REVIEW: Pat Harrigan and Noah Wardrip-Fruin’s Second Person: Role-Playing and Story in Games and Playable Media, by David Cox

Second Person: Role-Playing and Story in Games and Playable Media
edited by Pat Harrigan and Noah Wardrip-Fruin
Publisher: The MIT Press (February 28, 2007)
ISBN-10: 0262083566
ISBN-13: 978-0262083560

Review by David Cox, MA

Second Person: Role-Playing and Story in Games and Playable Media elucidates many of the techniques, approaches and philosophies of role playing based games, media and art. It is a dense and well put-together compendium of working notes, essays and from-the-trenches accounts from designers and artists working in media, which place the identity of the user/player/audience at the very front and center of the work. It is an amazing collection of ideas, scintillating, diverse and rich; each separate writer’s account sheds light on what it is that makes a memorable interactive title compelling and immersive. The contributors provide well illustrated, written insights into exactly how games and ‘playable media’ are conceptualized. Individual case studies describe role-playing related works from academia, the publishing world, the fine arts and the normally hyper-secret inner sanctum of the games industry.

Discussed in detail are such canonical genre classics as “Dungeons and Dragons” a role-playing game whose solid emphasis upon the social interaction between players is central to the experience and enjoyment of all who take part. D&D is the “Citizen Kane” of RPGs, and it comes as no surprise that so many incarnations both electronic and none, have emerged.

The book’s central idea in fact, is that of the ‘second person’. This refers to that entity in a game or story which stands in, avatar-like fashion, for one’s identity and agency within the myriad threads the story or gameplay might take. These ‘other selves’ can be either imaginary characters in a turn-based role playing game, a lurid animated incarnation in a massively multiplayer online world such as “World of Warcraft” or “Everquest” , or a simple stand-alone player-controlled computer character, for example the prince in “Prince of Persia”. A fascinating art installation called “Itinerant” integrates the terrain of Boston into a locative interactive narrative. The project interweaves Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” with flaneur-like drifting around urban space on the part of the participant. A section of Teri Rueb’s artist statement reads:

“The participant’s movement, tracked by GPS, triggers the payback of the sounds as she moves through parts of the city space where sounds have been ‘placed’.” Indeed it comes as no surprise that locative media are finding increased expression in a world where people are in motion through dense urban centers, carrying location-sensitive media devices with them. The central idea of ‘interactive cities’ at ISEA recently proved a major showcase for such work. Also this melding of art, mapping and technology is described in detail in William Gibson’s latest book “Spook Country”, placing it at the center of cybercultural importance.

Eric Zimmerman’s “Life in the Garden” is another good example of pure interactive storytelling; an amazingly simple idea of utilizing individual picture-on-one-side-text-on-the-other cards intended to be read as a narrative, where the story sequence is chosen at random by the reader/player:

INSTRUCTIONS: Shuffle the pages without looking. Select five pages and place them between the covers of the book, then read the story. Conceived as ‘an experience’ as much as a published story, “Life in the Garden”, according to Zimmerman: ’emerged organically through a process of constant prototype and play testing, modifying and refining the format and writing, and later the images’. This is a kind of media both simple and complex, where randomness, chance and other notions from the world of play and ludology have spilled into storytelling and traditional print publishing. The theorist, programmer and film maker Lev Manovich has a piece about his ‘soft cinema’ production – a film made up of discrete fragments whose playback is generated at random from a database of material about identity, self and interactivity. Pioneer of the idea of database as a structural paradigm at least as important as that of ‘story’, Manovich’s theories about database-versus-narrative have fueled something of a revolution in media culture, especially the landmark book “Language of New Media”. There are many examples of team-based creative processes described; what works and does not work when figuring out the myriad and many variables which accompany the game design process, dependent as it is upon the input and feedback of so many people.

This “what-makes-a-good-game-good” stuff is hard to pin down at the best of times. Games professionals, can on day by day basis turn to online resources like the venerable Gamasutra for their dose of hot tips, industry gossip, news and trends, but a book like Second Person: Role-Playing and Story in Games and Playable Media as far as I am aware is among the first of its kind to represent a kind broader worldview required say, of a textbook for university courses which may or may not involve lots of actual hands-on games production, rather than simply games analysis or appreciation.

Games studies needs this book; indeed, it might not be able to do without it, and with time it could be the equivalent of “Film Art: An Introduction” (the central text of many film schools) the mainstay of graduate and post-graduate videogame studies courses. I welcome its arrival on the scene with great enthusiasm.

David Cox is a once-upon-a-time videogame producer, now filmmaker, writer and digital media artist living in San Francisco’s Mission District. He teaches Computer Skills for Multimedia at City College in San Francisco.

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