"Do you want to hear about it?"

The Use of the Second Person in Electronic Fiction


An adventure game is a crossword at war with a narrative.

Graham Nelson, "The Craft of Adventure"


The second person pronoun has long been something of an outsider in the realm of narrative theory and even of fiction itself. Although the address function has been with us since the beginning of the novel, going back to Aphra Behn and beyond, and the narratee as character is an integral part of epistolary fiction, when the aesthetic of supposedly "unmediated" action, the transparency of the medium and the autonomy of the text became increasingly popular at the end of the nineteenth and first part of the twentieth century, the second person (in all its functions) became more and more rare in fiction. The opposite development can be seen in the last thirty years or so: the "you" form has experienced a kind of Renaissance through experimental writers attempting to stretch the limits of language, and the second person can now be found in works ranging from literary fiction to detective fiction to Tom Robbins. Regardless, it still remains an exotic fictional form, one which narrative theories often have difficulties accommodating.

The use of the second person is much more widespread in electronic fictional forms than it is in conventional paper-based fiction, however. In this paper, I will concentrate on the first computer-based fictional form, the genre of so-called "text adventures" or "interactive fiction," in which second person is nothing less than ubiquitous. In Dennis Drew's Another Lifeless Planet and Me with No Beer for example, the first-person protagonist of the title becomes the second person protagonist of the story. I will also briefly go into the direct address of the reader in hyperfiction, and attempt to show some of the ways in which it is different from print-based fiction. Of course, in a paper of this length, treating a relatively unfamiliar subject, I cannot hope to offer the kind of analysis these new fictional forms deserve; what I do hope to do is introduce new subject matter and raise some interesting questions for narrative theory.

From interactive fiction to hyperfiction and back

Starting with the very first example of interactive fiction, entitled simply Adventure and created at MIT in the mid-seventies, the second person has been the predominant form. Stan Heller's short, dream-like piece A Fable is written in the third person, and Giles Boutel's rather surreal interactive fiction Piece of Mind is predominantly first person, but these are rare exceptions. The more conventional mode is for the text of the program to address the player, who is also a reader, as if she were the character. Reciprocally, the player types in commands in second person imperative form, e.g. "examine door." The "you" form in text adventures is used to facilitate identification with the main character, but it is also a result of the interactive nature of the reading experience, the fact that the genre is as much game as fiction, as when the player is asked in Stu Galley's Moonmist, "What would you like to do?" It is up to the reader / player, who takes on the role of the protagonist, to get the character through the story alive or solve the mystery or save the world by making the right choices.

Even in other, later forms of electronic fiction such as literary hypertext narrative or hyperfiction, however, the second person continues to be more common than in conventional fiction, indicating a line of descent from the less than serious genre of the text adventure, although in hyperfiction the external addressee "you" is more common than the protagonist "you." This of course is the most basic distinction between narratees in fiction, whether the "you" designates a character or a hypothetical reader.(1) The narratee "you" of hyperfiction, however, is more than a rhetorical device creating an illusion of involvement with the text, because the reader has the power of choice in the story. When the narrator of Michael Joyce's hyperfiction Afternoon, in hypercritical circles already deemed a classic, asks, "Do you want to hear about it?"(2) the reader has the option of literally answering, and the fiction will take a different turn whether the answer given is "yes" or "no": the answer to the direct address has consequences for the progress of the fiction, making the addressee a more specific being than merely an implied reader or ideal audience. If the actual reader enters "no" for example, the screen which comes up next contains what seems to be a direct response: "I understand how you feel. Nothing is more empty than heat. Seen so starkly the world holds wonder only in the expanse of clover where the bees work."(3) The "you" whom the narrator addresses here is "just" a narratee, rather than an actant as in text adventures, but she has the option of responding by clicking a mouse button. The added level of participation makes traditional distinctions between "you" forms more difficult. What for example is to be done in this case with Genette's distinction between intradiegetic and extradiegetic narratees? To illustrate the distinction, Genette cites a passage from Tristram Shandy in which the narrator asks the reader to help him carry Mr. Shandy to the bed, which for Genette is a case of "treating an extradiegetic narratee as if he were intradiegetic."(4) Where in this scheme of things is there room for the addressee of the question "Do you want to hear about it?"; the addressee who answers the question and receives a different section of text according to her answer? The narratee remains external to the story itself, but her interaction with the narrator serves to draw her into the text in a way which seems less than compatible with a traditionally understood extradiegetic role, especially when the text space following reads like a direct response to her answer, creating a sort of presence for the reader-narratee.

