With virtual reality on the horizon, the game industry’s trendy new buzzwords almost always include “immersion” and “presence.” Video games craft worlds that we can get lost in, and suspending our disbelief is part of that process.
“Metafiction” strives for the opposite, by constantly reminding us that we are playing a game. It’s best when it’s introspective and tongue-in-cheek—when game developers use it to make fun of themselves.
Metafiction is defined as fiction that is aware of its own fictionality, and when it comes to video games, metafictional satire is rarely explored. Sometimes we see glimpses, like Metal Gear Solid’s villainous Psycho Mantis reading out your memory card’s stored games while fighting you, or in Jak 3 when a character says “This isn’t a game,” which Jak and Daxter respond to by confusingly turning to the camera, as if staring right at the player. By providing an innovative self awareness, games like these test the limits of game design and its storytelling boundaries.
Lately certain indie games are spoofing their own medium through metafiction in novel ways. Games like Pony Island, The Magic Circle and Klaus satirically poke fun at themselves through mechanics or narrative, with introspective commentary on game development. By using a metafictional template, they present themselves as video games about video games. They lampoon the industry or conventional mechanics by empowering the player with developer-like tools, creating self-aware characters, and exploring unconventional mechanics.
MOCKING THE INDUSTRY
There’s a thin line between metafiction and satire, and The Magic Circle makes sure those two lines intersect. Question Games’ lead writer Jordan Thomas sheepishly pitched the concept for The Magic Circle to his teammate Stephen Alexander three years ago. “[Jordan] described the idea of two designers arguing over a game pitch on a whiteboard,” explains Alexander. “You are in their whiteboard design meeting, and are present for the ideas as they are born, argued over, and destroyed.”
This vision changed as they furthered the development of the game, but that initial idea remained. They wanted to satirically show the messy side of development hell; a creative process that is normally done behind closed doors of a game studio boardroom.
They approached the topic through metafiction: The Magic Circle is a video game inside a video game. You take on the role of a game tester who is progressing through an unfinished version of the fictional The Magic Circle, a fantasy video game stuck in development limbo. You hear ongoing commentaries of its developers arguing over their creative visions. They pop in and out of view as you traverse the black-and-white world. Even the game music interrupts periodically and abruptly, with a sound designer’s exhaustive sighs and grumbles of, “let’s try that again.”
The Magic Circle explores the struggles of creativity by satirizing it, with outlandish fictional developers that float around its universe as large eyeballs. They criticize their creation like a god disdainfully peering down on its broken world, in a darkly humorous fashion.
“We wanted people to understand that for every game you play there are actual humans that are wringing their hands and putting their hearts into this stuff, to a degree that you probably would never guess,” says Alexander.
As high-end video game developer veterans who have worked on blockbuster franchises like Bioshock and Dishonored, the team at Question Games poured their past experiences from game studios like Irrational Games into The Magic Circle. Instead of being a condemnation or tell-all about a certain past coworker or project, the themes expressed in The Magic Circle are more reflective of the team’s own perceived faults and failings.
The character Ishmael, who boastfully calls himself the ‘Starfather,’ is the lead developer of the fictional The Magic Circle, and his inability to stick with decisions is something Alexander says his development team is guilty of too. “We were guilty of it while making this game,” he says. “We would be halfway through a sequence and Jordan and I would—I mean Kain too, all three of us—would be interrogating it, stalling out on it, and we very often were the danger of becoming our own joke.”
Becoming their own joke, however, was inevitable. By making fun of developers and high-end video game development, The Magic Circle is undoubtedly a self-parody at not just its own creators, but at the industry as a whole. It touches on the pressures of delivering a sequel to a diehard fanbase and the glorification of players as an end all in development discussions.
“Games are sort of unique in the sense that you can have an idea of exactly what you want it to be, but because of the player—Jordan likes to call it this sort of ‘radiant blank’—the thing that you’re making is going to ultimately be determined by them, ” Alexander tells me.
Predicting player expectations is prioritized in game development. Will the player turn left or right in this hallway? Is this puzzle solvable with the right tools? Questions like these can determine the playability of a game, and Pony Island is a video game that oozes satire on this ideology. It subverts our comfortable conventions and assumptions into mind-bending game mechanics.
Pony Island is a game on Steam, an online video game marketplace and self-publishing platform. The game takes place inside a digital representation of an arcade machine from a bygone era. Through a smudged screen, you play a game that’s also called Pony Island, where you take the role of a pony who gleefully jumps over fences. As you progress, you begin to peel away Pony Island’s “cheerful facade” to find the truth: this game was created by the devil and he wants you to “insert your soul to continue” rather than slotting in a quarter or arcade token.
