YOU?

Who is the hero in an interactive novel?  To answer this question, consider these quotes from the back covers of the first entries in four classic gamebook series:

“YOU’RE THE STAR!” (Choose Your Own Adventure #1 – The Cave of Time)

“YOU become the hero!”  (Fighting Fantasy #1)

“YOU are Lone Wolf” (Lone Wolf #1)

“YOU are about to embark on an epic adventure!” (Sorcery! #1)

 

Clearly there’s an emphasis on YOU here.  And indeed, these four books are written entirely in second person.  This has become the standard viewpoint for gamebooks.

Jeremy and I grew up reading gamebooks and playing RPGs, and we appreciate the immediacy that’s achieved by the second person viewpoint.  By putting YOU into the story, how could it not immediately raise your level of investment?  But is the second person viewpoint really that much more effective at raising the stakes than other viewpoints?  And what are the drawbacks to second person?  We have analyzed multiple different viewpoints, as well as tenses, and we have decided to use third person limited perspective and present tense for our interactive story.  In this article, I will share how we came to that decision by analysis of the different viewpoints and tenses.

 

First Person

The first person viewpoint is perhaps the root of all storytelling, whether you’re telling a significant other about your day or you’re on the witness stand at a trial. In other words, first person is how someone shares events that they personally witnessed. This classic way to tell a story has been used throughout the history of literature, from Moby Dick to Heart of Darkness, from Gulliver’s Travels to The Great Gatsby, from Dracula to To Kill a Mockingbird.

First person provides immediacy because you are inside the head of the person telling the tale.  This enables the reader to more quickly identify with the narrator and stay with them throughout the story.  Many classic pulp adventure stories use first person, especially those of Edgar Rice Burroughs, such as John Carter of MarsPellucidar, and Tarzan.  In each of those landmark series,  he sets up the novel to read like a diary written by someone who actually experienced the events and lived to tell the tale (they are all written in first person past tense).

Another related advantage to first person is the fact that you can perhaps do a little more “telling”, as opposed to “showing”.  To say “I felt a deep and terrible dread” still has some power, even though the terror is being stated rather than shown.  Seen by us or not, it is a terror that someone (the narrator) feels, and that makes it feel a little more real.  H.P. Lovecraft regularly did this in his stories.

First person can be useful for “tinting the story” with the narrator’s perspective.  This gets especially interesting if the narrator is particularly unreliable, meaning that what they relay to you may not be the story, and some portion of the true story may be written in between the lines.  In Harrowing Adventures, we don’t plan to experiment with an unreliable narrator. But the thought does open up many intriguing possibilities for future projects. What if you and the other players are each trying to work together in a story where your perspectives don’t match up?

Perhaps you are writing the journal as you play the game, telling your tale.  Or the journal could even be something that has been found, and would therefore not be your own. That could lead to some interesting storytelling possibilities in which the narrator knows things that you don’t.

The chief drawback to first person for an interactive story is, in my mind, the fact that character death is not really an option.  If the narrator died, then why would that be written in his/her journal (unless it was gradual)?  Granted, we don’t want the excitement and tension in a story to depend entirely on “will they make it out alive or not?”  But we do want the story to feel like something in which the player has control of outcomes because there are as yet no foregone conclusions (such as: the narrator must survive so that he/she can one day write this journal that we are reading).

Another potential drawback to first person is that you are more limited in terms of whose thoughts and perspectives you can share.  In first person, you know the thoughts and perspectives of one character.  In third person you could potentially know the thoughts and perspectives of multiple characters, perhaps adding suspense by switching back and forth between them (think Game of Thrones or Wheel of Time).  Third person leaves a larger variety of storytelling possibilities, should you choose to use them (we, however, are going to stick with third person “limited”, more on that in a minute).

And going back to the visual theme: although our game looks like a journal that you are reading (or perhaps writing), we cannot stay completely within those thematic constraints and still make it a game.  If it were truly someone’s journal, why would choices appear as to what to do next?  Why would randomness (like dice rolls) impact the story?  At some point, we have no choice but to violate those limitations, no matter how much we want the game to fit perfectly with the visual theme.  So even if we choose first person, we still have to break this illusion on occasion.

 

Second Person

As mentioned, second person is the classic viewpoint for gamebooks.  It is also quite common in roleplaying games because it emphasizes that there is not supposed to be a separation between you as the reader and you as the protagonist.  This has the advantage of raising the stakes, since you are thinking about “will Imake it out alive?” instead of “will he/she make it out alive?”  In short, second person has been favored for its immersive quality.

However, cannot third person also be just as immediate and immersive?  More on that in a minute, too.

