Or maybe all games are in the second person

Laura is done with her term, but I’ve got 20 pages to write between now and next Wednesday.  Also, I’ve had a horrible virus that has left me sleeping for 16 hours a day, running a high fever, and swallowing like my throat is made of sand and ouch.  I’m feeling a bit better today, but I’m not really working at the moment, so here is a quick post!

The more that I consider what exactly a second person shooter would be, the more I become convinced that our terminology is very odd.  The phrase “second person” refers to a particular narrative mode where the reader is pulled into the text by being treated as the subject of discussion, as in Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City: “It’s ten-fifty when you get to Times Square. You come up on Seventh Avenue blinking. The sunlight is excessive. You grope for your shades.”  In this sense, aren’t almost all games in the second person?  Even “third person shooters” have you controlling someone, making them, to some extent, “you.”

For games, we’ve retooled the term “first person” to refer to perspective distance, not narrative mode.  This makes sense, since we need a way to talk about our visual relationship with our on-screen body.  But what about games where text is the primary means of communication?  The terminology of perspective distance doesn’t make much sense here.  I can’t even imagine what a “third person” text adventure would be if we used the ludic sense of the phrase.

Text games are dueling narratives—one that the game is telling to you, and one that you are telling to the game.  Outputs and inputs.  “Ye find yeself in yon dungeon. Ye see a FLASK.” And “Get ye flask.”  The user input is usually directive, and the game’s output—the story—is usually in the second person.  A text adventure in the first or third person would actually be pretty cool.  Has anyone played one of these?

At any rate, as to the question “what is a second person shooter,” let me put forth my answer!

6) Almost any text adventure with guns.

You enter a room with seven Nazi Zombies.  Obvious exits are NORTH and EAST.

>Shoot zombies

Where would you like to shoot the zombies?

>In the head

Your pump action shotgun splatters fascist zombie brains all over the cave walls.  That’s what they get for following you into your secret lair!

By the way, to anyone who hasn’t played it, GO PLAY SWITCHBREAK’S GAME.  It is a second person shooter.

Leave a comment


  1. Ooh, text adventures. I could nerd out about text adventures for hours. Second person is the most common narrative voice used, but there are a few standout examples of good first or third person writing:

    “Pac-Man was a junkie, eyes oozing pus, haunted by the ghosts of those he’d killed.

    They called him Pac-Man because he was always packing heat, lightning-quick on the draw with a personal arsenal second to none. But today he woke up in an alley, all weapons missing but his mouth, an animal, starving hysterical naked, trapped in an unfamiliar maze of mean streets. Needing a fix. Needing a fix like nothing else.

    And the ghosts are coming.”

    That bit is from one of my favorite works of interactive fiction ever, a collection of text adventures based on old arcade games. The Pac-Man one is particularly clever, and makes great use of third-person voice throughout. http://www.wurb.com/if/game/1159

    One of my favorite IF games that is told in the first person is Lost Pig, though it’s complicated by the fact that the embodied narrator isn’t quite articulate enough for pronouns and refers to himself as “Grunk.” But sure enough, if you type in “Look at me”, it gives you a description of Grunk, confirming it as a first-person voiced game. http://jayisgames.com/games/ifiction/game/lostpig

    For a more traditional first person IF game, Fallacy Of Dawn is amazing. http://www.wurb.com/if/game/1640

    Finally, the first game I thought of when thinking about IF games in first-person or third-person voices was Jeremy Freese’s Violet, since the narrator is embodied within the game. But of course I realized that even with that somewhat odd device, it is still second person like most adventure games. HOWEVER! You should play it anyway if you have not. It is hilarious and awesome and completely emotionally resonant for anyone who has desperately needed to concentrate on writing something and finds themselves unable to. http://jayisgames.com/games/ifiction/game/violet

    • Thanks for the recommendations. These games all sound great. That excerpt from the Pac-Man game is pure win, and Violet sounds like a game that would be emotionally resonant for me at this very moment due to my desperate need to concentrate on writing something and my inability to do so.

      Interactive Fiction is at the top of my list of things that I must do this summer. I bought Twisty Little Passages and I’ve already got A Mind Forever Voyaging set up in DOSBox.

      • A Mind Forever Voyaging. Man, now there’s a game I wanted to play back in the day, but my computer was too meek to handle it.

  2. The TurboGrafx-16 Zelda clone Neutopia always referred to the player character as “our hero Jazeta” (as in, “Our hero Jazeta found a sword”). Does that count as third person?

    • That’s the question, right?

      What makes a game “third person”? What makes a game “first person”?

      For any “first person” game: is it in the first person because the main character in the story is inhabited by you, making him the “I”? Or, since the character is treated as YOU, since YOU assume the character’s perspective, since Captain Price can turn to YOU and say: “how did a moppet like YOU pass selection”–is it in the second person?

      In a gaming context, what we really mean when we say “first person shooter” is “the player is situated in the character’s body.” What we really mean when we say “third person shooter” is “the player can see the character’s body.” The reason that “second person shooter” is confusing is because it doesn’t really fit into this schema, since the terms are so far divorced from their literary applications.

      The issue of RPGs is an interesting one. We don’t really talk about first person RPGs or third person RPGs. I guess that Oblivion could be considered a FPRPG and Neutopia could be considered a TPRPG? What about games where you control lots of different characters–like most JRPGs? I guess that that’s our dichotomy of choice for RPGS–are they Japanese or Western?

      • Actually, I was thinking that since a TPS shows the character, but more importantly, what they’re looking at, an SPS would show JUST the character. Sort of like spectator mode in an online shooter when it’s locked in really close on someone.

  3. I was just remembered the snipers in SWAT 4. You only control them through a little picture-in-picture on your own screen. So you can walk to an open window, switch to sniper control, and blow your own brains out.

    That seems to fit the bill pretty well, I think.

  4. The Machination

     /  June 16, 2010

    You could always take the traditional route of having the angel and the devil sitting on the man’s shoulder. Consider this, you’ve escaped from an insane asylum armed with a shank you’ve made out of a toilet seat and your conscience. But the prisoner is too bloody-minded and insane to make rational choices. It would essentially be an on-the-rails adventure game where you had to make the “best” choice, not necessarily the morally right choice, before the prisoner goes ahead and messes everything up. That would be a second person adventure game. But then again, just how much control should the player have in constrast to the character?

  5. Scott

     /  September 5, 2010

    Really enjoyed the Strong Bad reference. Keep up the great work.

  6. Sam L

     /  September 13, 2010

    Looks like the NYT has been reading your blog ;)

    Page 2, paragraph 2


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