What are your opinions on PC reactions?

I’ve been reading through the page so kindly linked in this post and I came across these two quotes:

[When something terrible happens,] there is nothing in the text to suggest the PC is shocked, surprised, dismayed, or anything of the sort. In fact, it doesn’t say a thing about it. You are confronted with dead bodies, and the game just leaves you, the player, to come to your own conclusions and supply your own emotion.

Too few games depict the player character reacting to events. There’s a scene in [this game] where the player is controlling a little girl who, while hiding, overhears [something terrible] — this strikes me as a rather traumatic event, but for all the game discloses, the girl reacts with stone-faced impassivity.

I was under the assumption that players wanted their characters to be blank slates with a well-defined history (and the player takes over their body like a creepy bodysnatcher). But do people want the PCs to react to events on their own, or do they not want them to react? I thought PCs doing things without your control is considered immersion breaking, but them not reacting to the environment is also considered immersion breaking? Where’s the line?


It depends whether the player in your story is an AFGNCAAP or someone more well-defined. The more character you give your character, the more they expect the character to react in-character.

Even parser rejections for silly actions (if you’re writing a parser game) can sometimes play into this – it’s generally helpful if you customise some of these to be more in tune with your character or setting.

I don’t think there are really any hard rules, though – different people prefer and expect different things, although it’s helpful to try to be consistent about what you’re aiming for in your own story.


in my current game the PC doesn’t react on his own, but it’s written with very little narrative distance, so all objects and events are are described from the PC’s point of view, which leads to the player more or less knowing exactly how he feels about everything. a lot of the writing is based on the PC’s exact thoughts. here are two examples:

>x watch
8 o'clock? Surely, that can't be right.

>eat sandwhich
You take a bite. This is delicous!

now that i think about it, i’ve never played another IF game that does it that way (i’m sure they exist though).

I think PCs are very much up to personal tastes. It should really depend on how you want the game to be and what your goal is.

Personally, I prefer PCs with a defined character. Better if that defined character is seen throughout the game, be it examining things, doing certain actions, and yes, even parser errors. I believe blank PCs were really only effective during the early IF days. When adventuring and doing things were what’s important rather then stories.

Now, players what more story in their IFs. Many players are no longer motivated by exploring and doing things like puzzles. So in order to craft more stories, well-defined characters, and yes, PCs are used.

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I tend to see the player and the player character as separate and distinct entities, and I tend to favour strongly defined, strongly motivated player characters. When I play a game, I want to know right away who I’m playing and what they want.

As a comedy writer, there’s a lot of fun to be had with thinking of the player character as being separate from the player. In my first game, which was a spoof of the fairytale Goldilocks, the PC speaks directly to the player, blaming them when things go wrong and even complaining when she is required to carry a lot of heavy objects. In Alias ‘The Magpie’ the PC is a smooth talker who justifies the player’s actions, even when required to, say, break an ornament in the presence of its owner.

As Gavin Lambert said, having a strongly defined player character also makes it easier to write responses for disallowed actions. If your player character is assumed to be one and the same as the player, it doesn’t make sense to say “You decide not to do that.”, when that’s exactly what the player has decided.

The first IF games that really made an impression on me were the Scott Adams games, which (at least in the versions I played) were written in the first person instead of the more common second person. I think this helped cement in my mind the notion that the PC was a distinct entity from the player, and my first two parser games also used first person, though it isn’t necessary to do so in order to create that distinction.


I understand the personality of the PC flavoring the descriptions and parser responses, but what about actual in-world actions? Do you let them speak without your permission? Do you let them cry, or gasp, or scream, or stumble back in shock, or hide their face, etc? That’s what I meant by reactions; the PC physically reacting to the situation, not just standing there like a mannequin while their best friend is killed in front of them.

Is it immersion breaking when the PC physically reacts a bit autonomously to the situation, or should their physical actions be under your control at all times?

In my case, yes. In Alias ‘The Magpie’ I gave the player character rather a lot of autonomy, reacting to events and even initiating conversations with other characters on occasion. I see the player and the player character as a partnership, and I don’t think it’s immersion breaking to have them act on their own initiative from time to time, as long as these moments are kept brief.


Interesting questions! I would say that I normally write at a bit of a mental remove from the PC. I occasionally mention what they’re feeling but usually underplay it. I let the player feel more than the PC. That’s my habit, anyway. It probably stems from a piece of criticism of one of the earliest things I ever released, which was a rather buggy story about diving in a falling-apart old-fashioned diving suit. A reviewer liked that the game would kind of calmly report about the leaks opening up and the water filling up the suit, instead of the game telling you about how frantic the PC was, panicking, thrashing, etc. For me, it’s easier to keep a cohesive feeling if the everything is underplayed. I’m not sure how I could write a scene with a very strong reaction by the PC, as in your example. What happens the next turn, when everything is weirdly back to normal? (I say turn because I normally write parser games. I’ve had a much easier time with this kind of thing in choice-based games.)


I never really found immersion as something necessary in IF. I’m mostly interested in IF as a medium for stories and narrative. So, it really depends on what an individual thinks and likes. Can’t please em all, am i right?

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People talk about “immersion” as a quality of books and movies too. How much the story draws you in, how much the story world feels like a tangible place that you could inhabit, how much the narrator feels like a real person talking.

The word means a lot of things, obviously, but some of them speak to the narrative aspect of interactive narrative.

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Yeah, I guess I was just hung up on the idea that IF told in second person is like playing a game of D&D. If the DM told me that my character broke down crying, I’d probably be annoyed. It’s my role to tell you what reactions my character is having, not anyone else’s. But I guess it’s different with IF where the player doesn’t perform that role.

