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My search for interactive satire
by Robert Green on 02/18/14 03:47:00 pm   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutraís community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


The idea of satire in videogames is not a new concept, but for a while I wondered if it could really be done well. Games can be very satirical in tone or concept, but a true attempt at satire in gameplay provides a much bigger challenge.

Cue the clicking of cows

One of the most well-known parody games is Ian Bogost’s Cow Clicker. Made in response to the rise of social games (Farmville being the most well-known), it was, according to wikipedia, “created to demonstrate what Bogost felt were the most commonly abused mechanics of social games, such as the promotion of social interaction and monetization rather than the artistic aspects of the medium”.

Except then something surprising happened - Cow Clicker got popular. It got popular with exactly the same sort of players as the games it was supposed to be satirising, and for exactly the same reasons. Cow Clicker was thus less a satire of these games as it was a reductionist remake of them.

What happened next was comical in its own right - the players started asking for more features, as if it were a serious game, and he had to respond by giving the players the opposite of what they wanted, in the hopes that they’d get the joke.

In search of progress

An earlier example of a parody game is Progress Quest, by Eric Fredricksen. Released in 2002, Progress Quest “parodies the stat-gathering aspect of role-playing video games, whereby the player advances his character by accumulating arbitrary statistic points”. Another fine idea, but people still found it enjoyable to watch their stats go up, making it again less of a satire and more of an absurdist reduction. A decade later we have browser games like Cookie Clicker, and it can still be hard to tell whether a game that’s entirely about making numbers grow larger is supposed to be a serious attempt at interactive entertainment or not.

But that’s kinda the point.

The same can probably be said for DiveKick, Little Inferno and Achievement Quest. All may contain satirical elements, which may be entertaining in their own right, but the enjoyment that comes from their gameplay mechanics is ultimately little different from the games that they’re supposed to be parodies of. DiveKick, for example, may make fun of many fighting game conventions and stereotypes, but it also comes across as a perfectly competent entry into the genre it is simultaneously making fun of. Ironically, it has even been suggested as a good way of introducing newcomers to the genre. What this suggests is that while these games may have been intended as satire, they’re more like a form of commentary - satirical in concept, but not in the way you interact with them.

A fundamental problem

A satirical game of this nature faces a fundamental problem inherent to videogames: in order to parody a gameplay mechanic, that mechanic must be present in some form, and if the goal is to be an entertaining game, then that mechanic should also be entertaining. This, in effect, forces these parody games to be fun for the same reasons as the games they’re satirising. So you may appreciate the satirical nature of Cow Clicker, but you can do so largely without actually having to play it.

By contrast, most parodies in film are entertaining because of their humour, in contrast to the more serious films they parody, which are entertaining for their qualities in non-comedic genres. Consider for example classic Mel Brooks films like Robin Hood: Men in Tights and Spaceballs. People who enjoyed Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves and Star Wars might enjoy these movies as well, but for different reasons. They have to be experienced - simply telling you the idea of those satirical movies likely wouldn’t be enjoyable.

Games can similarly be satirical in tone, like Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon, but that’s not really what I’d call a satirical game. If anything, it seems like it’s making fun of crappy 80’s sci-fi action movies rather than anything unique to gaming, and to properly enjoy it, you still need to play it like any other FPS. It’s satirical in content, but traditional in gameplay.

Relaxing the criteria

If we relax the requirement that the game be entertaining, then we have a bit more scope. You could take any game or game genre, strip down the gameplay to the point of being a mockery of its former self, then ship. The most famous such game would be Desert Bus, and while it may be considered a satirical game, it most certainly cannot be considered a good game. It was never intended to be. Super Press Space To Win Action RPG could be closer to my goal, though as you may have guessed from the name, the gameplay consists entirely of pressing space until you win, a process which takes a few minutes. It’s a fairly good candidate for a satirical game then, but perhaps it’s more of a satirical game demo, which would also likely lose its appeal if stretched out for much longer. It’s a good joke, but it is just one joke.

A light at the end of the tunnel, through the door on the left

For a while I was starting to think that the idea of a truly great satirical videogame might be impossible. Then I played The Stanley Parable, and I realised I was mistaken. And before reading any further, you should probably play it too, both because it’s really good and because the rest of this blog is all vague spoiler.

