Three Postmodern Games: Self-Reflexive Metacommentary

(accessed from http://the-artifice.com/three-postmodern-games-self-reflexive-
metacommentary/)

WARNING: Spoilers for Bioshock Infinite, Spec Ops: The Line, and Metal Gear
Solid 2: Sons of Liberty follow!

Postmodernism is a bit of a loaded word within my circle of friends. Broadly
defined, postmodernism is an “incredulity towards the metanarrative”, the
rejection of a universal cultural mythos. The grand, Western narratives of
religion, philosophy, and civilization were delegitimized by an increasingly
globalized world filled with a plethora of worldviews; thus, relativism,
subjectivity, and skepticism became the predominant response to the big
questions. In the arts, postmodernism manifested as a mockery and challenge of
previous conceptions of what art constitutes. Postmodern literature challenged
the notion that narratives have to tell cohesive stories, Toni Morrison’s Beloved
employs a fragmented narrative told by multiple narrators with subjective
perceptions of reality and expects the reader to piece the plot back together and
create their own subjective understanding. Marcel Duchamp challenged common
understandings of what constitutes art by overturning a urinal and titling it
Fountain.

“But
is it art?” is a common question raised by postmodern art.

If video games are art, and all art forms undergo some postmodern phase where
they question form and subjectivity, then examples of postmodern video games
must exist. Indeed, if we are to look beyond their status as a cultural commodity
and the indistinction between “high and low gamer culture”, there exists a rich
practice of challenging prior conceptions of what the medium can do. The most
common postmodern practivce in video games is self-reflexivity, when a work of
art raises questions about itself as a created construct. Self-reflexivity most often
manifests as the “breaking of the fourth wall”, when on-screen characters
seemingly become aware of their existence in an electronic game and engage
with the player directly. Taking cues from film and literature, story-driven games
have cleverly deployed self-reflexivity to critique formal issues such as the
narrative limitations imposed by interactivity, society’s attraction to violence in
entertainment, and geek culture’s disinterest in reality.

Bioshock Infinite follows Booker DeWitt’s journey into the floating utopia of
Columbia to retrieve a psychic girl named Elizabeth for mysterious employers. A
popular reading of the game, (read: mine) frames it as a “meta-commentary” on
the problematic nature of video game storytelling. In its ending, Bioshock Infinite
introduces a plot twist revealing that the game exists in a multiverse, where an
infinite number of alternate timelines are generated by every possible choice
that a player makes in a game. The universes are characterized by “constants”
and “variables”, elements of the plot that are consistently the same across
playthroughs, and elements that differ depending on player choice. On a self-
reflexive level, these terms refer to embedded and emergent narrative in games,
“constants” being embedded narrative elements such as cutscenes, dialogue,
and background chatter, and “variables” being emergent elements such as
character customization and combat tactics. For games like Bioshock Infinite,
narrative is delivered as an incomplete product, players must fill in the blanks
that the authors have left, creating their own, personal, version of Bioshock
Infinite.

That said, games like Bioshock Infinite are incapable of creating player agency
because the designer authors all possible choices and outcomes. Players are
constrained to only the narrative and strategic paths that designers create. While
interactivity allows for a rich range of narrative permutations, all is mooted by
authorial intent and a fixed story arc. Nonetheless, story-driven games
constantly seek to combine authored narrative and player-agency despite the
fact that the two inherently contradict each other. How can Mass Effect or The
Walking Dead provide a truly emergent, player-driven narrative when a writer
pens all dialogue choices, determines where the story will go, and how it will all
end?

Bio
shock Infinite deals with the conflict between emergent and fixed narrative.

