Perspective and a Neurodivergent Player Character

Okay, so I had a much longer post originally, so I’ll attempt to be briefer.

I am on the autism spectrum, as is my partner. I got to thinking about an IF story where the player character has autism, and needs to manage intense sensory stressors as part of the puzzle mechanics and problem solving process (sorta like my time at my previous job lol). I already have the mechanics working, and got a tutorial puzzle in place, and it turned out more interesting than I expected.

Here’s the main issue, though…

Because life on the spectrum can so-deeply affect who you are as a personality and identity, there isn’t really a way to have an autistic player character that most people can slot themselves into, like they do with other player characters, so I think I’ll lean into that a bit, because I might as well. In this game, your character will have an assigned name and established backstory, and it’ll be more like the player is an film actor taking a role, rather than playing as themselves. (This, interestingly, might actually flip the script on my usual experiences in fiction, because I feel like I’m taking an acting role for most game player characters, as it’s so hard for me to relate to most fictional characters most of the time, books included. I am very rarely slotting myself in during a second-person perspective game.)

This next bit involves a lot of life experiences that I’ve had, so it may be that I’ve witnessed the exception to the average here…

I’m very reluctant to make the game use a third person perspective to accommodate a detailed/established player character with a neurodivergent brain/experience, because the problem my partner and I run into in real life is this: While most people understand academically that sensory overload and executive/social difficulties are the result of an autistic individual enduring environmental stressors, what tends to happen instead is–on a social/emotional level–that a lot of people habitually place blame on the person with autism (usually without realizing it), as though the person with autism had a choice to live through sensory/social/executive nightmares every waking day. Because of this, I’m worried that if this game used a third person perspective, a lot of players would just grow to resent the player character, and blame them for adding difficulty and complexity to the game’s puzzles. However, if I keep the second person perspective (immersion-breaking for some, but whatever), then the game will clearly frame stressor management as a problem from the environment that character and player deal with together, and the player will hopefully be more sympathetic and invested, as the perspective clearly shows it’s not the player character’s fault at all. It shifts it from potentially player vs player character, to player + character vs environment, if I retain the second-person perspective.

I feel like this sort of psychological framing shouldn’t be necessary, and most people will think that it wouldn’t make a difference, but even people who usually care deeply about me will blame me for being overwhelmed by bright lights and fans blowing air in a room, so I’m not so sure.

Thoughts? Any other forum members who are on the spectrum want to weigh in? I feel like I’m breaking a few cardinal rules here, but I also feel like this is an edge case that these rules aren’t really built for. Hopefully there’s a way to preface this to the player during the intro, so their expectations can be set appropriately.

I’m posting this more to discuss how to nuance/present/frame this for the player, and not so much if I should ditch the choice in perspective, because I’m pretty dead-set on second-person perspective with an established player character for the reasons listed above.

I feel like this game is important for me to make, if anything just to share my difficulties in problem solving against sensory overload, all packaged into a fun little game.

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I see the pickle you’re in here. How important is it to you to be very realistic about this? After all, you could create a brand-new neurodivergent condition and use it as a proxy to discuss autism. This might take players outside of their pre-established biases.

Just a thought.

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I’m not on the spectrum (at least to the best of my knowledge!) but all the above makes sense to me – and since the second person is pretty much the standard voice for IF, I think this choice should be an easy fit for players. I’m mostly posting to point to a couple of recent games I’ve played with autistic protagonists that I thought did a good job of situating a player who might not be neurodivergent in the PC’s perspective.

First, Budacanta is a visual novel about an autistic main character going on an international trip; it starts out some explanation of how the PC experiences the world, including a rundown on spoon theory, which I think will be important for the gameplay (the current version is just the introduction).

Then there’s You Couldn’t Have Done That, with another autistic main character – it doesn’t have an explicit tutorial or framing, besides letting the player know the protagonist is autistic in the blurb, but I thought the opening stages of the game did a good job of helping me understand how the PC thought and felt about things, so that when things got more intense later on I was able to “play” the character effectively.

They’re both worth checking out – and they’re good games on their own merits too, of course – and I think should confirm that the basic approach you’re sketching out here is a workable one. Good luck with the game!

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WHY DID I NOT REALIZE THAT SPOON THEORY IS SUCH AN OBVIOUS THING TO HAVE AS A MECHANIC?? Right now, it’s a stressor system with various values that climb up and down, and as your total stress level rises, you lose the ability to perform certain actions, which is meant to reflect how difficult it is to focus on things and think through anything as someone on the spectrum approaches overload. I think about three-quarters in, for example. You can wear certain items that can block out specific stressors, but wearing those items for too many turns in a row also becomes a stressor. I turned the yell action into a stim, which temporarily removed stress for a couple turns, but adds to throat damage so you can’t spam it. (That in particular is a major stim of mine, but I’ve had to find alternatives because my partner has intense hearing sensitivity.)

