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The Four Types of Metafiction in Videogames

by James Cox on 10/06/14 05:43:00 pm   Featured Blogs

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

 

Introduction:

*For this post, when I mention the media types of games, film, and novels, I am referring to the generally traditional version of these media, rather than the outliers: a novel, when mentioned in this post, contains a linear progression of events. Films make use of visuals and audio.

 

Metafiction exists within videogames. We have known this for a while (but, just in case, I’ve included a list of twenty videogame metafiction examples at the end of this post). Even understanding that metafiction does exist within videogames, why does it matter? Well, I believe that metafiction is a prominent component to the future of videogames; with metafiction we may prevent players from being sucked out of play due to loading screens, and prevent them from being reminded of a game’s fake-ness through menues or glitches. It could very well lead to longer periods of flow and immersed audiences. But to achieve this, we need to understand the kinds of metafiction that games can possess. After a bit of digging and sorting, I have classified videogame metafiction into four types: emergent metafiction (the fiction revealing itself to the player), immersive metafiction (brining the player into the fiction), internal metafiction (character to character), and external metafiction (designer to player).

Before I can explain more deeply what I mean with those classifications, let me offer my definition for metafiction: “Metafiction is fiction that points out its own fictionality.” Or in other words, fiction that is self-aware. This generally includes any nods to the fact that there is a creator for the work. An important term that is associated with metafiction is ‘the fourth wall’ which is often used in the phrase ‘breaking the fourth wall.’ This term comes from Greek plays where various characters might speak to the audience directly, providing them with opinions or refreshing their memories of plot points. As a theater stage has three walls, the audience provide the fourth wall, and admitting the fictionality of the play by talking to the audience is breaking the fourth wall.

As a side note, metafiction should not be confused with metagaming. Metagaming is utilizing outside knowledge to influence in-game decisions; in a one vs one strategy game, if player A knows that player B carries a strong late game, but  is poor at managing early defense, player A may use this pre-knowledge to their advantage to win the game by staging an early in-game attack. This is metagaming because of the information that player A has about player B. It is knowledge about player B more than it is knowledge about mastering the interactive system. Metafiction, unlike metagaming, concerns the fourth wall.

 

The four types of metafiction in games:

Emergent metafiction:

  • Emergent metafictional is seen in encounters where the game admits its own fictionality to the player. An example would be if a character was to address the player with “welcome to our game, player! I hope you enjoy your stay.” It is an in-game breach of the fictional world to reach out to the player. Menu screens and in-game tutorials do not count as this type of metafiction, nor metafiction of any type; the differences will be explained after this section on the four types.

Immersive metafiction:

  • Immersive metafiction incorporates the player, more or less in their role as player, into the fictional world. An example would be a game where the player is viewed as a god presiding over a population of NPCs who are aware of the player’s ability to turn off and on their world with the flip of a power switch. This type of metafictional encounter makes use of the player’s position and relationship to the game to bring them into the narrative and incorporate their unique position as part of the fiction.

Internal Metafiction:

  • The third type of metafictional encounter is internal, or character-to-character, metafiction. An example would be an in-game scenario where one character says to another “Ever feel like we’re just bad guy NPCs in a game, waiting for a hero to show up and just slay us?” In of itself, this type of metafictional encounter is self-contained. While it does address the fictionality of the game world, it is different from the other three, as it never fully breaches the fourth wall, but more simply eludes to it. This type of metafictional encounter is the most used for situational irony.

External metafiction:

  • The fourth type of metafiction is external. The word ‘external’ may be a tad deceiving, as the metafiction does exist within the game. Rather, it is the message being conveyed that is external. It is usually a message from the developer, or any member of the production end, directed to the player. An example would be if the player stumbles into a room in game and comes across some graffiti spelling out “Thanks for playing! –Dev. Team.” The information, while it exists within the game’s world, is often not acknowledged by in-game characters and acts as a secret message. Most Easter Eggs in games are of this type. External metafiction is also most likely to be confused with in game menus due to the nature of the external developer-to-player dialogue.