The confusion of intra- and extradiegetic roles is even more pronounced in Boutel's interactive fiction Piece of Mind, one of the few examples of the genre written in the first person, which begins by addressing the reader / player as consumer, the potential purchaser of the Artificial Intelligence (AI) software "Piece of Mind":

Software for the future!

Perhaps you feel it's time to consider your options for what lies ahead in an uncertain world. Perhaps you're just curious as to the options available to you. Whatever your reason - the best time to consider the future is now.

Piece of Mind is a complete package - designed to illustrate the many and various avenues of financial opportunity which confront the modern person.(5)

The reader is not strictly a part of the fictional world, since all of the action revolves around the first-person narrator, but she is addressed as the user of the software Piece of Mind, which she is, and asked by the narrator to help him out of wherever he's gotten stuck, which she does. On the other hand, in this fiction the reader is aware that the "you" is a part of the fiction itself, because the software she is using is not the same as that specified in the text, despite the congruence of the title - shades of Italo Calvino.

By comparison, the addressee "you" of the hyperfiction Afternoon is simultaneously closer to and more distant from the reader than the narratee-character of interactive fiction. Passages addressing the reader often imply a more direct correspondence between actual reader and narratee than such passages in print fiction, as for example when the reader is given an explanation of the labyrinth of the story in the text space entitled "Work in progress":

Closure is, as in any fiction, a suspect quality, although here it is made manifest. When the story no longer progresses, or when it cycles, or when you tire of the paths, the experience of reading it ends. Even so, there are likely to be more opportunities than you think there are at first. A word which doesn't yield the first time you read a section may take you elsewhere if you choose it when you encounter the section again; and sometimes what seems a loop, like memory, heads off again in another direction.

This passage also exemplifies the way in which electronic fiction makes it more difficult to speak of the addressee or reader in the text as a fictional construct, "something whose existence is strictly circumscribed within art,"(6) as critics have been wont to do since Booth defined the implied author and the implied reader. The reader who confronts this little lecture (and given the random nature of hyperfiction, not all readers will necessarily confront this lecture) most likely has the impression of being directly addressed by the author. James Phelan's integration of the concept of narrative audience into narrative theory can be particularly helpful in understanding this form of address in hyperfiction; it can be seen as a case of the implied author addressing the ideal reader.(7) If the actual reader then does not discover anything noticeably divergent from her own situation in the direct address, she will be inclined to take the "you" literally.

There are, however, certainly examples of hyperfiction in which there is little or no mix-up between the textual "you" and the actual reader. Strangely enough, this is the case in a work which adopts a protagonist "you" similar to that used in interactive fiction, Philippa J. Burne's 24 Hours with Someone You Know. The protagonist "you" of 24 Hours is specified immediately at the beginning of the text, and there is no discernable overlap with the reader, despite the fact that each passage ends with one or two links which the reader may choose from, frequently embedded in passages of conversation, creating the illusion that the "you" protagonist is responding to questions through the reader, for example when one character asks the protagonist "you", "So coming with me or going straight there with Mr Grumpy?"(8) The phrases "coming with me" and "going straight there" are links for the reader to chose from. The reader takes on a mediating function, but her power over the text is quite limited: the imitation of the form of text adventures is only marginally successful in an interactive sense, since no matter which choices the reader makes, they ultimately bring her back to the same story line - whether or not the protagonist goes to the bar or the park has no consequences for the progression of events. This would be completely contradictory to the logic of a text adventure - a site left unvisited might well mean a premature end to the story. Because the reader has no responsibility for the protagonist, the "you"-character in 24 Hours conforms much better to traditional distinctions between the narratee as character and the narratee as reader, not confounding them in the same way as interactive fiction in which the reader must contribute ideas or die.

