Mailbag: Viewpoint for Cut-Scenes

I’m working on a Twine game with a similar storytelling style to the 1995 Lucasarts game Full Throttle. 

I noticed a storytelling element within the game, and I was wondering what type of story/narration the game could be considered to have. 

The game opens with the protagonist, Ben, saying a few lines that set the scene and set up the story. It almost sounds as if he’s telling the player a story. 

But then, the cutscenes involve events that Ben is not present for and may not logically know about. Examples, which involve spoilers, are: All events while Ben is passed out in a dumpster in the game opening, a lot of the hovercraft police officers dialogue, the murder of Malcolm Corley, Ripburger’s henchmen chasing down the reporter who photographed the murder and attempting to murder Maureen, and a few more, further into the story, that I’m missing. 

But the game also has the live element that comes with being a game, and it involves Ben’s narration and comments based on the action menu, as well as through conversations. 

I’ve been trying to figure out how this storytelling style would work within a text-only game. It seems like it could be a type of frame story? Many important details would be missed if the perspective stuck solely to Ben, as it’s also, in a way, the story of the other major characters in the story. 

I know I can’t perfectly translate it because while they have similar natures, they’re also significantly different styles of games. But I also feel that to capture the feel of FT, I should employ a similar writing style, which to me seems like a sort of framed, first person semi-omniscient type of thing. 

If you have any advice, I’d love to know!

This question feels like it’s asking several things at once:

  • Terminology. What do we call the viewpoint of a game that sometimes shows you things that the player character is not present to see, especially in the case that the player character is otherwise the narrator?
  • Canon. Are there other text-based games that do anything like this? How do they handle it?
  • Craft. How would one introduce these scenes in a way that feels natural, considering they don’t include the protagonist?

Terminology. I’d say this is mixed first person limited and third person omniscient. Mixed viewpoint works exist in various media, and how best to deploy it is an ongoing topic of craft discussions among fiction writers. Cinema occasionally drops into first person limited perspective by putting the camera in the role of a particular character, especially when going for a strong emotional effect (e.g. to portray that character’s disorientation). The Broken Earth trilogy includes segments in second and third person, though eventually it becomes clear why that is. Dracula incorporates segments of newspaper articles and other documents that describe parts of the story, and these supply information that none of the main characters were in a position to see.

A first person limited narrative can also certainly encompass things that the narrator didn’t personally see, as long as they found out about those things later. The hackneyed transition here would be something like “little did I know…” followed by a description of the events in question — but there are plenty of more artful ways of handling these transitions. But this approach assumes you’re telling your story in the past tense. First person present, as many games might be, will have a harder time making natural use of this technique.

Canon. Over in parser IF land, Augmented Fourth includes several “meanwhile” sections, in which the gameplay interrupts progress to tell you what’s going on with other characters in another location. The Beetmonger’s Journal has a framing story with a narrator, but a good portion of the gameplay is about re-enacting/reconstructing a past event for which the narrator wasn’t present.

Meanwhile, in choice/hypertext-based work, Cape starts out with a newspaper clipping to set the scene before dropping into second person. Coyotaje links to external resources that explain or give further real-world context to the events described. Alice Maz’s Colorado Red uses objective newspaper reports, dialogue in the main text, and then hover links to expose the subject thoughts of the protagonist:

ColoradoRed.png

Craft. The top concern here is to avoid being confusing. If you’re swapping viewpoints, you need to make clear that that’s what you’re doing. For a Twine game, I might use the UI to reinforce this, perhaps by changing font or background colors. Presenting these elements via external documents (Dracula-style) would also be an option, if you feel these bits of story could be told effectively that way.

You also probably want to perform your first viewpoint-swap early in the flow of the story, in order to establish the expectation that this will happen. If you’ve got an hour and a half of first-person gameplay and then drop into third-person omniscient, that’s likely to be much more disorienting than if it happens in the first ten minutes.

You might or might not want to bother providing a fictional explanation for why you’ve got a first-person narrative feed alongside third-person omniscient knowledge. There are two approaches here to justify the story-telling technique:

  • wrap the third-person omniscient inside the first-person limited by explaining how the narrator knows or found out this information, as described above
  • wrap the first-person limited inside the third-omniscient by presenting it as another form of documentation (e.g. this is testimony collected from the narrator, a live voice feed, etc.)

That far, the problem is no different than if you were using mixed viewpoint in another medium.

Interactivity does introduce one more complication, though: if you tell the player things the protagonist doesn’t know, and they’re important to the story unfolding, you may disrupt the player’s identification with the protagonist. This often happens, deliberately or not, in the other direction, as protagonists often know more about their situation than the player does. (See: 9:05, Spider and Web.)

It’s not necessarily bad to give the player more information than the protagonist has — in fact, it can be played for humor or suspense value. Here’s an article I wrote about this effect in Treasures of a Slaver’s KingdomLost Pig plays with the fact that the protagonist is too stupid to understand things that the player probably does comprehend. Conversely, Will Not Let Me Go gets a lot of its punch from the fact that the protagonist has forgotten or lost his grasp on things the player knows about his life.

All the same, a disparity here can undermine the player’s sense of agency. In particular, if you create a situation where there’s one action supported by the protagonist’s world-knowledge and another action that the player knows is advantageous, the player may get frustrated if they can’t save the protagonist from a disaster they know is coming — or they may feel that the story is cheating, if they act on their out-of-character knowledge to win in a way that the protagonist would not have done.

One solution here is to explicitly acknowledge that the protagonist, narrator, and player are not all the same person — a method used in LASH, Bellclap, Violet, Fail-Safe, The Primrose Path, and Counterfeit Monkey among others — and a first- rather than second-person narration might help support this. Another method is to make sure the cut-scene content is never likely to materially affect the choices the protagonist makes in the moment.

Other background on the player-protagonist-narrator triangle in the IF literature:

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