Referring to the player in the third person

Most of the time, I don’t worry about things like whether “you” means the player or the PC, or who “I” is when the parser gives a message. But suddenly it started looking strange to me. What if the game referred to the player in the third person?

That’s creepy. I like it.

(I mean, I don’t think that it should be the default for IF games, but a game could make good use of that for POV wackiness.)

I will refrain from the obligatory Silence of the Lambs reference.

I’m probably just old-fashioned, but I think the “conventional” approach of addressing both the player and the player character as “you” is not just convention – it became the convention because it is, in some sense, natural.

I think back to 1977 or so, when I sat down for the very first time to try Adventure. It was, of course, long before anybody thought about coming up with a theory to characterize what we were doing, drawing distinctions between the player (the guy sitting at the terminal and typing) and the player character (the guy “inside” the game who wanders around and throws daggers at dwarves). It was also, of course, before the time when there was a convention as to how these things worked ; if anything, this was the game that established what the convention was to become. Yet, somehow, whether the game said “Congratulations! You have just vanquished a dragon with your bare hands!” (where “you” refers to the player character) or “You must be more specific” (addressing the player) or “You can’t go that way” (which arguably refers to either), we understood what was going on. For me, and I suspect most people, all it took was a few turns to get the hang of what the machine’s responses meant. The reason, I think, is that while the distinction between the player and the player character is a useful one (particularly from the author’s perspective), it is not essential that the player think about that distinction in order to play the game. Using “you” in both senses allows the player to have fun without forcing him to appreciate and think about the distinction.

Once you depart from that approach, you make it more difficult for the player, by forcing him to think about what “I” or “you” means; the meaning is not self-evident. I suspect it is certainly possible to learn to play a game using such an approach, but I think there would be a lot more learning involved. The issue is whether that additional learning really buys anything in terms of the play experience. I’m not sure I see that it does.

Robert Rothman

“The player undoes that action, or it gets the unwinnable ending again”?

I like it, but then I don’t particularly love the default player/character conflation.

But as was discussed in the other “you” thread, the PC in Adventure had no personality to speak of - it was a blank for the player to fit into. In a game where the PC is developed enough to have different reactions and preferences to the player, it might make more sense to distinguish between them.

This reminds me of a book I read about comic books. Some comic books like Tintin and Cerebus have excruciating detail in the background, but the main characters are only minimally illustrated. The point was that when the main character lacks detail, it’s easier for the reader to imagine themselves in that place.

Ultimately, I suppose it comes down to one’s personal view of what IF is about. To me (and, again, I acknowledge that I’m somewhat old-fashioned in this regard), a lot of the fun I get out of it as a player derives from the role-playing component. In a game where the player character is a Featureless Undefined Character (Kinda), identifying with the character is almost automatic. In the case of a character with more definition, either I can or cannot identify with the character enough for the role-playing aspect to work. If I can do so, then the use of “you” in both senses continues to make sense; if I cannot identify with the character enough to imagine myself as the character, then I probably wouldn’t enjoy the game very much.

On the other hand, I can understand that role-playing aspect – which for me, entails a certain identification with the character – may not be important to some people. If you take that out of the picture, then the idea of using different pronouns makes more sense. Put another way, the kind of game for which splitting the “yous” is likely to work best is probably not the kind of game which I would be likely to enjoy anyway – but that’s a matter of personal preference.

Robert Rothman

From a historical standpoint, PC as “you” was not universal in early text adventures; as Jimmy Maher points out, Scott Adams’ Adventureland (the first home computer text adventure?) had a first-person protagonist and even played with the player/PC dichotomy:

The end of The Count played around with the dichotomy a little more:

And as you can tell by counting the exclamation points, Adams doesn’t appear to have been the artsiest IF author.

That doesn’t prove that the second person isn’t more natural; maybe that’s why it came to dominate IF. (But maybe not; maybe that was just how the most successful IFs happened to be programmed and written.

All that said, capmikee’s proposal does strike me as unsettling; that’s not to say it’s bad, but it definitely comes off as stylized to me. (Somehow it reminds me of the parts of Metal Gear Solid, which I’ve only watched on video, where one of the bosses analyzes the PC’s character in terms of your save files.) To me it’d be more natural to refer to the PC in third person and the player in second, like this:

Or first person for the PC, for that matter. If a sort of naturalism is what you’re striving for; it doesn’t have to be.

Yeah, I’m in a very different boat: I don’t think of ‘role-playing’ and ‘strong identification with the PC’ as being the same thing. I don’t think of AFGNCAAP games as involving very much role-playing, because role-playing involves acting out a character. If there’s not much character, there’s not much acting: if the PC is just me plus a keyring and backpack, I’m not really role-playing. Imagining that the protagonist is me is not the same thing as imagining that I am the protagonist.

