Dramatic irony in interactive fiction

For the past few weeks, I’ve been working on my first interactive short story, and polished it to the point I was ready to show it to somebody else. Naturally they found a bunch of problems, but there’s one in particular that I wanted to discuss with more experienced IF authors.

(For completeness, the story is The Lost Temple of Kingara, although I’m more interested in what I should do next time than trying to patch up this one)

My goal for this game was to explore and experiment with dramatic irony. Frustratingly, I have to admit the experiment was a failure. As it turns out, it’s really hard for the game-designer to talk directly to the player, bypassing the character, when the game is entirely narrated by the character. I had hoped that if I described things in enough detail, the player would recognise them even though the character did not… but things didn’t work out that way.

Perhaps I could have put more labels on things? Just because the character can read text like “authorised personnel only” doesn’t mean they understand it, but it will give the player more of a clue about what’s going on. On the other hand, not everything is labelled in the real world, so I think an excess of labels would obscure matters rather than make them clear. Also, it stretches credulity to have a character that can fluently read the idioms of some time and place without recognising any of them.

I used first-person-past for this story because I wanted to try something other than the traditional second-person-present, but perhaps third-person would better keep the player and the character separate. I’m not sure I’ve ever played a third-person IF game, though - do they exist? Is third-person a really bad idea for some reason?

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To answer that one specific question, there was, a long time ago, Bored Of The Rings:

But there the third person was a nod to the game’s literary origins. I don’t think it was intended to be a sort of player-distancing effect.

Interesting situation. I can see how, if you want to have a clear distinction between the narrator’s knowledge and the character’s knowledge, it could be challenging to do that in first person. I suppose the narrator could be narrating something that happened when they were younger and inexperienced, and could make distinctions in the narration about what they knew then vs. what they knew now (e.g. “I didn’t realize at the time that…”). Or there could be other characters who make comments that clue the player in to other interpretations of what’s going on, but that sort of thing (like the labels, as you said) only goes so far if there’s no good reason for the character not to understand.

In one of my games, the player has to figure out something that the character knows, but doesn’t say, and that the narrator doesn’t state outright, but figuring that out is part of the puzzle, and I clued it pretty heavily. (And it wasn’t written in first person.) Doing that sort of thing again and again (for different pieces of unstated knowledge) in the same game would probably take a lot of planning.

I can’t think offhand of any third-person IF I’ve played. I’m curious to hear what others say. But Augmented Fourth, if I recall correctly, has some “Meanwhile, in another part of the kingdom…” style cutscenes that tell the player what is going on elsewhere.

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When the Land Goes Under the Water is third person.

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Level 9’s Lancelot (which I haven’t played) appears to be in third person. There seem to be some second-person messages but I believe they are addressed to the player rather than to Lancelot.

I feel like there have to be more choice-based games in third person than I’m thinking of. Abbess Otilia’s Life and Death by Arno von Borries is one.

As for dramatic irony, Slouching Towards Bedlam by Star Foster and Daniel Ravipinto does something with replays (which have an in-game explanation) that creates dramatic irony–also something interesting with the narration that I won’t spoil here. Treasures of a Slaver’s Kingdom by S. John Ross does something with dramatic irony by having the protagonist be a thick barbarian who doesn’t notice something obvious to the player (Emily Short discusses it here). Lost Pig by Admiral Jota also has the player understand things that the PC doesn’t because the PC is a bit thick, though I don’t know if there’s any heavy dramatic irony there. (Also it’s debatably third-person, though the thing is more that Grunk talk to self in third person anyway.) Those games are all highly recommended classics!

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Also I liked your game! Honestly I think that putting more explanation in would have ruined it (though of course I had the advantage of knowing that you were going for something I would understand but the narrator wouldn’t). Figuring out what I was dealing with was most of the fun.

There’s a “third person” tag on IFDB.

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This isn’t exactly the same thing, but have you heard of the term “accretive PC”? It’s a fairly uncommon IF style that plays with the distance between narrator and player in interesting ways.

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Since dramatic irony comes from the theater tradition, in which the audience is a passive observer of active characters, I think it would be very difficult to reliably generate it in IF. If there are vivid messages about what the character is supposed to be thinking, AND the player already possesses knowledge about the situation, it might be possible. But that knowledge probably can’t be conveyed to the player.
A good example of this is “The Writing on the Wall”, a My Little Pony fanfic (surprisingly good IMO) in which an archaeological team tries to explore an impossibly-ancient “tomb”. If the reader happens to recognize the features of the site from their knowledge of the real world, the entire story becomes an exercise in ironic horror - but if they don’t, the story will be perceived very differently. I could easily imagine it being turned into IF, but the basic issue would be the same - the game could not convey the meaning of the clues within itself without also letting the cat out of the bag for the characters.

