On Storytelling: Meta Gaming

Words: 3902 Approximate Reading Time: 30-35 minutes

Spoiler Warning: This essay contains potential spoilers for Dark Souls, Undertale, and Pathologic 2.

One thing that often gets ignored in games is quitting. By most statistics we have, huge swaths of players never get to the end of the games they start, often a vast majority of players, in fact.

Now quitting isn’t wrong. There are plenty of reasons to quit, and since engagement with any medium – games, movies, books – should be determined by the person consuming it, we aren’t going to claim that people who quit are lazy, or suck, or not real gamers, or whatever else.

Instead, I want to focus on how quitting can become part of a game’s narrative. Actually, I want to talk more broadly about how a game’s narrative can incorporate the idea that there is a player behind everything. But “quitting” is a good entry point into the subject.

The reason this topic is important is that it adds a nice extra layer onto the storytelling. A game’s story can be well-told without this meta aspect. But one of the elements of video games that makes them fairly unique as a medium is that interaction is core to them.

What do I mean by that? Your experience of reading a book is dictated by what you do. If you put it down in the middle, your experience ends. But the book – strictly speaking – keeps going. The story “goes on” without you. It’s simply your knowledge or experience of the story that ends. But with a game, the world effectively “freezes” when you stop playing. There isn’t necessarily a story that keeps going, because the player drives the narrative to a degree. A book will keep going – there are still words on the page. But the game just stops, even though the basic components are already there.

The same meta narrative I am referring to here is not strictly unique to games. You can accomplish these same ideas within books or movies by making the act of participation a core part of the experience. You are trying to capture the sense that by not participating you are changing the story. It is simply that video games provide a shortcut to this meta narrative by requiring interaction by players.

So I want to explore ways in which player interaction has been and can be incorporated into games to allow for a form of storytelling that transcends the literal narrative within a game. Note that when I talk about these meta narratives, I do not mean them as mere additions made by players, but as actual story elements built into the game’s own world and narrative. We can construct narratives around the media we consume that exist outside of the literal narratives we encounter. But these media can go beyond that by effectively inviting or encouraging these constructions.

Dark Souls and Quitting

I want to start slow. Hence, again, the idea of quitting a game being incorporated into a game’s narrative. So let’s talk about Dark Souls.

Dark Souls has the player controlling a character that is on a quest to cure themselves of a status called “Hollowing.” Hollowing is a process by which a person becomes undead and is effectively condemned to eternal life. Being undead is the first stage of this process. But eventually, a person who loses the will to live – who cannot find a purpose or a task to pursue – loses their sanity and self-control. They become Hollow: they are mindless husks.

When you encounter various characters throughout the game, they often have various tasks they are hoping to accomplish. Sometimes they’re on quests for glory, or to seek power, or to find knowledge, and so on. And many of these characters can go Hollow. In fact, quite a few of them can go Hollow as a result of you helping them out with their quests. This all fits into the theming of Hollowing itself: that sometimes success can be destructive, since it robs us of the desire to strive.

So the basic rule of Hollowing is that you cannot give up. You must always make a purpose for yourself to keep going. If you can’t do that, you lose yourself.

But this rule applies to the player character as well. Your character is undead. You too are condemned to eternal life – being killed is just a temporary setback. You can reverse your Hollowing temporarily, but you can never fully undo it. That is, in fact, the point of the game’s questline – you have been told that to be Hollow is to be “Chosen,” and you need to figure out what that status means. Maybe it could even mean putting an end to your Hollowing.

But the quest is tough. Dark Souls is a difficult game by design. And a lot of players quit.

But what is fascinating about the narrative element of Hollowing is that it means when a player quits, the character’s story doesn’t simply “freeze.” Instead, the character’s journey is determined by the player’s interaction. By actively choosing to stop playing, you are giving up on the game. Which in turn means that your character is giving up as well. When you actively choose to quit – to put down the game and never pick it back up – your character goes Hollow.

