So, I’m still thinking a lot about POV, character voice and how the reader/player responds and engages with that. As I’ve started replaying Mass Effect 3, I’m now thinking about this more in relation to games than books as I was in my last post.
Second person tends to be the go to choice for text or story-based games. There’s an assumption that the more details you leave out about the protagonist, the more the reader/player will fill in the gaps and thereby feel a greater sense of association with the character and therefore the game. I certainly assumed this when writing the short story ‘Dead Men Don’t Count’ and creating my forthcoming ChoiceScript game HE LLC. It seems obvious, but it isn’t necessarily true. My first foray into creating my own game, Female Crime World, was written in second person, but initially asked players to choose specific characters with specfic traits, personalities and backstories. I was unsure of doing this from both a storytelling and gameplay point of view, but as the game was spoofing Grand Theft Auto 5, felt it was appropriate. It wasn’t until I created HE LLC, a game where beyond the scenario the character is placed in, no character details are given, that I was able to judge how successful each approach was. Ultimately, FCW felt more successful, and I think this was in part due to each character having a strong individual voice. Another aspect was that in HE LLC, I tried to use some narrative tricks to save on writing. The character was able to choose which NPC they befriended, but rather than writing a bespoke story for each (as I did in FCW) I instead employed some nameswitching so that generic scenes played out, switching in the appropriate character name. While I initially felt this would be a huge time-saver, it actually wasn’t so much. I could get away with writing less overall, but each scene required a far greater number of rewrites to ensure they made sense according to the chosen player path, and some had to be fudged to avoid implying particular user choices, leading to rather woolly descriptions that didn’t say much.
Playing Mass Effect 3 again, I noticed similar techniques at play. For example, everything Kaidan and Liara say to Shephard drips with emotion and subtext, because the game is hedging its bets in case the player has pursued either of them romantically. I think in the case of Liara, this is largely successful, because her character is developed as someone who is in awe of Shepherd and their achievements, so chances are she’d be a little doe-eyed regardless of Shepherd’s feelings towards her. Kaidan, on the otherhand, flip-flops between flirty and aggressive, which for me – playing as a female Shepherd who has never behaved as anything other than professional towards him – seems at odds with his personality. True, he’s a bit of a brat, but he’s risen through the ranks to Major by this point, and the idea that he’d be such a petulant little baby towards a senior officer doesn’t ring true for my playthrough. It’s also interesting that Mass Effect 3 hugely engaged its fans despite having a central character with a clear identity. True, you can play as Paragon, or Renegade, but the experiences Shepherd has and the way other characters react to her are largely the same. As opposed to say, Fallout 3, or Skyrim, where although you’re playing as the Wanderer or Dragonborn, the open world means details of your appearance, experience, faction-relations and ‘story’ are subject to a much larger amount of variation. Roger Giner-Sorolla’s writing on IF is also applicable to many story-based games (and even novels), so I’ll include an excerpt here for ease, although the whole article is interesting. Giner-Sorolla considers the three functions ‘you’ must perform in IF:
The Reader/Player. This is you, the real human being sitting at your computer playing the game… The Game Protagonist. This is you, a nameless cipher of a person who just loves picking up objects and toting them around, because you Never Can Tell when they’ll come in handy… The Story Protagonist. This is you, Jane Doe, an unassuming college sophomore who has stumbled upon a sinister plot to destroy the world. Or maybe you’re John Doe, a cigar-chomping private investigator with calloused knuckles and a callous attitude, who has stumbled upon a sinister plot to destroy the world. Or maybe you’re Jhin-Dho, a half-elven sorcerer’s apprentice who has …
Giner-Sorolla notes that games where the goals of these three ‘yous’ work together and make sense in conjunction with one another without drawing attention to the fiction are the most successful (in terms of narrative at least). An example of this working and not working in Mass Effect comes in the handling of squad members. Obviously the game’s technical limitations means it can only handle a maximum of two squad members in addition to Shepherd. Most of the time, this means assembling a small recon party and therefore makes good sense from a story perspective. At the opening of Mass Effect 2, Shepherd begins alone, is joined by Jacob and later Miranda. In Mass Effect 3, however, Shepherd begins a mission with James and Kaidan and on meeting Liara, comes up with the rather clunky response that James is needed back at the shuttle. Since Normandy has its own shuttle pilot, Steve Cortez, this seems odd. He hasn’t been introduced at this point, but he presumably exists. Why was he not flying the shuttle? Surely in the midst of a Cerberus ambush, sending away extra firepower to instead guard the (presumably empty) shuttle seems illogical. Either James should have stayed with the shuttle in the first place, or he should stay here now and fight Cerberus. It is illogical and occurs only because the game couldn’t handle Liara joining the team in addition to James and Kaiden. In ME2, game and story are working in tandem, but in ME3, game is being served by story, jolting the player out of the fiction and being reminded of its technological constraints. Interestingly, Giner-Sorolla concludes that inconsistent character personality serves second person writing well, as it allows the reader/player to believe more readily that this character is ‘like them’.
…we see ourselves exercising many different traits in different situations. We are deferent to superiors, authoritative to underlings; courageous in areas of our expertise, hesitant in things we know little of…
This isn’t something I’ve considered in my own writing or the writing of others, so I’ll be looking out for this in my future writing/reading/playthroughs.