I am currently working on a visual novel, and I am wondering if I should write it in first or third person. Which method is better to show all the characters’ experiences but keep the player engaged with the story?

A visual novel is a video game that’s almost all story. They are heavily focused on dialogue and cutscenes. In mine, you will be able to explore and do things, but all in direct relation to the story. There may also be choices and branching narratives involved.

To clarify, I am asking if it should say “Bob plunges the blade into Jim’s chest,” or “I plunge the blade into Jim’s chest.” If it were first person, the POV would change. Depending on how decision-making related I make it, it could even be second person, “You plunge the blade into Jim’s chest.”

  • Can you describe what it is a little more? Sounds like it's similar to a movie and you're writing a script. – Ken Mohnkern Dec 4 at 21:57
  • It’s almost like a book told through the format of a video game. It can be very descriptive or mostly left up to the actions of the characters. For example, it could say “Bob walks over to Jim” and then have Bob’s character moving over to Jim, or it could just have Bob’s character moving over to Jim. I’m not sure which way I want to make it yet. – DragonChampion7 Dec 4 at 23:08
  • I could see all 3 working, but I'm not familiar with the genre. What do other stories of this type use? – Cyn Dec 5 at 1:11
  • I don’t have much experience playing them, but I have played one in first person and another that was a highly decision- based one in second person. I know that whenever I try to work on mine, I subconsciously switch between first and second person. – DragonChampion7 Dec 5 at 1:15
up vote 4 down vote accepted

Narrative games are basically dialogues between the game and the player. The player tells the game what choices their character makes and the game tells the player the outcome of those choices.

The choice of perspective decides what roles the player and the game are playing.

In first person perspective, the game becomes a dialog between the player and the character.

Player: Larry, open the door!

Larry: I can't. I am too afraid.

The player is not so much interacting with the world, but rather interacting with the character, who is interacting with the world.

This perspective is useful if your narrative is mostly carried by the personality of the main character. It even works when the personality of the main character is very different from the player.

This perspective also allows the player-character to talk directly to the player. The character can tell the players their thoughts and opinions without filtering them through a narrator or even argue with the player.

In second person perspective, the player becomes the protagonist while the game takes the role of the narrator:

Player: I open the door.

Narrator: You are too afraid to open the door.

Now the player is the main character. The character's actions are the player's actions and vice versa. This gives you the highest grade of immersion in the story. So if immersion is your primary goal, then this is usually the best perspective.

Unfortunately there is a downside to this style: It can become uncomfortable when there is a dissonance between what the player wants to do and think and what the game makes their character do and think. Tell the player: "You really enjoy performing this immoral and despicable act" and the player will react: "WTF game, what kind of person do you think I am?!?". There is always a limit to how much agency you can give to the player in a game, so such uncomfortable situations are hard to avoid completely. Not unless you want to leave the interpretation of what's happening in the game completely to the player.

So this style almost requires that the player-character is a) a blank slate with very little personality so everyone can easily project themselves into them or b) a character your target audience can identify with extremely well.

In third person perspective, the game becomes a discussion between player and narrator about the player-character:

Player: Larry should open the door.

Narrator: Larry considers to open the door, but he is too afraid.

This perspective creates the largest distance between the player and the character. The player-character becomes yet another character in the story.

This is useful if you do not want to focus on either the player or their character and put the focus on the secondary characters and their interactions with the main character and each other instead.

It is also useful if there is more than one controlable character in the game. When the player never really enters a character's mind, then the shock of currently being in the mind of another character feels less severe.

These are broad generalizations.

1st-Person is better for world exploration and action (puzzle solving, combat, RPG). The player experiences the world through an avatar – sometimes as a tabula rasa with amnesia, or as a stranger in a strange land. When the MC has a backstory, he is usually generalized with no personality or imposed emotional state. There's a discovery phase before making meaningful choices. There are "good" and "bad" decisions. Choices are about goals, stats, and unlocking achievement gates. The reader can uncover the situation in non-linear order. Endings can be ranked from best to worst.

2nd-person is usually done as imperative mood. “Bob plunges the blade into Jim’s chest” becomes "Plunge the blade into Jim's chest…". The imperitive implies a second-person subject (you). Narratively it's the same as 1st-person.

3rd-person is better for narrative, character development, and plot-driven stories that explore emotional or interpersonal relationaships. The player navigates with a traditional protagonist (or several) as a character embedded within the story, usually with a history and family – especially if they are leveraged by the plot to raise the stakes. The protagonist has a character arc, and the narrative imposes an emotional state. Dialog has subtext and tonal shades. Choices are compromises where something is gained and lost, or mutually exclusive. Conflicts are amoral or ambiguous. Endings are not about "winning", but resolving the narrative with a satisfying conclusion.

None of these are actual rules, of course.

  • 1
    I think there is more you could write about the 2nd person perspective. Like how 2nd person makes the game a dialog between the narrator and the player with the player being the protagonist ("You don't want to do this, please do something else"), while 1st person makes the game a dialog between the character and the player with the character being the protagonist ("I don't want to do this, please tell me to do something else"). – Philipp Dec 5 at 14:34
  • @Philipp, that's interesting. I actually doubted there is a "true" 1st-person (VN are visually 1st-person and narratively 2nd-person). You've reminded me of an early text adventure where you're trying to convince a robot to make repairs, and it tells you things like "I don't know what that means." or "I can't do that here." – which is standard feedback in a parser-style IF game... If you have some more insight maybe you could write an answer? – wetcircuit Dec 5 at 15:43

Your Answer

By clicking "Post Your Answer", you acknowledge that you have read our updated terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy, and that your continued use of the website is subject to these policies.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.