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Dear diary: journals in video games

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.

The Painscreek Killings, video game, journal, diary, handwriting

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.

Answer Knot, video game, diary, journal, handwriting, Uncharted, Nathan Drake, Shambhala

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.

Gone Home, video game, drawer, letters, notes, read

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.

Kim View All

Video game lover, Later Levels blogger and SpecialEffect volunteer. Big fan of wannabe pirates and fine leather jackets.

13 thoughts on “Dear diary: journals in video games Leave a comment

  1. I have a notebook that I use for World of Warcraft, jotting down pieces of gear I need to farm, or reputations that need grinding, but never use it for more in-depth writing. Technology has definitely taken over that aspect.

    This post reminded me of Gone Home, where all of the narrative is presented in found documentation, and I wonder how different that would have been had it not taken place in modern times.

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    • Hmm… Gone Home may still have worked because you hear Sam’s voice when you find a document, so I guess it would be the same if you’d found an email instead for example. I’m not sure how well some parts would translate though. The notes written by Sam and Lonnie as they passed bits of paper to each other at school might not have the same impact if they were in the form of a chat message. 🤔

      I’m with you though: I don’t write anything more than notes by hand now. There’d be far too many crossing-outs in any kind of handwritten piece by me! ha ha

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  2. I love the way this is done in Gone Home. I think it is my favourite sort of diary in games at least recently. I am glad games stick to the traditional diary rather than digital as they seem more personal and exciting to find that clue. Maybe that will change in future though.

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    • There’s definitely something special about finding a handwritten diary in a video game, and I like being able to see the doodles the author has added because they tell you something about the person. Maybe these will be replaced by emails and GIFs in future games though. 🤔

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  3. Apparently, I’m hardcore oldschool. I very frequently write stuff by hand, starting from shopping lists, notes to myself or colleagues, ideas for new posts, I keep a “real” calendar handy, etc. Furthermore, I’m always delighted, if games (mostly Horror/Mystery-Adventures) don’t offer a notebook-esque feature and I get to pull out a sheet of paper, and copy every possible clue I see!

    I disagree on your point regarding diaries and other written stuff inside games being more personal, though. Yes, you can put a lot of personality in those things, but let’s be honest here: how many games really put emphasis on those details? Almost none. In most games, you just have some barely readable text, which you can/will ignore because it is read by the character and/or there’s a feature to read it in “clear” text. Also, as you mentioned, written documents become increasingly scarce in our modern world, so with each passing year, players’ connections to those things are dwindling.

    On the other hand, our phones, e-mails, or other digital communication is a big part of our modern private lives, and I’d say it would be more intimate to read one’s text messages than a diary that they might just keep for fun. You can get a lot of personality into text/phone messages or video recordings, too, and I feel like developers are much more likely to put in some extra effort when such “normal” stuff is portrayed. They work in different styles of writing, emojis, spelling errors, real voice acting, and overall better storytelling/writing.

    Finding a diary or something similar in a game, more often than not, feels like they have been planted there for the player to find, and to deliver some info-dump without dialogues (which it basically is). But when you get to snoop around in someones messages or phone conversations, it’s a lot more natural and therefore triggers the “voyeuristic excitement” (I always wanted to say that) from gaining personal (secret?) information a lot better, in my opinion.

    Please keep in mind that I’m not talking about audio logs serving as collectibles or similar stuff. I am talking about private conversations/notes that are comparable to diaries, letters, and the likes. Incidentally, Stacey here has recently reviewed a game where you find a girl’s phone, which sounds pretty interesting: https://lifetoldbystaceyyy.wordpress.com/2020/10/02/i-played-simulacra-spoiler-free/ I haven’t played the game myself, yet, but it’s the only example I can think of right now.

    I do agree, however, that we’re not likely to see a jump towards digital media in games, not beause written documents are better (as I hopefully have explained), but simply because they are much easier to use. Books and the likes are generally associated with knowledge and information. Also, their only purpose is to be read, there’s nothing else you can do with them. You read, you know more afterwards, that’s how it works, always has worked, and always will work. But when you’re confronted with a computer, a phone, or something similar, you’d need to create a situation where they can only be used for what you need players to do with them.

    Imagine you’re in a haunted house. You come across a 200-year-old diary where the little girl talks about the strange happenings inside the house. After you’ve read it, there’s nothing mroe you can do. But what if you came across a modern phone? How unrealistic would it be if you could only read 6 text messages? Apart from the capabilities of modern phones (calling authorities, Internet, Apps, etc), nobody has just 6 messages on their phone. Even better, all those messages somehow give you some information aobut the backstory! How convenient…it’s unrealistic and totally breaks immersion.

    In conclusion: I think digital media, if used correctly, can have a much stronger impact on players, and create a much more intimate atmosphere. But they are hard to utilise effectively, probably too hard. Written documents, on the other hand, are that much easier to use, but are little more than a way to convey a bit of information.

