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"[The setting] leads us to conclude early on that we're in some kind of simulation but as to who, or what, we are and why we are here, we have to piece that together from —all together now— ♫Random documents and audio logs♫"
Yahtzee, In his review of The Talos Principle

There are multiple ways for a video game to tell a story, but they generally fall into are two major categories. The first is more direct, with player control (or at least a good amount of it) being briefly removed to deliver a short movie or cinematic that will convey the game's narrative. The other is more indirect, and comes in the form of epistolary scraps of information lying around the game world for the player to find or ignore at one's leisure. This includes item and enemy descriptions, NPC dialogue, and even details in the environment itself such as worn architecture. These are called Story Breadcrumbs, as rather than deliver a information in a large loaf of bread, information is given in much smaller bite-sized morsels. In academic game design they may also be called "embedded narrative"note  and "environmental storytelling."

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The standard cutscene and story breadcrumb approaches aren't mutually exclusive, with most games using some mix of both. As such, these breadcrumbs are meant mostly as a form of World Building in most cases, giving the player additional context about the game world (or sometimes the character themselves). Of course there are games, namely those with a heavy focus on exploration within some sort of isolated setting, that use this as its main method of story delivery. After all, if the player is already meandering all over the game world as it is, why not weave the story into that? Story breadcrumbs allow the game's fictional world to feel more alive, but the downside of games that make heavy use of them is that, as previously stated, they can be more easily ignored than a cutscene. So depending on how the title is structured, there's a chance that the player could miss some of the more important breadcrumbs, or just struggle to figure out how all the information connects, and find themselves hitting the end credits clueless as to what the story actually was.

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When a video game has an Apocalyptic Log, it's almost always split up to be pieced together non-linearly. Is often presented in Anachronic Order or hidden inside Flavor Text, and may be interspersed with playing tips. Compare the non-videogame Scrapbook Story.

Contrast Exposition Break, Dialogue Tree, and All There in the Manual. For detective stories see Linked List Clue Methodology.


Examples:

    open/close all folders 

    Action-Adventure 
  • In Beyond Good & Evil you either talk to every character multiple times and read every message sent to you, or experience a less impactful story and become confused over how exactly their world works. That is probably the biggest flaw in an otherwise great game.
  • In the Metroid Prime Trilogy, Samus can use the Enemy Scan function on computers and equipment to find logs from the Space Pirate villains, the Federation, and various alien races. The first Metroid Prime game is such a severe example of this that it's possible to complete the entire game without a single clue of what you're doing or why you're doing it, if you don't use the Scan Visor much. Literally all the story, aside from some introductory text, is in logs and scans. The later titles include some cutscenes and basic plot development, but most of the exposition is left to you to find.
  • Most of Link's forgotten memories in The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild are retrieved through an optional sidequest where you find the locations corresponding to saved pictures on the Sheikah Slate. These memories involve Link's past interactions with Zelda as they looked for ways to find out how to defeat Calamity Ganon.

    Adventure Game 
  • Common in Interactive Fiction. A good example is Theatre, which has scraps from a character's diary lying around the titular theater.
  • Myst and its sequels. As a series about magic books, mundane journals fill in a lot of story padded by background information.
  • In The Secret of Monkey Island, the title island is littered with notes from Herman and the Cannibals addressing each other, and sometimes Lechuck, which were used as their communication methods, and varied from things such as that the catapult was very dangerous and should be dismantled to complaining that the Monkey head makes too much noise at night.
  • Event[0] tells a lot of the background story and world building through the logs on each computer terminal scattered across the spaceship.
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    Beat'em Up 

    Environmental Narrative Game 
  • Gone Home drops you off at your abandoned home with only your family belongings to tell the story of what happened. Despite the horror tone of the show, the story you piece together is related to your family's drama ever since the player character left her parents' house. While her parents faced a tough patch on their marriage as they stirred away from each other and her mother fell for a younger co-worker, the player character's little sister falls in love with a girl in a Coming-of-Age Story.
  • What Remains of Edith Finch has a variation, where the random notes pull you in to flashbacks detailing the death of one of Edith's family members. Molly has her final diary entry, Barbara has a comic book, Gregory has a letter from his father to his mother, Sam has a series of photographs, Lewis has a letter from his therapist, Milton has a flip book, and so on. The entire game is actually Edith's flashback; she died in childbirth and you are playing as her son reading her diary.

