They say that it’s impossible to tell if you’re in a simulation, unless it’s Inception and you have a little trick for that. And in video games nowadays, breaking the fourth wall or demonstrating awareness of the game as an actual game is becoming increasingly popular. The most famous, and most obvious, example of this is probably The Stanley Parable (2013) but it is by no means the first or only game to invoke this style of narrative and gameplay. Many games crack jokes at the fact that they are games, but it actually goes much deeper than that. Whether it’s simply to poke fun at the video game industry or the player’s choices, or something deeper and more profound like questioning the nature of reality or humankind’s seemingly innate desire for violence and mayhem, games have been messing with their players since day one.
Spec Ops: The Line (2012) is a good start to this list. While it starts off as a very standard first-person shooter with good guy American soldiers and bad guy foreign terrorists, the game and it’s protagonist gradually fall apart at the seams as the horrors of the conflict he’s exposed to cause his psyche to disintegrate. The characters in the game begin to address the player directly and question their enjoyment of the endless violence, and the loading screen also gives you flak with messages like ‘This is all your fault’. Whether this is supposed to be commentary on the American military-industrial complex is still up for debate, but there’s no denying the heavy individual criticism directed at the player.
Doki Doki Literature Club starts off like a bog-standard visual novel, where the player dates a harem of anime girls (if that’s your thing – no judgement). But things start to get pretty weird about halfway through, when the game suddenly reboots, minus one of the girls. Other glitches and evidence of tampering bleed through, and eventually everything disappears except the player and one of the girls, who, it is revealed, has become self-aware within the game and destroyed all of her love rivals to win the affection of the player. Creepy!
Danganronpa V3: Killing Harmony (2017) is basically a visual novel version of Battle Royale. In this series, classmates have to solve puzzles and stealthily murder each other to be the last one standing. While the first two games do this in a very straightforward manner, the third instalment messes with the player’s head at the climax, as the surviving students discover that they are in a video game, being forced to endure and inflict violence for the enjoyment of people in the ‘real’ world. The game ends with its characters downing tools and refusing to continue, after chastising the player for enjoying the game’s cruelty.
The Magic Circle (2015) rounds off this little list perfectly. The player assumes the position of a QA tester recruited to assist in creating the live demo for a game that spent twenty years in development hell. The two project leads have developed a fierce rivalry over their respective creative philosophies, and as a result of their inability to work together, the game has largely become vaporware. The player is first introduced to the developers, who appear in the world as floating eyes changing the environment on a whim. After the playtest session is declared “finished,” a rogue AI from a previous iteration of the game contacts the player and instructs them on how to control the game’s creatures in order to finish it or flee.
Thanks for reading, we hope you have enjoyed this shallow attempt at social commentary.