On the Other Side of the Screen: Ten Games Gone MetaA column article, Top Ten by: John Bender, Nick Boisson, Dylan Garsee, Nick Hanover
With this week's release of Deadpool by High Moon Studios and Activision, we began thinking of how a game that is so self-referential could work. But this has been done a number of times in video games over the past twenty some-odd years and John Bender, Nick Boisson, Dylan Garsee and Nick Hanover have opted to take a look back at ten instances of games going meta.
**FAIR WARNING: There are a number of spoilers for the games discussed below. If you plan to play a game listed, be sure to skip past the entry.**
3D Dot Game Heroes (2009)
Developer: Silicon Studio | Publishers: From Software, Atlus, SouthPeak Games
I have always had a love for the retro games that I grew up on. Most of my Generation Y brethren who have grown up playing video games share this same adoration. Proof of this is how well games that pay an homage to classic games of the early- to mid-'80s sell. But 3D Dot Game Heroes does not just pay homage to The Legend of Zelda, but makes commentary on many classic games of old.
The game begins with the King of Dotnia, feeling bored with the two-dimensional land he rules over, issues an order to make the realm 3D. And so, with the royal order given, Dotnia becomes three-dimensional. That's it. A character in a game is unhappy with its appearance and the game jumps dimensions. Because of this, traveling throughout the game becomes a giant reference to the days when the land was 2D. Imagine, if you will, when first playing Ocarina of Time, characters were telling Link of the days when Hyrule was flat.
Not to mention all the references 3D Dot Game Heroes makes to games like Mega Man, Metal Gear and Bionic Commando. The game even mocks the days of bad English translations of Japanese games by having a character speak “Engrish” and takes jabs at poor game development. Then, each time you load a game, you have the option of changing your character's appearance; a note to how little the narrative meant to classic 8-bit games that we all love. 3D Dot Game Heroes is the best game for classic game fans to play, if only to remind them how silly – but fun – those games really were.
by Nick Boisson
BioShock Infinite (2013)
Developer: Irrational Games | Publisher: 2K Games
Although it’s fairly obvious that something fishy is going on when, at an early point in the game, Elizabeth casually rips open a hole in the fabric of spacetime to catch a glimpse of 1983 France, the full scope of BioShock Infinite’s ambition isn’t apparent until the last twenty minutes of gameplay.
In a whirlwind sequence, Elizabeth reveals that Booker’s journey – the last thirteen hours or so of gameplay – isn’t the first occurrence of its type. Sure, the details were a little different this time, but the constants – a man, a lighthouse, a city – are always the same. To hammer this point home, she brings the player to Rapture for a moment, where Booker is able to operate the bathyspheres while they’re on lockdown, a privilege previously reserved for Andrew Ryan or his genetic equivalents like BioShock’s hero, Jack. But unlike that earlier – or later? – go-around with megalomaniacal dystopias, the outcome of BioShock Infinite isn’t variable.
There’s no “bad” or “redemptive” ending. For all of its talk of multiple universes and infinite towers, there is one predetermined track that the player must follow to its grim, profound conclusion. That brooch you select? That coin you flip? That vanquished villain you spare? It’s all pointless. The narrative wins out in the end. What some critics describe as an oversight or half-baked feature actually functions as an expression of nature’s “course correction” in transdimensional travel. So you spared an interracial couple, the game seems to say. So you killed your evil future self. Good for you. There’s still no atoning for the sin that set you on this course. At least, not until you consent to one final baptism (which means this dude would have really hated the ending of the game).
by John Bender
Comic Jumper (2010)
Developer: Twisted Pixel | Publisher: Microsoft Game Studios
Despite Comic Jumper probably not being the best game from Twisted Pixel, it may very well be my favorite thanks to its self-referential humor, its jabs at the comic book and video game industries and so much more.