Bioshock Infinite self-reflexively critiques this trend mechanically and narratively.
Many story-driven attempt to provide the illusion of agency by allowing the
player to make binary or semi-binary choices at key moments to influence the
direction of the plot. Bioshock Infinite subverts this mechanical trope by adopting
similar “decision-moments” at certain points of the game, such as the decision to
choose between two different brooches for Elizabeth. Bioshock Infinite subverts
player expectations by making these binary “decision-moments” wholly
irrelevant to the narrative, most often leading to minor cosmetic differences on a
few side characters. The game knowingly acknowledges that players have been
conditioned by similar games to believe that these “decision-moments” are
critical its narrative outcome. By making these decisions comparatively
irrelavant, Bioshock Infinite raises the question of whether or not autonomy can
exist when an omniscient game designer authors the outcomes of all these
binary decision points, arguing that the pursuit of “narrative player agency” is
futile.

A duo of characters named the Lutece Twins reinforces this critique of interactive
narrative. The Luteces are extradimensional scientists who occasionally appear
before Booker throughout his adventure, providing him with cryptic advice. They
are based loosely off the titular characters of Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and
Guildenstern are Dead. In an early encounter, they hand Booker a coin and ask
him to flip it, and it lands on heads, like it did for the last 122 times. A similar
scene occurs in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern where the constant outcome of a
coin-flip causes the characters to question whether an omniscient force dictates
their existence. An omniscient force does indeed dictate the coin flip: Stoppard
scripts the coin to always land on heads, just like how Bioshock Infinite’s coin is
scripted to always land on heads. Thus, chaos and random chance cannot exist
under the directorial omnipotence of an author.

The coin-flip scene in Bioshock Infinite represents an ideal point to give the
player the choice to call heads or tails, but Booker is scripted to always call
heads. This is meaningful within the context of the game; removing interactivity
from the scene suggests that it is impossible for a scripted narrative to be truly
player driven, and players have no choice in a story-driven game except to
proceed down the designer-dictated narrative path.

The
Lutece twins are the source of Bioshock Infinite’s most interesting
metacommentary on fate and autonomy within story worlds.

While most story-driven games strive to make players autonomous agents
enacting change upon the game’s world through their decisions, Bioshock
Infinite posits that the nature of the medium prohibits this from happening
because designer-authored narratives prohibit real autonomy. Rosencrantz and
Guildenstern tried to escape their doom by fleeing to England, but they were
rendered incapable of doing so by existing in an authored narrative. Because
Booker DeWitt is a video game character, he ultimately has no agency over his
decisions, as he is simply an avatar for the player. The player is in turn a non-
autonomous actor controlled by the invisible hand of game design, she is unable
to make choices outside of the ones that the game’s system allows and must
continuously push Booker forward from chapter to chapter until the game
concludes. Self-reflexivity manifests as metacommentary in Bioshock Infinite,
which critiques the narrative limitations inherent to an interactive medium and
the and Sisyphean pursuit of “player agency”.

Yager’s 2012 military shooter Spec Ops: The Line uses self-reflexivity to critique
society’s attraction to violence in entertainment. Spec Ops follows Captain
Walker, who goes through a surreal journey through a sand-buried Dubai,
strongly suggested to be a personal hell. Spec Ops self-reflexively raises
questions about the morality of enacting violence its own medium. This is
achieved through the subversion of player expectations and visual pastiche of
other games.

Sp
ec Ops: The Line critiques societal attraction to violent entertainment.

Spec Ops: The Line questions player motivations and the attraction to violence
by making its moment-to-moment gunplay banal and repetitive. The only
mechanical progression appears in the escalating brutality of Walker’s execution
moves, which questions player motivations for continuing to play the game in
spite of the gunplay’s repetitious nature. Generic packaging, deceptive
marketing, and a formulaic opening trick the player into believing Spec Ops to be
a standard Call of Duty knockoff. The game’s deliberate manipulation of player
expectations allows it to harshly indict those players who were actually seeking
cheap thrills or escapist fantasy from it.

The game’s story punishes player progression: Walker’s time in Dubai only gets
darker, more surreal, and nonsensical as the game progresses, subverting the
genre’s “empowerment fantasy” through ludonarrative dissonance. Spec Ops’
ending has Captain Walker confront Colonel Konrad, a projection of his
subconscious guilt. Konrad dances along the fourth wall in this climactic
sequence, stating that everything would have been better if Walker simply left
Dubai. In context, this suggests that simply quitting and leaving the game
unfinished would have been considered a legitimate, and far less destructive,
conclusion to the game’s story.

