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

    [11.25.08]
    - Matthew Weise
  • "One of the worst annoyances of video gaming is the designers who want to show off how clever they are. Interrupting the players' immersion in order to remind them ‘Don't forget, it's only a game!' may be the designers being playful, but the game is supposed to provide gameplay for the players, not for the designers. Such cute gimmicks don't improve the players' experience; they harm it. It's a direct slap in the face."


     The above quote represents, to my mind, an important controversy in video games. When a game is self-referential, when it acknowledges the technological apparatus of the computer, it can have a profound effect on player experience. As far as game designer Ernest Adams is concerned, this effect is negative, inevitably shattering the fictional reality of the game and rendering it impossible to take seriously.

    I don't agree with this position. Self-reference in games is not an inherently destructive act. As game scholar Rune Klevjer asserts, "game fictions are not delineated by a 'fourth wall' as they are in film or literature." The fourth wall is, of course, a term from theater that has become shorthand for the boundary between fiction and audience in a variety of media. But applying this term to video games, Klevjer would argue, is a mistake because the line between reality and fiction in games does not function as it does in traditional media.

    It is useful to think about the boundary between player and fiction as an elastic membrane -- a threshold -- rather than a wall, like Adams does. Drawing attention to how this threshold functions through self-reference can actually enhance fiction rather than destroy it. It can draw the player and game fiction together rather than driving them apart.

    Self-Referential Games

    There is a certain conventional point of view that states a video game should do anything and everything possible to make its technological apparatus invisible to the player in order to maintain a better sense of immersion. This view is largely responsible for the growing trend of "invisible" user interfaces in games such as Peter Jackson's King Kong (Ubisoft 2005) or Mirror's Edge (Electronic Arts 2008).

    In these titles, traditional graphic overlays such as health meters are avoided. Instead, the necessary information is communicated to the player in a supposedly more immersive visual manner, such as the screen turning red to indicate damage. What Adams is complaining about isn't the existence of graphical interfaces, though. His main problem is with games that admit, within the fiction of the game world itself, that they are games.

    The particular game that offends Adams is Metal Gear Solid (Konami 1998), a game in which characters throughout the story make numerous references to the game apparatus, specifically the controller. In one of many such moments, the game's protagonist, Solid Snake, encounters a psychic boss character, Psycho Mantis, who implores him to "put his controller on the floor" so he can move it with his mind. Psycho Mantis also claims he can "read" Snake's memory card to see what games he likes and comments on the prudence or recklessness of his saving habits. Adams concludes:

    "I don't know enough about Japanese culture to say whether MGS's self-referential nature was an attempt to be postmodern. But I do stand by my original assertion that it's out of place in a story of adventure."

    Postmodernism is a tricky concept (and one that I will not deal with in detail here) because in reality, it involves much more than just self-reference. It extends into entire schools of thought on art, architecture, politics. Adams uses the term much more simply, as a kind of shorthand for video games with self-referential habits. Games like Metal Gear Solid cannot hide behind the veil of postmodernism, he seems to be saying, and expect users to be moved, excited, or otherwise emotionally engaged by a story.

    This is, of course, my own guess as to what Adams thinks it means to take a game seriously. To take a game seriously, one can imagine, is to believe that what happens to characters is meaningful and real within the sealed bubble that contains the fictional universe of its story. If certain graphical interface elements, like life meters, are projected on the surface, it's not a problem as long as the characters below don't notice. However, if the characters do notice, the whole bubble pops. Reality and fiction, at least in Adams' mind, do not mix. From the moment Snake's commanding officer in Metal Gear Solid mentions the "action" button, the story is finished. It is proof that Snake's world isn't real, so why should we care?

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