§48   A triangle of identities

“Queer grammar!” said Holmes with a smile as he handed the paper back to the inspector. “Did you notice how the ‘he’ suddenly changed to ‘my’? The writer was so carried away by his own story that he imagined himself at the supreme moment to be the hero.”
— Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1859–1930), Three Gables

In books like this one the word “player” is overused. There are at least three identities involved in play: the person typing and reading (“player”), the main character within the story (“protagonist”), and the voice speaking about what this character sees and feels (“narrator”). There is a triangle of relationships between them, and it's a triangle with very different proportions in different games.

1. Protagonist and player.  “What should you, the detective, do now?” asks ‘The Witness’ pointedly on its first turn. Numerous games (‘Zork’, for instance) take the attitude that anyone who turns up can play, as themselves, regardless of gender or attitudes. This is to equate player with protagonist, making them almost the same. Sometimes the equation is actually engineered: ‘Leather Goddesses of Phobos’ notices into which bathroom the player chooses to move the protagonist and decides the protagonist's gender accordingly. ‘Seastalker’ (Stu Galley and Jim Lawrence, 1984), aimed at a younger audience, asks for the player's name and gives it to the protagonist, too. At the other extreme is Amy Briggs's much underplayed ‘Plundered Hearts’ (1987), which has as its heroine a specific girl whisked away by pirates in the West Indies. Reviewing in SPAG 4, Graeme Cree wrote that:

In ‘Zork’, you're just some anonymous guy who was walking by the white house. You have no particular personality, or history before this point. ‘Planetfall’ makes an effort to paint your character with the enclosed diary, but it is all chrome … ‘Plundered Hearts’, more than any other game gave me the feeling of really being inside someone else's head. Throughout the game, who you are plays an important part. Disguising your identity and altering your appearance is important in several places to elicit a desired reaction from other characters …

Either approach presents difficulties. If the protagonist is uncharacterised, the story may lack literary interest. If heavily determined, the protagonist is likely to be highly unlike the player and this risks losing the player's sense of engagement.

Few players have minded becoming the Reverend Stephen Dawson, the middle-aged clergyman of ‘Muse, an Autumn Romance’ (Christopher Huang, 1998), whose behaviour is constrained by his emotional blockage. But there are players who resent being obliged to identify with gay protagonists. On the whole this is their problem, not the game's, and it was for them that Neil James Brown wrote his pointed spoof ‘The Lost Spellmaker’ (1997), the exploit of Mattie, a lesbian dwarf Secret Service agent addicted to sweets.

In an interactive medium, the beliefs and abilities of the protagonist are more than simply a painted backcloth, because the player participates in them. These special abilities might be called the “magic” in the game's model world, in the broadest sense:

For magic and applied science alike the problem is how to subdue reality to the wishes of man.

(C. S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man.) In ‘The Witness’, for instance, the magic might be said to be the detective's ability to arrest or call for forensic analysis, and in ‘Ruins’ we have the camera and the packing case. The magic is the imaginary fabric of the world, and it is as essential for the magic to have a coherent rationale as it is for the map to suggest a coherent geography.

Because the magic is part of the background, it should not be allowed to become too crudely a way to solve puzzles. An “open door” spell should be a general technique, with several different applications across its game. Better yet, these techniques should be used indirectly and with ingenuity, for instance opening a locked door by casting a “cause to rust” spell on its hinges. And plenty of puzzles should have solutions which don't involve the magic at all, or else the player will start to feel that it would save a good deal of time and effort just to find the “win game” spell and be done with it.

In a few games a linguistic surrealism is the reality: for instance ‘Nord and Bert Couldn't Make Head or Tail of It’ (Jeff O'Neill, 1987) is entirely based on puns and the T-Removing Machine of ‘Leather Goddesses of Phobos’ can transform a rabbit into a rabbi. A literary critic might call this a “postmodern” magic, which dislocates language from what is “really” happening in the game. This is exceptionally hard to do well.

Games with magic in the authentic fantasy sense seldom follow the austere example of Tolkien, where – although there are spells, as where Gandalf sets light to fir cones in (the book) The Hobbit – the sign of a wizard is more often a priest-like ability to question out motives in what people say and a sage-like wisdom about nature and history. Instead, perhaps for easy parsing and convenient subdivision and perhaps simply to imitate Gary Gygax's role-playing game Dungeons and Dragons, interactive fiction has tended to follow the Dying Earth stories (c. 1950) of Jack Vance where spells are at once dramatic flourishes, complex mental exercises which must be memorised, and highly specific tools with outré names like “Xarfaggio's Physical Malepsy” and “The Excellent Prismatic Spray”. Many schemes of magic have been tried, and naturally each designer wants to find a new one. Sometimes spells take place in the mind (‘Enchanter’), sometimes with the aid of certain objects (‘Curses’); sometimes halfway between (Level 9's ‘Magik’ games, David Williamson and Pete Austin, 1985–6). Keying magic to objects is advantageous because objects are tactile and part of the game's other play. In other respects, too, magic needs to be subject to the discipline of being easily subdivided and described. “Change a belt or staff into a small poisonous serpent” is far more amenable to designing (and parsing) than “convert up to 1000 cubic feet of rock to mud or quicksand”.

If the map is very large, or a good deal of moving to-and-fro is called for, designers have frequently used magic to provide rapid transport: such as the magic words in ‘Advent’, or the eight colour-coded collars in ‘Dungeon Adventure’, or the teleport booths in ‘Planetfall’ (Steve Meretzky, 1983), or the black and white dots in ‘Adventure Quest’ (Mike, Nick and Pete Austin, 1984, 1983). Finding and deducing how to use this transport system can be a puzzle in itself, one whose solution is optional but rewarding.

2. Narrator and protagonist.  Some narrators behave like a French “new novelist”, reporting only what the protagonist is currently seeing and doing. Others enjoy access to what the protagonist thinks and believes:

Aunt Jemima has two cats, Jane and Austin, but she finds Austin especially annoying – this ought to make Austin your natural ally, but as it is you tend to glower at each other.

Here the narrator of ‘Curses’ (Graham Nelson, 1993) tells the player that the protagonist doesn't like somebody. In a different game this could have been established by events, showing rather than telling. Indeed, the protagonist's relationship with Austin might have been neutral until established by the player's choices.

It is the narrator who speaks the game's opening words, sometimes called the “overture” and conventionally used to say what sort of person the protagonist is, and what he or she is trying to do. Overtures vary widely in how direct and indeed how honest they are. Many, like ‘Curses’, leave the player guessing or misdirect as a form of tease. This is a reaction against the overture style of the 1980s, exemplified by ‘Snowball’ (original version):

The interstar freezer, Snowball 9, has entered its target starsystem. And it will soon enter the star unless you can do something!

Such directness was itself a necessity considering that players of the day expected any game to be a treasure hunt unless they were told otherwise. The overtures to quest games became highly predictable: here is ‘Enchanter’ (Marc Blank and Dave Lebling, 1983):

You, a novice Enchanter with but a few simple spells in your Book, must seek out Krill, explore the Castle he has overthrown, and learn his secrets. Only then may his vast evil…

And so on and so forth. What makes such briefings disappointing is partly that they often run on far too long and are full of words like “dread” and “imbue”, and either take themselves very seriously or, which is worse, don't. Here is about a quarter of the “overture”, or opening text, of ‘Beyond Zork’ (Brian Moriarty, 1987), a game not meant as a comedy:

Y'Gael's dry chuckle stilled the murmur of the crowd. “You forget your own history, Gustar. Are you not author of the definitive scroll on the Coconut of Quendor?”
A tumult of amphibious croaks and squeals drowned out Gustar's retort. Y'Gael hobbled over to a table laden with mystical artifacts, selected a small stone and raised it high.
“The Coconut is our only hope,” she cried, her eyes shining in the stone's violet aura. “Its seed embodies the essence of our wisdom. Its shell is impervious to the ravages of Time. We must reclaim it from the Implementors, and hide it away before its secrets are forgotten!”

Self-indulgent, self-parodying, slack, told in the past tense, uninteractive and basically dumb. If Moriarty felt that the quest of the game was hackneyed, a better response would have been to restructure the game, not to allow the narrator to show disdain for it. The same author's overture to ‘Trinity’ was by contrast honed to perfection:

Sharp words between the superpowers. Tanks in East Berlin. And now, reports the BBC, rumors of a satellite blackout. It's enough to spoil your continental breakfast.
But the world will have to wait. This is the last day of your $599 London Getaway Package, and you're determined to soak up as much of that authentic English ambience as you can. So you've left the tour bus behind, ditched the camera and escaped to Hyde Park for a contemplative stroll through the Kensington Gardens.

