It's Not A Band Aid Solution, It's A Tape Recorder

Metroid Prime got it right.

In Metroid Prime you scan the environment. Every aspect of the architecture has a story to tell. Sporadic notes left behind, cracks in test tubes, broken machinery. Subtle foreshadowing; slow built tension. The information is cold, harsh, clinical. The player was left to make his own interpretations. Imaginations run wild.

It was a masterpiece in narrative. A finely sequined means of delivering narrative, tutorials, providing context. Developers often agonise over methods such as these — how do I deliver necessary information to the player without removing him from the experience. Metroid Prime's solution was a masterstroke, but very specific. It worked for Metroid Prime, it couldn't necessarily be cut and paste into any old game. It worked in tandem with Metroid Prime's suit design, the idea of Samus as investigator, with the care Retro Studios put into immersing the player into her perspective.

Metroid Prime was undoubtedly inspired in part by System Shock 2, but games released after Metroid Prime were most like inspired by Retro Studios and the slick way it integrated information gathering into story. Information gathering as context, as a tension building device. Games like Dead Space, Batman: Arkham Asylum, BioShock, they all followed suit.

Which is all really just a long winded way of saying that I really, really dislike the current trend of using pre-recorded tapes in video games.

You know the kind I mean: tapes, scattered across a game's environment. You pick them up, the tape rolls. Someone, in the midst of a disaster/experiment/war has taken the time to record their explicit thoughts, conveniently giving you information on your mission/sidequest/antagonist. They have left this on a table somewhere, for anyone to find or listen to. They have left it for you, the player, to aid in your agency, to help you complete your quest and save the world/girl/kill some guy. It makes no real sense.

Conversely, the magic of Metroid Prime's system is how much sense it did make . Samus is in the process of investigating, she needs to acquire information in order to perform her duties. Scanning the environment provides context, but it also helps her solve spatial puzzles, it enable her to attack enemies with increased efficiency. It's a system that integrates with other systems. It is perfect.

Tapes are a cheap method of achieving what Metroid Prime's 'scanning' system did in a far more sophisticated way. Even a classic like BioShock, arguably the point where the pre-recorded tape became a thing, suffers from this laziness.

But it starts off well. In BioShock you head to the lair of one Dr Steinman. He is a plastic surgeon gone mad in the pursuit of an abstract type of beauty. He wants to reinvent the human face. He wants to become the Picasso of surgery. In this context it makes perfect sense that a madman like Steinman, a scientist, would make tapes of his ramblings, of his progress. Scientists do this. It also makes sense that he would carelessly leave them scattered throughout the environment.

But does it make sense that Diane McClintock, Andrew Ryan's mistress would randomly leave her recorded words strewn throughout Rapture? Or that she would record her feelings to begin with? Probably not. Why would Sullivan, Andrew Ryan's head of security, leave a tape criticising Ryan's decision to implement the death penalty? This doesn't make sense.

And moments such as this make even less sense it other games, particularly Dead Space, where the characters are in the midst of an attack from human being with limbs where there were no limbs before. Surely to Christ you'd be more concerned with the monsters beating down your door than sitting down with a cup of peppermint tea to make a nice little voice recording of your deepest darkest thoughts.

It's a cheap device clearly designed to add spice and context to a universe, or to further the narrative without resorting to cut-scenes. That's fine. Not ideal, but fine. Yet there are moments where using this device actively affects your gameplay experience. A tape continues as you explore, a splicer/necromorph/zombie/nazi stumbles into your path. You exchange fire, presumably whilst your character is still clutching a five kilogram Solidyne GMS200 to his ear, drinking in the ramblings of some Doctor/unhinged madman. It's silly, it's distracting and it makes absolutely no goddamn sense whatsoever.

Metroid Prime got it so right.

In Metroid Prime the same mechanic used to deliver exposition is also used to help solve puzzles. It's used to provide depth in the environment, to provide context, to provide valuable information. Even in combat it has its uses. Players must traverse the risk/reward tightrope — do you risk scanning the boss in the heat of battle to find his weak spot, or do you randomly fire lasers in his direction and try to survive?

Metroid Prime's attempts to provide additional information to gamers were tightly woven into a brilliantly conceived mechanic that encompassed every single system in an incredibly designed game world. Games like BioShock, Dead Space, Batman: Arkham Asylum, Borderlands 2 et all toss them in as a direct replacement for cut-scenes, without any real thought as to how they affect the systems that make up the game itself.

