Second Person Singular: Players and Perspectives

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I’ve briefly touched on gamification of history in an early blogpost, and that’s what I’d like to return to today. I feel like I’ve thought about the subject off and on for a long time. It’s a blend of two things I enjoy, dating back to early school experiences playing Oregon Trail (and the less-known but more mechanically advanced Yukon Trail and Amazon Trail). But I also feel like history and video games have a difficult relationship, where developers must necessarily sacrifice key components of one in favor of the other: either it’s a solid historical game that doesn’t necessarily cohere as a fun experience, or (more often) the historicity is distorted for the sake of the game mechanics.

The degree to which this tradeoff proves satisfying is debatable. Do the merits of Assassin’s Creed’s depiction of interesting historical figures and moments outweigh its heavy dependency on a ludicrously pervasive and ahistorical Illuminati? Does Civilization‘s remixing of historical empires reveal something to the player about their individual characteristics, or just flatten them all out in a counterfactual, context-free setting? Can anyone even play a Paradox Interactive historical strategy game without dedicating forty hours to learn how first?

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These (mostly) serious questions aside, I want to consider a more fundamental element of game design: the role of the player in the narrative. In The New Digital Storytelling, Bryan Alexander notes that games by definition incline towards a mode of perspective that books, film, and other media usually avoid: second person. A novel invoking ‘you’ indicates that it’s attempting some kind of experiment and breaking the traditional rules. A game, however, is wholly predicated on the fact that there is a ‘you’ that exists.

I could quibble with the details some of Alexander’s assertions. It’s misleading to claim the player in Breakout or Minesweeper or Tetris truly exists as a meaningful narrative element of the game, even if a marginal case could be made. Rather, I see a sliding scale of second-person narrative involvement. The end of the scale that directly places the player–the actual person who is playing, as themself–into the narrative is still fairly atypical and experimental. Far more commonly, games allows users to customize an avatar that fits into the correct setting: a hybrid approach that allows the player to dictate the terms of their existence and involvement. That method is nicely immersive, guiding the player to buy into a connection with their avatar (provided a robust enough character creation framework).

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But if that approach allows the player to connect with the abstracted character, it doesn’t necessarily tie that character strongly into the game’s narrative. The wider the breadth of customization allowed, the harder it is to mechanically account for a player’s choices. In contrast, at the other end of the scale of second-person are the games that are still distinctly second-person, but which deliberately place the player into a predetermined character or role. These allow for a much more sharply honed story, where the character has narratively-determined personality and desires that are only influenced, not wholly constituted, from player choices. That approach allows for much more cinematic experiences and narrative arcs (Without spoiling a fairly memorable ending, I’ll simply note that Red Dead Redeption is one good example of this done well).

As it comes to games that integrate history, I think this latter option is the better one. Customization and direct embodiment have their place; a game that seeks to express the general life experience in a previous era might make use of a genericized character as the conduit to that experience. But one crucial part of history is story, and I think a successful game must make use of strong predefined characters and vivid and resonant narratives to express the meaning that we seek to relate.

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That’s my exact purpose in a certain personal project. Harvest is a game in very early stages built using Twine, an interactive fiction engine. In recently reading a book for my coursework, I was struck by the vivid narrative and that led me to think about how that same experience could be represented in a more interactive manner. After thinking through my goals and the source material, I decided upon a framework that sought to extend past purely choose-your-own-adventure into an underlying system that must be managed and which has distinct fail states. I’ll save detailed discussion of my methodology and thoughts on the experience for a future blog post, as I’ve got a lot more work to do, but the current state should give a general impression of my intent. So feel free to give it a try, and let me know about any thoughts or suggestions!

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