Hate Audio Logs? Ashen Rift May Be Your Answer

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One common complaint about games that keeps resurfacing is their frequent use of collectible audio logs to tell a story. It’s an understandable complaint–all too often, they bury valuable background information that brilliantly ties together major story elements. It affects players’ understanding and enjoyment of the games.

On the other hand, that’s a lot of information to relay to the player, and there is a balance to be had. Too much exposition outside of these logs could ruin the experience and disrupt other elements of the game.

Like them or not, one developer seems to have found an elegant solution that would circumvent the need for audio logs altogether.

Barry Collins is the one-man army behind Ashen Rift, a first-person survival horror game that will be launching a Kickstarter campaign in February. One of Ashen Rift’s most powerful ideas is its use of a canine companion, Bounder.

A helpful sidekick with his own set of limited abilities, like we’ve seen in Fable 2 and other games, Bounder stands apart because he’s not just a tool. Ashen Rift is about how the interactions between Bounder and his master (the player character) play out. It hits immediately, too–the first time you hear your character excitedly talk to Bounder and say, “Oh! What do you see over there, boy!?” your mind floods with thoughts.

This man is talking to his dog, as we all do with our pets. It’s so obvious, and so natural. This is how we’ll get to know these characters. This is how we’ll learn their story.

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Collins says he’s always wanted to have a dog, but his travel schedule prevents it. His friends all either had dogs or were getting dogs, and the constant pining eventually led to his creation of a first-person prototype that featured the player’s character traipsing around with a canine companion.

“I instantly felt a change in how I was going to play the game; I instantly felt something and knew I needed to push this further,” Collins says. “Every time I sit down to adjust the design of the game it just fits even better.”

He continues, describing the evolution of the dog’s character and how mechanics drove the decisions. “My early prototype has Bounder following me,” Collins remembers, “reacting to enemies by growling and spotting points of interest and taking off to check them out. Pretty mellow behavior.

“At one point, I even had him running up to enemies and shining the light on them so you could see them better, but that got phased out because I didn’t have time to perfect it like I wanted to. So with his relatively basic function and with him trailing behind you a bit…  I felt like it was a good fit to make him seem a bit more useful, while also keeping his position known to you while you’re running around.”

Again, the relationship between this man and his dog feels rife with storytelling opportunity. The presence of the dog alone is enough to help keep players balanced and amused in the midst of the horrifying situations they find themselves in, but Collins is also interested in the bigger questions the relationship raises: Why is he taking care of a dog in a time like this? How did they meet? How old is Bounder?

All of these questions can be explored in a much more meaningful way than finding collectible audio logs (“I hate ham-fisted exposition in games,” Collins notes). The player isn’t experiencing the story in chunks; it’s instead more of a living, breathing, dynamic narrative. The rhetorical conversation between the player character and his dog is a natural, effortless narrative mechanism that stands to alleviate all the problems most players have with audio logs.

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“I am a firm believer that people suck at talking,” Collins says frankly, “but you wouldn’t know it by reading a book or watching a movie. Everyone nails every thought they have, and get them across as perfectly as you could imagine, while using clever words that all flow nicely… yeah, that does not happen in real life.

“Having Bounder around almost helps me write the run-on and naturalistic sentences which clearly come natural to me, and will hopefully give Ashen Rift a distinct style.”

Along with the great characterization the entire canine dynamic provides, Barry Collins is happy to reiterate that Ashen Rift is very much a very story-driven game. And at this point in development, he already sees it a his A New Hope.

“I know what the next parts will be, and I know what the previous two parts would consist of as well,” Collins adds. “This game has a massive story arc which I cannot wait to start telling to the players.”