Perspective and a Neurodivergent Player Character

Okay, so I’ve been diving deep into this both mechanically and philosophically.

I feel like I should do my best, but I also shouldn’t stress too much about the game pissing off certain players. I’ll make it as fluid and interesting as I can, and sand down whatever I can find, but the fact of the matter is: Having autism does not make your life more fun. In fact, I am having a veritable crisis about needing to go outside soon, and having to deal with intense sunlight, loud traffic, and a busy technology store to get my phone repaired. My heart is literally racing right now, and I’m trying really hard to stay present in the moment.

I cannot expect to add mechanics that share part of my own experience into a game and expect everyone to think it’s fun or engaging. There will be some players who will drop the game immediately, and that’s okay. Just because I can’t make my experience on the spectrum 100% fun and cool does not mean that it is not worth sharing in a game, or is not worth being told.

I have ideas, and I will try my best, and I will streamline mechanics as much as I can, but I cannot expect that adding difficulty to simple tasks in a parser-based interactive fiction game would be accepted by the majority of players, and I have to be okay with that. At least one person will probably enjoy this, and maybe connect with it if I’m lucky; that will be a victory. Two people enjoying it will be like a miracle.

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Dictionarium Rovarssonii:

Def. : a decision made in the heat of the moment, with buttocks clenched, “tensed up” as it were.

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Warning! Long post alert!

@inventor200 , I’m happy to see I’m not the only autistic person putting an autistic main character in their IF on this forum! (I am partway through an IF called Budacanta,- @DeusIrae has introduced the demo accurately, thank you, and yes those spoons are going to matter :slight_smile: ). Several people here were super-helpful with feedback and I hope you find their answers helpful too.

(It sounds to me like you’re using stressor in a sufficiently similar way to spoon theory that if you decide to mention spoon theory, you won’t need to spend 12 screens explaining the whole thing - you’ll be able to keep your stressor concept and have as much or as little about spoons as fits the game and character. Also, I only found out about spoon theory in my late 20s, so your spectrum membership card is very much valid. Bonus: you won’t need much in the way of extra coding either if you opt to put spoon theory in, by the standards of extra mechanics).

There are several ways to solve the problem of established character/player identity mismatch. A difference in neurology raises the importance of the issue to game design, but there’s definitely things to be learned from all those times you’ve played characters who you couldn’t relate to - whether that was purely due to neurology or also because of other major differences between you and the chatacter. That script-flipping is to your advantage, because you already know what does and doesn’t work for you, which will help you rule out some methods as non-starters. (As a general rule, if you’d have problems playing a game with a certain type of shortcoming, you’ll end up with a more authentic game if it does something to try to avoid that shortcoming, even if whatever the “something” is brings its own difficulties).

The “rules” (genre/format conventions) are good things to have as a reference, especially for beginners. However, they’re the sort of rules that are for the guidance of the wise and the iron obedience of the foolish. It’s possible to break the “rules” when all of the below apply (generally speaking):

  • Most importantly: you know why you want to break the “rule”
  • The breaking of the “rule” you propose makes sense for the game you are creating (not just the game you want to create)
  • You know how to break the “rule” consistently and not arbitarily
  • You’re willing to put in the coding work for it (some “rules” exist partly or wholly to prevent coding problems)
  • You can convey how the “rule” is going to be broken to the player (explicitly or through game design) in a way that makes sense to the game and the player

If that seems overwhelming, working on one of those steps at a time is good idea. Especially if breaking a “rule” is essential for your game to make sense.

Budacanta’s method of resolving the player/character (presumed) neurology mismatch by having the player role-play, in effect, part of the main character’s thought process (the idea being that it then makes sense for the player to have different ideas to the main character, but also have some influence over the character) and having a certain amount of interaction between “you” (part of the main character’s thought process) and the main character themselves. Technically, it’s using a combination of second and third person. This has proven somewhat challenging in terms of making sure the right notion is with the correct perspective/character (and also with translation, but you can worry about that when you’ve successfully completed your game) - but it gave me an avenue to accommodate a relationship between the player and character that involved acknowleging there will be differences. A certain distance, but also a certain complicity.