The Stanley Parable is a commentary on player freedom in an authored experience. It pits you against a narrator who in retrospect seems to be simultaneously outside the game and a manifestation of the game itself. It lets you think you can beat him, or even break the game, only to let you know that he knew you’d try that, and won’t let you. He mocks your attempt to subvert his game. He sets you impossible challenges just to watch you run around looking for a solution that doesn’t exist. He lets you think you’ll get an achievement for doing something easy, only to tell you that you haven’t really earned it yet. At some points it even seems like he’s trying to help you, only to get lost in the world of his own creation.

What’s the joke?

It took me a while to realise exactly what the key difference here is, but here’s the theory I’ve come up with. Whereas all the games I mentioned before are trying to make fun of other games (or other movies), the jokes in The Stanley Parable are often on you, the player, and your expectations of how games work. Even when the joke may be about other games or gaming in general, it still requires your involvement. The key to making satire work in an interactive medium may be precisely that - not just to be satirical in tone, but to be satirical in play. The satire must be more than just the idea of the game, but how you interact with it. The Stanley Parable doesn’t just break the fourth wall, it invites you to break it too. Just as the characters in a Mel Brooks film sometimes acknowledge that they’re in a movie, stopping to read their own script mid-film, so too The Stanley Parable can’t help but remind you that you’re just a character in a virtual world, trying to play it in a way you’re not supposed to. And attempting to do so is ultimately the purpose of the game - there is no real end, the goal is just to experience all the different scenarios the game has to offer as it mocks you for your efforts. And for that reason it’s the first great interactive satirical work I’m aware of.

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Dave Bleja
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You make good points, but theyíre all based on a narrow, self-imposed and, I would argue, arbitrary stipulation of satire: that for something to be a true satire it must satirise something within its own medium/genre/mechanic.

Thatís never been a requirement of satire. Many of the most successful and important satires have satirised things far outside of their own domains.

Dr Strangelove satirised Cold War politics; Animal Farm satirised Communism. Neither felt the need to subvert the mechanics of their own medium (Three-act narrative feature film and childrenís story, respectively), and they were all the better for it.

If either had devoted their energies to sweeping the rug from under their own feet in some attempt to satirise their own mechanics, the potency of their true messages would have been diluted.

But Animal Farm is faithful to the form of the traditional childrenís book, and remains entertaining in its own right (one can enjoy it simply as a well-written novella, without understanding any of the references).

Thatís why itís so successful: it uses well-known tropes to lull the reader into seemingly familiar territory, while covertly building a biting satirical story around that structure.

Itís the eventual juxtaposition of a childrenís story with a totalitarian regime that gives Animal Farmís satire its wings. If the book had been written in the form of dry political literature, with serious politicians as characters instead of animals, the line between commentary and mere fiction would have been blurred. By transposing the subject matter into a very different context and medium, Orwell is able to easily strip it bare.

Juxtaposition is whatís missing in most of the examples you cite. There wasnít enough to separate Cow Clicker from Farmville, so the authorís satirical intent ultimately drowned in the final product.

Another great example of what happens when juxtaposition is missing is Far Cry 3 (the first one - not Blood Dragon). The lead writer, Jeffrey Yohalem, desperately insists that Far Cry 3 was first and foremost a work of satire.

Yohalem was sick of dumb shooters where an ordinary guy goes on a power trip rampage where he commits mass murder and slaughters wildlife while convincing himself that heís being a hero. So, Yohalem decided to satirise making game where an ordinary guy goes on a power trip rampage where he commits mass murder and slaughters wildlife while convincing himself that heís being a hero.

Needless to say, the satire failed miserably. Yohalem blames his audience, but really the blame lies squarely with him, as he failed to create a sense of juxtaposition, or any other differentiation that could effectively communicate the satire.

Would-be game satirists like Yohalem face an uphill battle in the first place because, once analysed, most games are so inherently absurd (or in the case of AAA shooters, downright stoopid). Games are usually so contrived that once you remove the large doses of suspension of disbelief they require, the games effectively satirise themselves. For Far Cry 3ís satire to truly work, Yohalem would have to try and make something noticeably stupider than the typical manshooter, which would be a hard task indeed.

