Sunday, February 4, 2018

Meta Games

In the indie space it's fairly common to see developers experimenting with the limits of what video games can achieve.  One direction I've seen being pushed increasingly the last couple years is in a meta direction.  "What is game?" is a question that was first brought to my attention with the Stanley Parabola about four years ago and is one which I'd like to address here by pointing out three specific examples.

What starts out as a VR adaptation of Duck Hunt on a pseudo-NES, turns more sinister the longer you play.  I won't get into the story details, but I would like to mention that the game uses the virtual reality headset to allow the player to see through the eyes of a child (complete with a 1980s home built around playing one of those third generation video game consoles).  It's all rather immersive in that the player can swap out cartridges to try out different games, stick in a VHS tape and watch live-action video on an old CRT, or even interact with various objects in the house.  Although you're limited movement-wise the weather outside the house seems to imply a hot sunny afternoon.  Perhaps the environment was crafted based on one or more of the developers' childhood memories from a leisurely summer school break.  Funnily enough when you pop in the Duck Season game cartridge the player is quite literally drawn into the TV set and a version of the game that feels much more consistent with a modern adaptation of Duck Hunt rather than the 8-bit version it's supposed to be based on.  Oh and that hound has a Donnie Darko thing going on...just replace Frank the Rabbit with the Dog from Duck Hunt.

Advertised as a text-based adventure game it actually has more in common with an old television series like Outer Limits or The Twilight Zone.  The story is broken into three seemingly unrelated episodes and a fourth info-dump that ties everything up into a big metatextual ball.  This is one of those games that sets up players with a series of extraordinary events and then hits them with an ending twist that's actually very mundane.  If you've played The Vanishing of Ethan Carter, Firewatch or Gone Home you probably know exactly what I'm talking about.  If not, then let's just say it's not my cup of tea.  Performing medical/scientific procedures on an unknown specimen is intriguing.  Relaying weapon deployment codes from a remote base somewhere in the frozen wastes of Greenland?  Riveting!  Even the first episode which features the double layer of the player using his or her computer to manipulate an in-game character to play a text-based game on their computer (which in turn seems to affect that reality) is trippy and bizzare in interesting ways...alas, learning that it's actually just a daydream fantasy made up by an ordinary loser who made some questionable life choices is kind of a let down.

Billed as an educational game, the demo version of PC Building Simulator has been freely available for download off the internet for the better part of a year now.  However, a more fully realized version of the game is set for a January 2018 release.  From the perspective of trying to teach people how to build PC desktops without make costly time consuming mistakes, I can see why this piece of software might have a degree of widespread appeal.  That said, the whole notion of using your computer to build another computer in a simulated environment is more than a little weird when you take a step back and look at it objectively.  When we're done building a simulation of a PC are we going to use that PC to run a simulated version of PC Building Simulator and build another PC in that one?  If so, things are starting to look a lot like one of the endless series of reflections you get by placing two mirrors face to face.  I suppose this sort of game coming out was inevitable considering that there are over 200 unique pieces of software for sale on Steam (not counting DLC) that have the world "Simulator" in the title.  Maybe a better name for PC Building Simulator would be Simulation Simulator...or is that too meta?

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