This is definitely not the only way to handle the mismatch. Lots of games handle mismatches in other areas character/player mismatch can happen in by explaining where these are different. Computer game players are used to certain forms of shorthand in how differences in limitations are explained, which helps people like us - unlike in the outside world, a computer game player who has been told to expect a character to not be able to do something is quietly pleased when that character later can’t do the thing the player was told the character couldn’t do. It’s considered consistent. Doing this without the player feeling like an anvil’s been dropped on their head is another skill, and one I’m still working upon. (Yes, autism and infodumps have a certain correlation with each other, but players have varying degrees of tolerance for it in narrators. Having the character say it in a way that fits with that character helps).

Optional elements that will help you get a character that doesn’t get blamed for every single problem the designer throws at them:

  • Making a character that the player likes. When a player likes a computer character, it’s a bit less complicated than when they like a person. (For one thing, they signed up to experience certain types of difficulty, since a computer game with absolutely no difficulty would also have no interest - it’s a bit harder to complain when getting exactly what was requested in the first place). Have the character do things early on that make the player want the character to succeed, before introducing the puzzles that centre on the character’s limitations.

  • Having a gentle start is absolutely fine if it helps prepare the player for what’s coming next. Establishing character is just as legitimate a reason to start gentle as establishing setting, gradual introduction of puzzle elements or getting the narrative pieces into position (all reasons other IF can have slow starts). This reduces the amount of pressure on the first screen to introduce the character’s situation. You Couldn’t Have Done That does a brilliant job of this.

  • Making sure the player has a reasonably solid idea of what the character can and can’t do before it becomes game-critical.

  • Having something/someone else to blame/attribute cause, other than the main character. Whether that’s a boss who doesn’t care about employees and creates bad environmental/social situations as part of their general bad management, or a baby who people agree is loud even though the baby can’t help crying louder than the average vacuum cleaner. Players will connect up all sorts of logic on their computers that they might not do when face-to-face with with similar situations - use this to your advantage.

  • Giving the main character some sort of self-preservation instinct, common sense and (human-level and character-consistent) ability to anticipate trouble. Anything to avoid having the character walk into a bad situation, collapse and say “Game over” before the player’s had chance to process what it is about the situation that is awry. For example, if there’s a disco in the next room and the character has a pair of ear defenders in their hand, by all means have the character put them on automatically in the previous room and say why. Note that none of these have to be absolute, provided there’s a reason that makes sense for the character to sometimes need the player to act on their behalf and sometimes not. (For example, if the character is surprised by the disco music suddenly being turned on, you might require the player to remember to put the ear defenders on).

  • Having at least some problems neurotypical players can relate to - even if that’s for different reasons than autistic people relate to the same problems. Big guard dogs with loud barks are animals that neurotypical and autistic people are likely to be equally keen to avoid, even though the neurotypical player is likely to be avoiding it because it’s a guard dog rather than because the bark is painfully loud.

  • A good hints system. In modern IF, a good hints system is expected in any case. It works just as well for giving hints about character and causes of situations as it does for giving hints about how to solve puzzles or where the player should be going. (I had fun making the Budacanta hint system in-character).

Hope this helps!

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@Alianora_La_Canta, I’m extremely happy to see that I was at least halfway through figuring out a lot of same things that you’ve written. It means I’m probably not messing this up, lol.

In particular, something I want to lean hard on is managing expectations and maintaining consistency, so no matter how whacky things could get, the player at least knew something like it would be possible, and so prepared for it.

Everything else here is excellent as well, thank you! I will re-read this often as a guide light, as I work on the story.

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I’ll add support here. Making a story first person and subjective will let you write and the player experience a specific character without the bother of a second-person parser going “here’s what you feel.”