But after all this, I forgot SPOON THEORY. Someone suspend my spectrum membership card. Gotta add that next…

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Pretty important, honestly. I could use a proxy condition, but it’s important for me personally to make it blatantly be autism. I’ve been implementing a lot of systems to replicate the character’s experience with her specific configuration of support needs.

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Also I’ll be checking these out! Thank you!

I still cannot believe I lapsed on spoon theory. Here I was, trying to figure out how to demonstrate executive dysfunction as a game mechanic, and forgot that the neurodivergent community already put in the work. Gosh.

What about first person perspective?

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Valid option for the vast majority of stories, but I feel like I specifically have a weird complex about first person perspective in stories, and the tone it implies.

I feel like this is entirely a neurotic thing that’s entirely my own fault, but it would make it hard for me to maintain the necessary tone that I usually lean on. I feel like I’ll keep lapsing into a noir style. Which is so weird, right? Because technically this story could fit a noir style! And also, honestly, first person should be perfectly useable for any tone and style. But if I tell a story in first person perspective, my brain just keeps playing smooth detective jazz, and I hear Joe Miller from the Expanse reading the words off of what I’m writing.

It’s weird, and likely a “me” thing. Lol.

Also I feel like on a scale of teaming the player up with the character, it sits in between third and second person for effectiveness. First person reveals a lot more personal humanity, yes, but still communicates a very blatant disconnect between the player and character, grammatically.

Again, it’s sorta like the problem where my partner and I get blamed by unexpected people for our own autism, especially when life gets really hard. I can explain how it feels for myself in first person, or explain how it feels for my partner in third person, but historically that doesn’t work and we still get blamed. It gets more effective in second person when we describe how it would feel to be us by using analogies and directly including the person we are speaking to.

For example:
Player: “I gotta do task”
Character: “Panic makes my heart race, and my brain feels like it’s on fire. I can barely put a thought together to do task.”
Player: “Oh c’mon, character; you’re killin’ me here…”

versus

Player: “I gotta do task”
Response: “Panic makes your heart race, and your brain feels like it’s on fire. You can barely put a thought together to do task…”
Player: “Oof, okay, I gotta figure out a way around this, then…”

I feel absolutely insane even positing that this makes a bit of difference, because it shouldn’t. First, second, and third person perspectives should all be equally-useful here, but for some reason I historically have gotten more trust and understanding by explaining my experiences in second person than in first or third person.

I feel like this is a phenomenon with any person that faces difficulties with very different things, compared to a given observer; it’s not just with the autism spectrum. I see this a lot in conversations around ADHD, OCD, DID, body dysmorphia, gender dysphoria, etc, etc.

(Also, I want to say that I’m pretty sure this won’t make a difference for 75% of the people who might ever play this game, but also I’m not able to understand a lot of sarcasm and
I continuously advocate for direct communication. Meanwhile, the majority of people use sarcasm and deeply-layered communication. From this, I can conclude that just because I think something should totally be valid and fine does not mean most people will think it’s valid and fine lol.)

Also I’m so sorry; you gave such a concise and practical suggestion in a single sentence, and then I responded with an absolute wall of text. I deeply appreciate your patience lol.

You are certainly proposing a very challenging game, both for creation and reception.

First person is the tense of maximum personal identification. So going that way is using a strategy of having players identify with the protagonist internally.

Using second person in a game that, to players without autism, might present as a ceaseless gauntlet of odd/frustrating challenges is a different strategy.

I can imagine that this way, I (as one of those without autism) might learn a tremendous amount as a player, but I can say from experience that in IF, this type of game frequently induces laughter in players – while playing – unrelated to the premise. IF is so famous for sporting gauntlets of minutely frustrating challenges, like getting a Babel fish in Hitchhiker’s Guide, that it’s almost a mode of simultaneously satisfying and frustrating comedy unto itself. So in using second person, I can anticipate my own possible response: unless the writing is extraordinarily in control, I might be laughing while playing. It would be a standing outside the PC kind of experience while solving the puzzles and learning from them. Afterwards I might look back and say ‘Wow, I learned so much from that.’ But I am unlikely to be empathising at a primary level while playing, because that’s never how I feel when I take on those Babel fish challenges. I could empathise after.

I guess all that makes me ask: do you want people to feel like they’re in your shoes while they are actually playing? I think first person is best for that, and that would be a major challenge given subject matter of frustration. I imagine second person as an easier way to not have players crumble in the face of frustration, but will they empathise in a serious manner while doing it? I don’t know – you are playing into an IF mode of comedy. Would they learn a lot and then maybe empathise after? I think so.

So that’s at least a couple of strategies. Both could work. There may be more.

-Wade

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Okay, so the lessons I am learning from @Dannii and @severedhand are that I might be greatly underestimating the abilities of the first-person perspective, and that it could foster empathy without creating the potential comedy-through-subversion that happens when a player projects expectations from second-person and then seeing the character react very differently?

