I’m so used to being on my laptop nowadays that picking up a pen feels weird. Although I haven’t forgotten to use one yet, writing anything by hand is unfamiliar and I’m sure it takes me far longer than it used to. Watch any of our Shadowrun RPG sessions where keeping notes is a must and you’ll see what I mean.
I’m sure I’m not the only person afflicted by this struggle with penmanship. We’re always within range of technology and a large part of our life takes place online, meaning we’re usually more at home with digital than physical mediums. We celebrate birthdays and other milestones on Facebook; share our opinions on world events and politics on Twitter; and record our careers and promote our professional skills on LinkedIn. There are even some of us who are crazy enough to keep a digital journal in the form of a blog.
If we’re likely to turn to a keyboard over a notepad then, why are older forms of life documentation still frequently used as items within video games to tell stories? They might be more common in games like point-and-clicks and RPGs but such objects can appear in any genre. The smallest handwriting samples might be sticky-notes on the side of a computer monitor or a shopping list stuck to a fridge with a magnet; and when you discover a hidden diary, you know you’ve hit the narrative jackpot.
It’s something I’ve been mulling over since playing The Painscreek Killings last month, an excellent 2018 release by EQ Studios. This murder-mystery simply wouldn’t exist without journals, letters and newspaper articles. The developer tried to mimic real-world investigations with their project so there are no hints or quest markers for the player: instead, you’re reliant on the information you can glean from these objects and must translate it into leads to be followed up on.
Of course, this game takes place in an American town in 1997 and focuses on a crime which happened two years earlier, so physical documents don’t seem at all out of place in its world. Back then there wasn’t a computer in every home and not everybody had access to a personal email address or mobile phone. But would The Painscreek Killings have worked so well if its setting had been more modern? Would it have had the same impact if the diaries had been replaced with forms of online communication?
I’m not so sure. Digital documentation might have been able to carry the gameplay but there’s just something about a handwritten journal within a video game which makes the player feel more connected to a character. Because of how private they are in nature, we’re aware we’re holding an item which comes as close as possible to reproducing how a person thinks – plus there’s the added illicit thrill of reading something you know your eyes were never meant to see.
There’s also the chance to discern part of a character’s personality through their writing – the way they form the letters on a page, pace their sentences and structure their paragraphs. It’s far easier to do this when you can see their scribbles than when an email or text message is all you have to go on, for example. The language used for such communications is shorter, more to-the-point and standardised, and you learn nothing from an Arial font which could be attributed to absolutely anybody.
As well as giving us an insight into a protagonist’s thoughts and behaviours, journals in video games are used in a few other ways. In Answer Knot by Naraven Games they’re a way of showing the past: the voice messages left on the answerphone show the current state of a relationship while the diaries show its history. Some of the entries also inject a little comedy through Easter eggs – for instance, there’s one which mentions a trip to Shambhala, where half the temples were blown up thanks to a bizarre ‘treasure hunter’.
In Return of the Obra Dinn by Lucas Pope, you spend more time within the protagonist’s ledger than you do in the game world itself. Using the evidence recorded within in it – a manifest, sketches of the crew and a map – along with a healthy dose of observation and logic, you must figure out who each person is to fill in the empty pages and solve the mystery of the abandoned ship. It’s easy to assume the notebook would take a backseat to the game’s magic watch, but it is in fact vital to the central mechanic.
Now let’s jump to Gone Home by Fullbright, a narrative release made even more emotional thanks to the way it handles diary entries. Discovering a scribbled page from your sister’s journal hidden around the house triggers a recording of her voice – incredibly fitting, seeing as your character would be likely to read those words in her head in her sibling’s tone. It makes the game extremely touching as you can both see and hear the feeling in Sam’s writing, even though you never once see her in person.
Emails and text messages may have started to creep into video games but I doubt we’re going to stop seeing diaries and other handwritten documents any time soon. They provide a way of giving us a deeper insight into a protagonist or getting to know a character who isn’t present. As written by Andrew King in an article for USgamer: “The journal, then, is as fitting a tool for the video game protagonist as the gun or the sword; a tool designed not to do violence but to cope with the violence one inflicts or receives.”
Looking back over my notes for our Shadowrun sessions, it’s easy to tell whether we had a good or bad game just from the way my writing slants across the paper. Some scribbles are half-formed ideas about plans to attempt in the future, others are big fat question-marks, others are successes shown by crookedly-drawn stars. Each page is a reminder of challenges and victories, and this is what I think of when I see diaries in video games.