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.