From journals to newspaper articles, letters and even poems, horror games have always had a deep affinity for collectibles documents. Indeed, the items are so prolific in the genre that they’ve become an inseparable part of its DNA. But why are they so common and what do they contribute to the overall experience?
Well, to be honest, they do a lot of heavy-lifting when used appropriately: enrichening the atmosphere; deepening the immersion; and even providing useful tips to help us solve puzzles and defeat enemies. So, with that in mind, let’s take a look at some of the underappreciated virtues of collectible documents, with a few case-studies thrown in for good measure.
Sprinkling in Details: Silent Hill
One of the most distinctive things about collectible documents is that they allow you to flesh out little details in the world, without interrupting the flow of the main story. The Silent Hill franchise exploits this to great effect, by littering the streets of its eponymous town with insightful, non-compulsory extras, like brochures and advertisements for local events.
From these, we get a lot of worthwhile context about the location and those who once populated its schools, seedy apartments and eerie amusement parks. Being able to immerse yourself in all this history makes for a much more absorbing experience, as the town feels like a real, lived-in place, as opposed to a bunch of pixels on the screen. Team Silent are evidently proud of this aspect, as they give you a pop-quiz on the subject in the second game!
With collectible documents, developers are given license to include details like these, without having to worry about bogging down their products with too much backstory or superfluous information. Such an opportunity is not afforded to a medium like film, where storytelling needs to be more concise and creators are regularly forced to trim anything that is deemed inessential to the plot.
Building Tension- Outlast: ‘’The Groom’’
In-game documents are common in horror because they are an incredibly valuable tool for generating suspense.
A masterful example of this can be found in Outlast’s ‘’Whistleblower’’ expansion, with the introduction of Eddie Gluskin, A.K.A ‘’The Groom’’. Obsessed with old-fashioned notions of chivalry and courtship, this secondary antagonist yearns for a girl with whom he can tie the knot and settle down. The only problem is that he is confined to the male ward of an insane asylum and so there aren’t many viable candidates for him to choose from. Given that, he decides to make do with anyone who is unfortunate enough to stumble upon his lair. Once he catches these poor suckers, he resorts to crude DIY surgery methods to transform them into his ideal partner.
The section of the DLC wherein you are pursued by this frenzied madman is one of the most unnerving in recent memory, a quality that is accentuated perfectly by the exquisite build-up. Particularly ominous is the little rhyme that you come across immediately before the encounter:
You’ll be hard-pressed to find a more disquieting verse than that, as it chillingly sets the stage for the nightmare to come, alluding to Gluskin’s M.O in a taunting, yet characteristically playful manner. This poem is single-mindedly designed to creep you out, what with its portentous wordplay, obscene imagery, and grisly implications. In that sense, it’s a supremely effective bit of foreshadowing, one that instils extreme dread as you push on towards Eddie’s workshop.
Explaining Mechanics- Dead Space: Cut off Their Limbs
Near the beginning of Dead Space, you happen across a demented warning from beyond the grave. Arriving in the form of an audio-log, the message implores you to ‘’Cut off their limbs! It’s the only way they go down!!’’. This is obviously in reference to the game’s signature Necromorph enemies: grotesque beasties that can only be permanently killed via ‘’strategic dismemberment’’.
Thankfully, the game doesn’t thrust you into a ham-fisted tutorial section in order to communicate this rule, as that would surely undermine the lovingly crafted atmosphere. Instead, it finds a more elegant means of preparing us, by way of the aforementioned recording. A similar thing is achieved in Resident Evil 4, when an instructional document explains how to defeat the seemingly invulnerable Regenerators, by using a thermal scope to identify their weak-points.
Both cases fantastically illustrate how in-game documents can introduce new mechanics in a way that doesn’t break immersion.
Developing Characters- The Last of Us: Marlene’s Recordings
The climax of The Last of Us is one of the toughest in modern gaming and not because it pits you against a demanding boss battle or an exacting combat scenario. In fact, the grueling nature of this conclusion has precisely nothing to do with gameplay. Rather, it ‘’challenges’’ you in much the same way that a controversial book or provocative film might do, by complicating the morality of the story and leaving you conflicted over who to root for.
