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Message from discussion Crimes Against Mimesis, Part 4

From: Roger Giner-Sorolla <>
Subject: Crimes Against Mimesis, Part 4
Date: 1996/04/29
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organization: New York University
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6. The Three Faces of "You" -- Player and Protagonists

 Computerized interactive fiction is a discourse between the game program
and the game player, mediated by the player's character (PC).  By
convention, the program addresses the player in second person declarative
as if he or she were the character ("You are standing in a field in front
of a white house"), while the player addresses the game program in a sort
of pidgin second person imperative, as if the program were the
character ("examine house";"go west").  

 The origins of both sides of this curious dialogue are plainly traceable. 
The program's voice echoes a human referee in a role-playing game
informing the players of events in the imaginary world, while the player's
lines resemble commands in a text-based operating system ("copy file to
b:\","cd if-archive"), their choppiness dictated by the simplemindedness
of the parser. 

 Although bizarre by conventional literary standards, this convention has
proved surprisingly robust in IF games over the years.  A few games have
experimented with third- or first-person narration, but none have inspired
a real tradition.  Perhaps it's more satisfying, in an interactive nature
game, to have your situation narrated directly to you by the (Dungeon)
Master's voice, as opposed to the narrative detachment of first or third

 But the problem with second-person narrative, and perhaps a reason why
literary fiction writers generally avoid it, is this: it is easy to define
who is speaking in first person, or who is being spoken of in third
person, but it's not so easy to see who is being spoken to in second. 
In effect, second person confounds the reader with the protagonist.  What's
more, in a narrative that is at the same time a fiction and a game, the
protagonist's identity fractures even further, into three distinct

* The Reader/Player.  This is you, the real human being sitting at your
computer playing the game.  Your goal is to amass points, finish up, and
have a good time along the way.  You command all the reality-warping
conveniences of the game program: save, restore, undo. You know when an
item is important, because it is described as a separate object rather
than as part of the scenery; you know when an action is important, because
you get points for doing it. 

* 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.  Your goal is to fiddle around with
all these objects in any way you possibly can, so you can explore your
environment as thoroughly as possible and amass all the really important
objects, so you can get to the really important places.  Strange urges
guide you -- whispered warnings from disastrous alternate universes your 
player "undid", oracular impulses to pick up the can opener in the kitchen
because it's the only thing you really *feel* is important there. 

* 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 ...  Anyway, your goal is to stop
the villains while staying alive, though it's a bit odd that you keep
picking up stray objects without knowing why, and they always prove to be
useful later on... 

 Early adventure games did not bother much with defining the story
protagonist.  The result (at least in my experience) is an entertaining
kind of imaginative romp in which the blank hero takes on the identity of
the sweatshirted person at the keyboard, running around the dungeon in
tennis shoes, playing the game from within.  In fact, the appearance of
the Zork games' Adventurer in the "Enchanter" series comes off as an
amusing surprise, precisely because most players never thought of Zork's
protagonist as a character in his own right. 

 Actually, the "hero-is-you" approach has an honorable precedent in
imaginative fiction.  Ever since Mark Twain's Connecticut Yankee visited
King Arthur's court, everyday slobs have explored strange and fantastic
worlds. And what better way to encourage involvement than to write the
player in as the hero?  But the limitations of the blank hero are equally
obvious, once you've played enough adventure games.  Without any distinct
identity, the player has only the motivations of the game protagonist as 
a guide, and "get the items, solve the puzzles, get the treasure" quickly
grows stale when repeated from game to game. 

 Recognizing this, game writers in the early 1980's began to present
stronger plots and identify their story protagonists more distinctively.
Sweatshirt and sneakers gave way to wizards' robes, detectives' fedoras,
18th century crinolines. But as the story protagonist took firmer shape,
the motives and behaviors of the game protagonist lingered on, like a
kleptomanic doppelganger.  Even today, few IF games have managed to
present a protagonist whose actions are completely defined by his or her
own character, rather than by the objects-and-puzzles intrigues of the
game.  (Exceptions tend to fall within the mystery genre; but then again,
linear mystery novels themselves have a long tradition of balancing
realistic characterization with the game-like rules of the whodunit.)

 Writing up a blank protagonist is easy enough, and a sensitive writer
will try to avoid accidental assumptions such as "You wake up with a
stubbly chin" (not applicable to both genders) or "You turn white as a
sheet"  (not applicable to all complexions). 