There are some drawbacks to second person.  For Jeremy and I, there are two chief drawbacks:

(1) Second person does not make for great prose.  There may be some exceptions to this, for instance the 2016 Nebula Award winner Chaos Horizon was written in second person.  But aside from some artistically interesting cases, we feel that second person isn’t as enjoyable to read as first or third person.  For one thing, the tone of “you do this, then you do that” sounds more imperative than descriptive, even if we know the intent.  Another issue is that using second person makes the reader part of the story, which limits the author to always saying “you” to refer to the protagonist.  This makes it difficult to use different descriptors to provide more variety in the prose.  Using “you” and “your” over and over to refer to the protagonist can sound overly repetitive.

(2) In an interactive story, there are two entities to consider: the protagonist and the reader.  Do we want to treat these one and the same, or different people?  I would contend that we want to keep them separate.  The reason for this becomes apparent when you consider a statement like “You feel frightened”.  Who is frightened?  The reader?  The protagonist?  Surely we can only mean the protagonist here.  We cannot put thoughts into the reader’s mind.  We can try to evoke certain emotions in the reader, but it is not within our means to directly implant feelings into their minds.

The problem with second person is that it blurs this distinction.  The author cannot refer to the protagonist without also referring to the reader.  I believe the same argument holds not only for thoughts but also for actions.  Who is jumping the fence, the reader or the protagonist?  Unless the reader is doing some impressive multi-tasking, obviously the protagonist is the one jumping the fence.

The separation of reader and protagonist becomes even more important in interactive fiction.  Read on to find out why.

 

Third Person

As compared to second person, third person has two big advantages. Third person makes great prose. Most fiction, especially genre fiction, is written in third person. It’s how we are most accustomed to enjoying a story.  Secondly, third person clearly separates the reader’s thoughts and wishes from the protagonist’s.

Consider the following use of second person in an interactive fiction or roleplaying game: the author continually asks “What do you want to do?”.  Whose preference is being inquired after, the reader’s or the protagonist’s?  I think most of us would naturally interpret this as the reader’s preference, in which case I would choose the option that I, the reader, would prefer.  However, as I play interactive fiction games over and over again, I find myself often tending to make the same choices because it is what I would do.  If, instead, the author were to use third person and ask, “What does Frank Valentine do?”  I would feel more freedom and encouragement to choose a course of action that is separate from what I personally would do.  When the separation of character and player is more distinct, I think that is an advantage.  As Jeremy has said, when you roleplay someone other than yourself, “you’re free to break out of your normal constraints.”  It encourages the reader to play the role of someone other than him/herself, and therefore I think it leads to a better roleplaying experience as well.

Another, and perhaps the biggest advantage of third person relates to the type of interactive novel we are writing.  Our goal is to not only make a great game, but to write a great story.  We want the reader to enjoy the story no matter what path they take.  Ideally it would be a story the reader would enjoy reading from beginning to end without making any choices at all, just like a regular novel.  (But what about fail states and character death?  Yes, those are still needed, but more on that in a future blog post!)  We have created three distinct characters who each offer a unique set of decisions and tone for the story.  We want this to be the story of those characters, and that’s a big reason why third person is important for us.

Within third person, there is a choice between a “limited” viewpoint, in which the reader knows the thoughts of just one character, and an “omniscient” viewpoint, in which the reader has access to the thoughts of all of the characters.  Third person omniscient has fallen out of fashion but some well-known books that use it are The Iliad, The Odyssey, Dune, and The Hobbit.  Because of the focus on a single character’s thoughts, the third person limited viewpoint is nearly as effective at putting you into the head of a character as first person is.

The disadvantage of third person, at least when compared to second person, is perhaps a loss of some feeling of stake in the outcome.  That said, I think third person clearly still has the power to make us feel emotions for the characters.  As Jeremy has said, “you’re far more likely to cry at the death of a beloved character than you are when you die while playing the role of yourself”, so it’s hard to argue that there’s any less emotional investment in third person.

 

Tense

Finally, what about tense?  Past, present, or future?  Telling a story in future tense would be strange, though not inconceivable.  But I am going to limit my discussion to past versus present.

The chief difference we see between past and present is the feeling of immediacy.  In present tense, you are making the decisions, and you are doing it right now.  In past tense, it reads like a story that’s already happened, which perhaps reduces the sense that you are having an impact on the plot.

So this was a straightforward decision for us to choose present tense because it adds to the immediacy, which is important for creating more immersion in an interactive story.

 

Conclusion

For all the reasons above, we have chosen to break the gamebook and roleplaying tradition of using second person and we are going to be using third person (limited) in the present tense.  What are your thoughts on our choice?  Let us know in the comments below!

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