This feeling of uncertainty is emphasized by an assortment of Dictaphone recordings, that force you to contemplate your deeds, as you kill multiple innocents in order to rescue your surrogate-daughter, Ellie. The collectibles do this by humanizing and generating sympathy for each of your victims, especially Marlene.
Through a series of confessional recordings, we get a glimpse at the Firefly leader’s inner turmoil, as she struggles to come to terms with the decision to sentence Ellie to death. She admits that, by following this course of action, she is betraying her own principles and breaking a promise she made to Ellie’s mother. Yet at the same time, she knows that she’s making a necessary sacrifice for the greater good, (the operation will be fatal for Ellie, but will produce a vaccine for the global infection). Not that this realization makes it any easier for her.
In short, by listening to these recordings, we discover that Marlene is not the simplistic villain we first assumed, but a tragic figure burdened by guilt. Without those documents, much of this nuance would be lost and we’d miss out on the full impact of the game’s devastating ending.
Indulging in Easter Eggs – Resident Evil 7: Renovation Contract
Despite numerous reinventions over the years, there are certain things that remain consistent across the Resident Evil series. Surely one of the most notorious staples is the use of overly-elaborate architecture, as almost every game features a setting that is inexplicably riddled with secret passageways and labyrinthine corridors.
These puzzle-box environments are fun to explore, but they can also whittle down your suspension of disbelief. After all, you can’t help but wonder how impractical it must have been for the original owners to navigate these intricate properties. Not to mention how expensive all those convoluted locking mechanisms and theatrical death traps must have been.
Clearly aware of this foible, Resident Evil 7 contains a hidden gag that humorously parodies the trope. You see, buried within an obscure crevice of the Baker Plantation, there is an invoice detailing all the construction work that is required to install a ‘’shadow-activated doorway’’. It’s a funny in-joke, playing on the idea that every contractor in the RE universe is unquestioningly naïve and works for surprisingly cheap rates. Anyway, it might not be as important as some of the other documents on this list, but it works as a cute, throwaway reference that is sure to amuse long-time fans.
Avoiding Clunky Exposition- Bloodborne: Pungent Blood Cocktail
As storytellers, FromSoftware has always been remarkably cagey about supplying answers. However, rather than deterring people away from their output, this has had the curious effect of whetting everyone’s appetites and making us more determined to piece things together for ourselves. Indeed, ‘’Soulsborne’’ fans are renowned for exhaustively mining every nook and cranny to fuel their speculative theories.
Some of the more substantial nuggets of intel can actually be gleaned from item descriptions, as the developer uses these paragraphs to economically provide context about the surrounding world. For example, in Bloodborne, there is a projectile known as the Pungent Blood Cocktail, which is essentially a form of bait used to lure enemies.
The description naturally informs you of this utility, but also clarifies why the concoctions are in such abundance, as the locals of Yrarnham ‘’produce more blood than alcohol’’. On the surface, this is a meager factoid, but it does convey a lot about the city and its deranged inhabitants, who have become thoroughly addicted to ‘’Blood Ministration’ and lost their minds as a result.
Where other titles might deliver this exposition via an intrusive cutscene, Bloodborne cleverly allows you to decipher the lore at your own pace. It’s a fresh approach to storytelling and one that cannot be replicated in any other medium.
Painting a Bigger Picture: Resident Evil- The Keeper’s Diary
Another benefit of in-game documents is that they can be used to tell spooky, campfire tales of their very own. Perhaps the most iconic version of this is the ‘’Keeper’s Diary’’ from Resident Evil, which chronicles the body-horror transformation of a disgruntled Umbrella employee, who was unknowingly exposed to the T-Virus.
After regaling us with stories of poker night and his workday, the writer is awoken one morning by a medical specialist, whereupon he is instructed to wear a contamination suit. Despite being irritated by how “itchy” the outfit is, the narrator begrudgingly complies. Not that it does him much good mind you, as he soon experiences blisters, burning sensations, and a loss of sanity. On that note, his mental faculties visibly deteriorate visibly on the page, as his journal becomes increasingly inarticulate and disjointed.
Substantiating the threat of the T-Virus, this self-contained narrative brilliantly shows that other people have already tried-and-failed to combat the outbreak. It’s a smart move, one that can be traced back to literary classics like Dracula, which features similar accounts from ill-fainted secondary characters, like the crew of the Demeter.