Mechanics of IF Form: 2nd Person, Invisible Narrator, Forecasting, Immersion

Confession: I’ve never written anything longform in second-person before starting my current project. First, yes; third, yes–but nothing where the narrative primarily uses “you” and “your” pronouns.

Thus, I’m finding small peculiar difficulties. Or maybe discomforts?

Preface: I only want to get better, not be offensive, and am grateful for all perspectives.

  1. Player reactions. Obviously, sticking w/ “show, don’t tell,” but physical reactions, for example, make character determinations about the PC. If in narrative, you describe the PC having physical symptoms of fear, you’re determining their emotional response to be fear. Rather than, say, boredom, arousal, anger . . . to the same stimulus, say, an advancing army. Much of character is in these reactions. How do authors deal with this? Or how do players experience this?

  2. Invisible Narrator versus Narrator as Character. Because writing with “you” is relaying information w/words a first-hand experience wouldn’t require, there seems to be some extra challenge. For instance, “Choice of the Dragon” overtly uses the narrator as a fumbling servile character afraid of the PC dragon, breaking the fourth wall for comedy much like “Deadpool.” Most everything else I’ve read CoG/HoG aims for invisible narrator with varying success. Thoughts about technique and/or reading recommendations that are strong examples of either? Preferences?

  3. Immersion-breaking choice prompts. Especially when overtly asking a player’s decision. I’m trying to write so that decision and consequence come as a natural consequence of choice in an organic way. But I also realize you need to forecast consequences and skill-roll failure-success outcomes. Am I placing a higher value on this than most players would? Is there any work that makes choice organic in an exemplary way which I can reference?

  4. Game-book balance. Perhaps this is just my feeling, but having read 12 or so CoG/HoG pieces, now, I sense that some of the stronger writing has poorer game design (illusion of choice, inconsequential stats, little variable outcome). Maybe these things, in tradeoff, allow for a stronger central narrative? Or maybe good writers aren’t always good coders (which may come to include me)? For example (just my opinion), from a literary standpoint, “Heart of the House” is the best I’ve read to date. As a writer, it doesn’t do anything mechanically that makes me cringe: passive voice, overuse of infinitive verbs (is, are, was), daisy chains of adjectives, overwrought description, monotonous pacing . . . But it had one of the simplest standard stat sheets of any game I’ve played (which is not necessarily a flaw either). On the other hand, I’ve played things with great concepts and choice design which are poorly written. Is there a stellar example that does both (book-game) excellently?

  5. Diluting character identity for the sake of player agency. I’d always been taught to begin w/a strong central protagonist, “a troubled person in trouble” who is “struggling to achieve a strongly held desire.” Because we need to allow that a PC may travel multiple different paths, it seems like the MC needs to begin somewhere close to neutral, like a 90s JRPG silent protagonist, to believably be able to walk opposed paths. How do authors handle this? I’m sensing much of the weight of strong set opinion falls to the inner circle of NPCs. Like, maybe Persona 5 handles this well?

Thanks again. Cheers! -D

11 Likes

There have been other discussions surrounding the second person PoV topic (or just the topic of which PoV in general) before. I hope they help!

Am currently in a hurry, so I’ll come back to this thread later and offer my own opinions to your questions!

8 Likes

The reasons you listed are precisely why I prefer first-person POV for IF games. Second person is more DM-like, which is fine, but there’s too much of a disconnect, in my opinion. If you feel more comfortable writing in first, I say go for it. There are others here who also prefer first person. Granted, a lot prefer second, but you’re the writer and you need to do it the way you feel is best.

1 Like

Write the cause, not the reaction. “The creepy crawlies clamber up your legs, then your belly, then your throat.”; “You feel a distinct taste in your mouth. It’s subtle, but very distinct.”; “The time goes on and on. Oh look, a bird! Yeah, he hasn’t come yet after half an hour.”

It’s never a bad thing to be “overly” cautious to this. A good gamebook foretell or explain all the possible outcomes to a choice and let the players know what they’re doing. Try all the works by Paul Wang (@ Cataphrak) as I hold his games as one of the best in forecasting choices.