Every person’s personal wonky internal monologue is something adventure games do well. The principle of “show don’t tell” very much applies! You needn’t have the game voice over a thoughtful treatise on neurodivergence. You’re allowed to throw the player into this character you’ve created and let them experience it first-person, neurodivergent or not! This isn’t an RPG where the player gets to choose the parameters of whom they inhabit; you are presenting this character.

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Except for people who don’t have an internal voice… but a first-person IF from the perspective of someone like that would be very interesting to see!

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I think that’s definitely the right attitude for a project like this – you definitely wouldn’t want to change things based on others’ expectations until the game no longer resonates, and the IF audience is broad enough that I’m sure you’ll find folks for whom this approach resonates (as well as others for whom it doesn’t, which is totally fine too!)

By way of example, my game in last year’s IFComp was a memoir that included an intentionally-frustrating sailing section, where the player was thrust into the middle of race and would inevitably flail at least a bit, which prompted my sister, who was the other person in the boat, to yell at them. That kind of frustration is definitely not an IF best practice, but it was important to me to communicate a time in our lives when my sister and I had a lot of conflict, and I sometimes was annoyed at her. And looking at reviews, some people were like “this is too much of a pain, I hated the sailing bit” but it worked well for other people who found it helped situate them in the protagonist’s head.

(I will reiterate the point above about testing, though – the first iteration of that sequence wound up being way too long for my testers, so I was able to substantially streamline it to so it made the point I was trying to make without feeling too too punishing. Getting other, sympathetic eyes on what you’ve created will be really helpful for getting right all the balances you’re trying to strike!)

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Meh, I knew I’d forget something. You’ve reminded me of 10pm by @litrouke where a non-verbal character interacts using pictograms.

Wasn’t there also an IFComp game that was all emojis?

Perhaps a “no internal voice” character would be easier to get across in a standard video game - like Chell in Portal and Gordon Freeman in Half Life? Although I think those are just using the silent protagonist trope for immersion rather than intentionally portraying a person with no verbal inner-voice.

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Eheheheh @HanonO @Dannii

I, uh…don’t have an internal monologue; I am one of those people lol. All of my thoughts are visual and silent, until I’m carefully planning how to word something, at which point I preview what the words would sound like in my head, but it sounds like someone talking in slow-motion because I’m not that good at forming speech in my head lol. Hence no internal monologue. If I’m actively speaking to somebody, I don’t have time to “try an audio preview” of what I want to say. Instead, it’s like a visual of a travelling node moving around a grammar tree diagram with a dictionary for reference. Converting my thoughts to speech is really hard lol, and I often use the wrong words for things because the translation builds up errors in the process. It’s also the reason why I lose the ability to speak as my situational stress levels rise: talking takes a lot out of me.

So I’m kinda writing the first person texts as if the character is talking to the player on the other side of a wall, or like she’s narrating a running journal log file of her day. Not literally, of course; it’s supposed to be like her inner monologue, but since I don’t know what a real inner monologue sounds like, this is my best guess that accomodates my writing style. I don’t know how I would write this game if I had to literally represent the inside of my head. It would have to be an abstract movie at that point. So I’m going with conversational journal log, lol.

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Since I was a child I found the question “How do other people perceive colours?” mindblowing. It requires one to attempt to enter into another person’s mind, which is impossible, but language makes it possible to at least try, but then language itelf becomes a bottleneck preventing understanding, but then we might try to imagine what the other person means…

But this, having no internal voice, not having a monologue or self-directed dialogue going on “in the darkness behind the eyes” is utterly alien to me. I cannot begin to fathom what your inner mind would be like. To be honest, an inner mind without a language-tether sounds absolutely scary to me.

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To me, an inner mind that talks to you sounds unbearably exhausting lol.

When I was little, a popular question with my friends was “in what language do dogs think”. For a while, they thought it might be German. I feel like my brain crashed trying to ponder this question, because I assumed they just attached abstract possibilities and feelings to images of stuff in their heads like I usually do. It seems weird that language would have to get involved at all.

And then I was informed that people actually do talk to themselves in their own minds, and that this wasn’t just a theater trope for getting internal information to the audience. People mentally work through problems in a way similar to how they verbally coordinate in teams. Fascinating!

