Choice of Voice~

As discussion cycles through toward gaming techniques again in the YouTube RPG Brigade, it has brought a latent point about the narrative voices in gaming to the fore. This post brings together some ideas from a variety of earlier posts and videos and then tries to take some solid technical steps forward toward a framework for immersive play. It does so with the intent of sparking discussion and refinement, not making pronouncements. Video of this material can be found here and here.

There are a million stories in the naked city. Is one of them mine, or all they all theirs?

Narrative Voices

In my thoughts on gaming over the years I have felt like games tend to produce two distinct and defined voices, and arise from one less-distinct and less-defined voice of convenience common to new gamers. In a previous post on being willing to define a vocabulary for gaming, I listed these in a short form. In this post, let’s zoom in.

1st person undefined (I use I because the character is an avatar of me)

1st person defined (I use I and react in game according to a personality I have created)

2nd person undefined (There is no consistency in narrative voice: I, he, my character all coexist randomly)

2nd person defined (Each player has a consistent, chosen or evolved style but the group does not)

3rd person undefined (my character, Joe’s character)

3rd person defined (Jack Coltrane moves calmly down the hall, exuding confidence and tenacity.)

In all of the defined voices we have the option to allow for varying degrees of omniscience among the players by deciding how much of the internal life of the character (thoughts, feelings, motivations, etc) we make explicit in our description and confirm with our narration. This might range from none at all, to complete. If we opt to play all of our cards close to the vest, we limit ourselves to verbal interaction only, describing only action without underlying intentions, and relating only spoken dialogue. If we opt to share more, we can either demonstrate physically or verbally the actions which an upset person makes with or without elements of context which enable the other players to make sense of and interpret the description, or we can directly state in our description that Jack Coltrane is upset. This latter approach may in fact include both performance and verbal description, or elements of each.

Our routes toward immersion may, and probably will vary, but each group over time comes to recognize what facilitates and interferes with a ‘good game.’ Taking the next step toward defining a specific mode of play with specific characteristics helps waste less time recreating the conditions for your group’s definition of good experiences later. Knowing up front how much information to share about emotions, intentions, motivations, and reactions, and how much color to put into your descriptions and at which stage of resolution is an easy way to keep the group’s level of play consistent and satisfying for all. Not only that, but recognizing these things allows you to move on to modifying them to create very specific experiences.

Narrative Agency and Immersion

When we play, different games and play styles encourage differing amounts of narrative contribution from those around the table ranging from “all elements added to a scene are the domain of the GM” to “anyone can add things at any time.” There is a middle ground between them which allows changes and additions for a cost. This kind of agency, the ability to contribute details or elements to scenes as they play out affects and is affected by the narrative voice we choose to employ in the game. In all of the defined voices, we have the ability to minimize switching of state between the immersive state and the out-of-game state. In the first person defined voice this is commonly referred to as IC and OOC. In the third person defined voice the term IC does not apply as directly, but its intention carries across neatly. Perhaps it is more like In-Story and Out of Story than In character and Out of Character. Regardless, in both voices, the concept of switching from a mental stance of seeking to immerse, and a mental stance of interacting as players of a game is identical.

Narrative Agency while IC or IS requires skill and practice to maintain. It requires awareness of the negative effects of premature imagination and it requires respect for the genre and established reality of the game. If the game is new, slack needs to be cut on both sides of the screen until the genre and reality have been firmly established in everyone’s mind – with the clear indication that this is a relaxed state to facilitate a quick orientation in the game world and it will move toward a more clearly defined method as that orientation period progresses to its conclusion.

When a description of a scene no longer meets the requirements of the action occurring within it, how the players interact with the GM to expand the elements in the description is a function of how much the group seeks to immerse and remain immersed in the scene as opposed to enjoying the experience of playing the game. These things are not the same. Chips, banter, dice rolling, and the events of play are examples of the experience of play. Your direct experience of and engagement with imagining being a part of the events in the lives of the characters is the realm of immersion. The more easily and completely you can imagine the scene and reconcile its inconsistencies and interruptions defines the strength of the immersive experience. This is not limited to the techniques employed in play, as it is also tied to appreciation of genre and character elements, but play techniques are a major factor for a sustained experience.