I’m not going to go in-depth to the rest of your questions as those seem to have a generic answer “It depends on how you write them,” and I personally don’t mind one way or the other. Obviously, feel free to ask specifics and I’ll try to answer specifics.

3 Likes

What I am posting here is simply my opinion and not some expert advice or something that stems from experience.

I am one of those that usually prefers second-person narrative, with a few exceptions. And to be honest whether I’m ok with first person or not, really depends on the writing style and setting. Let me try to explain this.

If a story or character really works for me and the author gives me choices that I can identify with, I am fine with first person. If not - it feels like the author is forcing me to do or be something within the story, that I am not. Second-person narrative somehow cushions those points from an adverse reaction from me. Maybe, because I have played a lot of Pen and Paper role-playing games in my years, but it’s easier for me to forgive discrepancies in character reactions, feelings or anything of that sort in second-person, because I know that the author has decided it.

I have no idea, if this makes sense, when I am trying to put it into words :sweat_smile: I hope it does - at least to some extent.

#1 - I am pretty sure, that this is a bit of common sense (I don’t mean this in a rude way) and setting. Most people, will likely poop their pants, if they are facing an approaching army - it’s common sense, because you are likely to face your demise. However - if you are playing a long term veteran or a powerful mage, who has previously wiped out cities, it would feel out of place.

Same for little things. I have no problems with my character reacting in a certain way, as long as I know why they do so. This could be a choice at character creation, or even a little something that’s been pre-determined. So, if you tell me at creation, that my character was dragged into the sewers by wild rats, as a child and was nearly killed - sure I can understand why the fear rats, even though I, as a reader, have several pet rats. If you don’t tell me why this character has this reaction, I may feel miffed about it.

#2 - I think Narrator as character works best in comedies, because you have that option for breaking the 4th wall. Most of the time, I prefer the invisible narrator. Regrettably, I can’t really throw you one good example.

#3 - I think for this one, I would likely have to suggest TWC as one of the best example, where choices feel natural and even where picking something that will ‘fail’ the test against stats, it will actually provide you with a different scene or small difference in outcome.
It depends totally on what you want to achieve though. TWC doesn’t let you die - no matter what. So - you can try to jump into battle against some evil overlord, and you may come out bruised, scarred and dying, but you will recover. As such, this may be easier to write and implement - than if you have a game, where you have more permanent consequences or game-overs.

Additionally, one thing that I have had issues with in some CoG/HG is, that the choices aren’t clear. If I have a strength check and my choices are: ‘Eat an apple!’ or ‘Pick some flowers!’ (I know, very exaggerated example) I am miffed, if I fail, because the choice wasn’t clear. If you have a references in it, or even indications of fail/success chances “I could try lifting the rock. I may even be strong enough to do so.” / “I can try lifting the rock, though it looks very heavy.” - I am happy, because at least I know what skill/attribute this is referring to, and I can check my stats, or it even gives me a foreshadowing on whether I’ll fail or not.

But leaving me in the dark entirely and making it feel like a random role of the dice - that’s frustrating.

#4 - I don’t think illusion of choice or limited choice is necessarily bad writing. If the story is solid but relatively set in stone, I don’t mind, if the choices are mainly fluff or basically a different flavor of the same. I don’t want all games to be like that, but I don’t mind a few like this in between. It’s a bit like guiding a reader through the story vs. releasing them into a sandbox. Both is fine and fun, as long as it’s done well.

And I’ll be honest, there were quite a few stories, that I loved from the setting and the narrative, but the stats system killed all joy in me. Because in those cases, it’s almost the same as illusion of choice. If you HAVE to always stick with one stat, to succeed, you really have no choice either, or it’s game over or bad ending.

A simple stat system isn’t a bad thing and nothing keeps you from adding stats along the way, if you feel the need for it. But don’t focus too heavily on it - I would say - or you’ll force readers into min/maxing … within a written story.

