Conveying plot and backstory through messages

I’m working on a game which is quite different from classical IF (it has graphics and space flight) but the progression of the story happens almost entirely through textual means, by exploring computer systems, poring over log files, receiving email, and reading posts on in-game forums. This puts some very interesting constraints on the game. With email front and center as the primary means by which the plot progresses, I am finding it can be tricky at times to come up with rationale for why certain characters would tell the player everything they need to know.

I wonder if there’s any prior art I could look at that do something similar; works where mail, messages, and log files take the place of conversation as a way to move the plot forward.

The game is at if anyone is interested; it’s still in an early beta but it has the first of the story introduced.

Just off the top of my head some of Christine Love’s work comes to mind, like Digital and Analogue. Strictly speaking they aren’t classical IF either.

Could the player, in the process of exploring these computer systems, acquire the means to read email directed at other characters, with whom there might be more of a rationale for the email author to share info?

Reminds me of Life On Mars. Though there it was not used to advance, per se.

This struck me as similar to the way Theatre worked. It advanced the plot with pages of a diary found scattered through the game.

A modern epistolary work, that uses digital communication, certainly has a lot of potential. I think that in order to explore the rationale of why a character would divulge information to the player, you must think about why they are writing in the first place. I think for a good example of this, you could look at Bram Stoker’s Dracula, which is a story told entirely through long letters sent between the main characters. I think some of the portions (like when the boat comes ashore with Dracula’s coffin) are even told through news articles. At first, the information they divulge is just explanatory. They’re discussing what they see and how they’re reacting to it. Later, once the characters realize that a vampire is amuck, the letters seek more to inform, and to collaborate, because they have the common goal of stopping the vampire. They find motive in what they share. Your electronic communications don’t need to find a common narrative to be explanatory, however.

Each piece of text you produce for the game needs to have a unique voice and reason behind it. You say you’re having trouble coming up with the reason. Is the character seeking help? Bragging? Was it meant to be sent to anyone, or was it a personal log? Think of in Bioshock, where you can come across various audio logs left by the dead denizens, even though they weren’t made by the characters with the express purpose of being found or painting a part of a bigger picture. Regardless of the intent, they still guide the character along and give depth and meaning to what the player is seeing.

If you’re having trouble justifying why certain information must be sent or explained in an e-mail, then perhaps an e-mail isn’t the right format for the information. Could the player find the information saved on the character’s hard drive? Could they hack in, or intercept their communication?

Your game looks neat, I’ll give it a spin at some point.

Thanks for all the thoughtful replies. I looked at Digital briefly a while back, but I should definitely revisit it to see how she uses that mechanic. And I had forgotten that Dracula uses a very similar method of conveying story details. I see from reading about Analog that the player can only make simple binary choices in a way that has an in-universe explanation; I’ve come up with something quite similar for my own game.

I definitely have plans to use more than just direct email, (recovered chat logs, design notes for lab projects, journals, possibly even security logs) but I hadn’t thought of placing news stories into the game. News stories are fun because they can be a mix of plot-critical stories and also stories which simply enrich the texture of the world and provide more background, though I suppose a balance is important there in order to avoid having the player miss things if they assume it’s all background info.

Getting help with playtesting would also be great. With the story the way it is now, you could probably reach the ending in half an hour or so. I’m very interested in how to make the game more approachable to non-programmers since all my friends I’ve had playtest it so far have been fairly technical. But there’s also aspects of the game in the first mission that mess with your head a bit, and it would be great to hear some feedback on that as to whether it’s too frustrating or if there are things that could make it smoother.

Simon Christiansen’s Alethicorp may come close:

(believe it or not, it’s a game!)

A write-up is here: … istiansen/

You go to work for a fictional surveillance corporation, and your job is to analyze reports and make recommendations for next steps. Meanwhile, you have email to answer and a corporate intranet to peruse.

[spoiler]It’s difficult to sneak exposition into natural sounding dialogue or letter/log entries. You want to avoid blatant exposition, although that blunt hammer can work in moderation - find a dead body of one of your squad mate redshirts with a recorded audio file saying “Whoever find this after I’m dead, don’t step on the red tiles…and name a school after me - urgh!”)

In most general cases, you want to avoid messages written directly to the player unless the character has a reason to do so. (“Thanks for babysitting, the shut-off code for the alarm system is 451.”) Better are “intercepted” notes not to the player specifically, “Hey Bob, pesky random adventurers keep making off with the bowling trophy, I’ve changed the code to the locker to 451, delete this email so nobody else knows.”

What seems to work best is when the author can also include a number of non-story critical texts that don’t give the player any specific hint, but serve as bonus information for the player and author opportunities to broaden world of the story without expensive art or cutscenes or time-consuming extra implementation. That usually is good enough to hurdle the “Oh, how fortunate there happens to be this one crumpled note with the information I need to progress…” problem.[/spoiler]

Here’s a great archive (text and audio) of the logs in System Shock, one of the earliest graphical games to do an exemplary job using audio logs to convey hints and backstory. A lot of these are directed at nobody, but the convention is the people on Citadel station were accustomed to keeping audio logs of their work.

[on edit]Sorry, those audio links are awful…real media encoded but at least they are transcribed. Here’s a Youtube video of logs in System Shock 2.