[24 August 2010]
PopMatters Associate Multimedia Editor
Video games have often been used to parody or satirize social conventions. Whether it’s something as simple as recreating a shoe being thrown at George Bush or a satirical representation of how to operate a Fast Food chain, these games use the power of interaction to make their commentary more tangible. People have been making up games and playing this way for centuries. An excellent book by Mary Flanagan, Critical Play, explores the history of this practice and outlines several criteria for assessing games that are critically engaging an aspect of society. She writes, “Critical play means to create or occupy play environments and activities that represent one or more questions about aspects of human life . . . Criticality in play can be fostered in order to question an aspect of a game’s “content,” or an aspect of a play scenario’s function that might otherwise be considered a given or necessary” (6).
Something like the McDonald’s Game (cited above) is a good example of both content criticism and a questionable system. It takes a business sim and uses that system to outline the corruption of a corporation. The only way to “win” the game is to be corrupt, and all of the content uses modern examples and recognizable parodies to do so. That’s a unique example though, most games are either criticizing the content placed in their system or criticizing the system itself by inducing absurd behavior. Flanagan goes on to explain critical play through one of the original forms of critical play via doll houses, “The enactment of critical play exhibits at least three kinds of action: unplaying, re-dressing or reskinning, and rewriting” (32). “Unplaying” is acting out forbidden scenes with the doll. “Re-dressing” is changing the doll’s appearance or items for darker play, like making funeral items and caskets. “Rewriting” is fan fiction and the proliferation of people writing stories about the doll funerals.
On a side note, I ought to distinguish the difference between a satire and a parody. There are a couple of different arguments about their meaning, but for the sake of this post, I’m just plucking the first coherent one that Google gives me. Over on DifferenceBetween.net, a post explains, “Though both parody and satire conveys humor, they impart different roles in society. Satire stands for a social or political change. It depicts an anger or frustration trying to make the subject palatable. Satire can be termed as humor and anger combined together. Parody is really meant for mocking and it may or may not incite the society. Parody is just pure entertainment and nothing else. It does not have a direct influence on the society” (“Difference Between Parody and Satire”, DifferenceBetween.net). So, for our purposes, a parody is supposed to be funny by mimicking something in a ridiculous way, and a satire is supposed to be funny and also induce reflection by mimicking something out of context.
Any game that is focusing on larger social issues tends to inherently become a satire. This is a kind of accidental benefit of the uncanny valley in games. Anytime that you reduce a complex social system like immigration or sexism into a game, it is automatically drawn out of any recognizable context. The system, as Flanagan notes, becomes the commentary by redressing a previous game and thus acting more like an analogy. A great example is Hey Baby, where men cat call and follow you around an urban environment while you shoot them. It’s conceptually an FPS with the content “re-dressed” to make play be about a social issue instead of the usual topics in games. What is interesting about video games is when they are mocking themselves. A system mocking another system isn’t going to have the same inherent uncanny valley issue because it was never real to begin with. It’s also inherently going to be a parody for the same reason, deconstructing a depiction of reality can only raise awareness of the depiction itself.
I haven’t had the chance to play Ian Bogost’s Cow Clicker, which is a spoof of Facebook games like Farmville, but that’s the latest big parody making the rounds. For this post, I’m just going to rattle off a few greatest hits and then focus on several games mocking the same genre. One of the most popular parodies is You Have To Burn The Rope. Acting as a mockery of overly easy gameplay, the game explains everything you have to do to win before you even enter the room. Obviously most games try to obfuscate things a little bit, but playing them still amounts to what You Have To Burn The Rope is depicting. Gameplay itself is much easier because you can’t die and there is no way to win except by burning the rope. It’s an example of Flanagan’s re-dressing of a game, but this time the game removes all the content distortion and design complexity to mock the system of hints that guide players through a game. It simplifies the game’s content and design to just depict the bare bones system. Another game that does this would be Marcus Richert’s Passage in 10 Seconds. Same idea as above, except now we’re targeting a specific game and including a poke at the extreme enthusiasm Passage received when it was released.
The general traits of a video game parodying another video game are simplification of both content and design to show how inane the bare bones interaction of that game really is. The good ones keep both intact so that interplay remains recognizable. Even within those guidelines, there’s a surprising amount of variation because artistically the games are all struggling to find a way to depict the basic interaction—except you feel stupid while doing it. Three examples of games mocking RPG conventions highlight the variation. First up is Progress Quest, in which you basically hit start and the game plays itself. A series of charts and bars fill and adjust as your character gathers quests and kills critters like one normally does in an RPG, but the system highlights how arbitrary an RPG is because in either game there is no real choices to be made. You have to play the game a specific way, and by removing almost all interaction and content, you become aware of how dull this interaction really is at the core. Another example is Progress Wars, which goes so far as to describe itself as being “like Progress Quest for people who aren’t old”. The big difference is that the game incorporates clicking a button constantly so that the action becomes even more tedious.
A more recent parody is Synopsis Quest, which shifts the focus from mocking an RPG’s combat and focuses on the generic interactive moments that exist in JRPGs. Get on the airship, talk to the princess, or solve the block puzzle are all reduced to simple one minute exchanges that break up the moments that Progress Wars and Progress Quest are lampooning. I consider it the better of these parodies because it mocks the dynamic between design and content instead of just one or the other. You just watch text scroll by in Progress Quest. You never get a chance to really interact with it besides clicking a button. In Synopsis Quest, the interaction is still present, just simplified to tiny bursts of archetypal scenes in a JRPG.
There are other ways to mock a game besides simplification. You can also add subversive content or exaggerate the design. Many modern games, particularly multiplayer titles, now drag out their playtime by making you play for upgrades so that you can use all the weapons available in them. Nintendo would be one of the biggest offenders in this area, but even games like Modern Warfare 2 use unlockables in this way. Game designer Tony’s hilarious parody using exaggerated design is Upgrade Complete. You don’t just unlock weapons in the game. You have to unlock everything from music to the actual menu buttons. It exaggerates the design out to such a level of absurdity that you don’t even upgrade things that are involved in the actual gameplay.
An example of someone tweaking content is Marcus Richert’s You Only Live Once, which starts off as a Mario parody but with one exception. When you hit continue after you die, you don’t come back to life. Instead, it shows the events that follow the normal game “conclusion.” The police arrive, monsters are arrested, and eventually your corpse is taken out by an ambulance. Given what accepted gaming conventions death and rebirth are in this medium, the parody of breaking that norm alone is enough to get a laugh out of the player.
Finally, while most people probably don’t think of these games as parodies when they play them, another form of parody can simply be amplifying the difficulty of a game. Consider two different takes on Tetris that both find unique ways to parody the game’s system. In First Person Tetris, the screen rotates as you rotate blocks, becoming increasingly disorienting and making the player prone to motion sickness. The game’s challenge is to see how long you can go without vomiting. Another example is Hatetris, which only gives you the z-block and challenges the player to figure out how to make even one line connect with such limited resources. Like other parodies, these are simplifications or clever additions that allow a player to focus on the core interaction, but here they carefully change the nature of that exchange. The challenge of Tetris has always been figuring out where to put the next block, making that process more difficult makes the player all the more aware of that fact. It’s a strong parody because, like Synopsis Quest, it keeps the interaction intact instead of just providing design or content individually. This is what lies at the heart of any video game parody: drawing attention to a video game trope by any means and getting the player to laugh at its silliness.