(This is different, of course, in RPG-like games where the AFGNCAAP is just the starting-point for a character that becomes player-defined. But it’s very rare for an IF game to do this to any great degree.)

I would venture that what is creepy and unsettling about the original example is that the narrator is addressing the character rather than the player. Cutting the link between the player and the character isn’t necessarily unsettling, but if the narrator is not talking to me, the player, then how can I possibly know what is going on? I am immediately turned into some weird ghostly presence who is spying on the PC and the narrator. Brr. (Like Andrew said: it is creepy. I like it.) This should only be done in very special games.

(Although even there, I’d choose starting out with a well-defined PC every day. The Nameless One from Planescape: Torment and Gerald from The Withcer (2) are the only RPG PCs I can really remember, because all the other ones were just “that transmuter with which I generally chose the lawful good option”.)

Perhaps my choice of the term “role-playing” was a poor one. I did not mean the term in the somewhat narrow sense that it has come to mean in the context of “role-playing games.” My point was simply that, for me to enjoy an IF game, I need to be able to imagine myself in the shoes of the player character (however loosely- or well-defined that character is). The more precisely defined a character is, the greater the chance that I will not be able to do so, but for any given character, either I identify with it enough to do so, or I don’t. If I do, then “you” makes sense both for me (Rob Rothman, the guy typing commands) and me (the imaginary “me” wearing the character’s shoes). If I don’t, I probably won’t play the game so it doesn’t matter.

This is, I think, a fundamental difference between IF and conventional fiction. I can enjoy, and appreciate, a novel in which the protagonist is someone I could never imagine being. On the other hand, when part of the experience is telling the protagonist what to do, that necessarily entails a greater identification with the protagonist. An example (and I suppose this comes to mind because I was reading one of these books not long ago): Lawrence Block’s Scudder series, in which the protagonist is an alcoholic who always manages to solve the mystery in between Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. I enjoy the books; the stories are good, the characters interesting, and the writing well executed. On the other hand, if somebody were to write an IF in which a major element of the player character’s identity is defined by the need to get to an alcoholics Anonymous meeting every few hours, as a backdrop to the main plot, I’m not at all sure I’d find it my cup of tea (or even my glass of Lagavullin); I think I’d have trouble identifying with the character enough to work for IF. On the other hand, I have no trouble with a Sherlock Holmes-based IF, even though I do not inject (or otherwise use) cocaine.

Robert Rothman

True. But there’s also the weird pragmatics and epistemological/ontological implications of a sentence like

directed to the PC.
Pragmatics: Why would the narrator tell the PC what commands the player should type? One answer is of course that the narrator addresses the PC only in a formal sense—the narrator knows that the player is eavesdropping and the information is meant for the latter—, but another, creepier, answer would be that the narrator explains to the PC why he/she was unable to act that turn.
Epistemology/ontology: The sentence presupposes that the PC knows that he/she is a PC under the control of a player; it is as if the player directed not a puppet without a mind of its own, but only forced an intellectually and emotionally independent PC to act according to the player’s will .

In some situations this convention would get even weirder:

Here he narrator wouldn’t even be addressing the PC, but perhaps musing aloud about whether to take the player’s command at face value or not!

Yes, I like it, too.

Not getting into the whole artistic choice of player ~=ing PC, I’m in zarf’s boat in that I dig the detached, austere vibe that the responses give off. Used the right way, it could end up like some sort of Tom Waits parser and make almost anything creepy.



Interesting to put both player and PC in third person. I would totally dig a Tom Waits-style parser!

Hmm… “The Fisher King” might adapt well to IF… :wink:

Let the parser refer to the player as a neuter and to itself in the plural, and you’d get yourself a Gollum-parser:

We don’t know what it means by “opwn”. Do we, my preciousss?

How about the parser refers to itself in the second person as a reporter to the player about the third-person PC?

[code]You tell the player that Richard takes the vase from the mantle.

You tell the player that Richard can’t see through the window with the blinds are drawn.[/code]


I feel that’d get…pretty weird, actually. I’d get the impression that the player is the parser, which would be pretty cool. (How about a game where the viewpoint switches from the player, to the parser, to finally the player herself?)

Looking back over what I posted, I’m actually really curious as to what other authors could do with my idea, specifically the fact that things can happen in the game world that the PC isn’t aware of. The player herself would be a kind of omniscient force guiding Rich, while assorted beasties close in on him from locations only known to the player. Like,

Essentially, each turn, the player gets a semi-detailed threat report. Would this be interesting to play, or just end up feeling like babysitting some dude?

I’ve never played Suspended, but that sounds like what it might be like.

You people might be interested in this authoring system called Curveship…

Why? Would it handle some of the topics discussed here more effectively? I periodically see people bring it up but not in terms of why it’s worth spending time on.