    Metroidvania 
  • In Axiom Verge, though the exposition is delivered through cutscenes, further elucidation of the backstory is left to notes hidden in many obscure places.
  • In La-Mulana, many of the tablets scattered throughout the levels, once Lemeza has what it takes to decode their glyphs, will reveal background information on the ruins, often doubling as puzzle hints.
  • In Shadow Complex guards that don't immediately see you will often talk to one another, dropping hints on what's going on with the plot.
  • An Untitled Story has some story breadcrumbs hidden in The Secret Library. Some of them are provided by Ghosts, the Sky Town citizens and three birds who are found outside of Sky Town.
  • Hollow Knight takes a page from Dark Souls' playbook, feeding the player bits and pieces of lore through item descriptions, background elements and occasional bits of dialogue from NPCs and expecting them to piece everything together themselves.
  • In Sundered, players need to listen to the Shining Trapezohedron’s history lessons in the crystal rooms and read various lore snippets hidden in the skill tree to get a complete picture of the plot.

    RPG — Eastern 
  • FromSoftware's Demon's Souls, the Dark Souls trilogy, and Bloodborne all take a minimalistic method of storytelling to an extreme. Almost all backstory and plot development (occasionally even information vitally important to understanding the plot) being told either through the short inventory item descriptions, sparse dialogue with NPCs, or occasionally just hinting at things through the level design. Even then, the information provided is still spotty and the players are left to fill in much of it with their own imaginations, thus making multiple interpretations of the game possible.

    FROM's director-in-chief Hidetaka Miyazaki claims that this form of storytelling was inspired by his own attempts to read Western fantasy novels as a teenager despite not knowing much English, which caused him to only understand brief fragments of the story, much of which referred to mysterious sounding events explained in the parts he could not read.
  • Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles tells little snippets of the game's lore and the player's ultimate goal through random encounters with NPCs on the map and through the player's own diary entries. In fact, the game is perfectly happy to let the player go about their caravan duties indefinitely until they eventually infer that to continue with the story and beat the game they're supposed to charge their chalice with the 5th element to be able to travel to Mount Vellenge and destroy the source of the miasma.
  • In Pokémon Red and Blue, the abandoned, wild-Pokémon-overrun Pokémon Mansion on Cinnabar Island holds a scattered number of journal entries describing the capture of Mew and the mysterious birth of its child Mewtwo, whose "vicious tendencies" apparently cannot be curbed. Well, not without a Poké Ball...
    • Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire add a new backstory to the Abandoned Ship (now called Sea Mauville) in a similar fashion. You can find various letters and other reports lying around the ship; details include why it was shut down and some rather depressing info on some of its former workers.
  • In Kingdom Hearts, the Ansem Reports and the Secret Ansem Reports detail the creation of the Big Bad and the game's enemies. They can be found in various places in the first game and various plot milestones in the second.
    • The whole plot of Kingdom Hearts χ is done this way, with the story only popping up after dozens and even hundreds of unrelated missions, making it the slowest paced story in the franchise.
  • Undertale:
    • The narrative gives enough hints along the way about Flowey's origin, particularly in the Genocide and Neutral runs, to at least put together a decent idea of who he actually is. A straight-forward answer and closure is one of your rewards for obtaining the Golden Ending of the Pacifist Run.
    • W.D. Gaster, a character who fell into the core and thus ceased to exist from the game's narrative completely, takes it one step further since you need to actively cheat, hack the game, and even read the game's code to find all but one of the references to him. Given the nature of the game, he's essentially someone who was Dummied Out In-Universe.
  • The Secret Reports from The World Ends with You. Not only do they help flesh out the world and setting but they also give detail to the various circumstances of the plot that Neku and his friends weren’t privy to.

