. (Great time to start recording! I don’t know, maybe try to stop him from hurting himself instead of turning on your audio recorder?) Or the guy recording himself shooting off his own limbs. (It starts out reasonable enough, recording a goodbye message for his family, but why would you then make them listen to you screaming in pain as you dismember yourself??) Or when someone decided to record a man taking another hostage. It just made no sense. Unless everyone was wearing microphones at all times (and then I would expect an abundance of bland conversations to be found), the audio logs just sounded silly and forced, once you started thinking about them. I think this is an example of when audio logs go bad. Not all stories can be told through audio logs, and telling a story only through audio logs can be hard, especially when a developer has a very specific story to tell.

The device sitting on a crate with the red screen in the top left is a PDA, which may contain audio logs, as well as e-mails and access codes.

Finally, there was Doom 3. Doom 3 moved away from its run-and-gun roots and accentuated the horror more. With many faulty lights and demons hiding in closets. Audio logs in this game generally made sense. People used them to file accident reports, complaints and records of creepy things that kept happening. They also helpfully recorded door codes for their co-workers (and you). However, unlike System Shock 2 and Dead Space this game liked to, if not break the fourth wall, at least lean heavily on it. People in the audio logs are constantly questioning the tropes within the game itself, such as the almost comically unsafe working conditions and how perhaps having guns and ammo just lying around haphazardly isn’t the best idea. I personally enjoyed this (how serious can you be when you’re playing a marine, on Mars, killing demons from hell with a magic cube?).

To bring this back to the subject of women in audio logs, unlike System Shock 2 (which features a number of women, in many high profile positions) both Dead Space and Doom 3 have very few female characters. In fact, Doom 3 has exactly one woman on the entire Mars base. This is annoying and makes no sense. There is no in-story reason given in either game. In Doom 3 there is more written about why there are chainsaws on Mars than there is about why there are not more women. Not that I think there’s any story reason that I would be satisfied with. Both of these games are set in the future, where I would like to imagine there is less disparity between the genders in the workplace, not more.

There really aren’t any terrible excuses to fall back on when all of your characters are introduced and live only in audio logs. There is no “women are too hard to animate” or “women would require extra modelling and animation work.” The only trace of the character is their audio logs. The only way the player can interact with that character is through their audio log. If you are already hiring voice actors, why not hire some women as well? Even if, by some strange contrivance, you have only have the budget to hire one amazing male voice actor that does every voice in the game, you could probably hire two slightly less amazing voice actors for the same money. Or just hire Jennifer Hale. She could probably do all the voices a game developer could ever need.

  • AndyB
  • Andy B has an Anthropology-Computing background and as such, is accustomed to bridging the gap between social issues and technology.