#5 - There is no real thing I can give you here. Some stories start with the most boring “some person in high school/with an office job/ bus driver” and end up somewhere crazy. Those characters give you also an option to - as you suggested - shape them a bit, via the player. You can, of course, also go with a very strong, pre-determined character with a full background story, fears, loves and what have you. This can work well, but you WILL alienate some players. That’s pretty much the only guarantee I can give you.

You can also start with a slightly pre-baked character, where a few things have been determined. The character could have a scar, or a certain like for something, a specific job or a fear, which can lead them down the road. But as I pointed out before - eventually, you should explain why this is happening or why this specific thing draws them in.

Conclusion - You’ll likely hear people say the complete opposite of what I said, because we all feel and dive into these stories in our own way. And I’ll be honest, even as someone who prefers second-person narrative - I’d rather read your story in first person, if you feel more comfortable with it and feel like you will produce better writing that way.

In the end - anything in these stories can and likely will alienate some players - whether that is the setting, a character, gender choices, stats and game mechanics and so on. You need to write what you feel comfortable with and what you would feel proud to provide and present.

I apologize for an uneducated, personal opinion wall of text… it’s a bad habit I can’t get rid of. I am also sleep-deprived, so you will likely stumble over an army of typos (please tell them to surrender) - but maybe, something in this heap can help. If not - sorry for wasting your time :sweat:

5 Likes

In regards to #4, I’ve definitely noticed this as well. I think some games do both well, but it’s interesting to notice that none of the Nebula award-winning games are in the top bestsellers. I think it’s because ‘great writing’ often has a hero with many flaws and failures, and requires a fairly tight narrative arc.

But it’s not fun playing as a flawed and failing character because it’s so hard to tell if you failed because it’s a plot point or you failed because you suck at choicescript games. And required plot points are the same thing as railroading.

3 Likes

Check out @Gower’s games — the narrative is top-notch, and he still manages to do tons of interesting stuff with stats and choices.

1 Like

Regarding game-book balance, personally I think VtM: Night Road manages to do both quite well. It’s helped by being very explicit about stat checks, and being based on an actual RPG system. I think strong systems and strong narratives go hand-in-hand in some of my favorite CoGs: Choice of Rebels had a strong management component, Choice of Robots and Choice of Magics had very well-defined stat systems, and Highlands, Deep Waters (from hosted games) handles mystery-solving and psychological horror mechanics pretty well (but it does have some hiccups). In all these games, I think the mechanical and narrative aspects are intertwined; the stats aren’t there for the sake of having stats, but instead serve to guide the narrative.

As for character vs player identity, I’ve been reading some of the older discussions about parser IF; they described it as the “triangle of identity” (see also), with the player, the protagonist, and the narrator as the corners of the triangle. They talked about a lot of the same things back then! But there isn’t really a single right answer; it depends on the game you want to create, and different games will probably have different goals.

Thinking about my most recent game, the narrator is basically the protagonist’s inner monologue, which is like, an awkward, anxiety-ridden mess. But this game is not in a CoG style and has a strictly defined protagonist.

2 Likes

@Szaal This is incisive. Thank you. I’ll have to try it a bit to see how it plays. I imagine I might run into problems with mood and tone since I might have to leave those “blank” so the player can fill in their own. My concern would be that if I do this too often, I’ll sterilize my text. Still, my intuition is that this is the best solution I’ve read yet. On your suggestion, I purchased and read Wang’s “Hero of Kendrickstone” last night. (Two playthroughs, actually.) You’re very right about his ability to forecast rolls, decisions, and consequences in a way that feels integrated into internal decision-making narrative versus an overt immersion-breaking prompt. I learned a lot from this. Thanks. Open to any other recommendations. I’ll be reading Gower’s work this evening. Your blanket “it depends” answer (for the other three speaking points) is the one I find myself giving most often (on most things) and so the one I agree with most. Thanks, again.