I feel like the speed at which I think varies quite a bit, maybe because I have no internal monologue, and it doesn’t necessarily change with complexity. I think it kinda varies according to what I use for a visual model on a per-subject basis.

There are some high-complexity things that I can work through lightning-fast, but there are also some dead-simple things that others have a thought-reflex for, but it will take me 10-20 minutes to arrive at a conclusion. So, I can visually think in four dimensions, and quickly hash out algorithms for quite a few complex problems, but then I will literally spend an entire day trying to understand sarcasm or romantic hinting. If someone tells me to look at a situation around a person and infer what that person might want, it will take me 20 minutes, and then my answer will be wrong, and it will take another 30 minutes before getting the correct answer.

This might also be why I rarely ever write stories in first-person perspective. Most of my stories are third-person, and most of my interactive fiction (attempts) are in second-person. I’ve only ever used first-person in real life when I’m retelling an event that I was involved in, or explaining my feelings and ideas to someone else, so as a consequence this game will probably sound like someone retelling what’s happening, but in present tense.

My other favorite thing to tell people–as this is apparently also not normal–is how I don’t remember people as literal people. In my head, a person is remembered as an entire landscape, which is visualized according to a translation of their habits, behaviors, preferences, beliefs, and other stuff I know about them. The better I know a person, the larger the landscape gets. For example, in my mind, my partner looks like an entire temperate rainforest, with quite a lot of trees, and there’s a very tiny clearing in the middle of it that shelters a small, two-story library, constructed in a style similar to a log cabin. It is overcast, and around 10am. The lights are still on, despite having plenty of windows. To the north, there is a castle built upon a cleared hill. To the west, there are mountains. To the east, there are tree-covered hills. A highway runs east-to-west somewhere far to the south.

I feel like I probably remember people like this because my brain lacks the part that remembers/recognizes faces (the condition is called prosopagnosia), so I remember people like this instead.

Full disclosure: I will not be describing characters in this way during the game I’m working on, lol. I will try to describe them more like how other authors do. However, there’s an interesting game idea in examining a character to teleport to a landscape that represents them…

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You got that right! Ha!

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Now, as someone with ADHD, I have the stereotypical “loud brain”, which is usually described as having up to 20 internal monologues running simultaneously. But since I don’t have an internal monologue at all, it’s more like 10 simultaneous instrumental songs providing a soundtrack for 10 different visual thought processes, which are flashing in rapid sequence at all times.

I think I would die if those were all internal monologues.

To all of my ADHD friends who have internal monologues: I’m so, so sorry lol.

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You see…

My Partner, an Interactive Fiction portrait.

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This is fascinating. It almost sounds like a memory-palace in reverse?

I have the habit of narrating my life like overzealous book dialogue, but I am lucky in that I am usually in control and can turn it on or off. If I’m not talking to myself, often my brain will actually play music - or rather one ear worm phrase of music over and over that I’ve learned. Sometimes I have to go listen to a song enough so more will play and it’s not like a skipping record. Sometimes I can also remix the song in my head with “audacity brain” and play it back. I don’t know if there’s a term for the audio equivalent of a photographic memory and it doesn’t benefit anyone but me, but I can listen to music I know silently in my head.

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Actually, now that you mention it, it does seem to work a lot like a memory palace! Never thought about it that way before…!

Also with the audio thing, that would be really handy for music production, honestly. The hardest part about making music–to me, at least–is trying not to lose the sound texture when you’re playing notes, and trying not to lose the notes when shaping the texture. My brain forgets one half of music production when I work on the other half, and I feel like my music could be a lot more complex if I could just retain the entire thing in my head for the whole of production. Instead, I gotta pick a priority and then improv the rest.

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It probably would be if I were a musician!

(I have sung and dabbled in music creation and was best friend/roommates with a sound engineer/budding music producer so that all may have shaped my brain processes. I can imagine very cool music but have tragically few skills or resources to File>Export it out of my head! IF is actually something I can imagine and produce!)

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