Shall We Tense?

I’m thinking about recasting the IF story I’m working on, switching from second person, present tense to third person, past tense. I wish I was sure what would be best. The story is less than half written, but even so, it’s a big job. (If I wait until the story is all laid out and then decide to switch, the job will be far bigger!)

Eric Eve’s game “Shelter from the Storm” lets the player choose tense and person freely … although future tense and plural person settings are not included. That might be fun to try sometime — a hive-mind (or simply royal) narrator. Here’s an actual output from “Shelter from the Storm” as it might appear in first person plural, future tense:

   We will be carrying a theatrical magazine, a piece of paper, and a long
   wooden pole, and we will be wearing a beret and khaki battledress.

That has a kind of eerie charm. More to the point, though, Eric’s experiment seems, from what I can see, to have extended no further than allowing the player to switch tense and person within otherwise unchanged sentences. This strikes me as not the most interesting thing about making such a change. Consider the following example, which is not from “Shelter from the Storm,” just off the top of my head:

   >take skull
   You're too frightened of being struck by the giant scorpions to reach into the terrarium
   and pick up the skull.

That’s standard IF. Now let’s rewrite it in third person, past tense:

   >take skull
   He was too frightened of being struck by the giant scorpions to reach into the terrarium
   and pick up the skull.

The trouble with the standard IF way of doing it is that the player is all too likely to think, “No, I’m not! I’m not afraid of any stinking scorpions! I want to grab the skull!” This puts the player in an antagonistic relationship with the software, which is not a good thing at all.  The third-person version dodges this difficulty deftly, because it isn’t the player’s fear that is being described.

If this moment were being written in second person, present tense, this would be better:

   >take skull
   Not unless you want to be attacked by the giant scorpions!

But of course this wouldn’t work at all in third person, past tense:

   >take skull
   Not unless he wanted to be attacked by the giant scorpions!

What this rather silly example illustrates, I think, is that the choice of tense and person has implications that go well beyond the pronouns and verb endings used in a given sentence. The choice of tense and person spills over, or should, into the tone of the narrative. When the narrative is in third person, past tense, many sentences will need to be adjusted, in small or large ways. If done with care, this can have a significant effect on the mood of the story.

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4 Responses to Shall We Tense?

  1. matt w says:

    Actually I think your final example does work a little bit — it doesn’t not work at all, that is. You can have something like that in the free indirect style that is used to represent interior monologues and such like:

    “He saw a stick and a skull there. The stick: taken. The skull? Not unless he wanted to be attacked by the giant scorpions.”

    But I agree that a mechanical retensing transform doesn’t work very well. (The future tense version really won’t work.)

    • midiguru says:

      Your example reads well enough … but you’ve supplied a context (the previous “taken” output and the rhetorical question) that the parser won’t normally supply. Questions of prose style are not usually black-and-white, however. I shouldn’t have said it doesn’t work at all. I should have said it works very badly.

      • matt w says:

        Well, I’d suggest that the context is actually supplied by the commands and stuff. “Not unless you want to be eaten by giant scorpions” doesn’t work without context that’s supplied by the command rather than the parser, and doesn’t quite flow as prose without the command line. But we’re in basic agreement here — I’m just indulging my love of nitpickery, at best.

  2. Victor Gijsbers says:

    Once again, all I have to add is link to a game: Jason Devlin’s “Legion”, , is written in the plural. (The PC is, indeed, a hive mind.)

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