 A writer who wants to write a definite character, though, has to think in
entirely different terms.  Will the character be given only an identity,
or a fully developed personality as well?  Most IF games present the story
protagonist more in terms of social roles and motivations, than in terms
of strong personality traits.  For example, in Christminster, you are
Christabel Spencer, a young, properly-brought-up British woman whose
brother, a college professor, has mysteriously vanished.  Christminster
does an exceptionally job of outlining Christabel's role as a woman by
limiting her actions (she can't enter chapel bareheaded) and through the
NPCs' dialogue (the villains and the Master are condescending, while young
Edward sees her as a confidante). 

 Motivationally, too, Christabel's actions are clearly determined.  She
needs to explore the college, so that she can complete her brother's
researches and eventually find out what happened to him. Even the one
necessary act of vandalism she commits as the beginning of the game can be
explained as an attempt to enter the college, although the text could
bring this out a bit more clearly. 

 Christabel's role in the fiction is much more clearly defined than her
personality.  She is by turns stoic (when attempting to cry on demand) and
squeamish (at the sight of a skeleton), proper (when entering chapel) and
improper (when commiting various acts of theft, wiretapping and trespass). 
Her constant traits are those inherited from the game protagonist:
inquisitiveness and acquisitiveness.  The variety of her other traits,
too, can mostly be chalked up to the demands and necessary limitations of
a number of different puzzles. 

 But it's not clear to me that straitjacketing the story protagonist with
a definite personality is always a good idea.  While the reader/player can
usually identify with a person of a different gender, ethnicity, social
role, or time period, it's harder to project one's self into an entirely
different set of personality traits.  Such a protagonist would be
experienced more as a "he" or "she" than as an "I", robbing the
second-person narrative of its potency; and character identification would
suffer at the expense of character definition. 

 A basic tenet of social psychology -- the "fundamental attribution error"
-- can be stated thus: we are reluctant to accept our own actions as
indicative of our personality traits, and eager to attribute the actions
of others to their personality traits.  In part, this is because 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;  cheerfully unafraid 
of spiders, but repelled by the sound of crinkling styrofoam. (Well, I 
am, anyway.)  

 Christabel's apparent inconsistency of personality, then, may actually be
helpful in getting the player to identify with her.  What's more important
to writing vivid story protagonists, in my view, is consistently bringing
out the character's role in relation to the external world, and setting
his or her actions up to reflect clearly defined motivations. 

 I'll close by covering two special problems, and offering partial
solutions: one in which the player's task can result in a less believable
story protagonist, and one in which the game protagonist's task can also
undermine the story. 

 * Save, Restore, Undo.  Some might argue that an IF game is made more
"realistic" by disallowing the ability to restore games or undo moves, but
I disagree.  The ability to undo is no less realistic than the ability to
restart the game, and a good deal more convenient.  Given that a
restartable game can always be played with knowledge from a previous,
failed "incarnation," the task of the player is not literally to live or
die as the protagonist would, but to maneuver the protagonist so as to
"write" the optimal narrative that the game author has hidden within the
program, in which the protagonist does everything right and achieves a
happy ending.  

(This process brings to mind a toy from my childhood called "Chip-Away" --
a rather literal-minded take on Michelangelo's famous dictum that the
statue is hidden within the block of marble. The makers of "Chip-Away" 
embedded a white plastic statue within a block of white soap, and the
young "sculptor" was provided with hammer and chisel...)

 All the same, the finished account of the protagonist's efforts will look
odd if it shows signs of having been produced this way.  Practically
speaking, this means that the player should in theory be able to complete
the story without using any information gained from fatal dead-ends.  An
obvious violation: hiding a magic word at the bottom of a (full) well so
that you see it just before you drown, and pass it on to your next

 A less obvious violation: the fatal trial-and-error puzzle. Consider four
identical doors, one leading onwards, one concealing a lethal explosive. 
In the story that would result from solving this puzzle, it would be much
more satisfying to the story reader and the game player if there was some
way to tell which door hides the ticking bomb, rather than having success
come only from a lucky guess.  The clue may be difficult enough so that
the player opts for the brute-force, save-restore-undo method (who would
think to "listen to north door"?), but at least it is there to explain the
story protagonist's actions in a fictionally satisfying way.  Even though
real-life survival may often depend on dumb luck, fiction can only get
away with so many strokes of fortune before suspicion sets in. 

