Eric Eve’s “Shelter from the Storm”

shelter My most recent playing: Eric Eve’s Shelter from the Storm. The major gimmick is that you can set the narrative voice to first, second, or third person, using past or present tense. Eric’s announcement of this makes it sound as though it’s more experiment than game, which isn’t at all fair. It’s a short but complete story about espionage, with lots of twists along the way, and it moves along at a pretty good pace.

It comes along at a perfect time for me, since I’m in the middle of an old series called The Fourth Arm, which is all about soldiers and agents in training in the south of England during the second world war.

Gameplay-wise, it’s not too hard: most of the interesting interaction is in the form of conversation and other highly-directed scenes. There are some puzzles, but they’re mostly of the variety that involves inspecting everything carefully and collecting keys when you find them. (I managed to get stuck at one point, but it was largely my own fault — I didn’t examine everything closely enough and then misinterpreted what the hint system was telling me to do next.)

I had some odd reactions to the way that the end of the story plays out, which I’ll probably cover later in a spoilery venue. Still, it’s well worth a play in its own right.

Now, on the topic of the experiment itself: I played around with this a fair amount, but eventually settled into playing second person present for a while and then first person past. The second present seems natural to me (too much IF, I guess), except that at some point I started to feel some cognitive dissonance between what I would do and what my protagonist had to do, and it became more comfortable to play the game in first person past tense.

That said, I think more could have been done with the experiment (though at the cost of considerably more time and effort). As far as I was able to tell, the choice of person and tense changes the grammatical form of the sentences, but it doesn’t affect things like interiority and descriptions of motivation. It would have been very interesting, and made the narration styles much more distinct, if the first-person past voice had been more strongly characterized and contained more overt hints of the protagonist’s feelings; or if the third-person voice had been a bit more estranged and cinematic.* (Not that third-person narration can’t do character thoughts — I just mean, as a contrast.) It seems to me that a game that is written so that all the text can be swapped between persons and tenses is not going to take maximum advantage of any of those choices — so it might not actually prove as much as one hopes about their relative value for IF.

But I could be totally wrong. I hope Eric gets some interesting feedback from this, so I hope people do play and let him know what happens.

* Or perhaps what I’m envisioning is really a different game, where instead of the commands FIRST PERSON or PAST TENSE, the player is allowed to type OMNISCIENT VIEWPOINT…

(At which point the temptation would be to get all meta and require viewpoint shifts to solve puzzles.)

11 thoughts on “Eric Eve’s “Shelter from the Storm””

  1. “That said, I think more could have been done with the experiment (though at the cost of considerably more time and effort). As far as I was able to tell, the choice of person and tense changes the grammatical form of the sentences, but it doesn’t affect things like interiority and descriptions of motivation.”

    Right on both counts; it would have been considerably more time and effort (and just getting the grammatical changes right felt like time and effort enough!) and, with one or two very minor exceptions, it doesn’t effect much else.

    “It would have been very interesting, and made the narration styles much more distinct, if the first-person past voice had been more strongly characterized and contained more overt hints of the protagonist’s feelings; or if the third-person voice had been a bit more estranged and cinematic.”

    This did occur to me, but quite apart from the extra work involved, I took the view that this might be to introduce too many variables into the experiment. Given that second person present tense is the norm for IF, it seemed valid to me to set up an experiment that tested players’ reaction to grammatical form isolated from other considerations.
    And in fact, your own comments suggest that even the grammatical change alone did affect the way you experienced the game, since you write:

    “The second present seems natural to me (too much IF, I guess), except that at some point I started to feel some cognitive dissonance between what I would do and what my protagonist had to do, and it became more comfortable to play the game in first person past tense.”

    With which one might compare the statement in lobespear’s comment in the course of his review on IFDB:

    “I chose to play in first-person past tense, which gave a nice ‘wartime memoirs’ feel to proceedings.”