Because if this is a fairly consistent effect for those not on the spectrum, then I might pivot what I have so far to first person. I’ll have to push against the noir detective tone I have in my mind for first person narratives, but if it turns out to be that much more effective, then I’ll go for it after all.

I’m not sure which authoring system you’re using, but Inform 7 makes it somewhat easy to change the person perspective, even in the middle of play. You do have to plan for this by always using the appropriate phrase substitutions, but if you did then you could write your game once but then distribute three versions, for first, second, or third person. Or let the player choose from within the game. See chapter 14.

I suspect the writing involved for this project would be too complex to be portable with a switch. I don’t mean mechanically (well, I do mean that, secondarily) but at the site of writing, the tense decision would be changing everything I wrote in the first place, if I did it. Then I’d be tripling my work. And I don’t want to do that :slight_smile:

This reminds me of the mechanics of some movies made in the 1930s. To create multiple language versions, they would sometimes shoot the whole film again. So they’d make an English version, then a Spanish version of the same film with an entirely different cast and crew. Most of these have not survived, but the Spanish version of the 1931 Dracula has lots of interesting variations, and is considered to be technically better.

Another approach: In Vampyr (1932), Carl Dreyer shot each scene three times with the same actors. They would perform (or at least mouth) in English, German and French!

-Wade

Just to be precise, it’s grammatical person, not tense. Completely different category. :slight_smile:

Yeah yeah! I know that and you KNOW I know that :laughing:

-Wade

In my experience, you can tell a player that a protagonist has Condition X, tell them that Condition X is preventing them from doing something, and even tell them after a failed attempt that Condition X prevented them from doing the thing. Some players will keep trying to do the thing anyway and get frustrated in the process. I think that voice, framing, and feedback are crucial to heading this off.

When asking for code advice, posters are strongly encouraged to share sample code. Doing so maximizes the relevance of advice given. It applies in your case too. You do not need to finish a game or even reach a major development milestone before getting feedback on your prose. Perhaps the best thing to do would be to write a room/puzzle from each perspective and see what people think. And, of course, see what you think, too.

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I was going to make the same suggestion – writing up a small section both ways, then asking some testers to take a look (this forum is a great place to find 'em!) will probably help you see how the different approaches are landing with a cross-section of potential players.

With that said, my personal bias would be that if there’s one way of doing things that resonates with you, and another than feels awkward, you’re more likely to be successful sticking with the former even if in some formal sense the other way might be better. Writing well is hard enough, and if you’re feeling constrained or artificial as you’re putting the prose together, your players could well feel the same when they read it.

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There was a 3d game some time ago that implemented something like the spoon theory except it was a metric of madness. As the PC gets more unhinged, weird stuff happens more often and more disturbing. I remember it started with walls bleeding.

I use TADS 3 with adv3Lite for all my stuff. I’ve been pretty good about keeping everything perspective-agnostic by using all the fancy string codes and stuff, but there are a few room descriptions and cutscene texts where I lapsed on this. :blush: I’ll just need to edit those.

I do have the opening room give the player a crash course on stressor management right when the game starts. That “puzzle” is basically done, but I’m also doing this thing where if you reached a “failure” state because of stressors, then the narrative just gets redirected with a cutscene to transition the game through the recovery process and out the other side. I just need to finish writing these and I’ll have a working demo.

The player character has a close friend that follows her around, so when various things go wrong or spoons get low, the player character can ask the friend for help. If the player character is so stressed that they’ve lost the ability to speak, then the stressors need to be reduced somehow to regain speech to then let the player bounce commands off of the friend. When a overload collapse state is reached from stress, the following cutscene is usually the friend carrying the player away to a recovery space. The setting of the game will allow for free movement mid-puzzle like this, so it’s fine lol.

EDIT: The stressor crash course puzzle is done alone, and the friend is introduced immediately after. All the mechanics with the friend and spoon theory implementation are still just outline ideas and can change. I’m trying to set this up in a way where you don’t really reach game-over states because I’m personally someone who sees the undo or restore commands as eyeroll moments, and would rather the game allow for failure, as long as you somehow solve the necessary puzzles. So any consequences in the game would just make the player rethink how they need to approach something, or it alters the nature of the puzzle in some way when you come back to it, or maybe a bonus optional puzzle disappears as a consequence, even if you can keep attempting the main ones, or the score/achievements get reduced somehow. Not sure on the details yet. Ideally: soft consequences, largely because it doesn’t really make sense in the setting of the game to have explicit failure states; you’re a part of a larger team that cares about and supports each other. You should be able to beat the game even after collapsing many times, but it’ll probably affect the score or the optional stuff.

Again, not set in stone yet; just working this out.

Eternal Darkness for Gamecube. It had the sanity meter. The tricks didn’t hold up in the long term, but usually the first time each one happened, you’d be shocked. It might pretend your console had crashed, or report controller failer, or ramp up a combat so that things that normally never happened in combat would suddenly happen – and then it would snap you back to reality before the weird thing happened.

-Wade