The unseen story: audio diaries in video game narratives

Audio diaries in BioShock

You could go without them… but why would you?

Audio diaries — you’ll find these little nuggets of storytelling scattered all over a game’s world, taking the form of whatever diegetic theming fits best into the narrative. They can be called voxophones, audiographs, audio logs, or straight-up tape recorders, but it’s always the same experience. You walk up to an object, interact with it, and you can hear characters talking to themselves, other characters, or even directly to the player themselves. We’re going to call them audio diaries for simplicity’s sake.

It’s one of those mechanics that’s in almost every single third- or first-person action game that has any semblance of narrative, and based on who I’ve talked to about audio diaries, they’re a pretty polarizing mechanic at that. Some people I talk to hate them because they don’t want to have to go out of their way to get story content and then spend extra time listening to it, while for others, hunting down all of the audio diaries and piecing together the stories they tell can be one of the most enjoyable parts of the game.

Where it all started

I’m somewhere in the middle, I think. It can depend on what the stories are that the diaries are actually telling me, and how difficult it is to find them in the game world.

It’s kind of ironic that I think the series that does audio diaries the best is BioShock, because while it wasn’t the first game to include them, it was certainly the game that popularized them and set the standard for how they’re included in many games today. Yet another reason why BioShock is one of the most influential games ever made, especially when it comes to interactive storytelling.

Before BioShock premiered the classic audio diary setup to the world, other early examples included games like Carmine, Lunar, and Chrono, wherein the story content took the form of video logs. System Shock 2, Doom 3, the Fatal Frame series, and the original Metal Gear also included various types of rudimentary audio diaries.

The importance and challenge of player autonomy

One of the most challenging things about creating interactive narratives is that while you want to let the player experience a game however they want, you still want to maintain the order of story conventions to a certain extent. For stories that lean more heavily on the side of linearity, it can be especially difficult to create a game that tells that narrative while not taking too much autonomy away from the player. Hence the genius of audio diaries — it’s non-linearity baked into a linear story.

When an audio diary is playing, the player doesn’t have anything in particular they need to look at, or any one place they need to remain in for the diary to be heard. That means that placing diaries in locations where players already have some less intense, but still crucial, tasks to do — like exploring, scavenging for supplies, or solving simple puzzles — is kind of a perfect option. Then the player is getting some fun story content on top of the other stuff they were already doing. It’s kind of like listening to a podcast or audiobook while you’re cleaning your house.

Of course, there are potential problems with this setup. When players have complete control, they might walk into an unskippable cutscene or scripted section while an audio diary is playing — or similarly, the audio diary might be playing over some important dialogue from a nearby NPC. Thankfully more recent games will give you the option to replay diaries in the menus, but it’s still annoying to have an immersive in-game story moment interrupted by something you weren’t aware was going to happen.

What I think is especially interesting, though, is that writers and narrative designers have to create audio diaries with the assumption that a good portion of players won’t listen to them at all. This isn’t a big deal with one-off diaries meant to fill out the world, but when you have multiple diaries that tell the perspective of a prominent side character, they have to be designed so that they can make sense individually or with one or two missing, while also creating a cohesive story across multiple entries.

Filling out the world

Most games that implement audio diaries as a mechanic tell great stories even if the player doesn’t find a single one, but games that use audio diaries the best are the ones that leave you walking away glad you tracked them all down, because the world feels so much more full after having listened to them. Combined with the fact that they’re super easy to listen to, they’re pretty much the best way to give players lore without just dumping everything into a codex (sorry codex lovers, but it ain’t for me).

Audio diaries are also a great way for side characters to shine when we may not be spending a whole of time with them. Some of the best monologues and character bits in games like Deathloop or the Borderlands series actually come from obscure audio diaries, and while it’s a shame that some players will miss out on those moments, it makes it all the more special that you have to go out of your way to find them.

Whether you tend to skip audio diaries, or if you go out of your way to find every single one of them, you can’t deny the impact that this single mechanic has had on interactive storytelling. Personally, I’m always going to go out of my way, but I guess the beauty is that everyone gets to experience a game’s story exactly how they want.


Story Beat is a weekly column discussing anything and everything to do with storytelling in video games.

Noelle Warner