When we talk about our favorite videogame experiences, we often fall back to techniques used by our ancestors when they talked about their favorite things. They would talk excitedly. Gesticulate. Embellish a little. Ramp up the drama. Save the punchline for last. They would become storytellers, and today, so do we.
Media -- and certainly videogames -- is all about storytelling. Implicit or implied, literal or metaphoric, there’s always a journey and an experience to be had -- a beginning and an end.
Or, in the case of some unfortunate franchises, a beginning and a slow spiral to a sad and largely unseen death.
Game developers have certainly gotten better at telling stories, at the very least. Bioshock Infinite released earlier this year in an explosion of outrageously positive reviews that showered praise upon, among other things, its deep and intelligent story.
We’re not going to debate the validity of those claims today -- I enjoyed Bioshock Infinite! What I want to discuss, however, is the way Infinite told multiple layers of that story, and how it hearkens back to a game that pioneered several storytelling techniques in videogames.
I’ll start you off with four words. “Look. At. You. Hacker.”
System Shock starred you as the hacker -- a pathetic creature of meat and bone struggling to survive and escape a space station taken over by a rogue AI. The game was released by Looking Glass Studios in 1994, during the dawn of what was arguably the golden age for computer games. System Shock was the next step up in refinement and design after the two Ultima Underworld games, which were smoothly animated first person RPGs that featured dialogue systems and inventories and spellcasting back when Wolfenstein 3D was starting to get big among shooter fans.
System Shock had no dialogue system to speak of, though; the story behind this is that the team wanted to have believable characters populating Citadel Station, but that the technology they had to work with at the time was insufficient to portray living, breathing people on a space station. Not wanting to break the atmosphere, the developers came up with a simple and brilliant solution: kill everyone on board.
In a video game, corpses are way more convincing than characters who are supposed to be alive.
This decision led to the development of the logs: instead of going down to Engineering and talking up the chief engineer to figure out how to restore some of the station’s systems, the player was now required to go down to Engineering and investigate the work logs left behind by the chief engineer. Y’know, because he’s dead and hopefully he was dutiful enough to record his thoughts on his daily work log. Or at least in his private nighttime audio diary. The logs held the clues that allowed the player to progress in the game.
The logs also allowed the writers to tell several other stories that ran parallel to the game. Each level was populated by the logs of several characters who would most likely be there -- the doctors’ logs were on medical, the people in charge of cargo had logs on the flight deck, and so on. If you looked hard enough and you’re able to gather enough logs, you can piece together the story of how things unfolded right before you arrived. Usually it’s not required to progress through the game, but these logs serve the same purpose as dialogue did in older computer RPGs: they populated the game world with a myriad of interesting characters who provided flavor and set the scene.
In a nice touch, the logs also continue to play even after the inventory has been closed, which means the player can continue to explore the station while listening to the final thoughts of its former occupants. This sometimes makes for some creepy moments when you run into a fight while listening to a character’s dying words.
It may seem commonplace now, but this was clever and quite mind-blowing back in the day. Other games followed suit: the log technique persists in other horror sci-fi games like Doom 3 and Dead Space, and of course, it lived on in Bioshock, the spiritual successor of the System Shock series.
System Shock 2 took the ideas of the original and made them even better. Scenes from the past actually played out before the player’s eyes as ghostly apparitions, which were explained in-game as psychic residue being picked up by the player character’s military grade cyber rig. This became yet another storytelling tool as you witnessed the crew’s descent into infighting and madness. Again, the ghost technique lived on in Bioshock, although “memories passed on through genetic sampling” was not so satisfying an explanation, reeking just a teeny bit of Assassin's Creed's Animus.
Disappointingly, these clever methods of telling stories are diminishing as technology catches up to the visions of game developers. There are still some intriguing parallel plots to be picked up on in Bioshock Infinite, but most of the plot and flavor is now delivered directly on-screen as cutscenes and in-game spectacle. It’s like the difference between reading about something and getting the same information injected directly into your eyeball with a syringe. Games like Tomb Raider and The Last of Us tell bits and snippets of smaller stories in the logs and notes that you come across, but you’re never left wondering about anything that happened that directly relates to you as the main character. There’s a sense of mystery and active thinking and piecing together that has been lost, and I miss it.
More than any other game before it, System Shock let me experience a well-written story at my own pace, and let me put things together and fill in the gaps with my own reasoning and imagination. Maybe I’m looking at the wrong genres in games today, but I hope this kind of storytelling challenge will still live on somewhere.
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