"You" in the plot and out of it

Of course, the distinction between the reader and character "you" can be confounded in text-based fiction as well, although most critics still consider the distinction valid between the narrative "you" with specific, individual experiences and with whom the reader is not as likely to identify, and the generalized narrative "you" which maintains a closer relationship to the strict addressee function of the second person pronoun.(9) As Phelan points out:

... the fuller the characterization of the "you," the more aware actual readers will be of their differences from that "you," and thus, the more fully they will move into the observer role, and the less likely this role will overlap with the addressee position. In other words, the greater the characterization of the "you," the more like a standard protagonist the "you" becomes ... (351)

Both Phelan and Fludernik have pointed out that second person narratives frequently blur these boundaries in an intentionally experimental manner. Interactive fiction blurs these boundaries as well, but for the most part there is very little that is experimental about it. There are certainly examples of experimental work in the genre of interactive fiction, but blurring the boundaries between the protagonist "you" and the narratee "you" belongs to the nature of the genre and can hardly count as being particularly experimental. The reading experience of interactive fiction practically requires the reader to assume the role of the protagonist (or in the case of first-person IF to take on the role of some kind of guide), while at the same time responding to the narrative much in the manner of an addressee. This is particularly apparent in the prompt (sometimes preceded by the kinds of questions mentioned above) -- the little symbol on the side of the screen appearing after narrative passages which indicates that it is now the player's turn.

Because of the role-playing nature of interactive fiction, it is simultaneously both true and not true that "the more fully the narratee is characterized, the greater the distance between narratee and narrative audience." (Phelan, 357) Authors of text adventures are well aware of the advantages and disadvantages of specific characterization: players have been known to complain that detailed characterization makes them "step back" from the player-character and make it less easy to "become" the character.(10) Of the works of IF produced by Infocom, the most well-known commercial creator of text adventures, approximately half had a main character whose gender is never specified.(11) The reason for this is obviously to permit the player to slip into the role of the main character more easily.

One particularly interesting example of the genre, Graham Nelson's Jigsaw, goes a step further and never specifies the gender of the secondary character either, allowing the player / reader to imagine whatever constellation most suits him or her and identify more fully with the protagonist's pursuit of the stranger in black. Despite the lack of gender definition, the main characters of Jigsaw are characterized to a greater extent than in many adventure games: when the story opens, "you" find yourself at party during the last minutes of the millennium, a bit fed up with all the hoopla, especially once you notice that the fascinating stranger in black has slipped out of the crowd. The pursuit of Black will lead you to discover a time machine and send you to various historical eras in an attempt to correct all the changes to history Black is attempting to make. These details of course make it quite impossible for the player to ever assume that the "you" of the text is applicable to him- or herself, but at the same time, the interactive nature of Jigsaw does not allow her to assume the role of observer. She must come up with the correct actions herself in order to continue the pursuit of Black and prevent history from being changed. At times this might seem like a case of second-guessing the author, but at other times it has the effect of making the reader take on a role recognizably different from her own situation.

It is more difficult for conventional paper-based fiction to establish this kind of relationship between reader and you-protagonist. The effect is similar in the series of books geared towards a youth audience originally based on the form of text adventures, the Choose Your Own Adventure series, but the level of interactivity is not the same. Several of the intriguing and clever stories in Lorrie Moore's collection Self-Help begin with a generalized form of address which could almost be applicable to "everyreader," for example in the story "How to Become a Writer":

First, try to be something, anything, else. A movie star/astronaut. A move star/missionary. A move star/kindergarten teacher. President of the World. Fail miserably. It is best if you fail at an early age--say, fourteen. Early, critical disillusionment is necessary so that at fifteen you can write long haiku sequences about thwarted desire.(12)

Assuming that most readers of this story are already older than fifteen, at the mention of age they will probably no longer be inclined to assume that the "you" of the text is applicable to them. Distance is established and the reader becomes an observer. The reader / player's responsibility for the progress of the plot in a text adventure, however, precludes this kind of distance. As Roger Giner-Sorolla has pointed out, "in a narrative that is at the same time a fiction and a game, the protagonist's identity fractures ... into three distinct persons," which he designates as the reader/player, the generalized "game protagonist", and the more specific "story protagonist".(13) All three are contained in the "you" of the text, the actual reader, the "you" playing a role in the fiction, and the character in the story.