That is not a solution, it's a band aid. In fact, scratch that — we need a new metaphor. Whenever a designer attempts to use a silly, quick and dirty trope to fix some sort of issue it should no longer be referred to as a 'band-aid solution'. It's a tape recorder.

A tape recorder.


    I don't mind them, but you're right that a lot of games just go 'ok, lets throw some exposition on cassette and call it a day' when they could do so much better. I think part of it is they want a collectable, something physical that can be picked up, and they want to make that item interesting so they add an audio track on it. With a lot of games it's sort of like they want the GTA open-world style "Collect 100 cans" element, but they don't want it to be boring.
    I think BioShock would have worked a lot better if you got the information from random items. Almost like Resident Evil where you walk up to a desk and press X, and maybe you'll see a picture, a newspaper headline, some text or audio. Maybe even had NPCs deliver bits. Although Resident Evil was a bit clunky about it I think BioShock could have made it feel very natural.

    All that said, I don't really find it an atmosphere breaker.

    I definitely agree with you on this.
    I also dislike with great intensity the kind of walk-and-talk exposition that wants you to do something or travel somewhere whilst listening. Assassin's Creed III was the worst offender because they wanted you to walk and talk but they didn't balance the conversation length with the time it takes to reach your destination. So even walking as slow as possible, you'd reach the destination and skip to a cutscene before the walk-and-talk conversation was finished.

      I found this with Sleeping Dogs as well. I found myself driving really slowly any time characters were talking in the car, and sometimes I even had to stop because I'd still reach my destination before they finished, which means you miss out on half of the conversation.

    Totally agree.
    Unless it fits the context of the situation, the Apocalyptic Log is a lazy way of telling a story.

    Using Bioshock as an example, I think that a more interesting way of telling the story could have been using the in-game camera to take photos of things & events & having your voice-over-the-radio guy explain the history of the event / location / person in the picture.

    Also adds an element of exploration to the environments I guess.

    Interesting that you did not include Demon's Souls and Dark Souls as the opposite end of the spectrum. All of the backstory and lore is there, in the game. It's just hidden in item descriptions and the like.

    Also, Arkham Asylum did use tapes but it also gave background information on characters as rewards for finding the Riddler trophies. Arkham City ditched the tapes entirely and had pretty much everything unlock through solving Riddler challenges and by advancing the plot. It's a very good example of a game learning from past mistakes and building on what games like System Shock 2 and Metroid Prime did.

      Arkham Asylum's were a bit better as well -- they made sense in context. Joker's recorded conversations with Harley, for example -- a psychologist might keep recordings of her sessions.

        All of the tapes in Arkham Asylum were patient interview tapes. There were also the History of Arkham glyphs that had to be scanned. Batman is a detective after all, it comes a lot closer to what you describe for Metroid Prime than something like Bioshock.

        It's just that Arkham City improved on that.

    I'd like to see a game where you find people's smart phones, and you have to decipher what happened from their tweets, Facebook statuses and instagram photos.

    "Keep hearing weird noises, @cpt_smithy69 thinks its aliens #yeahright #crazy"

      Doom 3 had something similar with people's tablets lying around.

        I was just about to mention Doom 3. It wasn't critical to the story (except to open lockers) but people's memoirs were a nice touch in that game.

      sooooo basically something from this?

      having watched a few clips for this game, you can scan peoples phoens and get tiny bits of data, ie. twitter feeds, sms, and other little tid bits

    To be honest, some people take games way more seriously than they should.

    I loved both Metroid Prime and Bioshock, a LOT, and I actually found Metroid Prime tapping into my OCD need to do everything annoying.

    The last thing I was thinking in Bioshock was..."Man, why were Irrational games so lazy and put tape recorders in a context they don't fit?"

    Seriously, just enjoy the games man.

      They attempted to explain that in the Bioshock novel: Ryan had given people recorders to record their thoughts to be saved for posterity later, so future generations could know what it was like in the early years of Rapture.

      Still seemed flimsy

    What about Shenmue tape recorder :D


    Weird - I was actually thinking about this last night. I decided to give Dead Space another chance after I heard the first game may have started out as an unlicensed sequel to System Shock 2 (which I now firmly believe) and Mark's article about the Ishimura last week. I'm really enjoying it, but the audio tapes are just ridiculous. Unlikely placement, unlikely subject matter etc.

    Because the game reminds me a lot of Event Horizon, I started to think about how they went through the crews video logs in that film. If I recall correctly, they immediately access the ships database, but its scrambled. One of them sets about recovering data. Eventually one of them cracks it, and they uncover some pretty chilling video.