@Chaneyi Don’t apologize. This is really insightful, well thought-out, and well-communicated. I especially like your analogy about guiding a reader versus releasing them and how, ultimately, either will work depending on execution. I want to encourage you that, if you wanted to write, I think you could, given daily discipline. I think you have an acute sense of the “how” and “why” of what works and doesn’t. I would take any other thoughts or recommendations from you to heart.

@Brian_Rushton I noticed that re:Nebula-winning vs sales. I’d originally thought that the core reader group hadn’t adapted to the new platform, but I wonder if it’s what you’re saying–there’s a tradeoff happening between concrete determinate writing you can progress from and build off of and open interactive structure? I’ll confess I haven’t read any of the Nebula winning games yet. Maybe that’s not what I (we) are looking for from this platform?

@Myrtle On it.

@autumnchen Agree about VtM: Night Road. I was impressed by a lot of things about it. Design: with the hub between quests you could choose in different order; money with cars and weapons; and the disciplines and social-physical-mental division of skills and attributes WW has honed over decades. Marquis was super lucky to work with the material but also did a great job of it, imo. Helps that VtM and TT in general are having a streaming resurgence.

I checked out “triangle of identity” and am going to dig into it a little more. I’ve always favored texts where the narrator and protagonists are both characters but different ones. “Moby Dick” is Ahab’s story, but told by Ishmael. “The Great Gatsby” is Jay’s story, but told by Nick. The New Testament gospels are Jesus’ story told by his disciples. I think this allows you to tell stories about people who wouldn’t tell their own story (protags: Ahab, Gatsby, Jesus) in a way that keeps them mysterious by not giving access to their inner workings. I wonder if anything like this has been done in IF, do you know?

Thanks, everyone, for teaching me. Your words and time aren’t wasted. Cheers!

2 Likes

Other people have been answering the questions a lot better than I could, but I do want to touch on one thing I realized when I switched from first/third person books to writing IF in second person.

It feels enormously awkward at first. We’ve been taught not to write in second person, there are almost no books, and choice games are often more game than book. Everything feels odd, strange and ill-fitting. Since it is new, we see every single YOU as if it had been capitalized, and there is no internalizing of writing tricks, it’s all out in the open.

It took me several months to start to grow comfortable as I started Fallen Hero, at one point I rewrote a chapter in first person just to see if that worked better. But, as I slowly got used to the format, I started appreciating what could be done with it. It’s that weird mixture of personal yet distant, you can pull people in deeply, and do some really interesting things with it. I don’t mind first person books, I have no preference as a reader, but oh boy, do I like writing in second person more now.

Give it a shot. It will take a while before you stop seeing the lines and see the picture, but once you do, it’s hella fun.

And, you can do everything in second person that you can do in first or third, and a bit more besides. It’s like whispering a story in someone’s ear, I love the intimacy.

12 Likes

One recent game that has a distinction between the narrator and protagonist is Lux. It has a really interesting trick. I don’t know of any choicescript games that do this, though. For other, mostly parser games with a distinct PC vs narrator or an unreliable narrator, check out https://ifdb.tads.org/poll?id=o5jhbd6i9tw8jt and https://ifdb.tads.org/poll?id=9qz2ibenuf2gndkl. Photopia and 9:05 are games I recommend even if you don’t do parser stuff :slight_smile:

Birdland and Known Unknowns are written as screenplays/scripts, and avoid explicitly saying what the protagonist thinks or feels. They’re really good at showing, not telling.

I suppose First Draft of the Revolution is another example of interesting narration; it’s a game told entirely through letters by and from different people.

Not exactly IF, but in the RPG Pathfinder: Kingmaker, the quests are written from the perspective of one of the characters, who is chronicling the protagonist’s story (I haven’t gotten past the first chapter though, for various reasons).

In IF the “protagonist” usually has a specific meaning: it is the character that the player controls, not just the main character. So in an IF adaptation of The Great Gatsby, if Nick were the character the player controls, then he would be considered the protagonist, not Gatsby.

On another note, Stronghold: A Hero’s Fate is another game with both strong gameplay and story elements, and a mechanical system that supports the story.

2 Likes