    So, two people who have commented on it have given reasons (albeit different ones) for preferring the first person past tense despite its not being the IF norm; of course two is far too small a sample to generalize from!

    Thanks for your thoughts on this, and your other comments, and for saying, “But I could be totally wrong. I hope Eric gets some interesting feedback from this, so I hope people do play and let him know what happens.”

    I hope so too. At the very least it will be interesting to see which combination(s) of person and tense people end up choosing to play in. I have my own guesses, but I don’t want to influence the outcome by announcing them here!

    1. Given that second person present tense is the norm for IF, it seemed valid to me to set up an experiment that tested players’ reaction to grammatical form isolated from other considerations.

      Oh, absolutely. I guess I meant this more as a caveat — there’s definitely an interesting experiment to be made here, but I think it’s only part of the experimentation that could be done in order to explore this issue.

  2. getting all meta and requiring viewpoint shifts to solve puzzles sounds totally freaking awesome to me. :) have there been any games that do this?

    i was recently thinking about the viability (game-wise) of doing a game in which the player “zoomed” in and out of different locations to move around, and it seems something like that might work best if the player were divorced from any particular character and was, instead, functioning something like a director or omniscient being. but i think i’m drifting from the topic.

  3. The second present seems natural to me (too much IF, I guess), except that at some point I started to feel some cognitive dissonance between what I would do and what my protagonist had to do, and it became more comfortable to play the game in first person past tense.

    Your recent review on Play This Thing makes it quite clear why this is the case. But it raises a further question in my mind. I had formed the impression that conventional IF wisdom had come to the view that the use of second person present tense narration was not a barrier to a strongly characterized Player Character; but in this case you (and perhaps others) found it more comfortable to play this PC in the first person (and past tense), thus distancing yourself from him a little. This suggests that in the second person you may have been experiencing more player – PC identification than much recent IF discussion suggests ought to be taking place. So does Shelter from the Storm undermine conventional wisdom in this area?

    1. I still think it’s possible for second person present tense narration to create a strongly characterized PC. I have two theories about why I felt the way I did here:

      1) Though I could have played the game in the second person, doing so would have been a different experience, one that was even more about confronting the dissonance between the protagonist and myself. I preferred the version I chose not because it was necessarily artistically superior but because it was more comfortable.

      or, perhaps:

      2) Though the game requires the player to do certain things that suggest a certain characterization for the Jack, in other ways (such as descriptions and narration) Jack’s viewpoint doesn’t always come through as very personal. That encourages the player to identify a bit during the beginning of the game, rather than consciously role-playing a different person.

      (Edited to add: if there’s any doubt that second-person IF *can* do the characterized PC and *can* have that PC do things distasteful to the player — with the player’s full intent and cooperation — see “Make It Good”. I never saw the protagonist there as “myself” in any meaningful way. Though I had moral compunctions about some of the things that he did, I was also persuaded by the narrative style and the gameplay that they were, from his point of view, both in-character and necessary.)

  4. I played around with this a fair amount, but eventually settled into playing second person present for a while and then first person past.

    This prompts another thought. Shelter from the Storm allows six possible combinations of person and tense, but it seems that you ended up regarding only two of them as viable competitors: second person present, and first person past. My suspicion is that you’re not alone in this (at least, I’ve seen little to contradict this apart from a report from one beta tester that the third person form didn’t seem to be unnatural to him because his first name also happened to be Jack). There may be reasons why the third person option is not popular (if it turns out that it is not), but it is interesting if people are tending to link the second person with the present tense and the first person with the past tense. Some of the comments already offered suggest why this may be (the first person past tense combination makes the game read like someone else’s wartime reminiscences, while second person present tense presumably creates more of a sense of immediacy and also conforms to accepted IF convention), but I wonder if there are any other reasons why these two combinations seem to be regarded as the main competitors at the expense of the other four?

      1. There’s also Slouching Toward Bedlam, which I guess is no-person. I just played through it and I didn’t realize that it avoided second person until I read a spoiler file.

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