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

    [11.25.08]
    - Matthew Weise

  •  Reality Fiction
    It is examples like these that lead me to believe we should not flatly assume a game, which plays with reality and fiction, is automatically committing some crime. Games that display a clever understanding of the threshold between player and fiction can make players feel like what is happening in the world of the game is actually happening to them. It can make players feel like the line between themselves and their avatars is blurred, so they are not sure where reality ends and fiction begins. This is not "breaking fiction." It is acknowledging that fiction and reality are never entirely separate in video games.

    This is why Metal Gear Solid makes endless references to controller buttons, yet refuses to admit that the player and Snake are two different people. Metal Gear Solid doesn't break fiction simply because it references the controller in the player's hands. Observant players will notice that there is not a single moment in the game when Snake or other characters speak to them directly, the way that characters in a film or play might when breaking the fourth wall.

    There is not a single character in Metal Gear Solid who acknowledges the player as a separate entity from Snake. All references to game technology are made through Snake, or rather to him. Psycho Mantis tells "Snake" to put his controller on the floor, not the player. He tells Snake, not the player, that he will read his past by reading his memory card. He tells Snake, not the player, that he's a careless man because he hasn't saved his game enough. When characters make references to controllers, buttons, or power ups, the assumption always is that "Snake" is somehow dealing with these things.

    The exact nature of Snake's relationship to such objects is always deliberately ambiguous. Snake clearly does not have a "controller" with him, yet everyone he meets seems to think he does.

    Everyone in the world of Metal Gear Solid recognizes the threshold object, but not the one manipulating it, which is, of course, the exact purpose of a threshold object. The only way game characters can recognize the player is through Snake, the "mask" the player wears as Janet Murray would say. The player is an impostor who has, through the magic of the threshold object, entered into the reality of Metal Gear Solid in disguise. Even though the controller should be a dead giveaway, none of the characters break fiction because of it. They all stay in character and play along, treating it as part of their world.

    The controller is as real to the characters of Metal Gear Solid as guns, swords, or even syringes. This is how the player is given a "shot" later in the game by a doctor who is attempting to sooth Snake's pain after he's been brutally tortured. During this torture sequence Snake is tied to a bed and shocked repeated by electricity. The player must rapidly press a button in order to survive this torture. The physical exertion required on the player's part is so great it actually results in muscle pain.

    Thus, similar to Eternal Darkness, Metal Gear Solid seeks to create an experience in the player that is analog to the avatar's, only this time with physical rather than mental distress. Following this torture sequence, the doctor tells Snake she's going to administer a drug that will sooth his pain, and asks "Snake" to put the controller on the part of his arm which hurts. The clear implication is that the player should put the controller on the part of her arm where it is sore from all the button pressing. The controller then vibrates, massaging the player's real life arm muscle. Snake says he feels better and thanks the doctor, and the player, in real life, feels better as well.

    Metal Gear Solid
    stretches the membrane between the fictional world and the real world as a way of bringing player and fiction together -- not driving them apart. It does this by reveling in the ambiguous nature of the player-avatar relationship. The player is Snake, but not Snake. Snake is the player, but not the player. When characters look at Snake they often see Snake, but they just as often see the player, staring right through Snake's eyes.

    The message to the player is clear: you are Snake. If Metal Gear Solid broke fiction, like Ernest Adams seems to think it does, the message would be the opposite: you are not Snake. Such views, I feel, are based on a misunderstanding of the inherent ambiguities contained within the medium of video games.


    You Are and Are Not in the Game
    The self-referential aspects of games like Zork, Sonic the Hedgehog, Eternal Darkness, and Metal Gear Solid are examples of what Rune Klevjer refers to as "extended fiction," the act of pushing out boundaries of make-believe to include certain aspects of the user's reality. Because games are complex artifacts that function on different levels of reality simultaneously they are not "breaking" anything by sliding between the different levels of reality already at play. They are simply making use of the unique affordances of the video game medium, and trusting the player to be able to parse the different levels of reality into a coherent whole.

    The games that make the most effective use of these affordances, only a few of which I've discussed here, serve as a model as to what video games can be if we shed our simplistic notions of reality and fiction inherited from traditional media.

    Matthew Weise is the lead game designer for the Singapore-MIT GAMBIT Game Lab, a video game research lab at MIT devoted to the exploration and production of video games.

    Resources
    Adams, Ernest. "Postmodernism and the Three Types of Immersion," Gamasutra.com, July 9, 2004.

    Juul, Jesper. Half-Real: Video Games between Real Rules and Fictional Worlds. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 2006. 1.

    Klevjer, Rune. "What is the Avatar? Fiction and Embodiment In Avatar-Based Singleplayer Computer Games" Dissertation, Department of Information Science and Media Studies, University of Bergen, 2006. 59.

    Murray, Janet. Hamlet on the Holodeck. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 1997. 113, 146.

    Nelson, Graham. The Inform Designer's Manual. inform-fiction.org.

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