*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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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/