When "you" is not YOU

I have this dilemma when designing games.

All of my current (and probably future) WIPs are set in detailed fictional worlds. The characters were not existing in a void until the player dropped in for a visit; they all have their own backgrounds and lives and way of seeing the world.

Personally, I don’t have any real problems with slipping into a well-defined character’s head and roleplaying a bit, even if they’re written with a strong personality that is most definitely not mine. But a lot of players do seem to find it off-putting.

When a character referred to “you” does things you wouldn’t do, or in a way you wouldn’t do them, or has an opinion or feeling that doesn’t match yours, does it take you out of the game? And what is the alternative? A silent, personality-less cipher? The more emphasis you have on plot and characters the harder that is to pull off. Amnesia? A good chunk of the plot’s focus would then have to be on how and why they wound up in that condition, instead of the story you wanted to tell.

In the CYOA I’m working on I get around this by switching to a third person point of view and just straight up telling the player that while they get to influence the character’s life, she’s her own individual and not meant to represent the person reading the story. But I think this works primarily because the way that particular adventure is set up is closer to reading and influencing a novel than playing a game.

But I personally have never been able to stand POV switching in IF. I know first person’s been done, but I can’t think of any example where third has been effective. It’s just too distancing and distracting. And so I’m right back where I started: Distancing the player from the character is bad, but involving them too closely with the character’s thoughts and feelings can backfire. Yet soulless husks with no previous life or personality is bad too, for obvious reasons.

What would be the ideal middle ground here?

No. Not me.

This is a matter of what the audience is used to. (I learned that recently when I found people who were thrown out of books by first-person narration. When a character referred to as “I” did things that I wouldn’t do… same complaint, opposite side.)

The IF audience – at least, the one we’ve got now – is used to second-person narration. How distracting other people find it is hard for me to judge, because I’ve been used to this for a long time now, but I don’t believe it’s a major contributing factor in how most newcomers react to IF.

Similarly, Charles Stross has written two second-person SF novels recently. The “you” narration is distinctive, but I haven’t found reviewers saying they’re repulsed by it. As a writing technique it’s not noticeably different from first-person; you can do the same things with it. It’s just a different style.

Games that put you in control of someone use second-person anyway. People are used to it, so that should be the safest bet for any kind of computer game that puts you in control of someone (be it an FPS, RPG or adventure game.)

whoops, I wrote too much and took too much time to write it~~~

Players of IF have to learn to roll with the punches when it comes to well-realized protagonists. Video games often involve directing their protagonists to do things that the player wouldn’t do, even if the player were in the same situation as the protagonist. The fact that the player identifies with the written pronoun “you” instead of a picture of Samus Aran doesn’t make IF an exception.

I think the issue is analogous to some extent with the issue some people have with less-than-perfect characters in prose fiction. You’ve heard of situations where someone reads a novel about a man who, although apparently a sympathetic character, nonetheless cheats on his wife and is a big old racist, and the reader assumes that the author cheats on his wife and is a big old racist, or at least that the author thinks these things aren’t problematic. When this becomes an issue, the the cure isn’t for authors to dumb down their work, but for readers to think more critically about what they’re reading.

Maybe learning something shocking! about a protagonist will take some people “out of the game” (people who seem to want it both ways: They want to be immersed in the world of the game, but they don’t want the game to define them in a way they don’t like), but what’s more distracting and detracts more from the experience is a game that goes out of its way to mitigate the issue. (In this wide world of ours there are probably good reasons to write IF in first and third person, but “so as not to offend the reader’s delicate sensibilities” is not one of them.)

I think that’s a problem you’ll have if you include that disclaimer in your CYOA: While I don’t know the minds of your target audience, I think if I read something like that, I’m afraid I’d feel like the author was talking down to me, like they had to explain to me how a computer game works.

This is crazy and hilarious! Do these people ever just drop books after the first sentence because their name isn’t “Ishmael”?

Okay, so it seems getting into the character’s head is not in itself a problem for most people familiar with IF…though I’m sure a lot depends on how the relevant information about who “you” are is fed to the player. (I can remember playing a couple of games where what the character refused to do developed them just as much as their actual actions.)