    RPG — Western 
  • The first Diablo had a setup like this. Books placed on pedestals throughout the catacombs under Tristram would tell you the story how Diablo came to be buried under Tristram, along with other events that precede the game. That said, the game's manual contained all the same story elements in more detail.
  • The main storyline of The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind places you smack in the middle of the final chapter of the millenia-old drama revolving around the Heart of Lorkhan and the Living Gods of the Tribunal. If you want to learn the contents of the previous chapters, however, you have no choice but to read most of the in-game books, converse with members of the Temple, and generally keep your eyes open for any clues, as the game world is absolutely steeped in the Tribunal lore.
  • The important backstory of Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords is hidden in obscure dialogue options, which may or may now show up depending on your gender, Force alignment, influence with each particular companion and even the number of previous walkthroughs. It takes at least two of them to get even a vague idea of what's going on and even more of those, combined with lurking through the dialogue files, to get all subtleties.
  • Neverwinter Nights and Baldur's Gate are prone to this with "book" items that you can read using the "Examine" command, which tell brief stories about the history of the Forgotten Realms, which is where the games take place. None of these stories are ever really useful to the plot, but the books are worth a couple gold if you sell them.
  • Salt and Sanctuary borrows a lot from FromSoftware's above examples, even in terms of how it structures its narrative. The only way to learn about the harsh world you're trapped in and figure out what's going on is to read what you can from Story Breadcrumbs in the item descriptions and skill tree, and listen to what the few NPCs willing to speak to you can say. And true to form, there are still a lot of blanks left for you to fill in.
  • Nexus Clash has hints about the backstory of the world scattered about in thousands of pieces split between findable books, newspapers, Flavor Text for many of the locations you can visit, and badges earned for visiting plot-critical places. Some of it comes with game-mechanics rewards and some doesn't, but a lot of the breadcrumbs that don't have in-game rewards attached to them are riddled with clues as to where to find the crumbs that do. The wiki keeps a complete catalog of the crumbs for people who don't feel up to piecing it together themselves.

    Shooter — First-Person 
  • The Conduit uses secret messages and radio and television broadcasts in-game to provide background information and updates on events throughout the game.
  • While the Halo series has always had cutscenes that give you a general idea of what's going at the present time of the story, beginning with Halo 3 they have also included terminals, data pads, or audio logs scattered throughout the levels that divulge additional information on the backstory and expanded universe of the series.
    • Halo 3: ODST features audio recordings scattered around New Mombasa, telling the story of a girl trying to rescue her father during the Covenant invasion of the city. The thirty of them can be collected from certain pay phones, ATMs, and other kiosks; no matter where you find them, though, you'll always get them in order.
  • Marathon tells its story by means of computer terminals that give text-based infodumps. Certain terminals are required to progress, but others are secondary ones which simply give more information about The 'Verse and what is going on.
  • Metro Exodus: The plot is explicitly about travelling through post-apocalyptic Russia, looking for a new place to live, but you learn the back stories of the areas that you visit by overhearing NPC conversations, and by finding random documents and audio logs.
  • The Nintendo DS shooter Moon has at least two separate sets of logs the player can find on computer consoles throughout the facility. The problem was that these logs contain shocking information that will later be relayed to the characters in the normal course of the story. Basically, the game spoils its own plot twists.
  • The System Shock and BioShock series both have often-eerie audio recordings from before and after the disasters happened that you can easily listen to while still walking around.
  • TRON 2.0: Jet, like the player, knows very little about the "off the books" experiments and dirty politics involved at Encom, or the even dirtier plans and experiments of rival company F-Con. It's through in-game emails the player downloads and reads that reveal what's going on in the analog world.
  • Unreal I told its story through messages from the various races and personnel involved, ranging from survivors that came from the prison ship you crashed in, to the diaries of the natives of the planet you landed on, to orders from the enemy aliens' army. One entire level revolves around trying to find someone who might be an ally, solely told through logs detailing her escape from both the enemy aliens, and the natives. The expansion pack broke some of the mold off by having the player character speak and narrate between levels, but there are still logs to be found.
  • Doom
    • Doom 3 can be treated as a classic level-based shooter as long as you treat PDA's as parts of a Lock and Key Puzzle. However, if you delve further into them than just for finding door codes, there's a plethora of information on how Mars City was faring before your arrival, including the increasingly bizarre and frightening incidents (people hearing voices, pieces of heavy equipment that activate on their own and cannot be shut down at all, behavioral changes in personnel, and so on) caused by the latent demonic activity invited in by the teleportation experiments. The audio logs and e-mails detail those incidents from the perspective of ordinary workers, oblivious to the satanic nature of the bad things happening around and sometimes to them.
    • The 2016 game continues the trend with logs about the various enemies you face, the areas you visit, and the characters you meet. The last one in particular answers questions never brought up in the base game, such as why Samuel Hayden has a cybernetic body and why Olivia Pierce is so eager to study and assist the demons.

