SPREAD DIARY ENTRIES - CLICHÉS TO HATE #1

Introduction to a new series focused on avoiding overused storytelling clichés.

Introduction

I love good storytelling and I love when an idea catches me completely off guard and creates a deep, emotional response. But because of this passion, I find most of the stories, especially in video games, repetitive and boring, not just “inspired” by great art, but rather lazily pushed forward by deadlines, limited to overused clichés in assumption that “if it worked before, it’s going to work for the 500th time, right”?

In this series I’m going to share some of my thoughts on story clichés that I don’t want to experience anymore. I know they won’t disappear from AAA industry, but maybe some of the indie storytellers are going to use different, more creative (and less dumbed down) approach?

And now...

Clichés To Hate:
Spread Diary Entries

Common in: RPGs, horror games, adventure games.

Description: You are exploring an isolated area while the majority of its background story is thrown at you through spread diary entries which reveal what went wrong in the past and why is this place so mysterious. They do so only one step at a time and you need to find some number of them to get to the full picture.

Most of the time the story is a rather simple excuse – a player enters a where in various spots he or she can find which are always only couple of sentences long, about one paragraph each. They start rather vague – some of them may mention some personal details from deceased author’s life (oh, is that a spoiler?) to give them more relatable shape. Entries will openly tell you that . All of the consecutive Diary Entries are going to reveal more details, foreshadowing the incoming danger or explaining the way to defeat it (most likely in a phrase like “it is our only chance, but Maybe Someone Is Going To Read This...).

Why it is useful: The majority of video games try to intertwine plot and gameplay and dose them separately – not because the plot they have is worth being told, but because they want to introduce some variety and give a reason to care about the basic dungeon crawling or puzzles the game really is focused on. An initial plot exposition could be boring, and trying to tell the story by the gameplay and graphical design may be too expensive or difficult (especially in an epic RPG story which has to use area templates). The Power of Convenience made this cliché very popular, even though it mostly gets ridiculous from the setting’s perspective.

The problem: Actually this tool was so convenient it was present almost everywhere (thanks, Bioware) and it started to raise questions really fast. Questions like: why did this scientist have an access to every single computer on the station or wanted to post his private info on ever flash drive available? Why did this rogue wrote her diary in such a precise and open way, sharing all her personal information – was she writing a novel? Why didn’t this employee just use one tape to record everything he had to say, but instead was spreading his garbage everywhere around?



After all, the Spread Diary Entries start to shatter the game’s immersion. Sure, they still can be a gateway to introduce a story, but it comes with a price. The game’s world starts feeling too simple and orchestrated since the information comes to us completely effortless. Often it would probably be better to not even bother with the plot and just focus on the battles/puzzles.

Alternatives: If you plan to make your story an important part of your game, you should replace Spread Diary Entries with a different approach. The best one is, unfortunately, the most difficult to apply since it basically wants to tell the story through the player’s surroundings and the environment itself, without using an out-of-logic exposition. The problem is a) many players don’t even expect this kind of approach and they may not be even assume they should pay attention to detail b) it requires using artistic tools ways of expression and subtlety, which may cost a lot. Thankfully, there are many games which already fulfilled this design and can teach us a lot, not to mention movies, novels or TV series.

Some of the games also transformed this cliché into a valuable and satisfying part of the world’s design. The core problem here isn’t that the exposition provided to a player is broken into pieces, but rather HOW this information is delivered. If, for example, the player moves around a place designed to uncover its secrets one step at a time (like a mad scientist’s lab) and its owner willingly shares these secrets in some crucial points, the entire narrative becomes much, much stronger. In Waking Mars the player follows a missing robot, which dropped some clues behind it just in case it would lose its signal and would require help from our heroes. Since the source of Diary Entries has believable intentions, it doesn’t spoil the immersion.

Basically, if you want to drop some Diary Entries on the player, you really should invent a good reason why someone (something) would bother to create these entries. The power of illusion is much more important than the power of convenience. So if your answer to why would it leave all these notes around? is “because some people write diaries, I guess, and he was, I don’t know, emotionally unstable and exhibitionistic”, it won’t cover your true intentions of “I was ordered to give you this story information in pieces, sorry”. It is finally going to annoy the more invested audience. Even a simple letter or an employee memo would work.

Thank you for your attention. If you think I’m completely wrong or you would like to discuss this topic, let me know below!

See you next week!

Posts

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Good article, and I agree, random notes laying around in general don't make any sense. (besides a few exceptions, I think only use a grand total of 2 in my entire game) If it doesn't have a logistical reason within your story or universe, perhaps there´s a better method to convey your game´s lore or plot.
I'm glad you liked it. My friend reminded me about this game titled "Gone Home". It's great at spreading bits of information through the entire game without making it weird and awkward.
- Aureus
Good article.

Though there are ways to deconstruct this type of cliche. Still, I get the point. I do like Elder Scrolls for keeping its own diaries intact without scattering it throughout a dungeon.
Nice article! :D

I agree with KatanaHiroshi above: clichés can always be, as TVTropes puts it, "played with". We only have to find better ways to use this cliché so it stops being cliché-y. :3
I also agree with you tho: most spread diary entries sound more like novels or stories than real entries. People get very personal with a diary and don't expect anybody to read them, yet the entries we see in games always have info relevant to the plot regardless of the original writer XD

Anyway, I'll look forward to your next articles :D
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