Stanleyís Parable is one of the few games to address this problem successfully, but it does so by resorting to brute-force tactics. It beats its audience over the head with its satire until there can be absolutely no question of its intent. And just in case anyone missed anything, it employs a narrator who *explicitly spells out the satire every step of the way*. It concentrates on the satirical aspect so single-mindedly that it effectively stops working as a game (unlike Dr Strangelove which manages to work well as a film, or Animal Farm, which works excellently as a story)

Itís funny, itís enjoyable, and itís occasionally thought-provoking. But thereís little that's covert or sneaky about Stanley's Parable. Itís crude and a bit cheap, because it has to be. It takes the Ďsketch-comedyí approach, where each gag is loudly blurted in your face, and leaves little room for the slow-building complexity or the gradually-dawning Ďahaí moments of more sophisticated works of satire.

I think thereís a fine balance between satire thatís so obtuse or timid that it will barely get through to the audience (eg. Far Cry 3, Cow Clicker), and satire thatís so brashly obvious that it may as well just be a lecture or work of non-fiction (eg. Stanley Parable).

I think that itís in between these two extremes where the most artful satire is usually found, such as Orwellís Animal Farm, or the Polish Poster Artists who could criticise their government by using subtle allusions and symbology that would be understood by their audience, but could slip past the State censors.

I think this balance will always be much easier to strike when you're not worried about subverting the ground beneath your feet (eg. making a game that satirises gaming), but are free to mix and match mediums.

Robert Green
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I agree that my definition is very narrow, and for the purposes of this blog, that was intentional. I'm not sure it's arbitrary though - the basic idea is that the satire rely on interactivity, just so that we can find something which can only done via the medium of videogames. Blood Dragon was a good example of why I took this approach - it's undoubtedly satire, but most of the satirical elements could have been done in a film.
If there's any good examples of games that satirise, in an interactive way, things outside of videogames, then that'd count too, and I probably took too narrow an approach to consider such games.

Far Cry 3 is a really interesting case. I saw a GDC talk from the designers, and I can appreciate what they were trying to achieve, but I think you're right - if the player can't tell that it's satirical, then the author probably failed. In context, it comes across less as a satire, and more of an acceptance that, given the tools/systems at the players disposal, many of them would want to run wild and take over the island anyway, so they might as well base the story around it. In this sense it's similar to GTA4, whose protagonist doesn't want to be violent, but whose players are assumed to enjoy reckless destruction.

Tim Eager
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Successful satire requires the audience to recognize the absurd and draw conclusions about the target based on that recognition.

"A Modest Proposal" works because the audience is so horrified by the essay's prescriptions that it can't take them at face value (it's either a satire or the work of a psychopath), and yet Swift constructs his absurd argument on the same foundation as the serious proposals of many other commentators. Similarly, Airplane! works because the primary characters are mostly played straight, with a drama-like seriousness, but the visuals and ancillary characters undermine the serious tone.

As discussed above, Far Cry 3 is a great example of why it is so hard to make a satirical AAA game (at least one whose target is other games): What plot point, action, or game mechanic is so absurd that it would be recognized by the AAA audience as satirical (as opposed to purely humorous or cynically crass)?

The only AAA game I can think of that is successfully satirical towards games and their mechanics is Borderlands 2, especially the Tiny Tina DLC. Even then, BL2 is more like a Mel Brooks film than Animal Farm: a parody with satirical sprinklings, not a true satire. From what I understand of the Stanley Parable (still sitting in my Steam Library, waiting to be played), it bears more resemblance to Airplane!, in that the absurdity is highlighted for the audience (even the trailer makes it abundantly clear).

It seems to me that the only way to effectively satirize a shooter, at least within the form, might be to have every NPC and faction respond negatively to the player's actions, either throughout the game or in an epilogue which sees our hero on trial for war crimes. Perhaps the player would have to prosecute his own actions, or be given a choice between the prosecution and the (impossible) defense. A similar aspect could be achieved by finding that the only NPCs that approve of your actions are so appalling that it causes you to question your motives and actions. The (non-game) example that comes to mind is in Falling Down, when Michael Douglas' character meets the Neo-Nazi shop owner.

Tim Eager
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Also, I played the entirety of Far Cry 3 and only detected the barest wisp of satire. Knowing now that they intended it to be satirical, I think I can see some of their attempts, but while I was playing the game they seemed to be either parody or laziness (the CIA agent especially).