I mean, you could. The player could imprint their own ideas of what they think their character is doing in that situation (like panicking when their dive suit gets a leak, as in Caleb’s example). But that’s not a canon response, and it’s like trying to add actions to the main character of a novel. You’re going out of your way to change the scene in a way that the author didn’t intend. So then the alternative is that a PC is actually just an emotionless robot, which I think is even more immersion breaking in certain situations.

So… yeah. I guess giving the PC their own personality and a bit of freedom in reactions may benefit the story without breaking immersion. :thinking:

It probably boils down to the “show, don’t tell” chestnut - with allowances that IF prose usually needs to do a certain amount of telling inherently, especially in 2nd-person.

If you can write images and events that inspire emotion in the player naturally instead of outright telling them “You feel sad,” that is almost always going to be the better choice.

I don’t have anything to add one way or another on what ‘should be’ as others have expressed that better than me, but I thought I’d bring up some examples of player characters reacting.

In The Primrose Path , a game that took 2nd in IFComp, the protagonist is very well-defined with strong reactions, including becoming upset at you, the player, in key moments. I popped into the beginning to grab a sample passage (depicting a violent scene)

>open door
I open the door and step through.

On the other side lies Leo, prostrate on the ground. I cry out involuntarily, and kneel down to take his pulse. No, not dead, but unconscious and still bleeding heavily from a wound in his hip. I rush back into the flat to call an ambulance, but somewhere in the back of my mind I feel an overwhelming sense of guilt, knowing with strange certainty that he will not wake up again.

    *** I will never learn what happened ***

Another famous player reaction is in Taco Fiction , where the player attempts to rob a fast food store. In the vein of ‘showing, not telling’, the game notes that you are walking past some bikers, then hijacks the > prompt to slowly spell out ‘COPS’ one letter at a time.

Jim Munroe’s characters also react a lot, like this character finding a dead fish in
Everybody Dies

I start to pull the cart out of the river, but it pushes all the crap my way too. The fish kind of flips over and it’s much worse on the other side – it’s got a huge hole eaten in it, and I can see into its stomach. And I’m pretty sure what’s in the fish is another fish that it’s eaten.

I can’t take my eyes away. I tell myself that it would make an amazingly brutal tat or even an album cover but I also feel like I’m gonna hurl. And then I see the little fish, the one inside, open its eye.

I sort of stumble back away from the cart but at this point my legs are so numb that the cart is the only thing that’s holding me up.


Hmm. Two out of three of the examples are in first person though. Do you think they would work well in second person?

In the first example, the character clearly acts on their own as they rush to the phone without your input. In the third example, the character is telling you what they’re thinking, but in second person the narrator would be telling you what you’re thinking.

That’s what I’m having trouble with. Stuff that plays nicely in first and third person doesn’t come across as well in second person to me, so it’s difficult to gauge what is off-putting or not.

Oh, wow, I didn’t even realize that! Such an interesting distinction. I wonder if the writers ran into the same problem as you and chose 1st person to ‘fix’ it.

Taco Fiction’s approach might be the one that works. The narrator is more like ‘the voice in your head’ instead of an omniscient narrator.

So instead of saying ‘You panic and scream’ it says:

No. Hold on a second. Don’t rush into this.

No. Get moving now, before you chicken out.

Wait, no. Sit still and figure out when and how you should get out of the car. You have all the time you need.

Well, do something.

So that might be an approach. But all three games, you’re right, had to completely change how they were written to allow these emotional reactions. I think you’re right that ‘standard’ IF (like DMing like you mentioned) doesn’t really allow the kind of reactions

On a different note, I went and checked out the game that your original post came from (Cerulean Stowaway, reviewed in IF Gems). I think the reason the reviewer disliked it is because the game does tell you what to think most of the time:

You’re weird in a different way. You like the Ceruleans. You admire them. So you run their fan club and answer the kooks’ email. And when the Ceruleans offer a free trip to their planet at faster-than-light speeds for the world’s top scientists, you don’t even think twice about quitting your lousy low-pay third-shift job to join them.

So I wonder if the reviewer was more put off because the game aspired and failed to express appropriate emotions later on when you see the corpses. I suspect a game that was neutral from the beginning would have been just fine.

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Ah. That makes a lot of sense. They go out of their way to define your typical reactions and emotions, and then they’re like “Oh, and there are some dead bodies here or whatever. Who cares.”

As for Taco Fiction in your last example, it sounds a lot like the narrator is trying to talk you through events over the phone. It’s definitely a different take on the matter, but it’s also still not making the PC character their own person. It seems like they’d still be emotionless, but the emotions of the situation is being relayed by the narrator instead.

I used a similar mechanic in my Monster demo by having the PC’s sister (as an NPC) attached to your hip. She was able to react to the situation in place of the PC. It worked well (IMO), but I felt weird about having a plot device follow you around everywhere. I also had realization that once she leaves, the chemistry between you and the NPCs would drop off dramatically without her to play middle man. Which is what brought me to this topic, actually.

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Now that i think about it. Where’s the line between the narrator and the PC’s personality in second person? What is the narrator’s voice and what is the PC’s voice? Are they always separate or can they be one and the same?

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I think the PC’s voice is only when the PC speaks. Other emotions and opinions can be inferred by their actions, but all room and event descriptions are the narrator’s voice and not the PC’s.

That’s why I consider most PC’s to be emotionless robots. Even if the narrator tells the story in a silly way, it doesn’t mean the PC isn’t the most boring person on the planet. Like in Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (from what I remember of it). Funny narrator, emotionless robot for a PC.

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Depends on the writing style: narration can be omniscient or subjective.

In the 90s this was a real hot topic with the ‘triangle of identities’ of player, protagonist, and narrator coming up a lot.

Here are some old forum posts about it: http://www.ifwiki.org/index.php/Past_raif_topics:_Player_and_PC

And some links from Emily Short: