Interactive Fiction as Second-Person Narratives
In our presentation on the narrator, we looked at the traditional definitions of the different kinds of first- and third-person narrators, and examined some of the stylistic and narrative effects that could arise from sympathy and irony when discrepancies between narrative accounts occur. For our project, we extended our analysis to include the second-person narrative, which we had not covered extensively. We focused on interactive fiction as an example of second-person narratives, and considered how they converged with and/or differed from the more conventional first- and third-person narratives. Through this, we brought up potential issues that interactive fiction and other second-person narratives may pose for traditional narrative frameworks. This paper documents the conclusions we drew from the presentation and explores the issues raised in discussion.
Interactive Fiction as Second-Person Narratives
Narratives have traditionally been classified as being in either the first- or the third-person, and such a division unfortunately implies the existence of second-person narratives, which have proven notoriously difficult to define (Talib, personal communication). This is largely due to the fact that in traditional frameworks and other models such as Bal’s (1985) and Genette’s (1980), narratives have always been classified along the lines of the narrator – it is impossible to have a second-person narrator since the second-person is the reader. There do, however, exist various works of fiction that have been considered second-person narratives; unsurprisingly, these tend to feature some kind of reference to the reader in the telling of the story. Below we summarize different definitions of second-person narratives offered by various narratologists, and present interactive fiction (Choose-Your-Own-Adventure books in particular) as a prime example of the genre.
Fig 1. Definitions of second-person narratives
In these definitions, the story’s protagonist is (crucially) the narratee and (much more trivially) referred to using a second-person pronoun; to put it another way, the second-person narratee – ostensibly the reader – is, essentially, an active protagonist of the story.
Choose-Your-Own-Adventure books, as an example of interactive fiction, seem to fit these definitions particularly well, as we shall see from the example below.
Fig 2. Excerpt from "The Cave of Time", a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure book by Edward Packard
With the use of the address pronoun “you”, the author compels the implied reader to take up the position of the direct address, and gives the reader the impression that they play a role in the story. Through the positioning of the actual reader both inside and outside the story world, as a character and as the implied reader respectively, a complex blend of first- and third-person narratives is created: although the overt textual narrator is usually a third-person narrator, a kind of first-person narrative also emerges as the reader is drawn into the story world. When the reader takes up the position of the protagonist and imagines himself embarking on the adventure as a character in the narrative, it allows him "access" to the character's thoughts, since the reader is the character; this immersion is further enhanced by the fact that the reader can influence the flow of the narrative (as discussed in the next section), which is also precisely what makes interactive fiction interactive in the first place.
Another example of a second-person narrative is seen in Shane Dawson’s electronic interactive fiction:
In the beginning of the video, the third-person narrator addresses the audience directly in "You are about to hear one of the most terrifying stories ever told“ (0.30). This explicitly positions the audience as the reader. A third-person narrative also unfolds, through the camera-eye, as the story begins. However, the video ends with Shane, the protagonist, asking "Should we save her?" (8.10), and the audience is given options as to which narrative path should be taken. The use of the inclusive pronoun in this example creates an ambiguity. On the one hand, “we” may refer to Shane and the others in the room, positioning the audience as the implied reader, as well as the implied author (in Chatman's model) as the audience decides on their next move. On the other hand, the inclusive pronoun can also include the audience. This positions the audience as a character in the room, giving rise to a first-person narrative. This mixing of first- and third-person features is characteristic of interactive fiction as second-person narratives.
In the next section, we discuss the distinctive features of interactive fiction.
Multiple Storylines in Interactive Fiction
Structurally, interactive fiction typically features multiple intertwined and connected story tracks. Readers start their journey into the story world with a common beginning, but each reader has the potential to experience different content and different conclusions; oftentimes, even the same reader has a different story experience each time the book is read. This is achieved through the presentation of choices to the reader within the story, which also enhances the sense of involvement and creates the illusion of control over plot development.
For example, in Diary of a Mad Mummy from the popular children horror fiction collection Give yourself Goosebumps, readers spend the first six pages finding themselves arriving in Egypt with their family and participating in a tour of a pyramid. During the tour, they discover a strange book that could only have been written by a mummy missing from the exhibit – the mummy claimed it would return that very night. The deviation of storylines begins here as readers are prompted to choose between continued perusal of the book and returning that night. For each choice, the reader encounters a different set of adventures that may be intertwined or part of completely different story arcs.
As for endings, the series boasts at least 20 endings for every book although most of these are 'bad' endings. In Escape from Camp Run-For-Your-Life, the reader only escapes in 5 out of the 23 possible conclusions, and only 2 of these escapes are truly desirable. Yet what is done here is an attempt to create multiple reading experiences with differing possibilities. Readers are made to become involved in the strange events taking place in the story world, and their choices affect how the protagonist, or rather, how they themselves survive the situations. This sense of agency is achieved as the author of such fiction is ceding control of the protagonist’s choices to the reader. The narrated events that follow are framed as results of the reader's influence.
Some interactive fiction texts even attempt a more personal approach to give a greater semblance of realism. In the example below from Your Life, but Better!, the reader is not allowed to freely choose a narrative path, but is instead directed to different paths based on the results of a personality quiz:
- Your Life, but Better!, by Crystal Velasquez
Fig 3. Excerpt from personality quiz in Your Life, but Better!
The example above highlights the rather fluid merging between the roles of the extradiegetic narratee, with whom a reader may or may not want to identify; the implied reader, with whom one expects the reader to identify; and the real reader. Taken together, such narratives bring to point a few problems for current frameworks of narratives, which we will discuss in the following section.
Challenging the Traditional Frameworks
Most frameworks applied to the bulk of fiction cannot capture the increased level of involvement readers experience in interactive fiction. Here, we take a look at how interactive fiction challenges Chatman's narrative communication model, which is representative of most linear narrative models.
Fig 4. Chatman's (1978) model of the narrative communication situation
As can be seen from Chatman’s model (which aptly describes most works of fiction), the narrative is split into two distinct stages - a production stage and a reception stage. The roles of each entity in both the creation and reading of a story is clearly demarcated by the two categories. In most works of fiction, the reader is only involved in the Reception stage. Yet, in the instances we have explored, attempts are made to involve the reader in the Production stage of the narration, thereby crossing the boundary. Due to this, the flow of “messages” sent between personages is disrupted, becoming no longer uni-directional. Most linear models of narratives are unable to capture the involvement of the reader in the story world (viz. as someone who decides which narrative applies to the character).
The thread of discussion so far suggests that interactive fiction is more dynamic than other works of fiction, but there also appears to be a larger boundary constraining the level of interactivity. At the level of characters, it would seem that the degree of involvement for such fiction is greater than in other fiction, but at the level of the text pre-determined storylines liken the genre to other works of fiction. Keeping this in mind, a framework must be developed that blurs the line between reception and production without removing it completely; such a blurring of the line may in fact even be seen to simply reflect a heightened level of sympathy as defined by Talib (2004). The element of recursivity should be considered as well, to account for how readers may select and re-select different narrative paths. Admittedly, however, more research needs to be done to better articulate how interactive fiction may fall into narrative analysis.
We will next look at one last aspect of this genre that warrants mention.
This genre also poses questions unto itself, however. As we have mentioned, the use of a second person or simply the inclusion of the reader (or viewer in the case of Shane Dawson) is to give the reader a sense of immersion and involvement in the story world. Yet, as we dig beneath the surface we find ourselves questioning the extent to which this actually happens; for one, as the reader may ‘re-write’ the story at any point in time by backtracking and making a different choice (especially when one becomes unsatisfied with the progression of the plot or when one hits a dead end in a story), the sense of involvement in the story is displaced.
In addition, there are limits to the flexibility of the story world. Beginnings and endings are pre-determined despite the fact that they may vary according to reader choice. In effect, one is simply perusing one out of various possible narratives in the same story world, a narrative planned by the author. Due to the limits of the author, choices are also rigid and only appear in planned positions. Ultimately, the author is steering the reader towards an already produced narrative. This is made even clearer by interactive fiction which has few positive endings like in Goosebumps. In such fiction, it would seem that a ‘one-true narrative’ exists and the successful completion of the story experience is the discovery of this one path. The interactivity of such fiction is thus undermined by such limitations. If there were any flexibility, it can only be exercised within a boundary set by the author along black and white choices.
We have shown in our paper how interactive fiction not only takes on characteristics of the second-person narrative, but also presents the reader with choices and the power to influence how the narrative plays out. Traditional frameworks then become inadequate to deal with the complexities of interactive fiction, hence justifying the need for future research in this direction, to possibly come up with new models or by making modifications to current models, in order to illustrate such narrative situations.
In this paper, we also questioned how truly interactive this genre is, if the reader has limited authorship, and merely passively selects from one of many possible combinations or paths that have already been laid out for him, instead of being actively involved in the production of the content. We found this to be true for other texts in this genre as well; even the most interactive free-form adventure games must be pre-programmed to respond to players’ input. However, the situation becomes even more complex in this genre since there is no clear direction to the path of the “narrative”, if it can even be considered one. Thus, this offers us more food for thought regarding where we draw the line between "narrative" and "not narrative" in such interactive genres.
Dawson, S. (2011, October 27). Haunted House Party: Interactive Game [Video file]. Retrieved from [http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gwi21aKySWY]
Packard, E. (1979). The cave of time. New York: Bantam Books.
Stine, R. L. (1996). Give yourself Goosebumps #10: Diary of a Mad Mummy. Scholastic Paperbacks.
Stine, R. L. (1997). Give yourself Goosebumps #19: Escape from Camp Run-For-Your-Life. Scholastic Paperbacks.
Velasquez, C. (2010). Your life, but better!. New York: Delacorte Press.
Bal, M. (1985). Narratology. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.
Fludernik, M. (1994). Second person narrative. Style, 28(3), 281-311.
Genette, G. (1980). Narrative discourse. Trans. by Jane E. Lewin. Ithaca: Cornell UP.
Hopkins, M. A., & Perkins, L. (1981). Second person point of view in narrative. In F. N. Magill (Ed.), Critical survey of short fiction. NJ: Salem Press.
Prince, G. (2003). A dictionary of narratology (Rev. ed.). Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.
Richardson, B. (2006). Unnatural voices: extreme narration in modern and contemporary fiction. Columbus: Ohio State University Press.
Talib, I. S. (2011). Narrative theory: A brief introduction. Retrieved from [http://courses.nus.edu.sg/course/ellibst/NarrativeTheory/]
Appendix: Free-form Adventure Game Example
The Ralckor Incident: A Science Fiction Adventure. From [http://www.bespokerealities.com/FlaxoDemo.html]