The thing about horror games is that the protagonists are never on time. Your average big-bollocked flashlight-wielding space marine hero tends not to be around when most of the excitement's going on, generally not showing up until after the main battle's already over, all potential allies are dead and the monsters have taken residence and obligingly arranged themselves in ascending order of strength. As it should be. When horror is the intention you want the player in that panicky, hopeless position where there's nothing they can do about their friends and the only goal left is to escape the nightmare their world has become, and that can't be brought across while friendly humans are alive and the lights are still on.
But this does mean that the only way a story can get across is after the fact. With most English-speakers dead with their tongues torn off and tied around their winkies, the logical route is audio logs. And with BioShock 2 and Aliens vs Predator fresh in mind, lately I've had cause to think about audio logs a lot. When do audio logs actually work?
Because I do think they're often rather clumsy storytelling. In most cases, audio logs littering the lonely halls raise more questions than they answer. For example, what the fuck happened to all the paper and pens? In your average monster-haunted installation it seems like the only methods of communication available are audio logs and smearing cryptic phrases on the walls in blood. Also, why does everyone feel the need to record every slightest thought that crosses their minds, continuing to do so even as monsters claw down the door? And distribute the recorders Easter Bunny-style as they prance down the halls towards their inevitable murder? And why do they only record ten seconds of speech on a device that could probably hold at least half an hour?
Some of these issues can be explained away if, like Doom 3 or Dead Space, the game's set in your average scientific/engineering/military sort of facility where staff could be reasonably expected to keep detailed reports of their work, leaving aside the clawing monsters issue (and that one odd fellow from Dead Space who felt the need to continue commentating throughout the act of sawing all his arms and legs off). But what excuse do the citizens of Rapture have? Is everyone just taking notes for their future autobiographies?
Problem two is gameplay-related. Aliens vs. Predator and Doom 3 both demonstrate how not to do it - every time you collect a log, you can only play it by going into some kind of menu screen and selecting it. Which is irritatingly distracting in the same way text logs always were, the grumpy dad of today's audio logs. The singular advantage of audio logs is that you can play them while you're doing something else, hence why games like System Shock 2 and BioShock had a hotkey for activating the last log you picked up. Although roaring monsters and gunfire have a nasty tendency to drown out the words, so I always ended up sitting in a toilet waiting for the tape to finish anyway.
The third issue I have is less about audio logs themselves and more about some of the games that have chosen to use them. As I said, audio logs are a method of exposition, but in order for that to work there has to be something to expose. BioShock and Dead Space both had such a thing. The experience of BioShock is almost like a sightseeing tour of this extraordinarily unique world, piecing together fragments of history and public opinion to gain a full picture of what Rapture was and where it went wrong. Dead Space has a big overhanging mystery - namely, what the chuffing hell happened to all these poor spindly bastards - that the audio logs gradually unmuddy.