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

    [11.25.08]
    - Matthew Weise

  •  One could, if compelled, write a fairly comprehensive history of self-reference in video games, which would inevitably include many games in the text adventure genre and the graphic adventure genre, which it spawned. I will not attempt such a history here, suffice to say that there is no such thing as a video game-of any genre-that does not have a strategy for dealing with player/fiction duality. Even in the 2D platformer Sonic the Hedgehog (SEGA 1991) Sonic will scowl, look directly at the screen, and tap his foot impatiently if the player leaves the controller alone for several seconds. This is clearly Sonic demonstrating awareness that he's in a game, but is it fiction-shattering?

    Sonic's impatience (nor anything else about his personality) is not made apparent otherwise. It only becomes evident by watching how he reacts to his relationship with the player. If the player is slow or absent-minded, Sonic isn't happy. This may be a very simple example, but I think it serves to illustrate just how bound up fiction can be with interface elements in games. Sonic is aware of his relationship with the game controller, and with the player, and reacts to them within the psychological parameters set by the game's fiction. Just because he is being puppeteered by the player does not mean that Sonic ceases to be himself. He is holding up his end of the relationship, "So what is your problem?" he seems to be thinking. Should you, the player, fail to perform, he stares at you in frustrated apprehension, as if he were your co-actor on stage and you had forgotten your line in the middle of a performance. Sonic isn't breaking the fiction - you are. He's just sitting there, in character, waiting for you to join him in the game world.

    Half Real
    Game scholar Jesper Juul calls games "half real," meaning they are at once fictional worlds and real games. "Dying" in a game is fiction, since the player is not really in danger and does not really die. But "losing" the game is real, since the player is real and really has lost. This can easily be applied to technology at large as well. In the game, the player may be starting a car, but in reality he is just pressing a button. The technological apparatus of the game, which we as players have direct knowledge of, is real.

    Some games exploit this fact to create a real-life analog to a fictional character's experience. Eternal Darkness: Sanity's Requiem (Silicon Knights 1999) is a horror game in which the player takes the role of several successive protagonists. Each of these characters are, to a lesser or greater degree, going insane. However, rather than simply convey to the player that her avatar is going insane, Eternal Darkness attempts to reproduce the same mental state-that of questioning one's sanity -- in the player.

    To do this, the game employs self-reference frequently to manipulate the player's perception of the game itself. As the avatar's sanity drops, the player's controller will suddenly become unresponsive and a text message appears telling her the controller has been disconnected. The controller is, of course, still plugged in, meaning that the game isn't really malfunctioning. But it does take several seconds for this bogus "error" to disappear, during which time the player is likely to be extremely confused. She may even unplug the controller in an attempt to fix the problem. But when the problem disappears she may be left questioning her own perception.

    The implication is clear: the player cannot trust her own eyes when playing Eternal Darkness, for the game itself will make increasing attempts to convince her it is malfunctioning when it is not.

    The more the player is duped by these false malfunctions, the more the player finds her mental state matching her avatar's. The protagonists know they cannot trust their own eyes either. When the game world suddenly transforms and the walls bleed, the avatar will inevitably realize it is just a hallucination and scream, "This can't be happening!" This is something the player is likely to think the moment she realizes a game error is phony.

    When Eternal Darkness suddenly appears to crash, losing all the player's progress, the player knows it isn't really happening, too. The player, like the characters being controlled, is forced into a metal state of incredulity. She understands what it means not to trust one's senses and therefore understands much better what it means to be "insane" in the world of Eternal Darkness.

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