I’m suspecting then that at least one complaint I got about one of my games might have had more to do with the fact that I just love my cut scenes, but that’s a whole nother topic…

I get your point, but the disclaimer is part of a general introduction and necessary for other reasons too–CYOAs with heavier emphasis on game elements are more common and usually better received there and my intention is just to let readers know up front what they can expect–and while I’ll try to avoid giving it a ‘talking down’ tone, the fact is no matter what you do any major release is going to draw attention from some pretty special people–the site’s community has a pretty wide range as far as age and writing experience goes.

Ah, convention…

… it’s everywhere! In a narrative, when we are told that “Gertrude got out of bed and made herself a cup of coffee for breakfast. In the afternoon she ate half a cucumber sandwich.”, we don’t start wondering what happened to those hours between the coffee and the sandwich – of course we don’t. But that’s actually a convention, too, this excepting and understanding ellipses, though we usually don’t pay attention to it. In real life, blacking out for the entire morning would be cause for alarm, but in a story it’s a given if nothing interesting happens.

Many people accustomed to the so called realistic tradition in literature feel the first person narrator is pretentious, ranting and just way too artsy. (It’s worth noting that the modern day realism in literature does actually enclose the “I”, too. But, back in the day, it didn’t.) This, I think, happens in IF, too, just the other way around: anything that’s not second person can be seen off-putting. That is, if you oppose all things artsy.

My own wording here reminds me:

I just wrote “if you oppose” – an English language way to use the second person in a passive function. (In sentences such as: “In order to get in, you need to buy a ticket.” It’s possible that native English speakers don’t see this a passive voice, but from an outsider point of view it functions as one.)

This “you-passive” caused debate here in Finland some years ago. Finnish doesn’t (originally) have this grammatical device, but it made its way to our speech as a loan from English. As always in these kind of cases, this got people opposing “the wrong way of speaking”. The usual sarcastic response to someone using the “you” as a passive was to say something like “Well, it is not I whose doing that.” It was almost like people were offended by this form of speech: like it was too presumptuous, trying to tell the other person what she was like.

However, I don’t remember the last time someone complained about this. People have gotten used to it. The you-passive is still not an official form in the Finnish, and is frowned upon in literary style, but in spoken tongue it’s pretty common. I remember when I played my first IF – it took some time to get used to the second person narrative. But not that long: by the end of that one single game I was used to it.

I don’t know what your CYOA is about, but if you word the disclaimer something like “character is her own individual and not meant to represent the person reading the story”, my first reaction is that this story must be something really gory or morally dubious – something requiring parental guidance (which is perfectly fine, of course, if it is that kind of story).

I don’t think this is true any more. Games with strongly characterised protagonists tend to get better reviews than games with vague protagonists. The last IF Comp had us playing a psychotic and potentially homicidal woman and Joseph Stalin, among others, neither of whom was especially like the average player. (Or, one hopes, like any player.) I would go as far as to say that players now expect to find a well-realised protagonist with whom they might not always agree.

There are limits; I wouldn’t start a game by saying “You are Josef Mengele. This is another great day for your experiments.”, and then expect the player to go along with that. But that is just common sense.

I am struck speechless. (Though fortunately I can still type.) That has been a standard literary device in fiction from, oh I don’t know, certainly from the 2nd century AD, but probably earlier, and still used extensively today.

This is true. One might even say that emphasis in IF is shifting from the environment to character. Exploration is still a vital part of IF, but perhaps it’s nowadays expected to reflect the inner life or whatnot of the PC.

Your mistake was to not capitalise the ‘are’. You can push important words into people’s brains with this method.

Example: ‘You ARE Josef Mengele!’

That will make people go, ‘Whoa dude, in this game I AM Josef Mengele.’

Google <“first person” romance reviews>. I guess I don’t see people being repulsed, but there are many people saying that first-person is unconventional in romance novels. A lot of them aren’t keen on it, or think it’s worth noting in case other people aren’t keen on it.

As I said, it’s an audience expectation thing. In SF and fantasy, first-person is absolutely standard and nobody bothers to point it out.