    There is no reason the recordings couldn't have been presented in the same way - you have other crew members on board the Ishimura. It would have made a lot more sense for one of them to relay you what they've uncovered from the ships console. It would have meant that every recording would be presented to the player rather than uncovered, but I think most people would have appreciated them, especially during the longer lift scenes. It would have made the game more realistic too.

    I had the same problem with Bioshock and Dishonored, although at least the recordings in the latter game were logically placed.

      Whenever I say Dead Space is a lot like Event Horizon people just look at me with a blank expression on their stupid face.

    While I agree with that the tape recorders in Dead Space don't really fit, I think you give BioShock a bit of a hard time. As Rapture was a place for the best and brightest for humanity to live, I can see how the people that chose to live there would be interested enough in their own thoughts to record them. If they're already considering themselves amongst humanity's finest, it stands to reason that they believed their thoughts to be valuable enough to want to pass on to others.

    And stop talking about Metroid Prime. I simply haven't the time to play it again, quit giving me the urge!

    Last edited 20/02/13 1:35 pm

      Here, have an urge, you won't regret it. Urge!

    Personally, I like finding tapes strewn across the world, even if it doesn't make sense for them being there.

    To further expand on that a bit, my favourite times during a story are the before and the after. Before everything goes to hell, before the monsters/aliens/apocalypse whatever happens, and after all that, when you come across the aftermath of what has happened.

    With recordings, I feel I get the best of both worlds. For example, say I walk into a lab room, there's blood smeared on the ground, equipment has been knocked over and something has broken out of a glass tank. This is the after, and it's exciting to come across. Then I pick up a recording and I hear some doctors calmly discussing their lives, talking about the game last night or something, then starting their experiment, I get some insight into what exactly it is they were doing, when suddenly, arrr, the monster is lose. That's the before, and for me, it's equally, or perhaps moreso, exciting as the after.

    Last edited 20/02/13 1:48 pm

      I'll also say, I'm generally not a fan of scan vision in games. Press a button to make the colours on the screen go weird and then move your camera over certain things to "scan" them is just something that's never been fun for me and actually removes me from the game world.

    No, you're absolutely wrong. Or partially wrong.

    Suppose Bioshock didn't have the tapes. How much story exposition and Rapture's backstory would have disappeared? Quite a fucking lot, actually. Is there a better way to explain the backstory of Rapture via some other mechanic? No, I don't think there is. At least, none that don't capture the personal stories of Rapture's inhabitants. Audio logs are a perfectly valid way of retrospective storytelling; it adds richness to an environment that otherwise would be sterile.

      its a lazy method of story telling. and without the right context, its just plain odd.
      sure, the cosmetic surgeon in Bioshock documenting his work & ideas makes sense, but why the hell is a plumber recording his views on pipes freezing up?

      its just so contrived in some circumstances. theres gotta be better ways of telling a story than shoe-horning in ever-increasing bizare reasons why someone would be recording what they're thinking.

      hell, in bioshock, the ghost things couldve expounded more of the story. i mean, at least they were echoes of conversations people had & with that, came a believeable context for that information to be spoken.

      Edit: in the space of 25 mins, I've come up with 2 ways of telling a story that doesnt require tape recorders. so why cant giant game studios do it?

      Last edited 20/02/13 1:51 pm

        Even the plastic surgeon doesn't make that much sense. Why would he document it exclusively on audio tapes? I actually think that line of tapes worked out pretty well because it almost like an audio tour at a museum, but in-character it doesn't quite pan out. It's unrealistic and if you stop and think about it then it won't work, but in the moment it worked. It's lazy and they could do better, but it worked.

        Last edited 20/02/13 2:04 pm

        You have ghosts everywhere and you can question them. Then you have to worry about running into ghosts all the time, and it becomes a damned spooky house game. No.

          missed the point there. keep the ghost guys as they already are in game. not interactive at all. just more of them to explain parts of the story. better than more tape recordings.

    System shock and system shock 2 used this system really well. all the messages were from one person to another or a group of others, or occasionally a diary. ALso their locations made sense.

    I felt they worked in dead space aswell. They were placed where you would expect them mostly, and they fit with the level of technology in the society. its not about stopping in the middle of being attacked to leave your thoughts on ponies; its as simple as someone under attack hitting a button on their rig which starts recording so as maybe to help.some other poor soul who might find it.
    Also on deadspace Isaacs equipment for audio playback is in his suit. he doesn't need to stop to listen to it.

