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It's the mark of maturity to be introspective.Being able to look within ourselves and identify our own character traits and flaws is an important skill.
Mature media are able to do the same. The language of film, for example, established over nearly a century and a half, and the genres and storytelling techniques within are so familiar to us that directors can exploit our familiarity, whether through surreal David Lynch films to the parody of 'Spaceballs' or 'Airplane!'.
Perhaps what eludes videogames in their quest to be recognised by the world at large (or Roger Ebert at least) as an art form is that level of introspection. This is perhaps due to age- games have a far shorter history than films, and one where leaps in technology have meant new conventions in gaming being established every generation. It's not for lack of trying, however. Games have been self referential for a long time, from Monkey Island's 'Ask me about Loom' character and self deprecating humour to Cannon Fodder's cheeky 'home and away' scores stating a wry point about how flippantly games treat death. There are few entire games that are about gaming, however. Here are five that peer through the fourth wall.
1986's Takeshi's Challenge was perhaps the first videogame to look at its host medium in the face and laugh. The Famicom (NES) was at the peak of popularity in Japan, as was comedian turned actor and director Takeshi Kitano. Licensed videogames were something coming into force in the mid 80s as well, and this was an early example of a celebrity being involved with a game's development.
In conversations with developers Taito however, the story goes that Takeshi made clear his distaste for videogames. Subsequently the project eveolved from a title based around his legendary 'Takeshi's Castle' gameshow to one that would openly mock its players. Casting the player as an oerworked slaryman attempting to escape his mundane life by finding hidden treasure on an island, the game is near impossible to complete (a fact players are warned of by large text on the box). Subtle commentary on the escapist nature of videogames? Perhaps. As the bizarre game continues, progress is frustrated by obtuse puzzles (Challenge made occasional use of the Japanese Famicom's on controller microphone for certain obscure situations, one puzzle requiring the player to humiliate themselves by singing karaoke into the controller) and tests of patience- at one point the screen turns blue; in order to advance the player must leave the controller alone for one hour. Touch a button and you have to start all over again.
Despite it's poor quality- Famitsu magazine at one point named it the worst videogame of all time- Takeshi's Challenge sold quite well and enjoys a cult following amongst retro fetishists. With a lot of patience, presumably.
2-Penn and Teller's Smoke and Mirrors
The western analog for Takeshi's Challenge is Penn and Teller's Smoke and Mirrors. Not actually released commerically, the ROM of this Mega CD game has appeared on various abandonware sites and via downloads and Youtube videos has garnered cult status similar to Takeshi's crapfest.
Coinsisting mainly of magic tricks and practical jokes to play on friends narrated by the skeptical American magic combo, the most gamey element of Smoke and Mirrors is the infamous Desert Bus. Here's the pair themselves to explain:
Poking fun at videogame violence controversy, Desert Bus was a realistic, violence free simulation of a long drive through the desert where the most exciting occurance is a fly getting squished on the windscreen a few hours in. Complete the marathon trip and the player gets one point before being told to go back the other way. You couldn't even tape a weight to the accelerator button thanks to the bus' dodgy steering requiring constant input to keep going in a straight line.
Perhaps this is even more apropros nowadays. With a constant push for photo realism in games, Desert Bus is a cry out for artistic boundaries and a stylistic approach to be pushed ahead of its time. Or maybe that's giving it too much credit. Still anything that inspires the annual Desert Bus For Hope charity drive for Child's Pay can't be all bad.
3-Baito Hell 2000/Work Time Fun
It's odd that D3's obscure PSP minigame collection made it to the west. All the more odd is that despite its humorous (and deliberate) acronym, Baito Hell 2000's western localisation was given such an inappropriate name.
Baito Hell is not fun; It knows it isn't and its name reflects that- Baito is a truncation of the Japanese (via German) arubaito– making the title translate as 'Part Time Job Hell 2000'.
BH is the anti Warioware– rather than have a simple task fill a five second microgame, here you're made to perform a simple task over and over and over again as a part time job. Positions as a lumberjack, ball boy, factory worker putting caps on pens and pro wrestling referee can be momentarily distracting, but perform each job for only a few seconds, and you're rewarded with a pittance. To gain more cash you have to grind the increasingly dull games for hours, at which point you spend your dough on… another dull minigame.
As a test of just how boring designers can make their games before a player gives up, it's amusing, and must have been fun to make, but this parody of minigame collections is incredibly annoying.
4-No More Heroes/ Flower, Sun and Rain
Goichi Suda's games may be incredibly polarising (I love Killer 7, for instance, but many more don't), but nobody can doubt the fact that they offer unique experiences. Heck, one of the earliest games he worked on, Super Fire Pro Wrestling Special, was a normal wrestling game of bright colours and acrobatic faux violence until the ending, wherein the main character's fame at reaching the pinnacle of his profession overwhelms him and he commits suicide. Cripes.
Experiences don't get much more unique than the two games I'm including here as joint number four on my list. No More Heroes is perhaps somewhat more familiar to gamers. Released in 2008 on Wii and recently the subject of 360 and PS3 ports, Suda prods at geek culture in general- the protagonist, Travis Touchdown is a jobless Otaku, obsessed with Mexican wrestlers- before lampooning vieogames with frustrating results.