A good deal has been achieved in these two paragraphs. Apart from details – mention of the BBC, of continental breakfasts, of the camera and the tour bus – you know who you are (an unadventurous American tourist, of no consequence to the world), where you are (Kensington Gardens, Hyde Park, London, England), and what is going on in the world beyond (bad news: World War III is about to break out). Also, nobody knows where you've gone. In style, the opening of #8216;Trinity’ is escapism from a disastrous world out of control, and notice the way the first paragraph is in tense, blunt, headline-like sentences, whereas the second is much more relaxed. For a second example, ‘Ballyhoo’:

As you trudge along in the wake of the outflowing crowd, you thumb through your memories of this evening. Your experience of the circus, with its ballyhooed promises of wonderment and its ultimate disappointment, has been to sink your teeth into a candy apple whose fruit is rotten.
Never mind the outrageous prices, the Mt. Everest vantage point, the communistically long lines, the audience more savage than the lion act. And it wasn't the shabbiness of the performances themselves that's got you soured on Spangleland. No, instead it's that the circus is a reminder of your own secret irrational desire to steal the spotlight, to defy death, and to bask in the thunder of applause.

Many players will have no desire for any of that: but then the narrator is not talking about the player, only the protagonist.

More detailed briefing information, if it is needed at all, can be placed interactively into the game – and not necessarily made available all at once: see the books in the library of ‘Christminster’ (Gareth Rees, 1995).

3. Player and narrator.  The narrator chooses how much to tell the player and which scenes to show instead. When the game lapses into a cut-scene, a passage of text in which something happens which the player cannot interact with, it is because the narrator has chosen to override the player. Gareth Rees (Usenet posting 8/8/95):

I decided not to use this technique, partly because I think it's an admission of defeat, a statement that the medium of adventure games is too inflexible to write the kind of character interaction we want to.

Cut-scenes risk dislocating the player's engagement with the game, and the level of trust between player and narrator. By the end of a successful game, the narrator can take greater risks, taking advantage of friendship so to speak. At the start, and especially in the overture text, the narrator does well to avoid cut-scenes and presumptions. Thomas Nilsson advises designers to

Create an image of him or it [the narrator] and stick to it. Receiving comments about your (limited) progress in the game might be funny, as long as they are not out of character.

Indeed many narrators are self-effacing and unintrusive so long as the player pursues the “correct” line of choices, but immediately emerge as wry, sardonic or knowing once this line is deviated from. The tiniest phrases betray this:

You wave, but nobody waves back. Life's like that.

>look behind hanging
Nope, no more keys.

You are falling towards the ground, wind whipping around you.
Down seems more likely.

Austin, your incorrigible ginger cat, lounges around here.
>austin, go south
I can see you've never had a cat.

‘Kingdom of Hamil’; ‘Sorcerer’; ‘Spellbreaker’; ‘Curses’. It is no coincidence that these responses are often jibes at the player's progress. Like the player, but unlike every character in the game (including the protagonist), the narrator knows that it is a game: it's the narrator who announces the rules, awards points and offers clues. The un-mimetic passage from ‘The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy’ quoted in the previous section…

Ford lowers his voice to a whisper. “I'm not supposed to tell you this, but you'll never be able to finish the game without consulting the Guide about lots of stuff.”

…is funny (if it is) because Ford is usurping the narrator. Nobody would turn a hair at the more conventional alternative:

Ford hands over the book and turns away.
[Please type “consult guide about stuff” to look up its entry on “stuff”, and so on.]

Indeed in some games it might be said that the parser, who asks questions like “Which do you mean…?” and in some games speaks only in square brackets, is a fourth character, quite different from the narrator.

Playing games with the narrator is one of Steve Meretzky's favourite comic techniques. Here is a more moderate, more typical example:

(It's no wonder this section of Mars is considered the Ruined Castle Capital of the Solar System.)

More moderate, yet even in ‘Leather Goddesses of Phobos’ such a remark feels the need for parentheses. It is only in parody that the narrator goes in for commentary full-time.

This is a common tactic for designers of juvenile or silly games, who hope thereby to suggest that because the game is knowing about its shortcomings it is therefore more sophisticated, more mature. But it seldom is. Cf. the numerous ‘Zork’ pastiches which were intended to be parodies, or Big Al's ‘BJ Drifter’ (1998).

For surveys of the quite extensive range of approaches to player identity in the canonical games, see ‘Character Gender in Interactive Fiction’, parts I and II, by Doug Anderson (XYZZYnews 3 and 6) and ‘Player Character Identity in IF’, John Wood (XYZZYnews 9). Notable gender ambiguities include the ‘Snowball’ trilogy, whose protagonist is one Kim Kimberley, and ‘Jigsaw’, which attempts a romantic sub-plot without specified genders on either part.   In later life, W. H. Auden (1907–73) considered the ghostly identity narrating a poem to be one of its two gifts to the reader: “The first question [the reader asks] is technical: ‘Here is a verbal contraption. How does it work?’ The second is, in the broadest sense, moral: ‘What kind of guy inhabits this poem?’ ”

  Though Dave Lebling cites the Earthsea novels of Ursula K. LeGuin as the main influence behind ‘Enchanter’.