Comic Jumper is about our hero, Captain Smiley, whose comic book was just canceled by its publisher. When this happens, Captain Smiley and his chest-laden sidekick, Star, decided that the only way to reestablish their brand is to guest star on other comic books. The duo enlists the help of video game developer Twisted Pixel, who design a machine that lets Captain Smiley jump into other comics. Each level is an issue in a story arc of a different kind of comic series. Your first arc is in a Conan the Barbarian-like adventure comic and one of the best levels is where you play through a manga series. Each one becomes a send up of different comic art styles, playfully mocking each one. But it doesn't end with the comic references.
When you gain the chance to do a special move and are feeling a bit overwhelmed by a situation, a hand, a foot or even a full body of a developer at Twisted Pixel will appear and defeat all the enemies on screen. Not to mention that Captain Smiley can talk to the developers of the game at any time when he is at his base in Twisted Pixel's studio. All this makes for one of the oddest meta experiences you can get in a game as a fan of comics and games alike (as many of us here at CB very much are).
by Nick Boisson
Cow Clicker (2010)
Developer: Ian Bogost
I am going to be honest here and say that I have always hated Facebook games. I do. They're some of the worst games I've had the misfortune to play and make for one of the many reasons I hate going on Facebook these days. Luckily, Ian Bogust understands my frustration.
Cow Clicker is a Facebook game about the absurdity of Facebook games. Here are the rules: every six hours, you get to click your cow. Each click earns you a point (or “Click”). You can invite your Facebook friends to your farm to click your cow, earning you more points. And, if you choose not to wait six hours to click your cow again, you can pay money (called “mooney” in the game) to click your cow early.
It is a game that buries social games under the weight of their silly gameplay, poor design, terrible social structures and micro-transactions. But it is, itself, a Facebook game. What's worse, it became a hugely successful Facebook game, where players spent actual money to get more cows and click them often enough to get more and more points. Cow Clicker knows it is a dumb game and revels in it, but it takes a very special game to know it's bad, flaunt its shortcomings while also managing to make money off of players who are being mocked for spending money on the very thing that is mocking them for spending money on it. WHAT?!
by Nick Boisson
Final Fantasy Tactics Advance Series (2003, 2007)
Developer/Publisher: Square Enix
My first exposure to the Final Fantasy world wasn't the much loved seventh installment of the series like everyone else. Instead, I first discovered the long running Japanese series with the 1997 title, Final Fantasy Tactics, the ridiculously challenging and hilariously translated strategical RPG spin-off. That game will forever and always be my favorite game, no matter how awesome you people say The Last of Us is.
So when Square Enix announced a Game Boy Advance follow-up to the game, Final Fantasy Tactics Advance in 2003, my 12 year old self probably peed himself (I don't remember what I had for lunch, let alone my reactions to things 10 years ago. That game, though not as difficult, was still engrossing and fun, and introduced a meta storyline that thrust the children protagonists into the world of Ivalice, the universe of the first Tactics game, but filled with misremembered aspects of the Final Fantasy Tactics. Even though the game was properly translated from Japanese, the convoluted storyline still made everything very confusing. But due to my non-kosher ways of playing video games by skipping the plot, I didn't care one bit.
With the release to the Nintendo DS sequel in 2008, Final Fantasy Tactics A2: Grimoire of the Rift, we saw the story get even more meta. The main characters found the book written about the kids from the first game's memory of playing the first game. So we're playing a game recreating a game recreating a game. And then the universe collapsed.
by Dylan Garsee
Kid Chameleon (1992)
Back when I lived in Puerto Rico, we had exactly one video game rental location near our house. It was a weird little shack with a guy selling iguanas situated outside at all times and even though the place was terrifying in a way, it was nonetheless responsible for most of the few pleasurable memories I have of living on the island. But one thing that always frustrated me was the lack of multiple copies of games; I got the sense that the owner basically just bought games himself and rented them out to kids, so when something was checked out, you were never sure when you might get your chance at it. This was my first exposure to Kid Chameleon, as a game with great box art that I knew basically nothing about and kept returning to, week after week, trying to rent only to discover that I would once again be stuck choosing between Cool Spot or Bubsy.
