Winking at the Player

Subtle Hints in Straight Faced Games

by Scott Juster

2 December 2010

Self aware games don’t always break the fourth wall; sometimes they just peer over it.

Perhaps I’ve been playing too many games or maybe I haven’t been getting enough sleep, but I find myself increasingly under the impression that some games are trying to send me hidden signals.  Even some of the most straight-faced, large-budget, mass-appeal titles seem to be winking at me through a crack in the fourth wall.

Some games don’t bother to mask their self awareness. MadWorld takes a gleeful delight in forsaking any attempt to seriously justify extreme violence and instead makes a joke about the simple, lowbrow appeal of a brawler.  DeathSpank is unabashedly comedic in its approach, and plays its very existence as a game for laughs.  Traditional features that would usually sit “above” the game’s world like the quest log, inventory system, and mission structure are explicitly referenced, making it so that both the players and the characters are aware of them.  Although the Metal Gear Solid series generally takes itself more seriously than the previous two examples, those games are legendary for their fourth-wall-breaking antics. Continuing with the metaphor of mischievous non-verbal body language, explicitly referencing the game’s CD case or discussing the console hardware within a serious story about war, technology, and morality is more akin to mooning the player than it is winking at them. While such shenanigans are entertaining, I’d like to take a closer look at some titles whose nods to the player are more subtle.

The climactic confrontation with Andrew Ryan explains the protagonist’s willingness to follow orders from apparently random strangers.  It also pairs his lack of free will with the player’s lack of agency within the plot.  Like Jack, the player was unable to disregard the linear set of orders set out for them.  What will undoubtedly go down as one of the great plot twists in the medium’s history also set off a firestorm in the realm of game criticism.

At the center of this storm was Clint Hocking’s influential essay: “Ludonarrative Dissonance in Bioshock.”  Hocking deftly identifies the split between the game’s narrative focus on freedom of choice and its linear ludic structure:

The ‘twist’ in the plot is a deus ex machina built upon the very weaknesses of game stories that we—as players—agree to accept in order to have some sort of narrative framework to flavor our fiddling about with mechanics. To mock us for accepting the weaknesses of the medium not only insults the player, but it’s really kind of ‘out of bounds’ (except as comedy or as a meta element—of which it appears to be neither).  (“Ludonarrative Dissonance in Bioshock”, Click Nothing, 10 October 2007)

I feel that the twist is a bit more “meta” than Hocking suggests.  What is more insulting? Offering players a narrative justification for the compromises that must be made in order for a narratively-linear game to function or simply ignoring the problem?  Perhaps this aspect of BioShock was meant as a respectful nod to people exactly like Hocking?

In public, Ken Levine comes off as both creative and practical.  In his 2008 GDC presentation, he lays out his basic conception regarding layers of storytelling:

Level 1 - “Where do I need to go, who do I need to kill? If you don’t hit those people you will be making those games, as we did at Irrational, that sold 150,000 units.”
Level 2 - “I need to kill this guy Andrew Ryan, there’s that Fontaine guy, there are those little girls. I’m usually in this group in games, some interest in the story.”
Level 3 - “Think about music. There’s the weird kid in the back of the classroom who’s writing all the Nirvana lyrics on his notebook. That’s the hardcore fan . . . you have to give them all of that love, a novelistic level of detail. That has to be there but it can’t get in the way of the experience of the guy who just plays Madden and Halo.” (“GDC: Ken Levine Speaks: Empowering Players to Care About Your Stupid Story”, Gamasutra, 20 February 2008)

Based on his experience, Levine argues that creating approachable games with “opt-in, opt-out” stories is necessary to find success with a wide audience.  In reality, BioShock was beholden to the perception that an overly ambitious game would fail to find an audience.  Because of this, BioShock’s gameplay remains very traditional, despite its unique story.

Since Levine and company lacked either the freedom or the confidence to transform the game’s systems to reflect its narrative themes, they did the next best thing: they worked in clever plot devices that fit the story while explaining away the gameplay absurdities commonly found across the medium.  The concept of failure and death was justified by the Vita Chambers.  Deranged enemies were portrayed as humans undone by their own flaws.  The player’s willingness to follow orders was justified by Jack’s brainwashing, and his continued obedience was explained by the clearly misguided ideology that led to Rapture’s rise and fall.  After learning that Objectivism birthed rapture, could any sane person still consider it a viable option?