You navigate through option menus and hack your way through the game in an attempt to save the thousands of souls imprisoned behind the screen. Through this journey, Pony Island throws in joke after joke, many revolving around video games and their conventions. In one sequence, the devil tells you that you’ve gained one measly experience point, but that you are still 99 points away from gaining a new ability. It’s a clever jab at the sometimes tiresome act of leveling up in video games. In another level the screen bursts into a show of fireworks with an explosion of mocking praise—and mocking the player was entirely the point.
“It was a bit of a satire of mobile games that over-congratulate you as a way of kind of coercing you into buying their in-app purchases, but it was also part of the story,” explains Pony Island creator Daniel Mullins. “Similar to the mobile games, the game is over-congratulating you so you might be willing to give up your soul when it asks.”
You later come across these digital, devilish creatures that guard core files and attempt to keep you from shutting down Pony Island for good. In one of these battles, the enemy tries to distract you in any way possible, with one distraction being fake Steam messages that pop up on the lower righthand corner of your screen.
While Pony Island uses its medium to toy with the player, the game Klaus uses the player to manipulate and confuse its characters—at least narratively. This PlayStation 4 platformer has two protagonists, Klaus and K1, who directly speak to the player. They comment on their surroundings and describe things to you that you can’t sense yourself, like a bad smell in a room. Each comment is tinged with wry humour, and Klaus will often criticize you for staying silent during conversations or for manipulating his every move.
It’s moments like these that come across like a parody of the limitations of video games, but they were also placed there to create a more immersive story. “It serves multiple purposes from a narrative perspective, so you can feel more immersed with him,” says Klaus developer Victor Velasco. “Or also like, OK, we have all these conventions in these games, but what does it really mean?”
Klaus later becomes frustrated with you and refuses to listen to your commands. He does the opposite of your inputs or walks non-stop in one direction. It’s a fascinating puzzle mechanic that requires you to use the environment to your advantage and escape conventional puzzle-solving. “One of the main things we wanted to do with Klaus is ask, what do these great platformer heroes feel when they are doing these [repetitive] actions? Maybe they’re tired of it.”
Klaus is vocal on the issue, often commenting on how he’s progressing through “just another door” at the end of the level. In an area called The Glitch World, however, his perspective changes, as if he views this new collection of levels as a breath of fresh air. It’s here that the game unleashes chaotic mechanics, where Klaus hacks into the game itself. This causes unruly physics, such as harmless spikes bouncing around like rubber, and strange occurrences like Klaus’s body being copied continuously after death.
TOOLS OF THE TRADE
Both Klaus and Pony Island use basic “hacking” concepts in either their narrative or, in Pony Island’s case, as a mini-game puzzle to bring variety to gameplay. The Magic Circle molds the concept further, by allowing you to “hack” enemies and environments in-world. For example, near the beginning of the game, you edit a dog-like creature to be changed from enemy to ally. In The Magic Circle, your only weapons are altering the world and its beings to fight for you.
“[We had] this idea that you would overcome non-combat challenges with a broad palette of tools,” says Alexander. “In this case, its tools are very similar to the tools that designers actually use, so that you would actually design your way out of the problem in front of you.”
Alexander describes the toolset as “Game Design Hero.” In Guitar Hero, the game’s instruments are only surface-level versions of actual guitars and drums, and the same is applied here. By empowering the player with basic game design, Alexander envisioned a comical relationship between player and game, where editing your surroundings could result in amusing outcomes.
“Sometimes the funniest things that happen in a game are things that developers never intended,” Alexander says. “You can go on YouTube and watch hilarious bug videos that are going to be way funnier than anything we could probably cook up.”
The Magic Circle pokes fun at this concept in a silly way, but it also asks you contemplate the role of broken games and their bugs. Are these, on some level, their own accidental, embedded narratives in a game world? Why are these broken moments sometimes funnier than the games themselves?
These self-reflective questions are exactly what you should ask yourself when playing metafictional games. With a comedic tone, they are a reminder that thought-provocative games can be entertaining while also adding substance. When satire meets metafiction, it enters a sophisticated level of comedy that dabbles in self-criticism. Sometimes, for developers to fully understand their own work, and to communicate that with us as well, they need to step back and look in the mirror a little more clearly—but not without a smirk.
Elise Favis is a freelance video games and pop culture writer from Montreal, Quebec. She has previously interned at Game Informer and has an unhealthy obsession with Adventure Time. Follow her on Twitter @elisefavis.
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