I love self-reflexive art. I don't really know why, but stuff like Adaptation or The People of Paper just drives me wild. Maybe it's the fact that the author is respecting his or her audience enough to admit that everything he's created is a complete fabrication with little connection to the real world. Or maybe it's just that I like the gimmick of it.
Either way, it would seem that every major art form has its fair share of self-reflexive works, save for games. In fact, we're at a point where most games are going in the opposite direction: HUD-less games and fewer cut scenes are quickly becoming the norm, presumably to enhance the player's "immersion" in the experience.
As is often the case, however, indie games help fill a void sorely missing from mainstream titles.
You Have to Burn the Rope, Achievement Unlocked, and Rara Racer share two main attributes: they're games about games, and they're incredibly clever. It's probably better if I don't say anything more (especially about Rara Racer), but you can either download them from the embedded links or hit the jump to see what's so special about each of these meta-games.
I'll be completely up-front and say that I don't really know what You Have to Burn the Rope is trying to say, if anything. Is it a comment on the too-obvious, pseudo-puzzles that confront us in most games? Is it a critique of how games tend to hold our hands through experiences that we should be able to get through on our own? Or is it just a really cute joke?
Regardless of what it means, You Have to Burn the Rope is a funny, charming little "game" which takes agreat deal of pleasure in being hilariously up-front about what it requires of the player.
You'll get the point of Achievement Unlocked within less than a minute of playing it: rather than providing legitimately compelling gameplay, more and more modern games attempt to satisfy players by rewarding essentially meaningless tasks with equally meaningless achievement points. It's basically the exact argument that every anti-Achievement gamer has made since the creation of the Xbox 360...yet even they will probably be surprised at how long they end up playing Achievement Unlocked.
Therein lies the genius of Achievement Unlocked: it's just a cute, gimmicky joke on the surface, but its irritatingly addictive nature says a lot more about Achievements and Achievement whoring than you might expect. Since you get an achievement for almost everything in Achievement Unlocked, since you're constantly being rewarded for every little thing you do, it's depressingly easy to want to continue playing long after the game's point has already been made obvious. Even as someone who generally hates Achievements, I couldn't help but play the game for a good five minutes as it constantly bolstered my ego with meaningless little awards.
In its own way, Achievement Unlocked is the ultimate argument either for, or against Achievements: on the one hand, the achievement tasks are stupid and the achivements themselves are totally empty. On the other hand, it is moderately satisfying to get them. Perhaps it's just as much the player's fault as the developers' for the ubiquity of achievements; we can complain about achievements until the cows come home, but we do enjoy getting them, for whatever reason.
Stop reading this article until you've played it.
Granted, it now occurs to me that even mentioning the game's name in an article about reflexive games may have already spoiled it for you. For that, I apologize.
Like You Have to Burn the Rope, I'm not sure if Rara Racer is saying anything in particular -- and I really don't care. The game is so damned clever, and so damned funny, and examines the ridiculous new fad of people recording themselves playing and commentating on videogames.
I dunno if it's meant as a critique of the fad itself or the crappy games these people tend to play (or perhaps even the low-attention-span YouTube culture that would watch crap like that), but the joke is executed really damn well, and the game never wears out its welcome. You'll probably hear everything the narrator has to say in exactly one playthrough, which isn't so much of a critique of the game's replayability as it is a compliment on its length. You'll only play it once, but you'll hear pretty much every joke the game wants you to hear.
That's all for now. If any of you fine folks knows of any other self-reflexive games that I'm missing, please feel free to post about them in the comments.
[*].disqus.comto your security software's whitelist.