Narcissism in Games
“Games About Games”
If there’s anything in vogue in games criticism right now, it is to profess that one is tired of “games about games.” In a short section of mainstream game history, we got Bioshock, Braid, Spec Ops: The Line, and The Stanley Parable among others, all of which were focused around questioning the content of game narratives and the design dogmas around which certain types of games are built, and for a critical audience already largely aware of say, how fucked up it is that you shoot literally hundreds of living breathing people, or the problematic nature of the Damsel in Distress trope, enthusiasm for the niche “genre” as it were wore thin quickly. (For others, I emphasize. I am always excited when one of these games comes out.)
But to profess that one is tired of Games About Games is to say multiple things, both about that genre of games and about the medium as a whole, that simplify the topic:
- That Games About Games are only “about games.”
- That Games About Games are, in fact, about the medium of games.
- That there is a strict binary between Games About Games, and games that are not critical examinations of the medium.
- That most games do not speak through a language that is self-referential, and are therefore not at least somewhat concerned with themselves, and that Games About Games are unique in this sense.
- That games do not speak through a language that references other games, and are therefore not at least somewhat concerned with the cultural context in which they exist, and that Games About Games are unique in this sense.
Each of these is false and I’d like to address them individually.
1. Games About Games are only “about games.”
Games that tend to be categorized in this fledgling sub-genre also have other thematic and design interests. Spec Ops: The Line is a critique of the shooter wholesale: of it’s design tropes and narrative tropes alike. By being critical of the narrative tropes of the shooter, Spec Ops becomes a critique of the subtext of western interventionism in western shooters, and as such becomes a critique of the ideology of western interventionism full stop, and this is discussed at decent length in Brendan Keogh’s book on the game, Killing is Harmless. The Stanley Parable is, in one of it’s many possibilities, critical of the idea of games as a form of escapism, and in doing so becomes critical of the capitalist reality that many are trying to escape when playing games. It points it’s finger away from the medium and towards the world around it.
Games About Games, in our rush to dismiss them, have become simplified as though self-reference is their only real point of concern. This is a broadly reductive viewpoint.
2. That Games About Games are about the medium of games.
And whilst #1 is reductive, the entire categorization of “Games About Games” is at the same time overly broad.
There is no detail that I can give here unless I take each game apart specifically, but Games About Games are not about “games.” They are about specific things that concern games as a medium. Metal Gear Solid 2 is about sequels. Spec Ops: The Line is about violence in games. The Stanley Parable is about games that sell the idea of “choice” as a mechanic. And of course, it should be remembered that this is only part of what these games are about, as they also have concerns with topics that need not be categorized, necessarily, inside of their critique of “games.”
In my eyes, there has yet to be a game so postmodern and recursive as to be actually concerned with or critical of what the actual limits of or problems with telling a story in games. Games About Games concern tropes.
3. There is a strict binary between games about games and games that are not critical examinations of the medium.
The Stanley Parable, a discussion of choice in games represented in a very abstract space and with very abstract mechanics. It represents choice as a movement through spaces. But to put it simply, not all games that discuss games as a medium play or look like Stanley. There is both various content in games to critique, and various ways to critique that content.
Thus, I ask that we consider, for example, the subtle differences between classifications of media that are based on critiquing media. To name a simple example that I actually feel qualified to discuss, let’s think about the difference between parody and satire. The most accepted version of what the difference is is that parody is most often made in humorous ode to the media it is referencing, whilst a satire has some teeth, and intends to take a bite out that media, to make a point, a critique of that media. But even this basic understanding does not have steady earth beneath it. For example, what say we of Mel Brooks’ magnum opus Blazing Saddles, which at various times makes a loving joke about the western (“Head them off at the pass? I hate that cliche!”), pointedly critiques the politics of the western (the conflict between the black sheriff and the white townsfolk), and in the ending deconstructs the western so viciously as to call the entire premise of a western a fabrication? What ratio of irony/sincerity precisely determines whether your film is making fun of something, attacking it, or just pulling it apart altogether? And what do we make of say, Yeezus, an album whose main point of interest is in taking that even further by at various points existing in states of complete irony (“Blood on the Leaves”), states of total sincerity (“Bound 2”) and various points in-between (“I Am A God”)?
This categorical confusion that we observe in other mediums exists in videogames as well. Spec Ops is broadly speaking a satire of the shooter, but in the early moments is it not “just a shooter?” This is a tool of satire that is common across the practice, to make your work appear as the thing it later intends to critique. Thus, not every moment of something we might consider satirical actually is particularly satirical.