What drew me to Kid Chameleon was its promise that you weren't just getting a single game experience out of it, but hundreds. The story of the game is that you're a kid who must fight his way through a suddenly self-aware VR console that is kidnapping other gamers. You accomplished this by wielding "masks" that gave you different abilities by transforming you into new characters, making it something between Tron and Dial H for Hero. Other kids told me it had more than one hundred unique levels (which, surprisingly, is basically true) and that it was insanely difficult (your mileage may vary) and when I finally did get to play it, I was impressed not just with the way it lived up to expectations but with how addictive it could be. Playing it now (it's available on the Sega Genesis Collection for modern consoles), the concept stands out to me more, as well as the way the warps in each level, which can either take you further in the level or to some other random new level, make the game unpredictable. It's an early meta game that was fairly progressive in its approach towards integrating video games themselves into the story of a video game, but it's also still just as addictive.
by Nick Hanover
Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty (2001)
Like all Metal Gear Solid games, the plot of Sons of Liberty is something of a labyrinthine mess, but one stunning late-game twist is executed with perfect clarity of vision.
First, the Colonel, your primary guide throughout the game, begins to freak out and spout incoherent gibberish, at one point even telling you to turn the console off because you’ve been playing for too long. Then the death screen comes up while you’re still alive, proclaiming your “Fission Mailed.” It soon becomes clear that the virus you partially uploaded to the GW mainframe is taking effect, and the reason reality is on the fritz is that you’re inside the GW mainframe. Everything that Raiden has done has been part of a simulation designed to replicate the events of the Shadow Moses incident in Metal Gear Solid – which, duh, now it’s super obvious. Things get a little fuzzy from there, with a whole thing about a One World government trying to control the flow of information so that, I don’t know, more PMCs can exist, but the damage is already done by that point. By discrediting the one thing you could trust – the instructions the game gives you – Metal Gear Solid 2 blazed new territory in postmodern gaming.
Hideo Kojima had already toyed with postmodern aspects in this series (Psycho Mantis, anyone?), but Sons of Liberty ushered in an ambitious new era of paranoid, experimental video game plotting – the first of many things (everything) that changed in the wake of 9/11.
by John Bender
No More Heroes (2007)
Developer: Grasshopper Manufacture | Publishers: Marvelous Entertainment, Ubisoft, Rising Star Games
Realistically, any Suda51 game could have made this list, but while I appreciate the exploration of mental illness that is killer7 and loved the goofy gore sensibilities of Lollipop Chainsaw, I'd argue that No More Heroes stands out as Suda's greatest accomplishment to date. Focused on Travis Touchdown, a fantasy otaku hero who spends his days slacking off and playing video games, the game picks up with Touchdown winning an internet auction that nets him a beam katana. No More Heroes initially got press as being the first "light saber" game for the Wii and while that's pretty much true, that leaves out all of the insanity and humor that makes the game so special.
Wielding the beam katana is of course fun beyond belief, as Suda51 really nailed the fluidness that every Star Wars geek imagined a light saber to have, but what makes the game so memorable is Suda51's impeccable integration of video game tropes and cliches into not just the meta story he's telling, but the mechanics as well. Slicing up baddies causes them to explode in a rain of coins and blood, nailing combos causes Travis to go into a super powered "Dark Side" mode, he can learn wrestling moves for extra attacks and he essentially jerks off the katana in order to charge it up. Beyond that, the story itself is about the ultimate quest to beat out the assassins dominating the top 10 highest scores and Travis spends his downtime playing video games in his apartment while his cat cuddles up with him. The assassins function as references to gamer and geek culture, from an Apple II parody beam katana to a crazy cowboy who wields weapons from killer7 to a boss in cosplay and the basic explanation for why Travis decides to take them down is because he no longer has money to buy video games and the quest not only aids that, but functions like a video game in the process.
Like Danger Mouse's The Grey Album, No More Heroes is a mash-up that is very aware of its format and its limitations, yet rises above both to become a startling work of art, but in the case of the latter it's a result of the fun it has with the form rather than the seriousness it imparts on an often ridiculed genre.
by Nick Hanover
The Secret of Monkey Island (1990)
Developer/Publisher: Lucasfilm Games
The old LucasArts adventure games from the likes of Ron Gilbert, Tim Schaffer and Dave Grossman are still – to this day – some of the best examples of how well humor can work in an interactive artform. But what The Secret of Monkey Island did was remind players that what they were doing wasn't helping Guybrush Threepwood become a pirate by solving puzzles and win the heart of Elaine, but playing a video game.