Of readers, narrators and authors

A particularly problematic aspect of second person texts is the question of where the narrator is to be found. This is of course much clearer when the "you" in the text is the addressee of an authorial or first person narrator: in this case, as in Michael Joyce's Afternoon, "you" is a hypothetical reader, and I as reader can very easily assume I am the person being addressed, since I too am finding myself confronted by the same text spaces and wondering what is going on. The case is also fairly explicit in what Fludernik identifies as "we" narratives, such as Oriana Fallaci's A Man, in which the narrator is addressing the dead protagonist.(14) Second person texts with no immediately recognizable narrator, however, have caused a certain amount of controversy among the critics. While several critics have maintained that the "you" in second person fiction denotes the narrator as well as the protagonist and the narratee, Fludernik claims that there are numerous examples of second person fiction which show no distinct trace of an identifiable narrator.(15)

The question of "the narrator" gets very satisfyingly messy in text adventures, particularly since some systems employ the first person in what are essentially error messages. In this constellation, the program itself takes on the role of a narrating "I": many works of interactive fiction respond to commands using unknown vocabulary with a phrase along the lines of "I don't understand that." The specific phrase used to indicate to the player / reader that she has made a mistake depends on the program used to implement or compile the text adventure. Infocom, for example, does not resort to first person, just telling the player, "The word 'doohickie' is not in your vocabulary," although even here some kind of ultimate authority over the text is implied in the phrase itself. A freeware Infocom interpreter, Frotz, informs you, "That's not a verb I recognize." Another popular authoring-program, TADS (short for Text Adventure Design System), objects "I don't know the word 'doohickie.'" Gamescape tells the player, "I do not understand that. Is that logical?" Finally, games written with AGT (the Adventure Game Toolkit), leave it at the comment, "Better try something else." The narrative becomes a dialogue between player and program, with the author as some kind of implied ultimate authority.

While it has become a critical commonplace among hypertext critics to claim that the power of choice in electronic fictional forms makes the reader into a sort of co-author, this is taking the effect of interactivity a bit too far. There are very few forms of electronic fiction in which the reader can actually change anything, and neither hyperfiction nor interactive fiction belong in this category.

"A Crossword at War with a Narrative"

The use of the second person in any form is an invitation to projection, be it onto a character or a fictionalized reader in the text, drawing the reader into the text in ways other forms do not. The added level of interactivity in electronic text, however, the element of choice which goes beyond closing the book or skipping a chapter, tends to draw the reader even further into the text - assuming she understands the conventions that are at work, that is. As I have pointed out elsewhere, this is not always the effect hyperfiction and interactive fiction have on the reader.(16) The reader who has no patience with the fragmentary nature of the text spaces in Afternoon, who is unable to find a thread which interests her enough to overcome her reluctance to read at the computer, will probably not be drawn in by the direct address either. The player unfamiliar with the conventions of interactive fiction, the necessity of looking under every table and into every garbage can, will be frustrated by the puzzles, develop an antagonistic relationship with the program, fail to be drawn into the narrative, and type "quit" at the next prompt. Graham Nelson has described text adventures as "a crossword at war with a narrative,"(17) but for an inexperienced player it can sometimes seem like a narrative at war with the reader.

This does not cancel out the problem and the potential of electronic fictional forms, however. The engaging text is even more engaging when the reader is given the option of participating. If I am correct in assuming that text adventures and hyperfiction can be regarded as new forms of fiction, these new genres could have very interesting implications for traditional categories of narrative theory, as I have tried to show. The vocabulary at hand barely does an adequate job of describing the relationship between the "you" of the text and the reader of the tale.

Until now, I have not gone into possible objections that these forms might not qualify as fiction and thus would have no bearing on narrative theory at all, because narrative theory would have no need to take them into account. I will not even attempt to tackle the question of interactive fiction as literature, although I would like to point out that many of these works show a high degree of sophistication in their execution. But as Marie-Laure Ryan has pointed out, "in literary matters, interactivity conflicts either with immersion or aesthetic design, and usually with both."(18) On the other hand, it would be difficult to come up with a definition of fiction which would exclude the forms I have presented here, without insisting on the medium of print as part of the definition.