    Shooter — Third-Person 
  • In Alan Wake, collectable pages of Alan's novel Departure tell you what's going to happen, what has happened, and the motivations of the Eldritch Abomination nipping at your heels throughout the game. Failing that, it becomes difficult to see what's happening outside of Wake's perspective, or to see the deeper motivations of the antagonists.
  • In Quantum Break, the plot centres around a complex time travel accident, so there's collectable documents scattered throughout the game explaining what's going on behind the scenes and explaining the scientific side things. Acquiring certain items even unlocks bonus character diaries in the menus, and it's all compounded by TV episodes spliced between the game's chapters, which are effected by the game choices to boot and show the perspective of secondary characters and antagonists. Or, if you'd prefer, you could just skip or not read the collectables and ignore the TV show provided you don't mind having zero idea what's happening outside of protagonist Jack Joyce's perspective.
  • Dead Space series has parts where you arrive on the scene after the inevitable necromorph outbreak has taken hold, meaning you can only find documents and recordings that reveal what lead up to and happened during the massacre; save for a few vital documents that auto-play, the game doesn't force you to view any of them.
  • Gears of War 2 has little trinkets you can find that tell the stories of dead soldiers.
  • In Left 4 Dead, you can piece together what happens, somewhat, by various messages written on the walls.
  • Splatoon and its sequel reveal various details about its world, the Inklings, Octarians and various other creatures that inhabit it, and its backstory via the Sunken Scrolls. One is hidden in each single-player level, with the scrolls being pictures of various elements with research notes attached to them. The second game's Octo Expansion DLC campaign is more upfront with its story elements, but still has eleven unlockable chatlogs which expand on some of the game's characters and the nature of the Deepsea Metro, in addition to poems attached to the collectibles received at the end of each test chamber, reflecting Agent 8's inner thoughts.
  • Warframe hides away many World Building and backstory details behind weapon descriptions, warframe codex entries, cephalon fragments found throughout the Solar System, synthesis imprints from Cephalon Simaris, Leverian expositions and even enemy codex entries; Stalker's entry contains significant insight into Tenno's backstory.

    Platform Game 
  • In The Cave there are cave paintings you can find that describe the backstories of the three characters you are currently controlling.
  • The Bridge has only scattered scraps of text and images to help you make sense of what's happening. Practically nothing is ever fully explained.
  • The enemy logs in Iji; unusual in that the player's actions, such as taking the Pacifist Run route, can influence the contents.
  • The PC version of Mario Is Missing! has all of the Excuse Plot set up for you in the opening, but during the actual gameplay, you can check newspapers for developments on things like what is currently happening with the penguins, as well as Mario himself keeping in contact with you on how he's doing and how the Koopas are reacting toward your efforts to stop the funding of their "melt the South Pole with hairdryers" plot.
  • In Mega Man ZX Advent, when Grey/Ashe copies their first enemy Mega Man form (from Atlas), they get a strange vision about someone detailing "The Game of Destiny". Later on you'll find more ciphers like this, and eventually you'll discover who's behind all this and his intentions.
  • While every Kirby game can be played as a simple quest to defeat the Eldritch Abomination of the Week, many of the later entries use the bosses' pause menu Flavor Text to provide elaboration on several plot-critical characters, including their origins, motivations, and sometimes even hints of connections with other forces of evil Kirby's previously dealt with.