A simple one sentence recap of each definition above: Emergent metafiction is metafiction that admits that it is a game, typically addressing the player. Immersive metafiction brings the player into the fictional world in an established role. Internal metafiction is self-contained metafiction. External metafiction is metafiction that is never addressed by in-game characters.

 

The instructions and conventions of a medium:

Much like metafiction in writing or in film, metafiction in videogames is self-admitting fiction: a metafictional videogame will bend the fourth-wall, but it also will test the boundaries of Huizinga’s magic circle, without breaking the fiction, or spoiling the game. There needs to be some clarity though about what qualifies as metafiction in videogames. First, metafiction in videogames must be fiction. Much as how we don’t count the opening menu screen, or end credits, of a movie as metafiction or the publisher’s information, or forward, in a book as metafiction, we should not classify the menu screens and pause screens as metafictional encounters in videogames. As an extension of the metafiction needing to be fiction, we should not claim that tutorials and in game instructions are metafictional.

While these instances do closely resemble metafiction, and are often themed to fit the game’s art style and mood, simply being provided in-game instructions does not make an in-game encounter metafictional in nature. To support this, we must examine the purpose of these encounters. When reading a book, or watching a film, there are a number of conventions one must first grasp to fully understand the narrative and structure of the artifact: To read a book, you first must understand the language in which it is written, and you must understand the organizational structure of the writing. The majority of written fiction do not include instruction manuals within their pages because readers have already learned the accepted conventions for story reading.

This same applies to movies. All movies take advantage of conventions that the audience has learned to expect and understands how to interpret. As an example, many movies make use of time skips, saving the viewer from dull car rides, meals, and bathroom breaks. It is understood that time has passed though. Yet when we come to videogames, an interesting anomaly occurs. While many games share conventions, every game requires different interactions from the player with the system. As an example, many games do make use of similar control schemes, and thus do not include basic controller handling/keyboard usage, yet some games possess vastly different input methods and require an explanation. This is not metafiction but rather a product of a medium with constantly changing input conventions.

A last note on videogames in terms of its relationship to other mediums: while videogames do have an active player role in the fictionality of the game, movies and written stories each have a level of interactivity as well. Movies, being arguably the most passive of the three mediums, requires an audience member’s attention to exist. The story will continue to play out on screen even if the audience is not watching, but for the medium to be understood, it must be watched. Therefore, there is a level of audience/story participation. For written fiction, the participation takes on a different role. A story in written form will cease progressing as soon as the reader, or audience, stops reading the story. This is much like how a videogame stops when paused. Yet, in a written story, all the imagery, while some may be suggested by way of cover art, is formed with in the audience’s mind. Videogames may have more freedom of control and maneuverability, but written stories are currently infinitely more open in terms of images and appearances. Written stories are extremely interactive, and demonstrates that, while videogames do have a level of player control over the narrative, so do movies and written stories.

 

Now what?

Metaficiton in videogames can have a grand impact on the future of videogames. There is the potential for deepening story, strengthening audience to narrative ties, and increasing player immersion within the game. The ability of a game to acknowledge its own fictionality (its own fakeness) while still remaining within the bounds of acceptable play, and not violating the player’s trust, could be used to make games more functionally smooth. Menu screens and tutorials, elements of games that typically remove the player from the fictional universe and break flow, could be phased out and, in their place, metafictional elements could be employed to keep the game going.

 

Examples of metafiction in games:

The four types of videogame metafiction aren’t cast in stone, but are more of a slide or bar. A single encounter may be a degree of multiple types. The metafictional encounters below may fit more than one type, but are sorted into the categories they best exemplify.