Immersion is an emergent property of engaging game play and it is not exclusive to RPGs or a particular narrative voice. It is well-established that tabletop skirmish games like Battletech are highly prone to immersive gaming experiences with strong visualization and even emergent characterization of each mech’s pilot – regardless of whether this is part of an elaborate campaign or just a pick-up game. If the complicated rules and tactical approach of a science fiction wargame can produce that sense of immersion, pretty much any game can – it is a matter of recognizing where and in-what immersion is taking place. Can you achieve immersion in Monopoly or Poker? Of course you can. Using Poker as an example, you may be immersing in the character of a good poker player and not even realize it. On the other hand, the experience of reading the other poker players may be your ticket to immersion. You may not have a story or a character to immerse in in all games, but there are elements of engagement and acceptance which characterize games which have serious replay value.  The choice of voice and the techniques for using that voice in the game are one of the supporting aspects of play which can help to encourage the elements of engagement and acceptance that will help your group have a more consistent and more immersive experience each time they sit down to play.

Narrative Agency

If a group does seek to create as immersive an environment as they can, then in their chosen voice they need to work out and grow experienced with ways of speaking intentions within the framework of relative omniscience they have established for the game. What I mean by that is, how each player interacts with the GM and each other.

For example, in the 3rd Person Defined:

“Jack Coltrane reaches into the car to pop the lid of the trunk. He is hoping to find a tire iron in there so he can end this argument once and for all.”

vs

“Jack Coltrane reaches into the car with his left hand to pop the lid of the trunk. His face is set in a grim expression and his right hand is flexing like it longs to grab a weapon…”

vs

“Jack Coltrane reaches into the car for the trunk release.”

In the First Person Defined, of course, this would translate to:

“I reach into the car to pop the lid of the trunk. I am hoping to find a tire iron in there so Ican end this argument once and for all.”

vs

“I reach into the car with my left hand to pop the lid of the trunk. My face is set in a grim expression and my right hand is flexing like it longs to grab a weapon…”

vs

“I reach into the car for the trunk release.”

In any one of these, the player may also contribute a performance or demonstration, and/or description of the accompanying physical actions and body language cues showing the emotional context of the character’s actions. By refraining from falling prey to Premature Imagination or stating actions or descriptions which fly in the face of the established genre, atmosphere, and ‘reality’ of the game world, the player can focus on stating intentions and revealing as much contextual information as needed to contribute meaningfully to the scene in ways which enhance or at least do not actively detract from immersion for themselves and the other players. In none of these does the player set up a condition which the GM has to counter or alter, and is in a position to receive more details and description to add to his next move.

The GM response to this approach can keep them firmly in the role of narrator and chief of resolution, and by dealing with defined intentions is not cast in the role of antagonist, naysayer, or authority by having to counter information projected into the scene by players. The GM could respond in the third person defined by sharing a high degree of omniscience:

“The trunk pops open with a loud sound in this small space and slowly rises a few inches as Jack releases the catch under the dashboard. Veronica’s eyes grow wide as she realizes that Jack, the abused child turned mercenary, has had enough of her lies and manipulation, and intends to silence her in the one way he knows will last forever. She stands frozen as he moves toward the trunk to look for a tire iron… only starting to move again as he looks into the trunk and sees it.”

Or by limiting the degree of omniscience and allowing the players to enjoy figuring things out in context:

“The trunk pops open with a loud sound in this small space, and slowly rises a few inches as Jack releases the catch inside the car. Veronica’s eyes grow wide as she looks at Jack… not moving as he walks down the length of the car toward the trunk (pause to see if the player has something to add). Not moving as he looks inside it and finds whatever it was he was looking for (pause again: player says, “Jack reaches in and takes it out slowly. Staring at Veronica the whole time). Veronica only starts to move as Jack takes the tire iron out of the trunk…”

In the first person the GM might respond similarly:

“The trunk pops open with a loud sound in this small space and slowly rises a few inches as you release the catch under the dashboard. Veronica’s eyes grow wide as she realizes that you, the abused child turned mercenary, has had enough of her lies and manipulation, and intend to silence her in the one way you know will last forever. She stands frozen as you move toward the trunk to look for a tire iron…(pause to see if the player has something to add) only starting to move again as you look into the trunk and see it….”

