When you’re talking about stories, there’s an age-old division between form and content. The form is the shape of the thing: the words on the page, the page, the book itself – all those physical things that make up the form of the story. It’s about the way the story gets communicated, if you like. By contrast, the content is the actual story. There’s a group of theorists called narratologists – their concern is with the pure abstracted story, ripped out of its form and considered in all its Platonic glory. Well, I’m exaggerating, but you know. Today I’d like to talk about how form and content interact, and how that sometimes goes wrong.
Metafictional stories are the sorts of stories that refer to their own existence as stories. Normally we think about stories as sucking you in – so you don’t just see images on a screen, for example, you imaginatively engage with the text and create your own cohesive world. You look through the text, as if it were a window into the story-world. The opposite of that practice is metafiction: it pulls you back to the surface, and makes you look at the window, rather than through it.
This is a painting by a Frenchman, Magritte, called “The Treachery of Images”. The text reads ‘This is not a pipe’ – because, of course, it’s not a pipe. It’s a picture of a pipe. The whole painting is a very elaborate way of saying ‘This is a picture’, drawing attention to the form of the thing – the material reality of the painted image. It’s no different to those clowns in Spaceballs pulling out the video tape of Spaceballs: The Movie to see what’ll happen next – again, that’s metafiction. It breaks down the walls of the fiction and points out that the movie is, in fact, a movie. The content foregrounds the form.
Video games also do this thing where content foregrounds the form, although I’m not sure it’s best understood as metafiction. We’ll talk about what it actually is another time. One of the most exciting things about video games, for me, and (half) the reason really for this whole blog, is that gameplay impacts narrative. If you’re running around shooting dudes, it’s because you’re in a story about a dude who runs around shooting dudes. We only see the narrative of somebody running around shooting dudes insofar as you play it out. To give just one example, I’ve previously talked about how Papo & Yo uses gameplay to simulate domestic violence.
So because video games partly communicate their story through gameplay, it makes sense that sooner or later the story starts foregrounding the form of what you’re actually doing. Assassin’s Creed makes going into a computer simulation part of the fictional story, for example. The Stanley Parable riffs on choice and the concept of free will in a deterministic programmed environment, and Portal, the video game meta-fiction par excellence, has you, the player, running through a bunch of test environments, just as Chel (the protagonist) does the exact same thing. Fortunately not all video games are quite so self-referential, but it’s unsurprising that a good deal of them are.
From among the pantheon of self-reflective games, I’d like to focus on Mike Bithell’s Volume. I was a bitch for Thomas Was Alone, because it was a beautifully pure example of how gameplay is narrative – something that, at the time, I was still trying to put into words. Volume, by comparison, isn’t really a game I like – there’s still interesting things to note about it, but I’m not a huge fan. I’m not sure whether it’s that I don’t like stealth elements – I mean, I didn’t like the stealth in Volume, at any rate. It all feels a little too clinical – as if you’re not really ‘playing’ so much as figuring out a Rubiks Cube. Which is not to say that Rubiks Cubes aren’t games – they’re simply just not games that I find particularly satisfying. Maybe I just don’t like puzzle games – I’m still trying to figure that one out. The details are largely irrelevant, anyway: I only want to preface this with the note that personally I wasn’t very fond of the gameplay. Moving on.
In Volume, the content references the form in a slightly different way. There’s a dude robbing the houses of rich people in a simulation and then posting the videos online so real people can rob the real rich houses. It’s very topical, very anti-capitalist, very concerned about power and government, etc, we’re all fine and dandy. Volume makes this interesting move in that it doesn’t reference what you do in the game so much as what you do with the game. Or at least, what some people do with the game. I’m talking, of course, about Let’s Plays. The lead character of Volume has repeatedly been described as carrying out the first criminal Let’s Plays, in the sense that he films his ‘play’ and posts it online, prompting people in reality to go out and actually commit these crimes.
So the content of the game, the whole plot element of a dude posting videos online, references form – not the form of the medium, but the form of the community around the medium. The game even opens with an invitation to that community: ‘Please feel free to make this into a Let’s Play!’
What we’ve got here, then, is a game that consciously layers its content over the shape of the surrounding community. However, it’s not done in such a way as to make the community and the fiction cohere: the community doesn’t believe it’s actually helping people carry out heists. There’s slippage between the Let’s Plays in the real world and the Let’s Plays of the fiction. This initially meant that I was quite hostile towards the reference – it seemed like a messy and insubstantial attempt at metafiction. With a little more reflection, that’s not how it comes across. Rather than being an attempt to seamlessly integrate fiction and reality, the game simply uses the fiction to acknowledge the culture around it. That’s not enough to really pique my interest, but it’s something that’s worth noticing and thinking about.