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I think I’d disagree that it’s impossible to generate dramatic irony in first person text, or that the game you shared failed to convey that irony. Of course, I went into it with your post forewarning me, but I’ve noticed very similar examples in novels narrated from the perspective of unaware characters.

Spoilers ahead for a couple of sci-fi/fantasy novels: I’m thinking of The Shattered Sea by Joe Abercrombie (a very small part of the story) and The Steerswoman by Rosemary Kirstein (a much larger part).

If you’ve run into players not understanding your descriptions, I think there are ways to make them clearer without resorting to labels. A specific example from your game: The word “peel” originally made me think the roll of receipt paper was tape. Adding a description of the feeling or sound of it crumpling could help.

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(I take it everybody is talking about “dramatic irony” in the sense I first google, where the meaning of a scene is changed by the audience’s awareness of things the characters don’t know.)

It’s worth considering a very famliar form of (minor) dramatic irony, which shows up in books, movies, games, all sorts of media. To wit: the protagonist walks into a bookshop and picks up a weird old tome. Protagonist thinks “This looks cool, I’ll decorate my bookshelves with it.” Reader thinks “No no no, don’t do that, it’s evil!” Because the reader knows that this is the protagonist of a story titled Nyarlathotep Comes To Dinner and the cover has bad airbrushed art of tentacles on a black background. The protagonist doesn’t know that – at least not in chapter 1. So, very different reactions.

Nothing about IF makes this more difficult.

Beyond genre-unawareness, one can show elements of a setting which the character doesn’t have the educatioh or background to understand. That’s the examples Joan mentioned above.

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Wow, thanks to everyone for all the comments and suggestions, I’m looking forward to playing through all these examples of third-person narrative and dramatic irony!

Thanks, that’s definitely the feeling I was going for!

I have not! I assume this Emily Short column is what you’re talking about? You’re right, it’s not exactly the same thing, but I’ll keep it in mind for the future.

That’s this one, yes? It’s now on my list!

Thank you, but as matt_weiner said, expecting some kind of dramatic irony is a big clue. Once the player has realised something’s up, there’s ways to make the second layer more accessible (like the wording change you suggest), but I’m thinking about how to trigger that curiosity in the first place.

“dramatic irony” is a term I came across while reading up about the feeling I was trying to convey, but the feeling itself came from a scene in a (graphical) adventure game called Inherit The Earth: Quest for the Orb, which I offer as a concrete example of what I’m after:

The game starts off in a straight-forward medieval-fairytale setting, with anthropomorphic animals portraying character archetypes (the Deer Tribe are noble defenders of the forest, the Mouse Tribe run a university, etc.) As the game begins, the Orb of Storms has been stolen — a magical device that predicts the weather — and the player character (Rif of the cunning Fox Tribe) is tasked to find it.

Eventually, Rif learns that the engineering-focussed Beaver Tribe possess an Orb of Building, and reasons that the two magical orbs might know about each other, so he asks the Beavers for help. The Beavers grant him an audience with the Orb, and after a solemn ritual of invocation, the Orb says something like BOOT-UP SEQUENCE COMPLETE. Rif isn’t sure what that means, but the Beavers assure him it’s a perfectly normal thing for an Orb to say, so he very respectfully asks his question, and the Orb responds SYNTAX ERROR. REDO FROM START.

At this point, Rif is dismayed, and the Beavers are apologetic that their Orb couldn’t help, but as the player I barely noticed how the characters felt. Instead, I immediately recognised that this Orb was alien to the medieval-fairytale setting I was expecting, and my mind was racing to re-categorise all the things I’d learned and seen in the game up to that point.

This particular instance is an example of signalling irony through out-of-place dialogue. It would work just as well in pure text and in first-person as it would visually or in third-person, because the words in question have no meaning to the player-character, only to the player. However, it works particularly well because “syntax error” and “redo from start” are phrases so iconic of early 80s home computers — if the game’s authors wanted to signal something like “medieval Romanian poetry” there might not be a sufficiently iconic phrase available.

For my own game, I did briefly contemplate putting a sign above the temple entrance reading MAXIMUM CLEARANCE 2.0m, but I eventually decided that would make things too obvious. Maybe it would have been a good idea after all.

Another thought: have you played 9:05 by Adam Cadre? It’s sort of…the exact opposite of classical dramatic irony, where the irony comes from the player/audience not knowing something that the PC/character definitely would.

(If you haven’t, I recommend trying it before reading the spoiler; it takes only a few minutes to reach an ending, and then you’ll know exactly why I think it’s relevant.)