Much like Bioshock Infinite, Spec Ops deals with the impossibility of free will in a
story-driven game. Throughout his mission, Captain Walker consistently shifts
culpability over his destructive actions onto Konrad, claiming that he left him
with no choice. Given the game’s structure, it is inherently impossible for Walker
to not cause the damage he does; the only way to progress in a shooter like
Spec Ops is to kill people. Walker’s shifting of the blame onto Konrad, claiming
that he was left without any choice, reflects the player’s shifting of culpability
onto the game’s design, which provokes frustration within the player by leaving
no choice but to proceed by causing paramount death and suffering in Dubai.

Outside of meta-commentary on choice and culpability, Spec Ops critiques the
attraction to violent military shooters by employing visual pastiche of other
games, most notably, entries in the Call of Duty franchise. A key sequence in
Spec Ops pastiches the “Death from Above” level from Call of Duty 4: Modern
Warfare. The game takes a satellite view of the battlefield as Walker uses a white
phosphorus cannon against a battalion of soldiers. The player, trained by similar
sequences in other games, is subconsciously attracted to firing upon large
groups of enemies (represented by white dots) and explosive vehicles, as doing
so leads to a high bodycount: a good thing in “Death from Above”. This tricks
players by making the largest group of “enemies” fired upon a group of innocent
refugees. By recontextualizing Call of Duty 4’s most revered level, Spec Ops
deconstructs player expectations of what actions are rewarded in the context of
a game’s narrative, causing uncanny discomfort, if not rage, in its players.

Wa
lker fires a white phosphorus cannon upon a battalion of troops.

Spec Ops’ particular deployment of pastiche is self-reflexive because it
acknowledges its own artificiality by adopting tropes from other games to raise
issues about those games as a whole. Structurally, Spec Ops’ denouement is
almost identical to Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3’s. Both involve the protagonist
storming the villain’s tower at the center of Dubai, ascending to the top floor for
a final confrontation. Spec Ops derisively mocks Call of Duty by removing combat
from this final confrontation as the few surviving enemy soldiers surrender.
Walker ascends the tower to confront Konrad only to discover that the villain was
ultimately imaginary. As the game concludes, Konrad addresses the player
directly, “You’re here because you wanted to feel like something you’re not, a
hero”, he says, as he raises a gun to Walker.

As a cohesive whole, Spec Ops looks beyond its own fiction, pointing its
metaphorical crosshairs at the recent surfeit of military shooters. By pastiching
popular games in the genre and depicting a narrative where player participation
is destructive to the game world, Spec Ops raises questions about the fantastical
nature of military shooters and society’s attraction to violence in its
entertainment. Konrad posits that players are attracted to violent action games
to fulfill a desire for self-glorification in a morally diametric world, deconstructing
the shooter’s narrative of the power fantasy.

While the Metal Gear Solid series is known for a psychic commando who
acknowledged his own artificiality by reading the player’s memory card, the
series’ second game, Sons of Liberty, offers much more interesting examples of
postmodern self-reflexivity. Metal Gear Solid 2 indicts and deconstructs geek
culture and game sequels by subverting player expectations in an increasingly
over-the-top way. These subversions begin with the game’s marketing within the
context of its release.

The first Metal Gear Solid was one of the runaway hits of the Playstation era,
selling several million copies and spawning an eager fandom clamoring for a
sequel. The game’s creative director, Hideo Kojima, intended for the game to be
a one-off project, and had no plans to continue with the series. Fans became so
vehement that Konami eventually gave in and had Kojima start work on a sequel.
The initial trailers marketed Metal Gear Solid 2 as an epic continuation of Solid
Snake’s adventure, and it quickly became one of the most anticipated and
expensive games of its time. When it was released, the game was everything
that fans dreamed of. The opening Tanker mission was creatively designed,
featured few game-interrupting codec sequences, and had ample fan-pleasing
dialogue between beloved characters. The whole thing was excitingly paced and
represented the exact kind of sequel that fans clamored for. That is, until the
Tanker sank and Snake apparently died.