    Original Comment
    @markserrels, I honestly feel that you've not quite thought this through to completion. Or perhaps the way you've worded your thoughts misrepresents you. Not every developer is a Hideo Kojima and willing/able to deliver hours of conversation/cutscene. I know how much you like MGS4, but do you really want to be performing piecemeal installs for every game?

    It's hard to slight Metriod Prime. It really is a fantasic game, but the way in which exploration is punctuated with its deliberate stop-scan-read-move rhythm definitely bogs the game down.

    I appreciate that it's your point of view; I can't help but feel that disparaging audio logs is just objectively wrong, but that's how opinions work, right?

    Having read the comments made in the time I typed this up, and giving the article a second reading, I think I definitely missed the point you were trying to make. I'm going to leave my original thoughts intact.

    It seems that really the issue is in the presentation of "tape cassettes" rather than their actual existence. There's really no difference between playing back an "audio log" that you found tucked into the suit pocket of the corpse you just stepped over, scanning a computer terminal for local files or reading the history attached the the shield you just uncovered. So I think the same arguement being used against audio logs can be used against players characters intuitively "knowing" the lore of the latest treasure they found, or that Samus is described as a Bounty Hunter, and not a scientist/detective/historian (hte suit is like some hybrid Chekov's Gun/Deus Ex Machina).

    I know that I find the exposition in RPG's endurable at the best of times. It's usually in the form of allowing each act's villain to have their moment to gloat. So perhaps the argument is that developers need to get better at info-dumping.

      I think the slow, investigative pacing of the Metroid Prime games are one of their strong points though.

    Borderlands 2 incorporates this pretty well too. Butt-stallion says "hi".

    Last edited 20/02/13 2:20 pm

    Even in combat it has its uses. Players must traverse the risk/reward tightrope — do you risk scanning the boss in the heat of battle to find his weak spot, or do you randomly fire lasers in his direction and try to survive?

    You often don't have a choice weather to scan a boss or not in Metroid Prime though. In many cases, the boss's weak point can't actually be targetted and locked-on to without scanning him first. So you can be firing lasers at him all day (even directly at his weak spots) and be doing no damage until you scan him.

    It's also kind of weird that while the boss/enemies keep moving and attacking during the scan, everything pauses in the background once the scan completes, allowing you to read the information in peace. While I understand the gameplay reasons for doing this (trying to read vital information while being pulverised by a giant rock man wouldn't be very fun), it does seem kind of weird when you think about it that the boss would just stop and wait there patiently for you to finish reading information on how to kill it before resuming their attacks.

    Last edited 20/02/13 2:28 pm

      It's cos the real Samus is a speed reader and the only way to convey this was by pausing the game :p

      I took it more to be a neural interface kind of thing. She doesn't actually "read" the information, it's just kind of beamed straight into her mind. It just appears to us as though everything stops while we read it, because that's the closest representation a videogame can deliver :P

    I dont stop to listen or read these sorts of things anymore.

    I tell you what I did enjoy though, those short stories that you would discover in Lost Odyssey. It fit in with the idea that the protagonist had lost his memory and was slowly remembering stuff. But the real reason I enjoyed them was because they were so well written. I felt all sorts of emotions reading them.

    I think it can be said that the quality of the writing could be improved for this sort of thing as well.

    Metroid Prime got it right.

    End of article.

    ZombiU has tapes BUT the problem is they only play in the vicinity of the actual player. The sound lowers when you move away. I disliked it but I suppose others might like it. Oh well... Great game anyway.

      Were they tapes? I only remember them being letters between people, which were then read out in the person's voice instead of you having to stop to read.

    Metroid Prime's scanning was ALMOST perfect - the one flaw was that you were able to track the percentage of how much you had left to scan, essentially making scans collectables.

    With an OCD to collect EVERYTHING at 100%, this indeed bogged down gameplay for me.
    And It's excrutiating knowing that I WILL spend hours traversing empty lands just searching for that one computer terminal or that one f**cking plant that I forgot to scan just so I can obtain everything.

    That said though, at least you were able to SCAN for them. Just having tape recorders as part of the scenery, hidden in plain sight, would be a nightmare for me.

    Crackdown 2 of all games, had hidden recordings!

    Also in Alan Wake takes the collectible story idea to a new extreme with Manuscript pages, radios and Televisions all doling out crucial plot points

      Was just about to mention Alan Wake.

      The manuscript pages made sense in terms of the story, and were placed in such a way that it made elements of the story more suspenseful. Was very spooky at times.

        Yeah I really liked how the manuscript told you the future, the radio shows gave you a background on the town and the TV shows were just frakking weird!

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