It’s Not About You

I’ve been contemplating the fact that I enjoy writing interactive fiction more than I enjoy playing it. Designing my own model world, and then working through the challenges of implementing it, is fun. All too often, the games I play turn out to be less fun than I’d like. Quite often I quit halfway through a game and never get back to it.

So what is it that makes playing IF less enjoyable than reading a novel?

To be fair, I sometimes put down novels without finishing them too. I read about 2/3 of Tristram Shandy, and about half of Vanity Fair. But those are exceptions. Generally, when I start a novel, I’m enjoying it enough that I’ll read the whole thing.

I’ve tried a number of games that had good story premises, solid code, and very reasonable prose. I didn’t finish them either. So the quality of the game is not the problem.

Part of the problem is that I’m not very good at solving puzzles. For instance, I stopped playing “Broken Legs” halfway through. The premise was fresh and amusing, and the writing was certainly strong enough to put the premise across. But the puzzles were very hard indeed, to the point where I felt they were borderline unfair. I would never have gotten anywhere without the aid of the built-in walkthrough. If a game doesn’t have a complete and accurate hint system, fuhgeddaboudit. I don’t want to read a book where the pages are glued together. It’s just not fun.

But even with the aid of the walkthrough, I didn’t finish playing “Broken Legs.” I meant to, I just haven’t gotten around to it.

I’m starting to think that the use of second person may be at the root of my boredom. When I read a novel, the protagonist is a separate person. It’s not me. I can care about this other person, and because I care, I want to find out what happens to him or her. Even when the ending of the story is quite predictable (as it usually is in genre mysteries, which I read a lot of), I still finish reading, and I sail on to the very last page with no stress because I perceive the protagonist as other than myself. I have compassion.

When the protagonist of a game is “you,” as it generally is, that factor drops out of the equation. You can’t have compassion for yourself! So, almost paradoxically, your involvement in the game is attenuated when the game is about “you.”

The same thing may be true, to a lesser extent, of past tense vs. present tense. Present tense is sort of a 20th century literary phenomenon. I’m not sure it was used much in earlier times. Again, while seeming on the surface to increase the reader’s involvement in the narrative, present tense may actually reduce involvement by making the narrative seem more improvisatory or ad hoc, and thereby make it less compelling.

I’m just proposing this as a theory. I may be wrong, and even if I’m right about my own reactions, others may not share them.

I have an opening sketch for a game in first person, past tense. When I finish the project I’m working on now, maybe I’ll tackle that one. Other people’s reactions to it might give some data points with which we can evaluate this idea.

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6 Responses to It’s Not About You

  1. Victor Gijsbers says:

    Jim, you should check out Eric Eve’s “Shelter from the Storm”:

    It allows you to switch tense and person on the fly, so you can easily test whether you enjoy first person past tense more than second person present tense, and so on.

    • midiguru says:

      I was one of the testers on “Shelter from the Storm.” That was in the back of my mind, yes — thanks for the nudge. I’ll have to play through it again.

  2. I have the same problem, mostly for being a terrible puzzle solver. But I learned to appreciate a piece of IF as far as I can go. (Never finished Planescape: Torment or Myst, either. Same thing.)

    As for making the players care, I thought IF achieves that by getting them directly involved? E.g. some time ago I was asked how Photopia manages to have emotional impact. And the answer is, both through the story proper and by little things like making *you* save the girl’s life at some point. Then again, the protagonist in Photopia is not the player character. Hmm.

    All that being said, I’d like to see more puzzle-less IF. Not that I play much anymore.

  3. Gravel says:

    I think there’s a higher energy output required for IF that’s part of it. It’s generally true for games – you have to keep typing, clicking, or engaging with the game.

    Another thought:
    If I put books down and come back to them, it’s easy to pick them up. If I don’t remember where I left off, it’s usually easy to find the spot; if I don’t remember the current action, rereading the last few pages jogs my memory. This is different than finding a save file – the most recent save file – on any of four different computers I play IF with, remembering what I’m supposed to be doing (hope I remember to start the transcript!), and picking up. I find stopping an IF has a chilling effect on my gameplay, and I’m not sure how to address that.

  4. Amy says:

    I’ve actually been arguing against second person for some time, for these reasons and others. The tense issue is one I hadn’t considered before, but now that I think about it, most of the books I’ve read in the past year I’ve enjoyed particularly more than others have all been first person past tense. I suspect that it gives more of a sense of interaction, that this is someone talking to you. This might be something we can leverage in interactive fiction, by turning it into a dialogue between you and the narrator.

  5. Horace Torys says:

    I think second-person is a pretty big block to newcomers, as well. That voice is forever associated with cheesy CYOA books and the like. There’s the disconnect when the author starts telling you how “you” react or feel.

    The truth is we don’t want to read about ourselves, we want to vicariously enjoy (or sympathize with) the lives of characters different from us. And if the protagonist is different from you, than why does the author keep telling you it’s “you”?

    I’d recently written on the subject as well:

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