Many times, the game chooses to break the fourth wall and speak directly to the player. One example of this is when Threepwood meets Herman Toothrot. After a while, Toothrot turns to the player and addresses them in annoyance of poor Guybrush. After doing this a few times, Guybrush asks, “Who are you talking to?” to which Toothrot exclaims, “Why, the people watching, of course.” Threepwood also meets a character named Cobb – from another LucasArts game, Loom – who tries to convince the player to go out buy Loom. Then, a fake advertisement comes up reading, “Go out and buy Loom™ today!” These happen all throughout the game.
But the most meta occurrence comes at the game's finale, when a dialogue option comes up after Threepwood states that he has learned a lot from his experiences throughout the game. When Elaine asks what he means, one of the options that the player can choose to say is, “Never pay more than 20 bucks for a computer game.”
by Nick Boisson
WarioWare, Inc.: Mega Party Game$! (2003)
The basic premise of the WarioWare franchise is that Wario, upon seeing a news report on the success of a fictional gaming franchise about a Yoshi-like bird named Pyoro, decides to create his own production company (WarioWare, Inc.) and release a party video game with the help of his friends. Their game, which bears the uninspired title WarioWare, Inc., is what you, the player, end up playing.
None of this is important, though, or even really made apparent when you play the game. What is most memorable about the WarioWare games is the gameplay itself, which features a rapid-fire chain of microgames featuring simple commands – Eat! Land! Hide! – that typically must be completed in under 5 seconds. The insane pace of play is the most extreme conceivable example of a minigame: there is no plot, no context, only a bizarre, brief task at which you can either fail or succeed. The GameCube version of the game is the first multiplayer edition, and this mode especially hammers home the winking commentary about minigame-centric franchise cash-ins like Mario Party. All of Wario’s fellow “developers” in the game are unknown, generically named weirdos with vague themes for their microgames such as Strange (Mona’s forte) or Reality (Dr. Crygor, of course!), but they seem designed to satirize the ever-expanding rosters of crossover party games in our world.
One gets the feeling that within the realm of the Nintendoverse, WarioWare, Inc. is the party game that kept young Mario and his friends up all night at sleepovers.
by John Bender
Any of your favorite meta video games not on the list? Share yours in the comments!
John Bender is a Twitter anarchist with questionable opinions about celebrity lifestyles and the Lost finale. He edits erotic novels by day and works tirelessly by night to improve upon his personal record of 42.00 in the Mecha Marathon minigame in Mario Party 2. He also plays in Fitness.
Pop culture geek, Nick Boisson, lives in front of his computer, where he is Section Editor of Comics Bulletin's video game appendage and shares his slushily obsessive love of video games, comics, television and film with the Internet masses. In the physical realm, he just moved to Austin, Texas and is trying to figure out just how many times it is possible to go to the Alamo Drafthouse theatres without seeming too weird.
Dylan Garsee is a freelance writer/bingo enthusiast currently living in Austin, TX. He is studying sociology, and when he's not winning trivia nights at pork-themed restaurants, writing a collection of essays on the gay perspective in geek culture. An avid record collector, Dylan can mostly be seen at Waterloo Records, holding that one God Speed You! Black Emperor record he can't afford and crying. You can follow him on twitter @garseed.
Nick Hanover got his degree from Disneyland, but he's the last of the secret agents and he's your man. Which is to say you can find his particular style of espionage here at Comics Bulletin, where he reigns as the co-managing editor, or at Panel Panopticon, which he started as a joke and now takes semi-seriously. Or if you feel particularly adventurous, you can always witness his odd rants about his potentially psychopathic roommate on twitter @Nick_Hanover and explore the world of his musical alter ego at Fitness and Pontypool.