    Survival Horror 
  • Five Nights at Freddy's takes this to the max, with only a portion of the clues actually being WORDS. More specifically:
    • In the first game, your only clues to the backstory might not even show up in your playthrough- one of the random events that might happen is the list of rules might change into one of several newspaper articles, which reveal that the animatronics are probably haunted by a group of children murdered at the pizzeria, and that the place is set to close by the end of the year.
    • In the second, you get some info from the Phone Guy's messages, but for the most part you get lore from minigames that have a chance to play once you get killed. The minigames have simplistic graphics and gameplay, but they also show lore events. There are four minigames. 'Bring Cake to the Children', where you play as Freddy and must move between children whenever they get unhappy to bring them cake, while one child is left outside. Eventually, a car will pull up and a man will kill the child. A Marionette jumpscare follows. 'Go! Go! Go! Foxy', where you play as Foxy and run from one room to another to entertain children, and after a few rounds of this, the same guy who killed the first child will be in the starting room, and all the kids will be dead, ending with a Foxy jumpscare. 'Give Gifts/Give Life', where you play as the Puppet and give gift boxes to the dead children, followed by putting masks of the animatronics on them (strongly implied to be a metaphor for helping them haunt the animatronics), capping off with a Golden Freddy jumpscare, and a game where you play as Freddy and follow the Puppet to try and prevent the murders. You can also encounter the Murderer.
    • The third game has the Phone Guy's recordings, plus between-the-night games/cutscenes (you can move around freely, but can't change how it ends) which tell how the animatronics were broken and how Springtrap came to be. And if you can follow the obscure hints in them, you can unlock the secret minigames, where you find and comfort the ghost children, allowing them to move on.
    • The fourth game has between-the-night minigames plus a few random alterations to the room. An IV or a bottle of pills will appear next to the bed, hinting that the player is actually in the hospital after having their head crunched in by Fredbear.
    • The fifth game has the requisite death minigames, plus blueprints for the animatronics and, for the first time, full voiced lines from the animatronics and protagonist. After Custom Night, completing each preset will grant you more cutscenes of the aftermath of the game.
    • Pizzeria Simulator has more voiced animatronics, plus Cassette Guy.
    • Ultimate Custom Night has death quotes from each animatronic, which range from silly ("don't you hate being killed by obscure secondary characters?") to deeply plot-relevant.
    • The VR game has Tape Girl's tapes.
  • FNAF fangame Fredbear and Friends goes for a more typical approach, as you can find a number of audio tapes throughout the story's first section. While most of them are recordings of customers being interviewed about what the pizzeria meant for them, some are more sinister, such as the warning of a suspicious man stalking the premises, or a mention of the guards going missing at night.
  • In Penumbra, the Apocalyptic Log is scattered up in individual notes to be found along the quest.
  • Rule of Rose: These are scattered about everywhere and in many different forms, including newspaper articles, old photographs, interactions between the other orphans and several objects that hold some sort of deeper meaning to Jennifer. Of course, given the game is implied to be Jennifer's internal journey to put her own shattered memories back together, this type of storytelling is to be expected.
  • The backstory of Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs unfolds as we discover Oswald's journal entries, which are scattered around the building.
  • Resident Evil, not known for complex plotting, has plenty of completely optional story in journals left lying around. They actually make for an engaging backstory.

    Wide Open Sandbox 
  • In Brütal Legend, there are artifacts scattered all over the landscape which play cutscenes detailing the history of the world. Unless you've been diligently hunting them down, you'll reach a point in the game where characters (including the one you play as) start talking about the Black Tear Rebellion as if the player should know what it was.
  • inFAMOUS has "Dead Drops", recordings left by the agent you've agreed to rescue that help flesh out the backstory.
  • No Man's Sky uses relics from the past and ruins to help tell its backstory while letting players determine for themselves what it means.
  • Many background events in [PROTOTYPE] are explained only in optional Web of Intrigue nodes.

