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  • Press the ‘Action' Button, Snake! The Art of Self-Reference in Video Games

    [11.25.08]
    - Matthew Weise

  •  What's Real
    Conventional wisdom suggests that anything that draws attention to the technology of a medium is destructive for fiction. The characters in a movie, book, television show, or stage production must not "know" they are in one, else they become aware of their own non-reality and everything falls apart. This is typically what's meant by "breaking the fourth wall".

    But video games are not exactly the same as these other art forms. The reality-fantasy dynamic in games is complicated by the player, who is always tethered to the game world by an umbilical cord called technology.

    In some sense, the "reality" of a game always involves the player, since it would not be a game otherwise. In story-based games players make choices that have meaning and consequence in the fictional world of a game, so they are always a part of the fiction, acting under the guise of an avatar, a digital mask the player puts on to "enter" the fictional world of the game and become part of it.

    Media scholar Janet Murray calls game avatars "threshold markers," things that serve as a connection between our world and the game world. Likewise, she calls game controllers "threshold objects," physical devices that we use to interact with a game world and have a presence in both reality and the world of the game.

    Both avatars and the technological devices we use to control them are never simply in one reality. They are inherently liminal entities, contributing to a mindset that we, as players, exist in two realities at once. It's just as natural for a player to say, "I defeated that boss," as it is to say, "Snake defeated that boss," since Snake is and is not the player at the same time. It is likewise natural for a player to say, "I punched an enemy soldier," when in reality, she punched no one. All she did was press a button.

    ‘Welcome to the Game'
    Video games have quite a long history of acknowledging this rich duality, beginning with some of the earliest text-based adventure games. When a player loads up Zork (Infocom 1982), the first thing it does is immediately punch through its own fictive bubble as if to shake the player's hand, exclaiming:

    "WELCOME TO ZORK! ZORK is a game of adventure, danger, and low cunning. In it you will explore some of the most amazing territory ever seen by mortals. No computer should be without one!"

    This text appears in the first room, in the form of a letter the player finds by looking in a mailbox. It was common in text-based adventure games to address the player directly, partially because of the interface device. Players had to use the keyboard to type in words to determine their next action. Since the words recognized were finite, the game had to give the player a lot of feedback and guidance. This often took the form of humorous commentary on the player's failed actions, which games like Zork ridiculed with zeal. (For example, the command "eat self" would return, "Auto-cannibalism is not the answer.") Self-reference in Zork can be seen as a strategy to deal with the fact that it was impossible to ignore the technological apparatus of the keyboard.

    Text adventure designer Graham Nelson sees self-reference as an inherent part of the genre. There are several "voices" in text adventures that refer to multiple layers of reality. One of those voices, what Nelson calls the narrator, frequently straddles the line between reality and fiction. The player makes a request to the narrator ("throw rock") through the threshold object of the keyboard. The narrator then attempts the request and reports back ("I don't know the word 'rock.'"). "Like the player, but unlike every character in the game (including the protagonist), the narrator knows that it is a game," says Nelson. Since text is the only communication device, there must be a narrator of sorts to "talk" to the player and this cannot happen unless the narrator acknowledges the player's existence.

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