When playing a game that has optional text entries, do you actually read all of the ones you come across?
All right. Be honest here, when playing a game that has optional text entries, do you actually read all of the ones you come across? Hell, do you even read like half of them? Because for me the answer is a definitive no. I typically will check out the first couple I come across, but after a few hours, my extent of interacting with them is doing a quick click through to get rid of the notification.
The thing is, there is often a lot of really good writing in these optional text logs. Take Control. The various entries explore the secrets of the game’s main location, The Oldest House and examine the paranormal and supernatural encounters experienced by the Federal Bureau of Control. These stories are highly influenced by those of the SCP Foundation, a wiki that documents the anomalies observed by the fictional organization. Control essentially takes the kinds of stories that you find yourself reading in pitch blackness at 3 AM and spreads them across its game world. They’re well-written and unsettling, and they add even more layers to the space you’re exploring. With that said though, there are also a lot of them, and while they don’t take long to read, it is still a notable interruption from the main gameplay loop. Despite being interested in what they had to say, I felt like I was constantly pausing to read some new note, and after a while it started to seem like I was reading almost as much as I was actually playing. It threw off the pacing, and even though they were enjoyable to a degree, interacting with them felt almost separate from the core of the game, so I just started to skip them.
And this happens to me with nearly every game I play that has these kinds of text entries. Regardless of if they are well-written or interesting, a lot of the time they hurt the game’s pacing, so they stop being worthwhile for me to engage with. In general, pacing is one of the hardest things to get right when designing a game as it is impossible to account for how each individual player will approach a title. There are so many elements to games that are competing for the player’s time. Devs not only have to think about the pace of gameplay like how many combat encounters there will be in any given stretch or when to throw in a puzzle or a boss, but they also have to consider how things like watching cutscenes, having conversations with NPCs and navigating menus to do anything from leveling up skill trees to changing or buying gear to reading text logs will impact the pacing of a game. It is an imperfect science because no two players are the same, making it near impossible to balance.
With there being so many aspects competing for the player’s time, when things start to feel too slow, the obvious answer is to stop engaging with optional elements like reading text logs.
And that’s okay. People don’t need to read everything. Frankly, it is already hard enough to get everyone to read what is considered mandatory text as some people just hate reading anything in a game, to the point where they won’t even play titles that don’t have voice acting.
In the grand scheme of game design, finding the best way to incorporate optional text entries is not that important, however, it also isn’t entirely inconsequential. For instance, a lot of games use various kinds of logs as an incentive for exploration; they are a type of collectible for players to find with the reward being a little piece of lore. More often than not though that is the extent of the reward. Unlike many other forms of collectibles, there isn’t a greater bonus for collecting a certain amount of them. So with games that use them as the primary collectible, if players hit a point where they no longer care about reading optional material, it takes away one of the main reasons to explore, which depending on the title could have a negative impact.
I think there’s value in considering how best to implement them despite the fact that they are largely optional. So, what is the most effective way to incorporate them?
Obviously the answer differs greatly depending on the game in question. And a part of that comes from expectations we have of certain genres. Like, where I almost always stop looking at optional logs in open-world games, I find myself reading almost everything in narrative exploration games like Gone Home or Firewatch as it is kind of the core of those types of games. I go in knowing that I will be spending a fair bit of time reading, so when I come across notes, I’m more likely to want to read them because that was the plan from the start, whereas with something like Horizon Zero Dawn, they feel more like an obstacle in the way of me fighting a rad ass robot dinosaur. Action oriented titles are always going to have a harder time of convincing players it is worthwhile to interact with these things, but it isn’t impossible. If developers want players to engage with optional readings, they have to make them feel like a part of the core experience.
A title that does this really well—and I promise one day I’ll make a video where I don’t use it as a positive example for whatever topic I’m talking about, but it’s not my fault that Mobius Digital made a masterpiece—is Outer Wilds.
One of the main things players do in Outer Wilds is search for text logs left behind by an ancient alien species known as the Nomai. These writings contain all sorts of information about the solar system, and they give players both lore about the discoveries and lives of the Nomai as well as clues for how to solve the mysteries of the different locations. All of the logs are optional as it is possible to beat the game through sheer force of will, albeit highly unlikely. The importance of this though is that interacting with the text is a choice, and its one players are happy to make because the information in the logs is valuable both narratively and mechanically. The best way to find the answers needed in order to progress is by reading everything. A fair amount of the text logs only advance the lore, but as players become desperate to find any hint that might put them on the right path, they’re far more inclined to engage with any text they come across. It doesn’t matter that not every piece of writing does have answers in it, what matters is that any of them could.
Now, I’m not saying that every game should follow this path and make optional text logs feel mandatory as that just wouldn’t work with a lot of titles, but I do think most games could benefit from having them be important both narratively and mechanically.
