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Second-Person Narration in Streamed Role-Playing Games

The contemporary individual is swarmed with narrative media on all sides. Whereas fictional stories once only existed in the form of written text, nowadays fiction is only a click or two away and is much easier to consume. There exists a sense of what such narratives entail and that is especially true for the instance of the narrator or the audience’s point of view—first and third person narration are by far the most common, with the latter being the expected form of narrative delivery for audiences at large. However, there always existed notions (and examples) of second-person narration, a form that directly speaks to its consumer. A discussion on what second-person narration entails is in order, followed by the most prominent example of it in contemporary entertainment production—tabletop role-playing games that are streamed to massive online audiences.

Figure 1. Dice and Tabletop Role-playing Games. Anonymous. (n.d.). Tabletop role-playing games involve dice rolling which determines the outcome of certain situations—a reminder for the audience that they are truly watching a narrative being shaped in the very moment of consumption.

Questions of narratology, the various states and instances of the narrator, and their relation to the characters inside and outside of a story are much too complex to be derived into a single explanatory sentence or paragraph. Thus, this article will, out of necessity, focus on the simplest understanding of a second-person narrative which becomes clear once it is juxtaposed with first and third person narratives respectively.

Figure 2. Dungeons & Dragons 5th edition handbook cover art. Jacobson, T. 2014.

If any one person were to reach for a book on their shelf, chances are it is a prose text. That prose text is most likely written in third person, but first person narratives are not uncommon—they are certainly not as rare as the second-person ones. Put simply, such texts are “fiction that employs a pronoun of address in reference to a fictional protagonist” (Fludernik, 1993, 217). The pronoun Fludernik speaks of is, of course, you. However, second-person narration possesses an innate complexity “to which even revised narratological typologies … manage to do little justice” (Fludernik, 1994, 472).

When one claims that a narrative is written in first person, for example, the most abundant pronoun in the text will be I. This will, however, not be an empty signifier easily replaceable by any other—the story would lose much of its impact, gravity, and overall structural soundness if it were to be shifted to a third person narrative. This facet is mentioned in relation to a problematic aspect of second-person narratives:

The ‘you’ is simply an ‘I’ in disguise, a ‘first-person’ narrator talking to himself; the novel is a ‘first-person’ narrative with a formal twist to it that does not engage the entire narrative situation, as one would expect it should (Bal, 1996, 181).

In other words, second-person stories are frequently created as experiments: It is an elaborate attempt at producing a narrative in second-person. That story and characters do not necessarily benefit from such a portrayal nor is it utilized to achieve something unachievable in the other two types of narration. However, there does exist a form of storytelling that is indivisible from the second-person narration, in which that very narration shapes the story and allows it to blossom.

Figure 3. The Cast of Critical Role. Critical Role. 2020. A group of voice actors have turned playing a tabletop role-playing game into one of the most immersive pieces of fantasy storytelling currently available.

When Gary Gygax and David Arneson created Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) in 1974, they probably did not expect it to become a vessel for fantastical storytelling that would be broadcasted to an audience of millions—yet, led by shows such as Critical Role, Dimension 20, and High Rollers (just to name a few), an entire new sphere of entertainment was brought to life. With it, a once theoretical and experimental mode of narration was given a natural home.

In D&D, a single player/person takes the role of a dungeon master (DM)—they build the world, lore, mythos, and everything else a fantasy story needs. Other players each take the role of a single character within that world and all of them band together for an amazing journey into the unknown. Although there exist rather elaborate game mechanics, the crux of the game is in the storytelling and the role-playing—during a particular session, each person becomes their character. Thus, when the DM presents the story, or the world, or the consequences of a characters’ action, they use the pronoun ‘you’: You kill the monster, you find the solution to a puzzle, you save the world.

Figure 4. Adventuring party. Anonymous. (n.d.). Each member of a role-playing game becomes a character within the story, creating a unique narrative experience where everything is developed through an interaction between individuals who assume the nature and behavioral traits of their characters.

Once such a show is streamed to an audience, the audience observes an improvised narrative being shaped by a unique interaction between the narratorial figure of the DM and the characters, each represented by a different person. Yet, this experience is much different from an acted TV show or a movie. Perhaps, if cinema ever gets to the point where there is a speaking narrator discussing the on-going events directly with the characters, role-playing games will cease to be unique.

As established in earlier paragraphs, the interaction between the DM and the characters necessarily utilizes second-person narration. Despite that, the audience watching the broadcasted show is not the direct addressee behind the “you” that the DM speaks. One must keep in mind, however, that a person who consumes a piece of entertainment may develop empathy for the characters and can even identify with these characters.

Character identification often invites empathy, even when the fictional character and reader differ from one another in all sorts of practical and obvious ways, but empathy for fictional characters appears to require only minimal elements of identity, situation, and feeling, not necessarily complex or realistic characterization. Whether a reader’s empathy or her identification with a character comes first is an open question: spontaneous empathy for a fictional character’s feelings sometimes opens the way for character identification (Keen, 2006, 214).

Figure 5. 'How Do You Want To Do This?' Comic. Carrazco, I. 2016. The most iconic line in Critical Role, giving full agency to the player, the 'you' that shapes the story in the most memorable moments of the show.

Therefore, the “you” spoken by the DM no longer merely addresses the characters/players sitting at the table—viewers implant themselves into the narrative. More so than in other media where the story is concluded before the moment of consumption, role-playing games are essentially being written as they are being consumed, giving the audience a sense of having partaken in the creation of the narrative. This functions as the definitive dividing factor between this mode of storytelling and all others. For example, hypertext fiction, “a specific form of digital fiction in which fragments of electronic text, known as lexias, are connected by hyperlinks” (Bell and Ensslin, 2011, 311), often includes second-person narration, but those narratives have been completed already before a reader interacts with them.

The readers' agency merely allows them to explore the story by choosing their own path, but nothing they do will change what is already written. The same is, of course, the case for the audience watching a role-playing game unfold. However, their chosen surrogate that is a part of the show has all the power to do whatever comes to their mind—as the DM points the proverbial finger at them, it is their choice that shapes the narrative.

Second-person narration is a complex phenomenon. It is stated from the onset that this article does not intend to provide a full theoretical background of narratological terminology and practices, but merely seeks to discuss how second-person narration has maybe found a home in an entertainment product brought about by a unique merger of media. If anyone is curious how deep, profound, and different such a narrative can be, there now exist myriad of role-playing shows to choose from—everyone can certainly find a surrogate player that fits them.

Bibliographical References

Bal, M. (1996). Second-person narrative. Paragraph, 19(3), 179–204.

Bell, A., & Ensslin, A. (2011). “I know what it was. You know what it was”: Second-Person Narration in Hypertext Fiction. Narrative, 19(3), 311–329.

Fludernik, M. (1993). Second person fiction: Narrative “You” as addressee and/or protagonist. AAA: Arbeiten Aus Anglistik Und Amerikanistik, 18(2), 217–247.

Fludernik, M. (1994). Second-person narrative as a test case for narratology: The limits of realism. Style, 28(3), 445–479.

Keen, S. (2006). A theory of narrative empathy. Narrative, 14(3), 207–236.

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Very clear article with concise explanations and precise vocabulary, also easily accessible to those not familiar with second-person narration or the basics of narratology. The topic is also very innovative, and presents a rather new entertainment phenomenon through a more classical perspective. Great work!

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Dino Mušić

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