Such objections would probably be stronger in the case of interactive fiction than of hyperfiction, the primary argument being that we are talking about games here, not fiction. The problem is, a good text adventure truly is a cross between a game and a story. It certainly conforms to the theory of fiction as a game of make-believe.

I personally would be much more inclined to include text adventures in the category "fiction" than I would some of the newer hypertext experiments which are dominated by multimedia elements. These would more likely qualify as hypermedia art forms than they would as fiction. But then, I for one am more attached to words and old-fashioned plots than to pictures that blink.



1. See for example Gerald Prince, Narratology: The Form and Functioning of Narrative (Berlin, New York, Amsterdam: Mouton Publishers, 1982): 16-26.

2. Michael Joyce, Afternoon, a story (Hypertext; Eastgate Systems: Cambridge, Mass., 1987, 1992): first text space.

3. One of the difficulties of hypertext is the problem raised by citing sources; as this simple quote shows, I cannot give a page number for the reader to refer to. The only thing I can do is tell her how I got to the passage in question. With this passage the case is relatively simple, since it comes immediately after the first text space, but with other citations a specific reference soon becomes impossible.

4. Gérard Genette, Narrative Discourse Revisited, Jane E. Lewin, trans. (Ithaca, NY: Cornell U. P., 1988): 132.

5. Giles Boutel, Piece of Mind: An Interactive Short Story (Freeware: TangleCorp, 1996).

6. Robyn R. Warhol, Gendered Interventions: Narrative Discourse in the Victorian Novel (New Brunswick and London: Rutgers U. P., 1989): 197.

7. James Phelan, "Self-Help for Narratee and Narrative Audience: How "I"--and "You"?--Read "How," Style 28,3 (Fall 1994): 356-7.

8. Philippa J. Burnes, 24 Hours With Someone You Know (hypertext; http://www.cinemedia.net/GlassWings/modern/24hours/home2.html).

9. Of course it is quite possible for readers to "identify" with a character who is of the opposite sex or a different station in life in text as well as in electronic fiction, especially if the author is talented in eliciting identification from readers. The reader's situation does not have to correspond completely with that of the character for this to occur, although generally readers do seem to find it easier to identify with a character of the same sex as their own. Since identification is not such a strict phenomenon as some would have it, I prefer to speak with Phelan in terms of distance and observation.

10. John Wood, "Player Character Identity in Interactive Fiction," XYZZY News 9 (www.users.interport.net/~eileen/design/xyzzy.9d.html).

11. Doug Atkinson, "Character Gender in Interactive Fiction," XYZZY News (E-zine: www.users.interport.net/~eileen/design/xyzzy.3h.html).

12. Lorrie Moore, Self-Help (New York: Warner Books, 1995): 119.

13. "Crimes Against Mimesis," Usenet article, rec.arts.int-fiction, April 29, 1996.

14. On "we" narratives see Monika Fludernik, "Second Person Fiction: Narrative You As Addressee And/Or Protagonist," AAA 18 (1993): 224-225.

15. Monika Fludernik, "Introduction: Second-Person Narrative and Related Issues," "Special Issue: Second-Person Narrative," Style 28, 3 (1994): 287.

16. See my essay, "Das Ende des Buches. Hypertext und seine Auswirkungen auf die Literatur." Hyperkultur, Martin Klepper, Ruth Mayer and Ernst-Peter Schneck, eds. (Berlin: de Gruyter, 1996): 14-30.

17. Graham Nelson, "The Craft of Adventure" (www.cre.canon.co.uk/~neilb/intfiction/craft).

18. "Immersion vs. Interactivity: Virtual Reality and Literary Theory." Postmodern Culture 5.1 (1994), electronic version ( par. 33.


This paper was originally given at the IALS conference in Freiburg, September 1997.


Other pages of mine:

Clarion West 98 | Cutting Edges: Or, A Web of Women | Joe's Heartbeat
in Budapest
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Ruth Nestvold, 2001.