Or by limiting the degree of omniscience and allowing the players to enjoy figuring things out in context:

“The trunk pops open with a loud sound in this small space, and slowly rises a few inches as Jack releases the catch inside the car. Veronica’s eyes grow wide as she looks at Jack… not moving as he walks down the length of the car toward the trunk (pause to see if the player has something to add). Not moving as he looks inside it and finds whatever it was he was looking for (pause again: player says, “Jack reaches in and takes it out slowly. Staring at Veronica the whole time). Veronica only starts to move as Jack takes the tire iron out of the trunk…”

Through conscious control of voice, and adherence to group-defined limitations on shared information, and the practical need to avoid premature imagination, the game can flow with few – if any – description-based interruptions.

Relevant Links:

Narrative Voice & Immersion 1 and 2: http://youtu.be/oXheuWOT1Bg       http://youtu.be/yNyFaNN4lE0

Shawn Driscoll: http://youtu.be/GkY6laBMB-k        http://youtu.be/TR44DiRpvwU

Sameoldji: http://youtu.be/faD-h0Vx6GM http://youtu.be/VMuDfYH8a2E

An antecedent or two:
http://youtu.be/h4eBUL7IZk4 + http://youtu.be/1L1ov5_hc3k
http://youtu.be/sMQhLt0y27k
http://youtu.be/7VFTHrIE5dA and
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JfJ-f0AAsbg&feature=share

Comments
8 Responses to “Choice of Voice~”
  1. Carl S says:

    Terrific article. I need to get in on this discussion with a video.

  2. sameoldji says:

    Great article there im 100% on your side with this. I like how you defines all the voices.

    • Runeslinger says:

      Thanks~

      I am sure my re-purposing of the term 2nd person will give the literati the fits, but it has a certain logic in dim lighting~ 😉 Technically, the 2nd person would be how players gaming in the first person, or the GM addressing people who are gaming in the first person (intentionally or unintentionally) speak to each other: “You said that… blah blah blah” I lump the chaos of no consistent voice chosen for the game in here mainly because of the beautiful ambiguity the word ‘you’ has.
      😉

  3. Regarding the first person vs third person. I see it as the difference between acting out a story and telling a story.

    In my RPG games, I don’t want people to tell me a story, I want them to be a part of the story (by which I mean their characters). I want my games to be a play, acted out by the various players, each playing a role.

    To hear a player with a character named Jack say “Jack goes down the hall and opens the door” would crush immersion for me. My honest reaction would be “WTF are you doing?”

    To me, hearing players talk in the third person would be the equivalent of listening to an audiobook, something that is done passively.

    I have nothing but respect for you, Anthony, but on this point, we are diametrically opposed.

    To each his own.

    • Runeslinger says:

      It is good to know what you like, better still to know and to know why.
      Of course, even the GM is just one part of a group and it is good to know what others at the table may like, and why – even to try new things from time to time to see if there are more tricks to learn and enjoy.

      What you describe, Rob, is not “immersion” as a be all and end all of that condition. What you describe here is “in-character immersion” and it is just one kind of investment in the game. It is one kind that not all of us share or desire equally. That said, you and I agree. If I have my preference, I want and enjoy that moment when a campaign and its characters start to take route and the speech patterns of the players settle into declarative statements like, “I go down the hall, and open the door.” There are a few posts on this blog and on my channel about that very thing. Even this post. This post is not an expression of preference, it is an explanation that there are other tools in the tool box and they have different purposes and effects.

      When players respond in the 3rd person it absolutely decreases in-character immersion and it voids a lot of the independent visualization of the scene. In exchange, it heightens immersion in the scene, awareness of other characters, and expands the shared visualization of the scene which can have many beneficial side effects not the least of which is a drastic decrease in the amount of time which can be lost in misunderstanding of where people are, what they are doing, and what is going on~
      😉

      Personally, I love first person gaming. There are times and types of sessions, however, where other tools work better for the goals of the group and I am glad to have them. These days, as practice, I am fooling around with combining first and third and enjoying the exercise of formalizing for myself that way of speaking in-game.

      Anyway, thanks for taking the time to read this old article and especially to comment. That is a rare treat around these parts~

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