The most efficient way to do this is simply by giving players tangible rewards for collecting a certain amount of text logs. Lore is a great motivator for some players, but cool new weapons and abilities is one for far more, so having text-based collectibles amount to something greater helps keep players searching for them, and ideally the reward for collecting logs would be tied to the information in them. A pretty solid example of this can be seen in The Ruined King. Collecting lore entries found throughout the world rewards players with rune shards, which can be used to upgrade various character stats. So the more notes they collect, the more powerful their team can be, incentivizing players to keep collecting logs regardless of whether or not they are interested in reading them. Alongside this, a handful of entries have information that can lead players to even more valuable rewards, which makes it worthwhile to read them. What I like the most is that these entries aren’t just quick notes placed right next to whatever the player is trying to find that say something like “ah I forgot the code, so let me write it down here so that I remember it!” Instead, they’re actual additions to the lore that help build out the world while also giving hints on how to solve certain puzzles. Sometimes it even takes finding multiple connected notes to figure something out, making it even more important to engage with the journals. The Ruined King could stand to have more text entries that players need to interact with to uncover hidden rewards, but it is at least heading in the right direction by making entries valuable to read for both lore enthusiasts and reward-chasers, while also encouraging players who don’t want to read to still collect them.
Along with rewarding players for interacting with text entries, another important factor in getting folks to read them is how they’re presented. Personally, I am far more likely to read a note I find in a game if it is a physical thing within the world. It helps make reading it feel connected to the core gameplay. It is more immersive to read a note while hearing noises from the space around you and seeing your immediate surroundings than it is to read one from a menu screen that has almost nothing to do with the note you’re reading. Actively pausing a game feels like an inconvenience where reading something native to the world feels like an extension of gameplay, despite them kind of being the same thing.
Alongside this, the amount of text plays a role as well. I wish I wasn’t like this, but when I see a huge page of text while playing a game, my brain goes into full “i ain’t reading all that. i’m happy for you tho or sorry that happened” mode. However, if text is presented in smaller chunks, I am far more likely to read it even if it ends up being just as long as a massive block of text would be. By just giving out 2 or 3 lines at a time, it makes it easier to digest. This kind of presentation doesn’t work for every game or kind of text log, but when applicable, it can go a long way.
Placement also matters a fair bit. Putting too many entries next to each other quickly becomes overwhelming. Like, Horizon Zero Dawn clumps a lot of text entries together on the main quest, so whenever I’d go to these important locations, I’d be met with a solid 10 minutes of reading when I just wanted to see what would happen next in the story, killing whatever momentum I had. To its credit, the game recognizes that it tosses a lot of important lore at the player through these text logs, so Aloy will sometimes try to summarize what each is about through a line of dialogue, with the goal being that players will get enough information to understand the general gist of what they’re about without actually reading.
And this actually leads into how a handful of games try to get past the problem of players not reading anything, which is to just have audio logs instead of text ones. While far from being the first game to include them, Bioshock seemingly popularized their use, and for good reason as it does an incredible job implementing them. Aside from just generally being engaging, they’re also spaced out well and can be easily listened to while players continue exploring Rapture. It’s a good formula as there is no stoppage in play and folks get more information about the world. With that said, it seems that as games have gotten more complex, it has become harder to properly implement audio logs. For instance, chatty playable-characters have started to become the norm in a lot of AAA titles. They vocalize everything they observe, have conversations with folks they come across, and monologue about what they’ve been through and what’s to come. With all of this dialogue happening, it makes it more likely that audio logs will be interrupted if the player continues to move around while listening to them. So with a lot of games now, when I find an audio journal, I just stand in one spot until it finishes, which creates a lot of the same problems that just reading an entry causes. In fairness, a lot of games allow players to listen to audio entries later on, but it does involve going through menus, which I get is not a big deal, but it is enough of a barrier where I will end up just forgetting about them. One potential solution for this aimed primarily at open-world games could be to add some sort of quick menu that comes up when traveling and prompts players to listen to audio journals they’ve found. It would be a helpful reminder and give something to listen to during long treks across the map. While audio logs are generally the easiest way for players to learn about the lore of a game, I don’t think it’s a great replacement for text ones; the big reason being that they’re a lot harder to make. It involves hiring an actor, which not every studio can feasibly do, and also many titles have atmospheres that would be completely shattered by voice lines. Lastly, text entries allow writers to include many different forms of messages from diaries to newspaper clippings to emails, and there is less flexibility with what voice entries can be, so it’s safe to say that written journal entries aren’t going anywhere.
Everything I’ve talked about are ways that get me to be more engaged with optional readings, but many of these suggestions take a lot of work, and it begs the question: should game developers focus on finding the most effective way to integrate these types of text and audio logs? Ideally, yeah, of course. If a developer is going to include something in a game, even if it is optional, they should do it in the most effective way. However, I don’t expect that a lot of developers will make it a priority. Games need to come out, and no title ever releases in a perfect state. Devs have to meet certain deadlines for a game to stay viable, so not every aspect can get the attention it fully deserves. The reality is with most studios the main question they’re probably asking when it comes to optional text logs isn’t how can they include them most effectively; it’s whether or not they should include them at all. Personally, I’d rather a game have something imperfect but enjoyed by some than cut it all together. So, while I appreciate the games that convince me to read the notes, journals, and other forms of text spread across their worlds, I kind of have to come to terms that with most games the reading is not there for me. But it may be there for you, or at the very least for a lore YouTuber who can do all the hard work of digging through the writing, condense all the information and make a fire video on it.
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