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A related term in literature is the “unreliable narrator”. Examples of this abound. A clever reader sees past the unreliable narrator by applying their prior knowledge to see the flaws in the narrator’s perspective, and reaching a different conclusion.

There are some in the IF community who believe it is a mistake to assume prior knowledge from the reader (this is especially true in puzzle design where, for example, if there is a puzzle involving Morse code, players have come to expect there will be a Morse code translator key somewhere in game). However, as a writer it is also a mistake to assume the player is merely a blank slate. Plan your writing well, and you can lead the reader to draw their own conclusions, separate from those asserted by the text.

Good question. I don’t want to get lost in the details, but I mentioned a couple of book series that conveyed their sci-fi elements despite my expecting pure fantasy. I think the way the authors made this work was by sowing seeds of doubt before the actual technology appeared. Characters would describe magic as something that had been lost long ago, or kept very secret, and so I was more ready to question it when it did come up.

So to get from the specific to the general: Maybe it’s helpful to introduce a lesser element of uncertainty, something contrary to genre expectations, early on.

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You can do dramatic irony in almost any kind of narrative. What immediately comes to mind is something like The Stanley Parable where the narrator gleefully talks about what Stanley is in for to the player, or says what Stanley chose even though the player can defy the instructions.

Also I seem to recall Hitchhiker’s Guide the Infocom game playing with this a lot since it’s inherent in Douglas Adams. In the radio play there’s one scene where the narrator mentions one character was injured, but explains that their identity is being kept secret to heighten the suspense. After the credits are over, the Narrator pipes up and flatly relays “Arthur bruised his arm…”

Perhaps also Spider and Web where the player is being interrogated and plays through their version of events, then the interrogator responds to the effect of “But you didn’t really do that, did you?” and the scenario is replayed with new information and options - the player has new things to do, but this is plot-conveyed as actions the PC doesn’t want to reveal to the interrogator.

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Spider and Web also has the “inverse irony” I mentioned in The Big Puzzle, You Know Which One—and honestly pulls it off tremendously well. I’d say it’s another good one to look at as a shining example.

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Nobody has mentioned The Warbler’s Nest yet. This is, I think, an excellent example of interactive dramatic irony, because you may end up choosing to roleplay as the protagonist, and do what’s right based on their limited understanding of the situation.

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“Nothing about IF makes this more difficult.”

I cannot disagree more strongly.

The archetypal example is of a character in a horror movie slowly moving towards a threatening door. The audience, knowing the greater context, experiences a vicarious impulse to avoid the door and/or warn the character away; the character inevitably progresses towards the door. The resulting tension is heightened because the viewer’s desire for avoidance has no effect and it’s not possible to warn the character in any way. That situation in IF would be very different, because the audience actually controls the character, and any impulse to avoid the door results in behavior within the story - the avatar will avoid it. The lack of conflict results in a lack of heightened tension. Also, if the author wishes the player to open the door, the desire to avoid it will have to be overcome by a motivation to open it - and it’s hard to make that motivation dramatically ironic.

The example of 9:05 (great game!) is complex, because [SPOILERS] its irony arises only if you play it more than once, with the player’s memory of previous playthroughs being the critical knowledge the protagonist doesn’t have. The first time through? It’s not ironic at all, because the player is ignorant; trying to dispel that ignorance in the first playthrough would ruin the game.

(edit to add) The examples of IF dramatic irony I’ve seen thus far typically involved retrospective irony - the player perceives past things in a new light because of gained knowledge. PROspective dramatic irony is something I don’t think I’ve ever encountered in IF.

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I can think of a few games related to this, but not directly.

Rameses gets almost all of its impact from the disconnect between player and character. The reader soon realizes that none of the choices will matter, but I’m not sure if Rameses does. It’s entirely possible that he thinks he might follow through with some of his thoughts, but we know that he’s not going to.

There’s a few humor games that rely on this, too. For instance, in the game Pick Up the Phone Booth and Die, it should be pretty clear before you even play what will happen if you pick up the phone booth. But having your character do it anyway can be pretty fun. Violet has a gag waiting for traditional IF-type players who try to search in weird spots like under the desk, and the whole bit in Enchanter about the Adventurer character relies on out-of-game knowledge of what typical Zork players are like.

Perhaps a more traditional example would be Jim Munroe’s Everybody Dies, where the name is self-explanatory but none of the characters are aware of it. Oh, and Glowgrass has an archaeologist character from the future puzzling over things like frisbees and garages.

I don’t know if these are actually examples of dramatic irony or not, but this discussion reminded me of them.

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