Language of IF criticism

When writing reviews, I find myself alternately referring to the player’s avatar as the “player character” (abbreviating to “PC”) or as “protagonist.” I’m not deliberately trying to demarcate between story-IF and game-IF, but I’m genuinely confused about what kind of language to use to describe features and functionality of IF. I have also used more technical language to describe the elements of story-heavy IF that I critiqued almost exclusively as story – making little mention of puzzles or implementation – while still using gamer jargon in the review.

I feel more natural using “protagonist” to talk about the main character in a Twine game (or a similar hypertext IF) than the main character in either ChoiceScript games or in parser-IF. This may be due to the fact that Twine games don’t give me a strong sense of individual character viewpoint. I’m often not controlling the character directly as in videogames and in parser-IF; I’m clicking words that often have no explicitly stated relationship to whatever action any relevant characters may be taking. Although I’m also not directly controlling action in ChoiceScript games due to the high granularity, the options usually make it very clear that the protagonist is doing something important, something usually tied to my explicit wishes as the player regarding how I want the plot to develop.

(I’m not trying to dump on Twine here. I’m trying to explain the differences between these three broad categories of IF as I see them in order to explain why I’m having a hard time finding the right words to discuss IF concepts such as the concept of a player avatar.)

In a MUD forum I used to read years ago, roleplaying was seriously discussed as collaborative storytelling. People used “PC” to refer to player characters all the time, and they also used analogies to theater and novels to discuss the RP storytelling and character development. (“RP” – there’s another one of the technical abbreviations.) So, I don’t feel that critiquing IF as story means avoiding technical game-based terminology. The balance is hard to get right, though.

So, I think there are at least three ways to critique IF:

  • As story
  • As game
  • As hypertext

I trying to find a way to transition seamlessly between these three domains in order to review as well as I can.

I think you’ll have to take it game by game. In most games I’ve played, the PC is the protagonist, so you can use the terms interchangeably. But in a few games the PC is not the protagonist, or there’s no clear PC. (On the CoG forums, people mostly use “MC” (Main Character) to describe what I would usually call the PC.)

Nick Montfort wrote a bunch about terminology for IF roles in Twisty Little Passages. That was tightly focussed on the parser-IF community at the time that he wrote it, though. (Many years ago.)

I think “protagonist” and “player character” are generally going to be interchangeable. Even in a game where the story is “about” another character (say, the viewpoint character is explicitly a sidekick) I would expect to talk about the player’s character as the game’s protagonist.

On the other hand we often (and usefully) distinguish between the protagonist and the player.

walking home by spinach is a good example of Twine poetry that arguably has no PC. There are no choices at all, and the piece is told in the first person.

I would have a hard time thinking of the player character in Galatea as the protagonist.

In general - yeah, okay. But I think in some games there is a useful distinction to be made between player character and protagonist.

Stories can have multiple protagonists, and games usually do. Consider a CRPG like Final Fantasy where you control a party of characters. They’re all PCs, and they’re all protagonists.

In the case of Galatea, I’d say that there’s an NPC protagonist and a PC protagonist. But you can also play Galatea as an antagonist.

I often refer people back to emshort’s 2009 article, “The Romance Problem.” … the_ro.php

That’s interesting, because I think ChoiceScript games occupy an interesting position on the spectrum of player-PC involvement. I’ve seen some fiction writer types use “MC” too. Although more general than “PC”, it doesn’t seem technical enough to me to warrant the abbreviation.

Twisty Little Passages definitely informed my view of IF criticism. Because of Montort I try to find an equivalent of a “command prompt” as the focal point of interaction even in non-parser IF and videogames. (I’ve even thought about some static fiction that way.)

But Montfort explicitly avoided hypertextual terminology, and I think we really need to learn how to talk about all IF in terms in terms of hypertext since Twine is pretty much the most common development system now, and Twine is based on a wiki engine. (And not only a wiki engine, but TiddlyWiki – an engine devoted to using hypertext for displaying information in different ways.)

That’s part of my inner conflict whenever I write a review, because I want to avoid any trace ambiguity about whether I’m talking about the human player or the fictional character. However, sometimes it’s hard to explain without sounding very technical, and sometimes I’m even indecisive as to whether I should describe an experience from the player’s perspective or the PC’s perspective. (Sometimes either approach could be valid, so it’s hard not to confuse them.)

I’m actually not sure what you mean by “talking about IF in terms of hypertext” (or in terms of games, for that matter).

I find it difficult to talk about parser games and Twine games in the same terms, for instance. The concept of “rooms” generally has no meaning outside of the parser sphere, unless the author of the hypertext or choice-based game decided to mimic the parser model artificially. (Just a case in point.)

By hypertext I mean interacting with text in different ways, an additional layer of usability and potentially meaning. I think the concept of hypertext is different from interacting with the story or game mechanics. I think hypertext is more specifically about the literal words than about narrative. I think all IF has a hypertextual element, but I think Twine games are especially hypertextual. Hypertext seems the most natural way to discuss Twine games to me.

then, discuss twine hypertexts in terms of hypertext

problem solved, everyone happy :slight_smile: