Why 2nd person singular?

So, why is interactive fiction traditionally 2nd person singular?

I mean, there are 1st person shooters, 3rd person shooters, and 2nd person interactive fiction…
Is there any particular reason? Or is it just because it “works”?


There are a lot of reasons - including that it just works, as you say, a lot of the time - but it’s strongly influenced by the fact that Adventure, the ur-text adventure, used second person present tense.

That decision in turn was likely strongly influenced by the fact that its author, Will Crowther, was trying to capture the feel of a Dungeons and Dragons game, and second person present tense is the natural way a DM addresses a player (though there usually the “you” would have been plural, addressed to a party of player characters - having one IF player control a bunch of protagonists at the same time is fairly rare though!)

Edit: I’d also note that many 1st/3rd person shooters actually use the second person for their story sections, especially older ones - all those text screens in Doom are addressed straight to “you” rather than being first person narration or recounting the adventures of Fred Doomguy, Esq. in third person. For many kinds of stories (e.g. those with weakly characterized protagonists), again, it just works!


The idea behind 2nd person text is probably to try and replicate the same degree of player immersion as a 1st person visual game. (I am not claiming visual games came first; just that they both aim for the same goal here)

1st person text and 3rd person text both have similar degrees of immersion to 3rd person visual games. The differences in text (in my opinion) are mostly down to literary perspective and connection to the character.

I don’t think any of these are “better”; it’s really up to the author, and the story/game being made.

I think a lot of the time the 2nd person perspective is just because it’s familiar in the medium, and most authors probably want to have the player jump into a role.

Again, just my opinion. I’ve been poking at IF for most of my life, but I didn’t find any community or knowledge base until very recently. So this is kind of the observation of an outsider.


The Scott Adams tradition used first person singular for everything, with the idea being that the narrator is explaining what they’re experiencing in the world, and you’re telling them what to do. (For example, the famous exclamation “I’m DEAD!”)

The Infocom tradition, at least at first, generally wanted you to imagine yourself in the game’s world: you’re not playing a specific character, you’re playing you, if you happened to be an adventurer or an apprentice wizard or whatever. Even when later games had a specific character to inhabit, the tradition of addressing “you” remained.


An interesting question.

However, for graphical games I feel that the terms 1st and 3rd person shooters are kind of artificial as 1st, 2nd and 3rd person are clearly defined in text but not in graphical games(?).

In graphics they might argue that 1st person is when you see everything through the eyes of the player character? And if you see the player from outside is it then 2nd or 3rd person?

So a direct comparison with graphical games may be a matter of definition.


My assumption is they were emulating the feel of a role-playing game like D&D with a game master describing the situation.

Before text adventures were thought of as interactive fiction with all the literary trappings such as point of view and tense, they followed the convention of most all video games. If I was playing Pac-Man and manipulated the yellow circle into a ghost, the game or people around me would phrase it as “You Died” instead of “Pac-Man died”.

Games might have named protagonists like Mario in Donkey Kong, but there was rarely any literary abstraction that the character was anyone other than “you”.


I’m not a video game type of person, so I can’t answer you anything in the “shooters” regard.

Otherwise, I think it’s mostly about immersion. “You” has a very personal feeling to it. When I see “I” or “he” “she” “they” and the likes I generally feel an immediate disconnect to the character — because those are perspectives usually used in traditional fiction, where the character is understood to be the creation of the author’s and thus under the complete control and agency of them. A brick wall seemingly appears between the reader and the text, so to say. “You” provides the player with some illusion of control, however much or little they actually have in-game (especially regarding choice-based interactive fiction).

I actually prefer to read interactive fiction where the reader still “is” the character in the story but perspectives other than 2nd person singular are used. It makes for a great escape from the monotony of seeing the same thing done over and over again, and, more often than not, the game ends up as something “different” from the ones you’ve read before that had gone and followed the lines instead, if that makes sense. Kind of like seeing a book/movie play out with you in there, but still removed from real life.

On the other hand, I love seeing the 2nd person singular being used in poetry.


I always thought 2nd person was the natural choice.

Here I am, at my keyboard in my comfortable chair, and simultaneously I am roaming the dungeons/caves/forests of some fantasy world. The computer talks to me in 2nd person because it is bridging the two universes for me. Again, the comparisons of the computer to a DM in D&D are apt, although I have no idea what the original reasoning was.


I feel like this is relevant:


I don’t know how relevant it is, but I do so love the main part of that video.


I think it helps nail what second person could mean in a text game. The individual through which you are experiencing the events is not the same individual you are controlling. It’d be like if Planetfall were written from the perspective of Floyd while the player still controlled the protagonist.


Most people here seem to be linking second-person to having a blank-slate PC and expecting the player to fully self-insert: games started out referring to “you” because the PC was supposed to be literally, actually you, and it’s still common in an era when blank-slate PCs are less common because writers are largely following, without any particular thought, an unexamined tradition from that era. But I disagree. It’s about immersion and player identification, but projecting onto a blank slate isn’t the end-all be-all of those things.

