Jon’s Blog: Heavy Meta

Published on January 10, 2012

By Jon Turner

There is a certain comfort in inhabiting a video game for a length of time. Much like the brand-new leather glove, a game must be eased into, one’s burgeoning prowess flexing nicely into all the stiff crevices of the interface and controls. By the first few hours, you may have skill enough to feel like a true professional in whatever landscape you inhabit, and it feels good. A new game is like a new friend, whose quirks and foibles you overlook in favour of their unique outlook on life. All the while, we trust a new game not to offend our delicate sensibilities by openly displaying the fact that it is a video game. This seems weird. Don’t we, in our constant assessment of whatever HUD that’s being used, have to notice that we’re playing a video game? We have to keep score or pause or save or change weapons or do a hundred other things that tear the cohesive fabric of whatever finely-crafted universe we’re shooting aliens in, causing the bleeding edges of ugly, utilitarian fourth-wall-breaking to seep in to our experience. But we don’t care one elementary particle about any of that shit, because all those details have to exist in order for most games to be halfway playable.

How do you break the fourth wall when the player is already acutely aware of it? Well, Metal Gear Solid 2 had a good crack at it; by the final act, the game itself seemed to glitch out and see past its technojargony plot and maddening self-irreverence to poke fun at you, the player, for putting up with its bullshit. I’m told that Hideo Kojima’s echoing peals of laughter can still be heard to this day. It was also one of the first games (to my knowledge) that used the franchise’s own hype to fake out prospective players, who thought they would get to play another round as the manly man’s man, Solid Snake. Everything leading up to the game’s release, including trailers, pre-release screenshots, etc. was tailored to imply that yes, you will play as Snake*. The fine-print caveat was nowhere seen, nor hinted at, until the day of release.

*for about the first twenty minutes

But, for all the high-falutin’ ha-ha’s at the player’s expense, these metafictional baby steps were just that – they weren’t integral to the plot of the game, they were there to fuck with the player just to add some supple texture to the franchise. I’m not complaining. But BioShock really knew how to take a fundamental assumption, common to every video game, and weave it into plot, gameplay, and theme.

Basically, every game has rules of some kind. Following them leads to points/headshots/level progress/a sublime sense of satisfaction, while not following them leads to death/frustration. By and large, (and, notably, glitches aside) you cannot bypass the game rules – they are what make it a game in the first place. One of those rules is usually something like listen to what I say, and then do it, spoken perhaps by some generic guiding force meant to teach you the basics of the game. Obviously, this is generally a necessity for any sort of complex game. Nobody thinks about the long-term implications for your character’s free will should he/she/it decide not to learn to play the game. If you don’t agree, the game ends and you are deprived of a pleasurable sensation in your brain – that’s that. But BioShock is devious. It’s tricksy and false. You, the unsuspecting player, are lured by means of the pretty underwater steampunkery and appreciably gripping narrative, to follow this cardinal rule of games. Someone is telling you to do something? Do it. It’s not until the end that the game has the courtesy to tell you oh, by the way, the reason you were doing all that shit wasn’t because the game would not progress until you did, it was really because the protagonist was conditioned to respond unquestioningly to a given code-phrase imprinted upon him from birth. It’s a hard lesson, meant to teach us that even diligent players aren’t protected from being manipulated by their own games. Me, I find that equal parts cool and disturbing.

Cue Ken Levine’s echoing peals of laughter.

Jon Turner writes about games for the Polyphonic Pixel. He likes to bang his appendages on input devices to create words and articles, and also appendage bruises. Cats cause his crinkled, cynical brow to momentarily uncrinkle.