I wonder how strong this expectation is, whether players might even be confused by a deliberate use of a vague second-person narrator for whatever artistic effect the author was aiming for. I agree that the general expectation is for the second-person voice to reflect a well-defined player character, which doesn’t necessarily represent the human player at the keyboard. I also think this should probably be the norm for most storytelling, including IF, but IF is in a unique position to circumvent this expectation. I think the idea that modern, story-driven IF games have well-defined protagonists is over-exaggerated, even though it may be somewhat true. Even a (mostly) puzzle-less game like Photopia seems to circumvent a sense of a well-developed protagonist by jumping between many episodes and PCs. It’s been a long time since I played Photopia, but I don’t think I felt much sense of a protagonist character.

Fascinating! Many of the ancient Jewish Psalms have first person narration, as well, so that’s even earlier. In fact, other Psalms are in second-person! At least, the English translations use our second-person; I have no idea if the effect of the Hebrew texts was the same as English second-person (or first-person).

There are plenty of standard literary devices that are hated by a small but significant proportion of readers. (I know someone who considers it extraordinarily obnoxious for a novel to switch the action back and forth between several distantly-related plotlines.) Likewise, there are some IF players whose very favourite thing about IF is imagining that the player character is literally them, and hate it when that illusion is shattered by even very light characterisation. I’ve no idea how many; I think a quite small proportion, and smaller than it used to be. But the thing about writing is that you cannot and should not expect to please everybody.

Anything you do as an author can backfire. This is particularly true when you frame the question in broad theoretical terms rather than the specific details of a particular work. I strongly prefer PCs that are heavily characterised, but this doesn’t mean that I think that heavy characterisation is the best approach for every game; if you’re worrying about this, it’s more useful to think about the specific things that a player might dislike about your character, and whether they’ve been adequately addressed. Get a few good alpha-testers.

Though to be honest, if a pseudonymous game did that then you’d be my first suspect.

I will cheerfully sign on to this, but caution that ‘thinking more critically’ is a process that may legitimately encompass hurling the book against the wall with a lusty cry of “up yours, Card!”

Don’t worry, man. Nobody here is saying that Card isn’t a big old racist.

Well, I don’t know much about literature, but it seems like having a first person narrator who is not the protagonist is quite common. Dr. Watson is a popular example. That’s my impression of what’s going on in Photopia.

Does Finnish have a pronoun like “man” in German or “on” in French? They translate to “one” in English and they’re used in many cases where English would use “you.”

I guess I’m a rarity, but this does slightly bother me. I’m okay with role-playing a character with an established personality and backstory, but once the game starts, I want to be in control of the character. For example, it’s always annoyed me in more recent Zelda games when I open a chest full of rupees and the message says “You found fifty rupees! You’re pretty happy!” or something like that. In fact I’m usually not happy because I was hoping it would be something better than rupees, so being told that I’m happy irritates me.

This is generally my preference, not because I want the character to literally be me, but because I want to play the character as I choose, and every time the game tells me what I do or how I react, the balance shifts slightly away from “interactive” toward merely “fiction.” But I think I like plot in games a lot less than most of the people here.

My preferred approach is to describe things in the game relatively objectively or give the narrator a distinctive personality, but leave interpretation up to the player. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is a game that I think does this quite well.

(Nitpicking: In Link’s Awakening you were told “You found 300 rupees! You’re ecstatic!” and that was in 1993.)

(Edit: Self-nitpicking: Okay you can go ahead and say “You should have been ecstatic, it’s three hundred rupees!” but I was not ecstatic because I had 999 rupees already so 300 just ceased to exist.)

That’s just a simple violation of “show, don’t tell.” Well, also a bad misjudgment of the character, I bet. I can imagine situations where the PC has emotions that the player doesn’t, and they’re expressed in a way that isn’t annoying. But this obviously isn’t one of them. A better example might be a PC with a different gender preference from the player - if the game indicated that the PC was attracted to a particular NPC, I think most players would go along with that, as long as it was well-written enough to show what the PC “sees in him/her.”

Yes, exactly! Darn newfangled contraptions!

I think Hitchhiker’s is a similar case to the first-person narrator who is not the protagonist. Arthur Dent never really does anything in the books - things just happen to him. He’s a focal point for the story, but he doesn’t make the story. You could probably argue that Ford is the protagonist of the first book. In the game, you play a much more active role, but perhaps that’s possible because of Arthur’s passive role in the books. In the segments where you play other characters, there’s always just one way to succeed - perhaps demonstrating that a more proactive PC offers less choice to the player.

Hmmm… taking this one step farther…
globalcomment.com/2011/in-praise … er-series/