A long while ago now I was thinking about an onslaught of games about games. In particular, there were (and still are) all these little flash games that are ostensibly criticisms or parodies of popular games and game forms.
A classic is You Have To Burn The Rope – a platformer in which you have only one recourse for action: run through the screen, burn the rope, end the game. At which point it sings you a little song about how you burned the rope, with the whole thing being presumably galling because, well, they told you to burn the rope, and you did. And thus the game is positioned, more or less, as a critique of the determinism of games. They can tell you what to do because they determine all that you can do. Other games that play on this theme are Free Will and You Only Live Once.
Another line of critique that’s been followed is questioning or revealing the grinding boredom and pointlessness that (supposedly at least) lies behind the representational layers of games. RPGs are victimized here especially, check out Super Press Space To Win RPG, for instance. In these games, gameplay is “distilled” down to an essence that communicates the sheer futility of play. In “Super Press Space To Win” you get to level up, win fights, and all the rest, all by continuously pressing space – mocking the inevitable and trivial win condition of many games. See also: Ginormo Sword.
The “achievement culture” of contemporary console games (and now PC games often, too) has also come under fire from these critic-games. In Achievement Unlocked (and Achievement Unlocked 2), for instance, you play a fairly simple platformer game in which almost every single action you take earns an “achievement” reward. Moving your mouse out of the window, clicking the start button, jumping for the first time, and on and on. Here the game takes the notion of awarding achievements to its logical extreme in order, presumably, to point out the emptiness of such rewards. See also: Upgrade Complete.
I find these games deeply interesting for a couple of reason. The first is that I love to see games being made as a form of criticism in this way. It seems like a good sign that today someone might react critically to something they perceive in life by making a game of or about it (see also: Super Columbine Massacre RPG and many others, of course, which are not about games specifically). Many, or maybe all of these games are clever little things that do actually make their point in a more sophisticated and enjoyable way than an essay or similar.
Which brings me to my second point: they’re enjoyable. There’s not one of the above-mentioned games that I didn’t pour a quite significant amount of time into, other than the purposefully short ones (such as Free Will, You Only Live Once, and You Have To Burn The Rope). The games therefore sit in an interesting and fun tension. On the one hand, we’re in on this joke about games – their triviality, deterministic world view, and pandering to our appetites for praise – ha ha. On the other hand, we’re sitting there enjoying these games in exactly the same way and for exactly the same reasons that we enjoy the games they critique.
I still can’t figure out if the games make their point, undermine it, or are performing the miraculous feat of having their cake and eating it too. Wonderful.