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    • I’m afraid I’m going to disagree with your disagreement… 😉

      I’ve played several games recently where a lot of emphasis has been placed on handwritten diaries and it’s necessary for the player to read the entries as there’s no voiceover. For example, to solve the murder in The Painscreek Killings, you’ve got to find various documents and use the information or contradictions contained within them to figure out who the killer is. You can get some clues from simply looking them before reading: whether the note was written in a hurry, whether its author was angry because the letters are jagged, whether they were in a good mood because of the stars doodled in the corner of the page.

      That makes those documents immediately more personal than something like an email. With a digital message, you actually need to read the words in front of you before you can tell anything about its writer. Saying that though, things like video recordings and voicemail messages as you’ve mentioned above can be different – for example, hearing the messages left by your wife in Answer Knot makes you anxious because you can hear the fear starting to creep into her voice, while the notes found around the house give you an idea of your history together.

      Maybe it’s that I’m getting old, but I like coming across diaries in video games and hope to continue discovering them. And if there are more games like The Painscreek Killings that use them to full effect, then bring it on. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      • Okay, that *does* sound awesome! Seems I have played the wrong games, so far 🙂 If it is as you said (and I have no reason to doubt that), then those things are on the same level as digital media, plus the advantage of being easier to implement.

        I agree that the “format” of a written note (if the proper care went into creating it) conveys more information about the writer, but at least for me, the context is more intimate with everyday digital objects. I’d see it more of a intrusion into my privacy if someone went through my phone and computer, rather than someone snooping through my desk (of course, I wouldn’t be happy with that, either). Since I’m still an adherent to written documents, I assumed that many people would feel the same way. On the other hand, if the same amount of personalisation went into creating the “environment” of the digital space, there’s the same possibility for characterisation. What phone do they use? What Apps do they have? Is their desktop neatly organised or cluttered with games/documents/shortcuts? What about the screensaver, personal files purely for fluff (pet photographs etc), ringtone, emoji usage, their e-mail adress, username, and things like that?

        One last thing: I’m with you on liking coming across diaries, documents, and other written stuff. It’s a natural way of gaining information, and I like reading anyway. It’s just that I thought that you (and many of the other commenters) did not give enough credit to the possibilities of the inclusion of more modern things. 🙂 In the end, it’s probaly not about written vs digital, but more of a question if the proper amount of care went into creating the documents and their context.

        In any case, I have now 2 more games on my wishlist^^

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        • I was pondering some more about digital documentation in video games last night and yes, I think you’re right about the level of care that goes into creating those items. 🤔

          I started playing Rhiannaon: Curse of the Four Branches recently and at one point within the game, you have to get the password to a teenage girl’s computer so you can read her emails (not as bad as it sounds ha ha). The thing is though, that’s all there is on the machine – about six messages and nothing else. No photographs, music files, games, nothing! It seems very empty and out of place in a location which is made to feel like a living home through other everyday objects which are clearly used by the characters.

          Maybe it would have been better if there were other files to look through? But how would the developer ensure that the player actually found the information they needed rather than getting sidetracked by the huge amount of stuff that’s normally saved on someone’s PC? I’m going to leave these questions to the experts, and see what they come up with in future video games. 😉

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          • Hmm, yeah, it’s questionable if it’s feasible to create lots and lots of details and essentially useless files just for a bit more immersion.

            The cheap solution would be to have all the files that aren’t necessary for your progress be corrupted. ALthough that would be pretty much the same as invisible barriers in linear games…or maybe there’s a way to make it clearer that there are more files on the computer, but the character has filtered out with some relevance.

            A lot of stuff could slowly be “automated”, like search histories, generic conversations etc. Like databases for sound (ah, the glorious Wilhelm Scream…), but for computers, where devs can implement generic packages for different groups (businesses, teenagers, family PC, etc).

            Of course, all these suggestions would only create an illusion of depth, as the only possibility to bring real depth is probably to put in the manhours to actually personalise the content…which leads back to the first point: Is it feasible? Probably not 😦

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  4. Life is Strange has a wonderful example, with so many details to it that inform the characters – it’s optional and so rewarding, as with other parts of that game.

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    • I must admit that I skipped most of the diary entries in Life is Strange… but I have a bit of a history with the game and wanted to finish it as quickly as possible! I did think they suited Max’s personality though, because it really seemed as though she would be someone who’d keep a journal. 😅

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  5. I love how diary logs and emails are handled in Death Stranding, but it also fits the overall thematic style of the game. I appreciate that you took time to focus on this, I’ve played many games in my life but I’ve never stopped to consider the impact of how different diary-like mediums are presented to the player. It does feel more human when you can see the penmanship of an in-game character on the page. It’s a fantastic way for the developer to add in a small nugget of world building, and for some people that type of thing is cherished greatly.

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    • We very recently started playing Death Stranding and my other-half is notorious for skipping through any items which require reading. I’m going to have to make him slow down next time, so I can pay attention to the logs and emails – thanks for the tip. 🙂

      I really like it when developers devote some time to creating appropriate journals. In a game I played last month, several characters had diaries and each was totally different: handwriting, writing style, whether they drew doodles on the pages. By the end, I could tell who had written each new entry just by the way they looked before I’d even read the words. It was great for that world-building element you mentioned and allowed me to get to know each person and their history without them even being present.

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