How to do Internal Monologue in Videogames; plus, I’m in a book!

An interesting question came up on the IGDA Writer’s Special Interest Group‘s mailing list, from Anne Toole:

When you’ve got players playing a PC [Player Character] that you want them all to strongly identify with, such that they are the PC, and you’ve got a mechanic where the PC only speaks through internal dialog, what do you believe is the best approach, first or second person? That is, “I think I should pick up the gun on the floor.” vs. “You think you should pick up the gun on the floor.”

I know some game writers abhor using second person, but I personally find “I” a little distancing. It reminds me that I’m playing this “I” character. “You,” to me, acknowledges and addresses the player, reinforcing the idea that player and PC are one and the same. What’s your take? Are there any studies on this? I don’t know why there would be, as it’s pretty specific, but maybe it exists.

Of course, there’s a third option, which is taking out “I” and “You” altogether. I think that makes things clunky. “The gun on the floor should be picked up.” But if you think that’s best, let me know why 😉

For me, it depends on the way the message is being conveyed. You said ‘a mechanic where the PC only speaks through internal dialog’. This implies that whatever information we are being given is in the voice of that character. This is as opposed to the game giving us ‘impartial’ information (such as ‘You pick up the gun on the floor.’ in a text game, where this is simply a statement about what your character has done. Or equally, ‘There is a gun here. Do you wish to pick it up?’ — again, an impartial, ‘God-perspective’ statement about the world.)

How does real-life internal monologue work?

My first, and I think best, instinct is to look at my own internal monologue (unless I’m schizophrenic, I don’t have an internal dialogue!). I don’t think of myself as ‘You’, and usually when I’m inside my own head, I don’t think of myself as ‘I’, either. I react and relate to my world in abstracts, and by referring to the things around me.

For example, ‘What’s that gun doing on the floor?’ or, ‘Why the hell would anyone leave that gun there?’

If my character were speaking out loud, but to themselves, I would be OK with them using the word ‘I’ — for instance, ‘(murmurs) I wonder if that gun’s loaded…’ But if this were text, I’d be less likely to accept it. In any case, if you start talking to yourself with ‘I’ too often, you’ll be characterising this person as kooky, if not well down the road to the asylum.

Objective Narration? — ‘You’ is OK

If you are given authoritarian instructions or objective information, e.g. ‘That gun on the floor can be picked up’, or ‘You pick up the gun’, this is the equivalent of narration, and ‘You’ is fine for this purpose. This should NOT be used if the information is actually voiced or spoken as if from the character — only if it comes from the game itself, as a kind of narration or instruction. This way the player can feel free to think of themselves as inhabiting the character as an avatar, and the game is speaking either to the character, or player, or both — because they identify as the same thing, there is no schism here.

Voiced by your character? ‘You’ isn’t cool; ‘I’ is tricky

If your words are spoken aloud, whether with animation or simply voice-over, “I” makes more sense. But it still risks feeling extremely scripty/gamey/false. This can work in novels (very well), but that comes across more as someone telling a whole story to a third party (the reader); this approach can also be used in film, again typically within the device of flashback (or a voiceover framing a whole story in past tense), but you don’t tend to hear characters’ thoughts in real time narrating their internal monologue as it actually happens — they tend to be relating it from some future perspective of knowledge.

e.g. This is OK in voiceover: ‘(VO) I was sure they were going to kill me. I was so unprepared. But then I saw the look in Eddie’s eyes…’

But this doesn’t sit well with me: ‘(VO) Are they going to kill me? I’m not ready for this… Huh, Eddie doesn’t look like that’s his plan…’

Leave your pronouns at the door. Crush Passive Voice wherever you find it

But your best option, wherever possible (and it’s almost always possible) is to leave the pronouns at the door. However, this never means passive voice (‘The gun should be picked up.’) Yes, that’s both lazy and unsightly 🙂 If this is the character’s thoughts, have the character react the way they would in speech. ‘Huh. Guess it’s not too safe around here.’ or ‘Great, a gun. Now, where did Eddie go…’ or ‘Well, they say a man without a gun is no man at all…’

You usually don’t need an ‘I’ for this unless they’re talking about themselves — and if they are, you are probably writing too on-the-nose anyway; never say what the character is feeling or what they plan to do; show it through their reactions and how they relate to what’s happening around them. And in games, Show, don’t tell can be extended to Play, don’t just show — giving you a whole extra vocabulary of story.

Game design and story are interrelated; hence the title ‘Narrative Designer’. If there’s a gun and it’s highlighted through cameras or HUD elements as being in the scene, and you have a ‘gameplay vocabulary’ for picking it up, why have the character say anything at all?

If they do react to it, it should be because this specific gun is important in their world — whether because guns are rare (‘What the heck is that thing?!’), or it’s a gun they lost (‘Oh, shit! There is is!’), or it’s the gun of someone they’re afraid of (‘God. Eddie’d never leave his gun just lying there without a fight… Where’s he at?’), et cetera.

Also… I’m totally in a book

It’s really more of a booklet, but I’m delighted to be featured in ‘Working in the Games Industry’ — Babcock Lifeskills Working in the Games Industry

I shared some thoughts on a career in Narrative Design with the fine folks at Babcock Lifeskills books, a UK publisher that focuses on books for teenagers looking at possible careers. Check it out!