I’m not sure how relevant this will ultimately turn out to be, but it’s something I think about a lot as someone with a foot in both the ‘literary’ and ‘games writing’ camps. Second person. You. Why are prose writers so afraid of second person? I was going to write all this in second person, and then decided that would be pretentious tripe, so perhaps that’s part of the reason. A format that comes naturally to games seems outlandish in most other written formats. It’s difficult to find examples of second person narrative in fiction, particularly long form. Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City and A Man Asleep by Georges Perec were pretty much the only examples I could find that actually seem to be genuinely in second person (Aside from all the fantastic Fighting Fantasy books, of course.) Many examples given as second person are actual first or third person – they are a character addressing a specific or generic ‘you’ rather than the writer encouraging the reader to take on a role, to become the ‘you’, if you will.
Bob Bates’ definition of first and third person games is interesting here, because it’s perhaps applicable to novels, and also because I’d argue that many games that are considered ‘first person’ would actually more appropriately be described as second person.
“First-person games tend to be faster paced and more immersive. There is a great sense of being “in the world” as the player sees and hears along with his character. Third-person games allow the player to see his character in action. They are less immersive but help the player build up a stronger sense of identification with the character he is playing.”
To my mind, games where other characters address a character that could feasibly considered ‘you’ are second person rather than first person. For example, in Fallout, Skyrim and Dragon Age: Origins, even South Park: Stick of Truth you choose not only the way the character reacts to specific incidents (directly or indirectly) through dialogue options or character choices, but their looks, their history etc. The character could quite easily be a version of ‘you’ and this illusion is rarely broken, because the characters address you directly. They may use generic nicknames, but these nicknames are often given fairly naturalistically through the course of the storyline unfolding. While this freedom of character creation is still present in, for example, Mass Effect and Dragon Age 2, the player is given a specific character to portray. The other characters are only ever addressing Shepherd or Hawke, they aren’t addressing ‘you’.
As Bates suggests, this doesn’t necessarily mean there’s automatically a lesser degree of engagement with the character, in fact, it can mean the opposite. This certainly held true in my own experimentation. I wrote a piece in second person. You can read it here if you’re so inclined (<not second person, me addressing you, see how tricky this is?!), but to give you the gist it asks the reader to imagine themselves a child in a post-acolyptic world, tasked with looting a dead man’s house. I wrote this in ‘games writer’ mode, leaving out as much detail about the main character as possible to allow the reader to feel that this could be them. Avoiding gender or skin colour to avoid jolting the reader out of relating to this character. I then posted it on Jim Baen’s Universe forum for feedback, knowing that as a community for fans of science fiction novels, the majority of readers would probably be readers of traditional fiction over videogame narratives.
Obviously, the difficult thing with this kind of feedback is knowing what people actually mean, and why. Any criticism could arrive just as easily from my bad writing as the usage of second person, but I still found some of the comments that came up repeatedly interesting. Several users commented that this was ‘not a story’. They suggested flash fiction, or a vignette. This was particularly interesting to me, as this is an accusation often levelled at story-based games: ‘This is not a game.’ I immediately wondered if they would have felt the same way had it been in first person. Some of their other comments suggest not. “I felt disoriented from the start because I did not know who the protagonist was” said one reader. This made me realise how readily we accept a huge amount of gaps in videogame narrative. We’re far more willing to plug the story gaps in a game’s narrative than we would in… well, a story.
So I thought about how to make that work in a story narrative. I needed a longer piece to better develop the world and reader-character, and, although none of them really touched on this, I think it was beneath the surface of many of the comments, a reason for being written in second person. The product of this was ‘Blanks’. It’s a story that questions the nature of identity and self through positioning the reader as a recently released clone, raised as a genetically perfect donor for their originator. I’ve submitted this to the L Ron Hubbard Writers of the Future contest, so it’ll be a while before I get a sense of how successful it may or not have been, but I’ll let you know how it goes.