 

Emergent

  • Donkey Kong Country
    • Here, Cranky Kong directly address the player indirectly by saying “I wouldn’t be seen dead in a game like this one” which admits the game’s artificiality; he also addresses Donkey Kong with “You wouldn’t know a good game if you were in it!” which would fit into internal metatiction.
  • Marvel vs. Capcom 3
    • Although indirect, Dead Pool uses his heath bar as a weapon, which reveals that he knows that he is in a game.
  • Jak 3 
    • In this scenario, the emergent metafiction is employed for comedic purposes, with Jak and Daxter making eye contact with the player as a response to “This isn’t a game.”
  • Super Smash Bros Brawl
    • In SSBB, the player can call the Colonial from Metal Gear Solid when playing as Snake on his associated level. The Colonial reveals facts about the videogame characters and their associated franchises.
  • Max Payne 
    • Here, Max Payne realizes that he is in a graphic novel, admitting the artificiality of his world.
  • Mario Party 2
    • Mario Party 2 begins by setting up the game to feel like a board game. This makes it emergent metafiction as it never hides the fictionality of the game world.
  • Animal Crossing: City Folk

Immersive

  • Stanley Parable
    • The Stanley Parable’s premise is that you are playing through a game. While portions of the game revolve around the narrator giving Stanly direct orders; ultimately, the game is aware of its own fictionality and incorporates the player into the fiction.
  • StarTropics
    • You could argue that the accompanying letter is an example of external metafiction, but because it is written from one of the game’s fictional character’s points of view, it is an invitation to the player into the game’s world, making it an example of immersive metafiction.
  • Eternal Darkness: Sanity's Requiem
    • In Eternal Darkness, the game makes the player think it is deleting their save file. Although the game is reaching out to address the player through the menu interface, it ultimately does so to bring them further into the game: This horror game exists beyond just the character on the screen. This pulls the player deeper in, making it immersive.
  • Batman Arkham Asylum
    • While this could be argued to be an example of external as the glitching graphics are from the developer to the audience without characters awareness, it ultimately is used as a means to pull us further into the story and to incorporate the medium of videogame into the fiction of the world.
  • Evidence: The Last Ritual
    • This game made use of phone calls and websites to make the experience immersive. I count it here as a videogame as it is an adventure game that utilizes the Alternate Reality Game (ARG) elements, rather than just an ARG.
  • Lifeline
    • In Lifeline, the player’s sedentary position is used as they play as a character trapped in a control room. You have access to cameras and can give characters voice commands. As it incorporates the real world seated player as well as using their screen as a security screen, it brings reality into the game.

Internal

  • Metal Gear Solid 2
    • The confusion in the conversation shows that Raiden is unaware of his position as a videogame character, allowing this metafictional encounter to be self-contained.
  • Blue Moon Inn in Runescape
    • While the player directs the conversation, the player character is unaware that they exist within a videogame and remain aloof to the concept of a ‘computer.’ Further information can be read on Runescape's related wiki page here.
  • The Secret of Monkey Island 
    • Here, the character is confused about the dialogue option the player has chosen for them, making it an example of internal metafiction
  • Luigi’s Mansion 
    • This example is very close to being emergent metafiction, but the characters never admit that they are in a game. Rather, they converse about previous Super Mario games, something that doesn’t exist within Luigi’s Mansion or could.

External

  • I MAED A GAM3 W1TH ZOMBIES!!!1
    • During the course of the game, the background song is about the game, and the ground strobes the lyrics to the song; the in game character is focusing on survival, and has no way of viewing the floor messages. As such, it is a direct communication from the developers to the audience, making it external metafiction.
  • Adventure
    • Considered to be the first Easter Eggs in a game, Warren Robinett put his own name in Adventure as a way to credit himself for creating it.
  • There are many more examples of external metafiction, and many tend to be hidden messages and artifacts from the development team.

The Simpsons Game covers multiple layers of metafiction. This one is hard to distill into a single group as there is so much going on. The end dialogue can also be read towards the end of the game's full script.

I also made a small game to demonstrate the four types of metafiction in videogames within a single working example. I'm not proud of the code or art, but it effectively communicates the kinds of metafiction: http://gamejolt.com/games/other/metafictiongame-old-2012-game/35348/

@Just404it


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