Self-referentiality in video games

The video game is a young medium, and has largely yet to reach the textual complexity of novels or the cinema. This is understandable; while the primary purpose of books and films is to tell a story, games must place interactivity before other concerns. After all, a game that is no fun to play is not a good game. However, within the framework of interactivity it is possible for games become self-referential, to comment upon the very act of gaming. In recent years, games have begun to embrace this approach. BioShock and the Assassin’s Creed series are two examples.

BioShock incorporates the player’s experiences of playing video games into its narrative. The player assumes the role of an unnamed man trapped in the underwater city of Rapture. After entering the city, the player receives a radio and makes contact with Atlas, a resident of Rapture. Atlas, via the radio, tells the player where to go and what to do.

The Illusory Nature of Control in Video Games Plays a Vital Role in BioShock’s Narrative

As the game progresses, the player discovers that the protagonist is a genetically-engineered human, programmed to obey Atlas’ orders. With this revelation, developer Irrational Games makes a sly comment on how we play games. In most games, the player is given the illusion of control, whilst having to obey orders in order to progress. By stripping the protagonist of freewill, BioShock dispels the illusion, and highlights the lack of control present in video games. This lack of control becomes part of the games narrative; the protagonist, like the player, has no choice but to obey Atlas.

The Assassin’s Creed series also incorporates the concept of control into its narrative. The player assumes the role of Desmond Miles, a member of an ancient order of Assassins. Desmond is forced by the shadowy Abstergo corporation to live out the genetic memories of his ancestors through a machine called the Animus. Within the Animus, the player can perform a number of spectacular actions, including running across rooftops, leaping from the tops of towers and assassinating various individuals.

The Assassin’s Creed Series Highlights the Heightened Control of Video Games, Whilst Commenting Upon the Proliferation of Games in Wider Society

However, outside the Animus the player’s actions are severely limited; other than movement, one can interact with only a few objects with the prompt, “Press any button.” This highlights the contrast between the player’s apparent freedom within a video game with their lack of freedom outside of the game. Like Desmond outside of the Animus, players are limited in their actions in the real world. However, when playing video games, they can be given the power to do anything.

Assassin’s Creed II adds an extra layer to the series’ comment on gaming. Whilst there are fewer sections with Desmond outside of the Animus, they are characterised by a greater freedom. Many of the skills available inside the Animus, such as freerunning, can be performed by Desmond in the “real world.” This can be seen as a reflection of gaming’s invasion of wider society. The Nintendo Wii has players act out vague analogues of actions performed in its games; while the proliferation of games on social networking sites such as Facebook means that even those who don’t consider themselves “gamers” are playing games. Just as in Assassin’s Creed II, the heightened control of video games are seeping into the real world.

This kind of self-referential reflection of a medium’s relationship with its audience has existed for decades in film and literature, but is only a recent development in video games. It is also uncommon; only a handful of games can claim to comment upon the very experience of playing them. However, given the high profile nature of BioShock and the Assassin’s Creed series, it is possible that the issues discussed in this article are the start of a growing movement in video games.

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