    Other Genres 
  • Much of Fisher-Diver's story comes from the diary entries left behind with the guffins scattered about underwater.
  • Hunted: The Demon's Forge has corpses you can question for bits of backstory and enemy descriptions.
  • Lakeview Cabin relies on the player's observational skills to tell its Backstory, with little details like the picture over the bed, the booze bottles strewn around or the bubbles near where the monster emerges.
    • Lakeview Cabin Collection follows the same pattern. You can also pick up certain items, which appear on your 'character select' menu and can be inspected. The exact amount of storytelling done this way varies; III offers several scraps of paper that can be found with relative ease, while IV has only one document, the Last Will, which requires considerable effort to track down.
  • In Not The Robots audio logs are unlocked as the player gains experience from clearing levels. These logs give the only hints about why the office building is abandoned and full of hostile robots.
  • The plot behind the Soul Series of Fighting Games is given almost entirely through character, weapon, and stage profiles. Further complicating the plot is that these profiles generally only say what the relevant character knows; If the character doesn't know his opponent's name, that opponent is just called a "mysterious swordsman/monk/bandit/soldier/etc," and figuring out which character that is (if it is a named character at all) requires context work.
  • Tyrian features cubes dropped by particular enemies on each level, which can hold stuff from reasonable backstory details, to silly advertisement and propaganga, to stuff like the hot-dog ninja. Since the game is a scrolling shooter with branching levels, it is pretty easy to miss a cube-holding enemy somewhere.
  • Virtue's Last Reward has a bunch of documents that you get from completing rooms without hints that expand the world a bit and explains things that happened in the game. Though unfortunately it hands you some of these before the twists, making the game spoil itself similar to Moon, listed above.
  • World of Goo tells much of its story through the Sign Painter's... signs, which just as often contain gameplay advice. Then there are the occasional messages found on other signs.
  • The Shmup Hellsinker manages to do a strange mix of this trope and Purple Prose. Much of the story is bits and pieces that is hidden in the prose, but that only holds part of the picture. The game namely also uses the trope in it's classical use with loads of bits of story hints and dialogue hidden away deep in the game itself that only the most obsessive of gamers might find.
  • Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia has a couple versions of this.
    • First off are the Memory Prisms, which you can find scattered about various places (usually, but not always, in towns) that expand on certain characters' backstories, as well as giving more information on characters added for the remake. For example, how Zeke and Tatiana met, how Berkut and Rinea met, and a time where Jesse saved Silque from bandits shortly before the start of the game.
    • The other example would be the stone tablets scattered throughout the new post-game dungeon, Thabes Labyrinth. They explain the origin story of Awakening's Big Bad, Grima, telling how he was created and giving some information on his creator, Forneus.
  • The Spectrum Retreat has two sets of these:
    • The text logs scattered throughout the hotel, left behind by the Penrose's designer Cameron Worrall, which detail the behind-the-scenes workings of the place and the Spectrum company.
    • The flashbacks found in puzzle rooms and later, the hotel as well, which refer to your character's past, through dialogue, images, documents, or some combination of those.
  • Backstories to many of the Disney Theme Parks are generally rendered through various details scattered throughout the queue when they aren't given in the form of pre-shows or provided Disney literature.
  • Slay the Spire doesn't offer much plot up front, aside from "you're an adventurer, ascend the Spire and slay it". Bits of information about the world, the character's backstory and the nature of your quest can be found scattered around various random events and some relic descriptions.
  • Welcome To Boon Hill: The stories of the people buried in the graveyard can be pieced together by reading what's written on the headstones.
  • Higurashi: When They Cry and Sea Bed have "TIPS," which are pieces of story exposition that are "out of narrative" with the main point-of-view characters, and unlock after certain chapters of the story have been completed.
  • SINoALICE's narrative is mostly delivered through vague and small nuggets of info spread apart in the story mode and the job/weapon descriptions, only offering hints at whats going on most of the time.

Alternative Title(s): Embedded Narrative

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