When I’m playing a game, I will often refer to the PC in the first person regardless of how fully fleshed-out the character is and how much they are or aren’t like me. Due to the nature of interactivity, “what I’m doing” and “what the PC is doing” are very often the same thing—if I say “I’m heading back into town to buy some potions before I try to fight that dragon again,” that’s true whether I’m speaking “in-character” or not. But then that spills over into situations where, for example, I might meet an NPC who’s really hostile to the PC and say “oh, this guy really doesn’t like me”—and that’s not because I’m thinking of the PC as having literally my personality, it’s because of the way controlling a character’s actions in-game leads me to identify with or inhabit that character while I’m playing. And there’s a whole other essay that could be written on the ways that that promotes emotional investment in the character and their goals and the narrative purposes that can serve.

So I see second-person in IF as feeding into that type of player identification. First-person or third-person, meanwhile, discourages the player from thinking about the PC’s actions in first-person; it has a subtly distancing effect. Which I suppose no one is really disputing—where I disagree is the idea that the distancing effect is inherently desirable for PCs with distinct personalities.

Basically, I think that projection and identification are not the same thing, and that there are unique narrative opportunities that can be opened up by identification without projection. I don’t think the prevalence of second-person POV is primarily a matter of inertia based on a history of games that did expect projection, and honestly I think that if projection were the main purpose that it served and it was poorly suited to PCs with distinct personalities, we wouldn’t see so much of it anymore. I mean, maybe I’m touchy about this as someone who has used second-person for strongly characterized PCs, but that was a deliberate choice that I made and I feel like it would be very condescending of me to assume that that wasn’t true of other writers.

I also think the visual points of view in graphical games are somewhat of a different beast from points of view in a prose sense and I feel it’s a mistake to try to make one-to-one comparisons.


^ Yeah, I agree with all of this (including the effectiveness of the second person viewpoint in the Lady Thalia series!) Going back to the tabletop RPG example, if you’ve got a game where the GM primarily narrates things in the third person (“The bartender sneers at Thordek and says his money’s no good here. What does Thordek do?”) I’d tend to assume PCs are less characterized, and more likely to be empty vessels for the players, than a comparable game that relies on the second person.


Agreed, it isn’t a one-to-one, but I still feel there are some useful things to be learned and potentially applied from the comparison.


Yeah, I just think they’re, I guess, related but distinct concepts? The idea of a video game in which you’re seeing through one character’s eyes while controlling another character is fascinating, but in terms of narrative implications it has very little in common with the IF second-person POV.

Actually, I feel like maybe the closest thing to that in IF is games like Violet, where the parser and the PC are different people—which I’m not even sure how to categorize POV-wise. Is it first or second person if you have both an “I” and a “you” (especially if the “I” can still tell “you” what you’re thinking/feeling)?


I have always said that a usually overlooked feature of second person narrative is its potential for empathic experiences. Being told, essentially, that “you are an other, or else another” is a call to imagine the lived experience of another rational entity (I won’t exclude aliens or anything else by saying “person”). While self-insertion has been a strategy of IF authors over the years, I don’t think that sort of authorial intent obligates a player to embrace that intended meaning.

(I think Zork’s adventurer is more developed than people assume)

To me, the potential for shared experience is one of the great promises of IF.


I am replying a lot in this thread just to say “I agree”, but I agree! It’s kind of too bad this conversation isn’t happening next week, since your game does interesting things on this score and I’m looking forward to seeing what people make of this aspect of it!

(I’ve tested Drew’s game and it’s coming out as part of Spring Thing).

Actually this was something I was interested in when writing Sting (my memoir game) - I wouldn’t say protagonist-me is especially deeply characterized, but I leaned pretty hard into things like disallowing certain actions or dialogue options with the explicit statement that they’d be out of character, since to the extent it works it relies on the player not being a self-insert but on being me. I didn’t see too many reviewers comment explicitly on this aspect of the game, though, so I wonder whether I could/should have had a heavier hand on some of those aspects of the design?


There’s a lot to consider in that question, but as an initial thought: I think that intrinsic (i.e., imposed by the character’s traits, moral compass, capabilities and so forth) limitations are likely to be well-received in a work like Sting, since they will serve to deepen the reader’s understanding of the protagonist.

Trouble may arise in genres that are built around extrinsic constraints: locked doors, the mystery of the grue talisman, the griffon standing watch over the golden sextant, and so forth. I suspect that even though a locked door and an agoraphobic protagonist share a single practical effect (the player can’t go through the door), the two scenarios would be received quite differently.

I should think a bit more before elaborating, but I imagine the reception of constrained player action would be dictated by the rhetorical situation of a game (author, audience, content).