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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.