* Examine All. Get All.  In the same way that save/restore/undo can lead a
story protagonist to act in strange ways, the demands of the game
protagonist can often intrude into the story.  Most jarringly, the game
protagonist finds it useful to pick up all objects that the program 
indicates can be picked up, when the story protagonist might have no real 
reason to, say, take an apple peeler out of someone's kitchen.

 Let's look at the two ends of this problem. On the picking-up end, there 
is the cue that the game author sends the game protagonist when presenting 
a room with a usable object in it:

   This is a well-stocked, modern and efficient kitchen, done up in an 
  avocado-green color scheme.  
   On the table you see a battery-powered flashlight. An apple peeler is 
 lying on the counter. 

 The well-trained game protagonist will, of course, pick up both these
objects and take them along.  But the story protagonist?  If he or she is
anticipating doing some exploring, it would make sense to pick up the
flashlight -- but why the apple peeler?  And in terms of the story, what
is so darned attractive about the apple peeler, as opposed to all the
other objects subsumed in the description of the "well-stocked kitchen":
the pots, pans, knives, can opener, oven gloves, and so forth? 

 On the putting-things-down end, there is the recent trend towards
allowing near-infinite carrying capacity via a container -- rucksack,
purse, or what have you.  Understandably so, since realistic constraints
on inventory make for an annoying game where much of the action consists
of running about trying to remember where you dropped that screwdriver.
And yet, the person who is reading the story has to wonder occasionally at
the verisimilitude of a character who casually totes around a portable
yard-sale of forty-odd objects, as happens at the end of "Jigsaw."  

 (What's even more annoying about "Jigsaw"'s cluttered rucksack, only one
or two of these objects have any use outside the episode in which they
were found.  Yet the faithful game-protagonist hangs on to the green
cloth cap, the stale piece of corn bread, the mandolin because "you never
know..."  A shame, because the time-travel theme could easily have
provided some cosmological excuse to prevent the export of objects from
their own time period.  The challenge then could have been to find some way
of getting around this rule in order to solve the later puzzles, as in the
later stages of _Uncle Zebulon's Will_ where the protagonist has to
smuggle objects past the watchful demon...)

 These challenges to the fictional integrity of the protagonist's actions
may not have an easy answer, and I don't think they should necessarily be
answered at the expense of anyone's convenience.  In the kitchen, for
example, I don't think the answer is to code up a whole lot of useless
pots and pans.  Hiding the apple peeler is also futile, since the good game
protagonist knows to search every nook and cranny before moving on.

  The action to be simulated here is the protagonist coming across a Very
Important Unpeeled Apple in the course of the adventure and thinking,
"Oooh ...  there might be an apple peeler back in the kitchen!"  Cuing
reminiscences explicitly would give away the solution to the puzzle, of
course. It might be possible to force the player to go back to the kitchen
and explicitly type "look for peeler" in order for the apple peeler to
appear. Or, to forbid that the apple peeler be taken until the apple has
been encountered, with messages to the effect of "What on earth do you
need that thing for?" 

 I suspect, though, that clever game players will figure their own way
around these devices, commanding protagonists to search for every likely
object in a location, and looking for hints to a new puzzle by going back
and trying to pick up every "forbidden" object they've encountered. 
Perhaps a workable compromise would be to design games so that most of
what you need to solve a given problem is available relatively nearby,
apart from obviously useful tools or strange artifacts that can be taken
from scene to scene.  

  Alternatively, you could place very realistic limits on what can be
carried around, but automate the process of remembering where objects are,
as with the "objects" command in Inform.  Even the process of going back
and getting them could be automated, possibly with a "walk-to" routine
that checks to see if there is a free path from the current location to
the known object's location, and expending the requisite number of game
turns to get the object, while taking only a second of the player's time. 

Roger Giner-Sorolla              New York University, New York, NY           Dept. of Psychology (Social/Personality)
"The F.B.I. has said that it believes he was a student of the history of
science, but on the evidence here he was a social psychology major with a
minor in sociology, and he shows all the distressing hallmarks of the
worst of that academic breed." -- Kirkpatrick Sale on the Unabomber, 9/95