Meta-textual Moments in Games

Earlier this semester, I was playing Super Paper Mario, and was struck by a very interesting moment early in the game. A character was explaining to Mario a new ability he had just learned, and was explaining how to perform it. When he explained to press the A button to activate it, the character added something along the lines of “Oh, you don’t know what that means? Well, perhaps someone is some parallel dimension is watching all this and knows what to do.” This was certainly a playful little jab at the standard game dialogue where a character explains to your game avatar which buttons to press. However, Link doesn’t need to press A to swing his sword, and it honestly doesn’t make any sense to tell him to do it. These times when characters momentarily break the fourth wall to explain game mechanics to the player are generally accepted as a necessary conceit, although clearly the makers of Super Paper Mario decided to have some fun with it.

Another similar instance is the boss Psycho Mantis from the original Metal Gear Solid. The character, a psychic, reads the contents of the player’s memory card and makes comments on the files there. Then, during the fight, he responds to the player’s actions. However, if you use the second player controller during the fight, Psycho Mantis becomes unable to “read” the player’s mind, and the fight becomes much easier.

Probably the most meta-textually rich game I know of is Eternal Darkness. In the game, aside from the standard health bar, characters also have a sanity meter. As they encounter Cthulu-esque monsters throughout the game, they lose sanity, and various sanity effects occur. Some of them are simple, like seeing enemies that aren’t there or hearing ominous noises. However, others are them bridge the fourth wall, presenting what seem like error messages, like the controller ceasing to work, or the system seemingly restarting.

Certainly these sorts of things present interesting examples, but they are also very rare. It would be interesting to see if there are any games that contain exclusively direct address to the player. The only example I can think of is the adventure genre, which are usually depicted from an exclusively first person perspective with no narrative information on the player character: the player is effectively the character. Other first person genres, particularly first person shooters, rarely go this route. Even though the perspective is first person, the character is definitely a character. The player is not Master Chief or Gordon Freeman, and the game makes no pretext that they are.

  1. Jason Mittell’s avatar

    Interesting points – I find Super Paper Mario to be a very narratively rich game in a number of ways!

    As for your question, might we look at embedded mini-games in this light (like in GTA when you stop to play a videogame)? Your avatar is being asked to serve as the player, but the “identification” is not with the meta-game, but still with your avatar. And I think a lot of arcade-style games with no avatars are like this – you’re controlling a gun/cannon/device to affect the game, but you are still you.

  2. Nick Bestor’s avatar

    I’m not entirely sure I am playing as myself in the arcade-style no avatar games. I don’t think of myself as being inside the tiny little cannon shooting down missiles in Missile Command. I am playing as that cannon. I feel like the moment I am taking on a role that is not my own (and I certainly do not shoot down missiles in my day to day life), I’m interacting with an avatar.

    Perhaps that’s the key to non-narrative games I was talking about in my earlier post. There is no avatar intermediary. I am not playing someone playing Solitaire, I myself am playing Solitaire, albeit digitally. But I am not shooting down missile. I am controlling a representation of something shooting representations of missiles.

    And this reminds me of a point I forgot to make earlier: new post.


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