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

By Matthew Weise [11.25.08]
"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."
—Ernest Adams in "Postmodernism and the Three Types of Immersion"

 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?

 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.

 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.

 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.

Adams, Ernest. "Postmodernism and the Three Types of Immersion,", 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.

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