Metafictional videogames like Pony Island and The Magic Circle want to break free of the boundaries of traditional games.
Pony Island begins innocently.
Treacly music – art from a ’90s flash game aimed at your niece.
I press ‘Start Game’.
The loading screen ‘breaks’ and before I know it I’m embroiled in a struggle for control of a buggy game experience that might be trying to steal my soul.
Oh it’s one of those games.
Yes Pony Island recently released on Steam is only tenuously about ponies.
It’s more a game about videogames – a genre that is having something of a moment recently.
Pony Island joins other mid- to high-profile recent indie releases like The Magic Circle – The Beginner’s Guide and Undertale that offer insight into the inner workings of games and gaming.
These games use techniques and ideas literary theorists call ‘metafiction’.
In her handy 1984 book on the subject Metafiction: The Practice of Self-Conscious Fiction – lit professor Patricia Waugh defined metafiction as writing which draws attention to itself to its status and existence as a created piece of art ‘in order to pose questions about the relationship between fiction and reality’.
Metafiction – when done inelegantly – can feel self-indulgent.
Hearing a game talk about itself so eagerly and obviously can prompt ridicule – even contempt – instead of introspection.
Some metafictional games certainly can come off as self-important while still having a lot to offer.
The best strive to expand their boundaries and give players genuinely thought-provoking questions.
They are a springboard for thinking about games and the world in new ways.
That’s the great secret with games about games.
They’re not about themselves.
They’re about everything else.