At some point, it was decided that every modern video game needed to include additional story in the form of collectables. As we wander the world, we come across audio and/or text files. We can pause our gameplay to open up the parchment or ‘press play’, at which point we are told a little bit more about the world or given more flesh for the bones of the story.
Sometimes, it’s implemented well. Other times, the extra information is dull or unnecessary. Far too often, the added collectable stories feel forced, as if the developers felt obligated to include such things – All the other games are doing it.
My favourite game is Shadow of the Colossus. Now, I’m one of those people that has a hard time picking a favourite anything, but SOTC has always been a standout game for me for several reasons. One of those reasons is the sheer amount that the game shows you without uttering a word. The entire script could fit on a double-sided sheet of paper, only scratching the surface of world lore. Forgotten ruins merely suggest a civilisation in this ‘forbidden realm’, the earthy moss caked onto each colossi alludes to their lonely isolation, the protagonists steady corruption is told only through the subtle changes to his complexion. The story is extremely minimal, but it’s enough.
There’s a reason why so many games attach additional notes: it has been done very well in the past. Audio recordings in Bioshock added sinister back stories to the ruined landscape of Rapture. The projected ‘vantage point’ holograms in Horizon Zero Dawn offered you a glimpse into the world as it was. Scraps of paper showed up in Last of Us hinting at tragedies, recent and long past, that reinforce the depressing nature of a broken world.
I remember an early criticism of Destiny was that it was light on story. A strange criticism, given that most people join a game like Destiny to shoot other players in an colourful, explosive, repetitive loop. Yet the response was even stranger: there’s lots of story for the game… it’s just not in the game. There’s a library of written content for the game on the official website, but completely separate from the game.
If it’s completely detached from the gaming experience, is it actually part of the game? At that point, why not just create a book or magazine separate from the game? Why even have these details? Most people will just play the game without hunting for extra law. If it is not worth going into the game, why not leave the gaps in knowledge to the imagination?
The need for modern games to tack on information is especially telling in open world games. The Fallout series features such large worlds that reward the explorer, so additional reading feels warranted. In other sand box games, text logs feel forced, or as if the creators couldn’t think of a more crafty, visual tactic to make the world a little deeper.
These collectables can be a pain sometimes. Some are inventory fillers, totally useless once found. Others are compiled into menus in the pause menu, easily forgotten and rarely looked at again.
Should games pull back on how much they tell us? If the game doesn’t need the additional story, should it be left out? What are the best ways to ‘show’, without ‘telling’ that you’ve seen? Do you actually enjoy sifting through hundreds of text files in order to learn more about the game world?