Me
tal Gear Solid 2 was one of the most anticipated games of its time.

After that integral plot twist, players take control of Raiden, a golden-haired,
effeminate, and oft-whiny operative, with extensive experience in virtual reality
missions but no actual experience in the field of combat. Kojima was cognizant
that fans would be infuriated at the realization that they would be controlling the
unlikable Raiden for the rest of the game, and deliberately designed the opening
sequences of his mission poorly. While the Tanker mission featured few gameplay
interruptions and sophisticated level design that gave experienced players a lot
of strategic freedom, Raiden’s mission was consistently interrupted by long-
winded, unnecessary tutorials and Raiden slavishly taking orders from his
superiors. The plot disregards the series’ fiction by jumping from magical-realism
to histrionic silliness, introducing goofy twists such as vampires, a rollerskating
fat man, and an Illuminati-like superpower. All this is reinforced by the game’s
advertising, from which Raiden was completely absent. Raiden’s introduction
contradicted practically all fan expectations of a proper sequel to Metal Gear
Solid, and their outrage at being treated this way was palpable.

But thematically and artistically, Metal Gear Solid 2’s false-advertising and
savaging of its own fanbase makes total sense. Raiden was trained as a soldier
through virtual reality, playing through simulations of Snake’s previous missions,
each of them “indistinguishable from the real thing”. In context, Raiden
represents geek culture, he believes that he is qualified for his mission because
he played as Snake in combat simulations, lending him a strange inability to
grasp the increasingly surreal nature of his adventure. In postmodern philosophy,
the term “hyperreality” refers to the inability of a consciousness to distinguish
between reality and a simulation of reality, a habitual problem that geek and
otaku culture is accused of suffering from. An incessant torrent of plot twists and
gameplay sequences impounds this hyperreality, as the game continues, it is
revealed that Raiden’s support team is really an AI simulation of Colonel
Campbell and Rose, Raiden’s girlfriend, and that his entire mission was nothing
but an elaborate simulation intended to condition Raiden into becoming the
perfect replication of Solid Snake. In its final chapters, the game grows
increasingly strange, code spews through walls, characters literally turn on
infinite ammo cheats, and the game abandons its stealth mechanics with an
ultraviolent shootout against a horde of ninjas. The penultimate confrontation
pits Raiden against an army of giant robots in a TRON-like arena as pounding
techno plays in the background. By the time the player physically encounters
Rose at the game’s conclusion, the player is filled with doubt and confusion over
whether or not what she sees is real, even in the context of the game.
Fa
ns didn’t ask for this…

Which all makes sense given Kojima’s initial reluctance to make Metal Gear Solid
2 in the first place. Postmodern themes like hyperreality, simulation, and
simulacra, in combination with Raiden’s unwanted presence and the ambiguity of
the entire plot, all alienate the hardcore fans that irked Konami for a sequel. As
the game ends, Raiden rejects the player’s control by taking out a pair of dog
tags labeled with the player’s name and throwing them into the distance. In a
closing monologue, Snake asks the player to embrace subjectivity and disregard
the search for an objective reality.

Granted, this is not the only valid interpretation of Metal Gear Solid 2, and much
better writings exist from Leigh Alexander and Brett Fujioka, but the focus of this
article is on video games that self-reflexively raise issues about their medium,
and Metal Gear Solid 2 accomplishes this by subverting fan expectations of a
sequel. For detailed analysis of Japanese postmodernism and Otaku culture,
consider reading Hiroki Azuma’s “The Animalization of Otaku Culture”.

There are a number of games that I have not been able to cover in this article,
such as Hotline Miami, a ludic condemnation of narrative games, and The Secret
of Monkey Island, a self-aware point and click comedy. That said, these
postmodern “games about games” all raise very interesting questions about the
artificiality of fiction, player expectations, and relativism, giving developers very
interesting material to design responses off of. If anything, the deconstruction of
game-related issues prompts creative responses and better understandings of
what an interactive medium can and cannot accomplish.