For me, there's a fine line between an endearing act of self-awareness and an annoying one. What can be very clever commentary on a work's place in the world through direct breaking of the fourth wall, or an aura of detachment that can leave a sour or distracting taste in the viewer's mouth. Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) narrating House of Cards, turning a smug sideways glance to the audience has a sort of inclusive punctuation to it; Joe Kelly's terrific run of Deadpool, where the titular merc reminds Bullseye that they last met in "Issue Sixteen" calls attention to the medium in a fun and grand way. When Quentin Tarantino inserts subtitles in Inglourious Basterds to mark out key Nazi officials in the film's epic movie theater setpiece, there's a playfulness to the idea of the filmmaker pulling strings, setting up a punchline.
But on the flipside, sometimes it might be better to let the person experiencing the art to immerse themselves in things, rather than be reminded of the hand or hands that went into creating the experience. Recently, Zombieland: Double Tap took the quirky parody of the first film to what I thought were excessive heights with the cavalcade of Columbus' (Jesse Eisenberg) "rules" appearing on screen, cutting away from the immediate story to one bitesized visual gag after another.
Video games would seem to be inherently self-aware, with tutorials "speaking" to the player, breaking any illusion of what we see on screen being anything more than a simulation. But the ways in which games can prod their players, whether through "traditional" breaks of the in-game diegesis or forcing themselves to reassess how they're playing a game, the medium has an incredibly unique opportunity to reach out and connect with the player, whether by amusing, comforting, or even unsettling them. So, in the subsequent ramblings here, I thought it might be fun to take a look at the ways in which some games can either embrace their players with whimsy and charm... or punch you in the teeth with fear and anxiety. I don't know what that means, let's look at some games.
Good Old-Fashioned Breaks
"Breaking the fourth wall," I think, to most people conjures the image of a character addressing the viewer. Deadpool turning aside to clue the audience in on something is a great, simple place to start. And because we're talking Hideo games, you know where I've got to start.
Throughout the franchise, Metal Gear has become one of the poster children for video game postmodernism, practically leading the medium into the realm of "higher art," whatever that might mean to you. Its roots in cinematic style and deeply ponderous narratives tackled subjects no games had even dreamed of, in ways a gamer would sooner expect to see at a local multiplex than in the comfort of their home, sat before a PlayStation. But that comfort would be easily interrupted by a certain Russian psychic.
Psycho Mantis and his battle in the original Metal Gear Solid have entered the annals of gaming history for good reason. The ways in which the FOXHOUND master of puppets deliberately and directly messes with the person holding the controller is just flat-out unforgettable stuff. With the game reading the PlayStation's memory card, Mantis would taunt the player by detecting other games they'd played (You like Castlevania, don't you?) or give the illusion of an A/V cable malfunction. For Snake, battling Psycho Mantis was a fairly standard shootout, dodging telekinetically-hurled objects and plugging away at the psychic juggernaut. For the player, Mantis was a case of overcoming the physical game in front of them, in ways unheard of before.
Directly addressing the player is one thing. The latest Call of Duty does it in a far less direct and integral way when the player decides to fire upon noncombatants in its pseudo-real military action story. 2019's Modern Warfare puts the player in the role of a Western military operator in the Middle East, eventually confronted with a mother and her child in the midst of a tense and bloody free-fire zone. The player, empowered to fire upon the innocents, is met with a game over screen should they do so, with the game reminding the player of the moral distinction between combatants and civilians. If the player repeatedly makes the "error" (a deliberate choice on the part of most players) of shooting that mother and child, the game gives you a different message upon game over: Are you serious? Call of Duty directly addresses its controller, who is presumably getting a juvenile kick out of trying to kill a digital innocent. The ways games ask their players about how they feel about committing simulated murder is something of a subject in itself, to be tackled later, but the way Call of Duty directly bridges the gap between the game world and the real world, in a singular instance, is a striking thing.
There are great ways in which a game can be aware that it's... well, a game other than speaking to the player. Sometimes the characters in a game are themselves reminded of their own unreality. Max Payne, drowning in substance abuse and the deepest of depressions--all while undergoing a gauntlet of high-adrenaline violence--culminates in an epiphany: I was in a computer game. A snifit in Paper Mario: Color Splash throws Mario in jail, bemused and at odds with the predicament, saying he can't really harm the plumber further "without raising [the] game's age rating." Hell, Jeane in No More Heroes says the same thing, mentioning that her tragic past would "jack up the age rating of [the] game even further." If we know that we're trapped in the Matrix, maybe it isn't so bad after all.
The ways in which games overtly speak to the player, or acknowledge their own fictional existence, is the simplest place to start, I think, when discussing the idea of the self-aware video game. Geralt turning to the camera to smile at the player after a long journey in The Witcher 3 or catching a glimpse of Lakitu "filming" your every move in Super Mario 64; that's all great stuff, but what does it give the player? A simple gag? Nothing wrong with that. But in expressing a desire to break out of the diegesis of a game, game writers have found clever ways to really sneak up on players and get under their skin. Almost like being smacked in the back of the head by an animal-masked psychopath.