While the end result of these design choices still results in BioShock adhering to many traditional design tropes, their justification within the wider story is a sign of respect for those who want “a novelistic level of detail” in their games.

Uncharted 2

My personal misgivings with the Uncharted series relate to Hocking’s criticisms of BioShock.  In dialogue and cutscenes, Drake is characterized as a roguish, yet fallible everyman.  Like Indiana Jones, Drake does his fair share of fumbling and bumbling, but his quick thinking and confidence always see him through.

However, playing as Drake is akin to controlling a robotic killing machine.  With unlimited endurance and strength, he can scale sheer surfaces and hang off a ledge indefinitely.  He routinely charges into pitched firefights and comes out victorious.  Problems are solved by sharpshooting rather than sharp wits.

Because of this discrepancy, I enjoyed the final battle of Uncharted 2, in which the villain, Zoran Lazarevic, taunts Drake and questions his identity as a light-hearted rascal:

You think I am a monster.  But you’re no different from me, Drake.  How many men have you killed?  How many, just today?  That’s it, boy.  No compassion, no mercy.  (Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, 2009)

When playing the first Uncharted, I actually tried to keep track of how many men Drake and I had eliminated.  Even my most conservative estimate amounted to something like 320.  That pace did not slacken in Uncharted 2, which is why I am compelled to see at least some ironic humor in Zoran’s last speech.  Although his line of thought is never given much credence by the narrative or any of the characters, he raises a good point.  What is the difference between the murderer I control and the murderer I play against?  The one I play as looks like the good guy from the cutscenes, Naughty Dog suggests with a wink.

The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask

As someone who has grown up along with the Legend of Zelda series, Tingle strikes me as more than simply a quirky character.  In addition to being one the strangest (and some would say most annoying) figures in the Zelda universe, he functions as an self-referential joke about the series, as well as its fans.

With his green tunic, interest in magic, and obsession with fairies, Tingle functions as an alternate-reality version of Link.  Unfortunately for him, Tingle does not possess Link’s heroic qualities or noble destiny.  Instead, he whiles away his days in escapism: “Alas, though I am already age 35, no fairy has come to me yet . . .  My father tells me to grow up and act my age, but why? I tell you . . . Tingle is the very reincarnation of a fairy!” (Majora’s Mask, 2000).  While Link is leads a perpetually young, charmed life, Tingle’s childish naivete is offered as a joke about what might happen should Link ever open his mouth or succeed in vanquishing evil forever.  The line between the Hero of Time and some weirdo in a green shirt is a thin one.

Tingle’s perpetual childhood plays with the concept of developmental stagnation.  This is especially amusing in the context of the history of the Zelda series.  Mildly put, Zelda evolves at a deliberate pace: most of the games share the same items, adhere to the same quest structure, contain the same combat dynamics, and follow the old story of vanquishing evil to save a princess.  By the time that Majora’s Mask was released, the franchise was already 14 years old.  Today, at 24 years old, its dedication to recreating large parts of its childhood with every major release is starting to seem a bit Tingle-esque.

Finally, the image of a delusional, fantasy obsessed man-child is not a foreign one in relation to video game culture.  In addition to being a sad foil for Link, Tingle pokes fun at the people who continually don their green tunics and fantasize about magical adventurers.  Tingle’s father complains that “a child his age has no business searching for fairies”.  It’s a sentiment that those who choose to play video games have probably felt from others at some point in time.  Coming from Nintendo, Tingle’s treatment can be seen as a particularly cruel joke, as the company responsible for catering to escapist fantasies is now poking fun at people who indulge themselves.  Tingle serves as a way for Nintendo to slyly acknowledge some of the series’ narrative and mechanical ruts, while also ribbing the player for indulging in them at every opportunity.

It’s tempting to focus on obviously humorous, campy, or post-modern games when looking for works that demonstrate self awareness.  However, in some ways, meta commentary is most thought provoking in games that do take themselves seriously.  Catching the signs often requires careful study and perhaps a little bit of faith.  Such winks tend to be subtle and fleeting, which makes them all the more rewarding when found.


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