But leaving it there would be over-simplistic. Let’s hop back to Blazing Saddles momentarily. It’s worth noting that on top of having various moments that exist within the spectrum of parody and satire, there are plenty of moments where Blazing Saddles is just sincere storytelling, even if the story it’s telling is a comedy. For example, when the sheriff is attempting to convince Gene Wilder’s character to become his deputy. These scenes simply play out as narrative, there’s nothing about them or the jokes within these scenes that make any particular points about the western or film, critical or otherwise.
Back to games. We can use this as a lens by which to analyze, for example, Braid. Braid is broadly critical of the Damsel in Distress trope that provides the narrative basis of, among others, the Super Mario Bros. games, but this criticism, to the games detriment, only constitutes a small portion of the game’s actual playtime. Much of it is simply puzzle platforming, during which time the game’s satirical narrative remains stagnant. We are not experiencing criticism of the Damsel in Distress trope in these moments, we are simply experiencing system and designs.
This opens up an additional option. Not only are their Games About Games which are at various points not About Games but there are also various games not categorized as such that, in particular moments, are About Games, that are critical of the medium or, more often, the genre of games that that game is most easily categorized into.
Locked. What a love of doors these humans have.
This is a line, for example, from Legacy of Kain: Defiance wherein Kain points out the absurdity of his predicament in a way that is a sort of in-joke for the audience about the nature of action-adventure games. Progress is impeded by doors. These doors are locked. We must find the various keys that go in the various locks. However, as a narrative, Defiance largely obeys the tropes of it’s series without subverting them (and in fact reiterates motifs of the series to reinforce their meaning), and does not really exist to question or criticize the series it comes from, but in a conventional understanding of parody and satire, this leaves the remark about the doors as largely a standalone moment of meta-humor.
This also must be considered when we’re discussing particular games that are revolutionary within their genre. I’d argue, for example, that Final Fantasy VII spends a lot of time pulling apart tropes and narratives that are central to classical Japanese Role-playing stories, but clearly FFVII does not easily fit within our understanding of what constitutes a Games About Games.
But that conventional understanding also falls apart because for this to remain true without alteration, we must consider games in a vacuum, and as soon as we acknowledge the existence of the world outside of the game and the influence that world has on the game, that assumption begins to fall apart.
4. Games do not speak through a language that is self-referential, and are therefore not at least somewhat concerned with themselves, and Games About Games are unique in that sense.
Games have a language they use to speak to gamers and that language is developed through consistency. Classical game design is reliant on a language of self-reference.
Self-reference is the basis of game design and architecture. When I complete a level in Castlevania for example, the set of mechanics does not switch out between stages. I do not go from playing a platformer with strict controls to playing a rhythm game. And when I complete a level in Castlevania the jump and whip controls do not change either.
On an even smaller scale, among the most basic tenets of game design is challenge escalation, the idea that games get harder as they go on, and challenge escalation already implies that we take old content and remix it into new content per James Howell’s terminology and criticism. A basic example would be the introduction of axe knights into situations in which medusa heads appear in Castlevania, after the introduction of both elements separately. For us to understand these moments, we have to understand similar elements from the game previously, such as in the Castlevania example where we have to understand how best to move around the Medusa heads and also how best to approach the axe knight, the dissect and recombine both of those understandings to be able to parse out this particular challenge.
5. Games do not speak through a language that references other games, and are therefore not at least somewhat concerned with the cultural context in which they exist, and that Games About Games are unique in this sense.
Think about how many games have a jump button, and how many games build challenges around jumping, or shooting, or improving characters by changing the parameters of what that character can do through statistics. The fact that we have common enough terms on which to establish genres, which in games are largely defined not just by narrative tropes, but by similar sets of system mechanics basically denies this outright. Some games are as simple as “This game, but with that idea instead of this idea” and that only reinforces that games are constantly existing in reference to each other.
To me, the attempt to denounce Games About Games has the result of attempting to insist that games exist in a vacuum. This, of course, is not true. Games, like all media, exist in the contexts of culture, both the cultures in which those games were created and the cultures in which they are enjoyed, and criticism in many ways simply cannot exist without understanding pieces of media side by side, by doing intertextual criticism. Our understanding of how Final Fantasy often inverts and subverts religious myth is enriched by an understanding of how Dragon Quest tends to do the opposite. Our understanding of the politics of Metal Gear’s approach to action gameplay that attempts to de-emphasize violence are enriched by an understanding of how most military fiction games do the exact opposite. The idea that Portal is something like a “feminine” re-imagining of the shooter only makes sense by comparing it to the “masculine” shooters we perceive it as responding to.
I guess in conclusion I should say I understand why it’s easy to tire of the games that emphasize their intertextuality, but I feel like an opportunity is being missed to use these games as a way to rethink our understanding of the medium as a whole.
And for what it’s worth: Spec Ops and Stanley Parable are good games. Braid and Bioshock are not. Thanks for listening.
- Austin C. Howe.