Hotline Miami hides a lot behind its arcadelike gameplay loop and psychadelic spritework. As an unnamed Floridian, the player is immediately submerged into a fictional 1989 where the Russian mafia runs the city of Miami and a shadowy, masked organization orchestrates brutal hits against the mobsters and their affiliates. Is it an actual organization, or are these spooky animals masks just a figment of a sickeningly-violent killer's imagination? Hotline Miami and its sequel eventually give you real answers that might further surprise a gamer expecting neon-drenched pixel violence, but the game establishes itself early on as trying to reach out a bit to its player, all with a now-iconic question: Do you like hurting people?
It's a question asked by one of the masked "handlers" the player encounters in a surreal headspace; a fragment of the player character's ("Jacket," he's been dubbed by fans due to his rad letterman coat) tortured and sick psyche. But the question, due to Jacket's silence and the strong thrust the game launches you with, really feels aimed squarely at the person behind the keyboard. Hotline Miami's violence is so sickening--masked only by the vagueness that might be associated with pixelated gaming--and so unrelenting, it asks the player outright if they enjoy perpetrating this stuff. It's not a question most games will bring up. In God of War Kratos swings his tears through flesh like tissue paper, ripping eyes out of cyclops like pulling a billiard from a net. It's fun! You blow off Locust hoard heads in Gears of War because they're alien scum, and that's the way the cookie crumbles. Games are often centered around violence, even if it isn't of the extreme nature like those two incredibly-gorey examples; Ratchet & Clank is a violent game. You shoot and kill aliens and robots ("kill" robots).
By even asking the player whether or not they enjoy committing digital murder, Hotline Miami takes a step back from itself and its characters, who are all doing these things for "tangible" reasons, whether it's political maneuvering, weak-willed subservience, some debilitating mental illness, and so on. The player playing Hotline Miami? Well it must be for enjoyment. And what does that say about you, if anything? This isn't a critique or discussion of what it means to enjoy violent gaming (or movies, or literature, or any other violent fiction), rather simply acknowledging the fact that a game recognizes its own content and how that might be reflected in the player. A less exciting example would be when, during those lengthy install times, Metal Gear Solid 4 warns of the "detrimental effects" of smoking while Snake puffs away at a stick of tobacco. Metal Gear is showing me something fictional (our pal Snake burning a cig) while simultaneously acknowledging the way in which I might interpret that fiction ("Snake smokes cigarettes--maybe I should too!")
Celebrating the Medium, or Video Game: The Video Game
Bear with me here, because this is likely the least-founded and shakiest of these categories, but I've always found some games to be steeped so heavily in homage (or theft, or inspiration, or however you want to frame it) to other games that they sort of become commentary on the medium itself. For that we turn to an eternal, edgy favorite: Darksiders.
When you describe a game as "gamey" that's sort of peeling back the layers in itself in a way that I think is a fascinating examination. You have films like Pulp Fiction or Casablanca that, though their stories are very much self-contained and don't necessarily tip their hat to the audience. But by being so steeped in film history and culture, they sort of lend themselves to reminding the audience that, hopefully, they love movies as a medium. Sort of the way the first Darksiders reminds players, "Hey, aren't games great?"
There's an intangible essence of nostalgia to Joe Madureira's character designs and color palette in Darksiders, recalling everything from World of Warcraft to Legacy of Kain; that sort of chunky dark fantasy vibe with a touch of modernity (guns!). There are also far more tangible homages in Darksiders. Namely, its gameplay.
Modeling its core level design around Zeldalike "dungeons," or combo-based, heavy-hitting swordplay on God of War asserts a sense of familiarity. Playing as the mighty Horseman War, alternating between swaths of his massive blade and juggling enemies with what-caliber-are-these shots from his handcannon recall the mix-ups of Devil May Cry. You step into Darksiders and feel right at home. Not to mention the pulls from less-obvious inspirations, like the portal-based puzzling that comes with the Voidwalker gauntlet. Who'd have thought to toss Valve's Portal into a character-action game? Or a Zelda clone? Darksiders hammers the player with overt nods and ideas from some of the most-highly praised video games of all-time, and in doing so becomes a love letter to those games and a capsule of gaming in general.
I love the idea of games that celebrate the joy and culture of gaming in general; the way Cinema Paradiso is a heart-warming story about how going to the movies can mend a heart, the sort of solace I get in seeing games like Shovel Knight pop up on the indie scene, or how I can spend hours with Super Smash Bros Ultimate simply walking the aisles of collectible spirits and listening to music from past games, remembering my times with them fondly and feeling the allure of older titles I might have missed. It's something I find myself saying a lot, and it's 100% true: With time I find myself thinking about gaming more than I actually game. But while one might find it sad to disconnect from one's passion, I see it as emblematic of a far greater appreciation and love for the medium, and living the entirety of the gaming experience through a single title can be a blisteringly satisfying thing.
Works of art can affect their recipients in myriad ways--it's almost like that's the power of art, Sam--and video games are no exception. While I might just take in Halo 2 as a vibrant space opera, another player might find its technical precision and the architectural map design transfixing and breathtaking. You ask me what I see when I see the attention to Mario's nose bouncing in Super Mario Odyssey and I'll tell you I'm looking at the goshdarn Mona Lisa of video games. Worse still, I'll mean it.
The impact a game has on you can vary tremendously. It's the games that make those deliberate acts of keying the player into their world that often fascinate me most. There's something inclusive, mysterious, heartwarming, heartbreaking, and nostalgic for me in being lost in a game, and the ones that look to eliminate the barrier between game world and player are already off to a start in those departments. So... I see that you enjoy Konami games?