The game takes place in a city completely devoid of any activity whatsoever. Money is earned through soul crushingly repetitive minigames, along the lines of Baito Hell, but mercifully on a smaller scale. Combat bonuses are decided not by skill, but a slot machine appearing at the bottom of the screen. In isolation these are design choices of occasionally questionable quality, but taken as a whole, they complete Suda's commentary. Open worlds are never truly open. Dangle a carrot in front of a player and they can be made to do the dumbest (and dullest) tasks. Call yourself a skilled player if you want, but so much of gaming is still decided by the roll of a dice. In NMH, Suda's making a grand joke of which the butt, charging your beam katana by making masturbatory gestures with the remote, is you.
What NMH is to the action genre, Flower, Sun and Rain is to adventure games. Originally released on Japanese PS2s in 2001 before being remade and localised for DS, FSR seems closest in style to games like Myst– centred on finding and interpreting clues from notes and characters to solve puzzles. It's an interesting, if simple, game that seems deliberately ruined to make a point. Many puzzles revolve around an in game book that must be referred to from time to time. with key lines picked out to provide hints. The book has no easy index though, forcing the player to click randomly through pages in order to find the one the game calls for. Possibly the original plan was to have a real life guide book for the player to thumb through, or a series of websites to visit, but as is, the fact this essential book is tucked away on the pause screen makes it seem like Suda is making a point that exposition, in cut scenes or collectible text or audio logs, is so often ignored by the player. Rather than following through on that by cutting extraneous exposition, Suda is forcing you to thumb through it a page at a time.
FSR also pokes fun at backtracking, always a pain in adventure games. Character A gives some information to pass to Character B who tells you to return to Character A. Except Characters A and B are in rooms X and Y at opposite ends of the game map. Annoying, right? Suda knows so, and rather than cut down on this, revels in the irritation, with a pedometer in the corner of the screen racking up how many steps the game is forcing you to take.
Spotted a theme here? What unites the games I've talked about thus far is that their attempts at commenting on or lampooning videogames turn from a self deprecating josh at the industry to mocking the player for suffering through. Feeding a sweet tooth a colourfully wrapped turd as a satire of the joys chocolate brings is not going to be appreciated by the eater- they are, after all, eating faeces. But these games in their attempt at commentary not only feed you the poopy chocolate bar but nudge you in the ribs at every bite going 'Get it,eh? Eh? EH?'. When being self referential, videogames seem to fall short of cinematic pieces doing the same thing. For the most part it they manage to make their points about as gracefully and with as much humour as a Wayans brothers movie.
There is in fact, very little earnest commentary about videogames in gaming. Even self serious titles like Metal Gear Solid 4 tend to send up gaming and deride its players- 'This is a Blu Ray disc! No need for disc swapping here!' jokes Otacon at one point- a stage where if you're careful you can just about hear Hideo Kojima mutter 'so I can cram more of my self absorbed freewheeling claptrap down your throats in 90 minute long expository cutscenes'. There is one introspective game however that delivers an apt and intelligent commentary on the form, and does it so well you may not even realise what it's doing:
[A quick note- if spoilers for a three year old game send you into an uncontrollable bout of apoplexy, scroll to the end of the post.]
Conversation about Bioshock is not often centered around its gameplay and mechanics (I've written about Bioshock before- as much as I like the whole experience, as a first person shooter it's somewhat grating). Rather Bioshock talk is normally focussed on two things: its remarkably well crafted atmosphere, and its plot twist.
The twist, some three quarters of the way through the game, is cunningly introspective. The player character, stumbling through the underwater city of Rapture after a plane accident is led to believe he has to kill the city's despotic overlord in order to return himself and his mysterious ally to the surface. On reaching the evil Andrew Ryan's office, it's revealed that the hero is merely a pawn in a struggle for power over the city- the plane accident that started the game was planned all along and rather than having free reign,the hero is controlled by code words embedded in his (now former) friend's radio communiques.
What makes the 'would you kindly' scene more than a mere plot twist is that it's aware that it takes place in a game, and a fiirst person game at that. You feel the frustration your blank slate character does at being told he's being played all along because that's exactly what's happened to you, the player. Bioshock suggests that as much as games present an illusion of freedom, allowing you exploration of the world, or limited moralistic choices (harvesting or rescuing Little Sisters in this case), they are ultimately under the control of an omnipotent narrator forcing the player to do their bidding in order to complete the narrative.
Bioshock was especially timely in making its point, coming out shortly before Grand Theft Auto 4 appeared, reminding us far more artfully than No More Heroes ever did that open worlds can only be so open. In Bioshock's wake, a huge number of games followed that forced the player to make moralistic choices between good and evil, renegade and paragon. Mass Effect, Infamous and the like may make you think you're in control of their story, but it was Bioshock that made you remember these, and every other game world is neatly walled off, with a hand occasionally, hopefully more often and hopefully more cleverly, reaching through the fourth.
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