May 7, 2008
Michael outlines three broad categories of games that are currently “supporting” the industry, like the legs of a tripod: games that favor narrative elements, like Grand Theft Auto IV; games that favor ludic elements, like Mario Kart Wii; and ultra-accessible “lifestyle” games such as the upcoming Wii Fit (which doesn’t have a snappy term yet, as far as I know).
It’s an instructive metaphor, and I think that it can be taken even further. First, though, I want to talk about a fourth category of games that’s been getting attention recently, which I’ll call self-reflexive games.
Self-reflexive games are aware of their status as video games. They obliquely reference other titles, ironize the conventions of their genres, and riff on the culture that surrounds the industry. Like a jazz solo that quotes an old standard or a novel that satirizes a particular author’s style, self-reflexive games require a smart audience to get the references and fully appreciate their design. In short, they’re games made for gamers, and their existence is a reflection of the medium’s maturation.
The idea of self-reflexive games goes back to 1995 (at least) with EarthBound, still one of the best video game sendups I’ve seen.1 While it’s absolutely hilarious, it’s also impossible to explain to people who don’t play games. More recently there’s No More Heroes, which irreverently juxtaposes two decades of gaming aesthetics (according to my reading of it, at least). There’s also the recent crop of indie games, such as Kian Bashiri’s You Have to Burn the Rope, that have played upon gaming conventions in a humorously referential way.2
So what does this self-reflexive category have to do with anything? If we graft it onto the categories that Michael came up with, we can create two continua which are useful for describing how video games work.
The first continuum has ludic elements on one and and narrative elements on the other, and measures a game’s dependence on storytelling. This is a familiar dichotomy to those who have studied games. Way at the ludic end might be a game like Tetris — no story, no characters, just pure unadulterated play. Way at the narrative end would be something like Shenmue, a game that can have its interactivity removed and lose almost nothing in the process. Other games, like Michael’s Mario Kart Wii and Grand Theft Auto IV suggestions, fall somewhere between those extremes.
The other continuum measures how “video-gamey” the game is. I think of the two ends of this one as “accessibility” and “self-reflexivity,” which are perhaps not ideal terms, but they’ll do for now. Way at the accessibility extreme are titles like Wii Fit and Brain Age, which use the language of video games but otherwise barely qualify as such. Next to them are games like Wii Play and Mario Party, which are more traditionally “video-gamey” but don’t require a deep familiarity with the medium to enjoy. Moving down the line we encounter genres that are increasingly built upon gaming expertise: real-time strategy games, tactical RPGs, 4X games, MMORPGs.3 Finally, on the self-reflexivity end is No More Heroes and You Have to Burn the Rope. For these titles, the mechanics aren’t the issue — their very appeal is limited to those steeped in the culture.
One of the neat things about thinking of games this way is that it places them in a greater context. One can almost imagine the definition of “game” distorting at the edges of the graph. Go too far past Shenmue in the “narrative” direction, and you end up with a plain old movie; go too far towards “accessibility,” and you end up passing Wii Fit and finding…well, real life. It’s no wonder we’ve had trouble defining video games.
As you can probably tell, I’m still working this theory out. I’d love to hear your feedback.
- If you’d like to give it a try, EarthBound is likely coming to the Wii Virtual Console soon.
- For further reading on these games, I recommend Tim Rogers on EarthBound (known as Mother 2 in Japan), Schlaghund on No More Heroes, and IndieGames’s interview with the creator of You Have to Burn the Rope.
- It seems that generally speaking, the more bizarre or unwieldy the acronym, the less accessible the genre. Funny how that works out.