Meta-me-this: Are the best games about games?

June 14, 2011

Originally posted on Gamasutra

Is it just me, or do a disproportionately large number of games with deep messages entwine said messages with a bucketful of meta? By this, I mean games will more likely make comment on the medium of gaming, how we play or how culture perceives the medium than on (any one of the many) other aspects in our world.

To qualify this: I’m not all that sure that this phenomenon actually exists: it’s more of a gut feeling about games that I’ve been feeling for a while. I’m really interested to hear whether you’ve experienced a similar feeling, or if this is just a result of my playing not enough or the wrong games.

In this post, I’ll go a bit more into what I mean by this ‘meta-phenomenon’, give some concrete examples, and give a few reasons as to why I think the phenomenon might have occurred. All of this, right after I write posts on how to fix this intro and why you should always list things in threes.

So what games am I talking about? Perhaps I should first say what games I’m not talking about (which, lets face it, is most of them): Super Meat Boy, Left 4 Dead, Warcraft III, CounterStrike, Mass Effect, Half-Life 2 (and 1, and all the episodes), and Portal (1 and 2). What do these have in common? Essentially, their common thread is that they (in my opinion, and I’d love to hear any counter-arguments on this point), were not developed with the express purpose of using the gaming medium in a concerted effort to leave their players with a message about the world. The portal games are triumphs (cue groan) in storytelling, sure, but neither of them are telling me anything new or interesting about the human condition.

On the flip side are games like Bioshock, Braid, and Every Day the Same Dream. All three stand out as masterpieces in storytelling which also tell us something about ourselves, yet the two ‘bigger’ games here (Bioshock and Braid), are telling us something about how we play. Bioshock (spoiler alert) makes us aware of our compliance to whatever the game tells us to do, and asks us if that’s the best thing for us. Braid looks at the simplistic stories of games that we’re used to and asks us whether we’re really being given all the pieces of the puzzle. Both these games have other messages, for sure, but their meta-ness plays are pretty massive part in their success.

I’m the first to admit that there are many games that I haven’t played that probably have strong messages without this tinge of meta (Limbo and Shadow of the Colossus jump to mind), yet even knowing that my own playing is probably skewed towards the meta doesn’t allay the feeling that there’s more meta out there in games than in other media.

To me, this is actually quite natural: as a new medium, games are still pretty mystical and mysterious. We’re still trying to figure them out. So if you’re a developer spending most of your time trying to work out how to make games, wouldn’t you want to talk about games, how they’re made and how we play them? Maybe we’ll see this abundance of meta die out over the next few decades as we work out exactly what a game is and how to harness their true potential. After all, we don’t see movies like Vertov’s ‘A man with a movie camera’ any more (which was, for the uninitiated, meta all over).

I don’t think I can class this as either a problem or a good thing for the industry (using the medium in a meta way will help us understand it, though if we don’t equally use it for other messages it’ll be in danger of losing significance), and so the conclusion to this post is going to fall a little flat, without any grand pronouncement, exciting insight or condemnation. Instead I’ll end with some questions: do you think games are overly meta? What games have you played that are decidedly meta or decidedly not? And what do you think this means for developers and the industry as a whole?