Second Person - Harrigan and Wardrip-Fruin (editors)

Another book from my "Theory of games" pile. This is a collection of semi-academic articles on narrative in gaming. Fundamentally, it tries to address the idea that a lot of games are effective puzzles and plot bolted together, badly, often with narrative as the loser. It's divided into three main sections, roughly divided up as RPGs, computer games and ARGs. Quite a few common themes appear - that computer games and similar structures steer you through a plot, so the narrative tends to become rather fixed and take a back-seat. That RPGs are, when done effectively, a form of improv, allowing people to create a story, and the "game" aspect can take rather second place. That most table-top RPGs tend to have unchallenging escapist plots. That kind of thing.

I bought the book because it had a few essays on Interactive Fiction (text eadventures), and while they weren't up to the standard of Twisty Little Passages, they were pretty good and got me interested in playing a few of the games described. A few other essays stood out. The one on Prince of Persia: Sands of Time demonstrated the large amount of thought that went into the narrative of what seemed a run-of-the-mill commercial hit. The articles on table-top RPGs gave a bit of depth to stuff I've never actually tried. There were some fun articles on people trying to create experimental games to push the boundaries and subvert genres.

There was a fair amount of weak material, too. Basically the experimental art crowd producing things that actually aren't that interesting, that are technically weak and artistically no more interesting than the mainstream version. The honest articles were much more interesting than the pseudo-highbrow.

As a bonus, the back of the book contains the rules for three simple and short non-traditional RPGs. This was interesting to read both for the non-traditional ideas, and also in terms of how an RPG is constructed. Effectively, they're guides as to how, by constraining the structure, you can create effective improv. The dust jacket basically tries to sell the book on these rulesets at the back, which is massively overselling them, but they are kind of fun.

So, is it good? In parts. Annoyingly, it's not always clear up-front which of the essays are actually worth reading, but there were enough good bits amongst it for me not to begrudge the rest.

Posted 2014-08-28.