This is not something that’s ever explicitly told to you. The game doesn’t warn you that if you stop playing your character will go Hollow. Frankly, players probably wouldn’t care if the game did. Not to mention that such a message would likely rob the fact of its impact. It’s merely a fact of the game’s own storytelling and worldbuilding.

And so this is one of the ways that Dark Souls incorporates player choice into its own narrative. It does not simply allow you to quit – such an allowance is meaningless, because you don’t need a game’s permission to stop playing. Rather, it folds your choice into the game’s narrative. Subtly, but the folding happens. Your choice has an impact on the story being told, even if that choice is “I’m done with this.”

Undertale and File Changing

Alright, so let’s build up from there. I’ll now switch to another example: Undertale.

Those familiar with the basics of Undertale likely know about the various endings you can get depending on how you play the game. These endings depend not simply on selecting proper dialogue options or going down correct pathways, but how the player interacts with much the game world itself, such as through fighting.

The basic narrative of Undertale often gets fleshed out by exploring the various endings. Directly, the player is confronted with these ideas. At the end of the True Pacifist Route, the game’s main antagonist talks directly to the player.[1] They tell the player that all the characters are leading happy lives, and it’s probably a good idea to leave them alone at this point. But you as the player have the ability to reset time, which you might want to do so you can play again. So the antagonist warns you that if you do decide to reset things, you have to go through everything again, which includes the fights against that antagonist.

A similar moment happens at the end of the “bad ending,” known as the Genocide Route. There, the player is confronted by an evil spirit who decides to destroy the entire game world. The player has no actual choice, here: refusing leads to this spirit announcing that you were never really in control. Once this is done, the player can try to restart, only to encounter a black void. The spirit then talks to the player and offers them a choice: if they want the game world to return, they must provide the spirit with control over the player character. If the deal is made, there is a subtle change when the game ends on the True Pacifist Route, as it is revealed that the evil spirit has indeed taken over – your choice has effectively doomed the characters you’ve grown to love.

Now let’s talk about fun. Not the concept, but a value in the game. When you load up a game of Undertale, the game creates a file on your computer that has a bunch of information, which is continually updated. What’s the character’s name? Did they make particular choices at certain points? What are the character’s stats?

One of the values in that file is called “fun”. The number of this “fun value” is generated randomly each time you start a new game, and can range from 1 to 100. And the value you get can determine if you experience any of a number of special events sprinkled throughout the game. Sometimes the events are small – an extra piece of dialogue. Sometimes you encounter new characters that reveal something about the game’s world. Those familiar with the character “Gaster” will likely know that to learn about this character, you must talk with NPCs that can only be accessed by experiencing these random events.

But if these characters show up only in certain spots in the game when the “fun value” is set to a certain number, then you could end up needing to play over and over and over again to experience these conversations and learn everything. So if you want to experience this stuff directly, you have to either keep trying…or just change the values. It’s quite easy to do.

This gives the player a degree of control – that you can just go in and change the game’s world (or a small part of it) by manipulating a line or two of the game’s code imparts a lot of power upon you as the player.

So let’s use this idea to revisit that whole Genocide Route thing.

The change made to the game when this evil spirit takes over is more complex. You can’t just change a number the way you would change a fun value. But you can manipulate the game’s files to remove the consequences of the deal you can make: you can undo the bad ending.

When we take these facts into consideration, we can start to see a different way of looking at the game. Where originally we were made to wonder if we are truly in control as a player, we can now think about ourselves as having the ultimate say. The game and the player are in conflict over how the game works.

We could then expand this idea even further, as a way of asking about how we play games not simply through the mechanical interactions within the game’s own defined rulesets – movements made on a controller or keyboard. We can also ask about interactions with the game’s own code. What, then, does it mean to really interact with a game?

One of the key questions we can pose here is to what extent these ideas are strictly built into the game. That is did the designer of Undertale, Toby Fox, mean for players to manipulate fun values or seek out ways to undo the bad ending, and as a consequence think about interaction with games more generally?

I don’t know. For the sake of this essay, that question is irrelevant. Instead, I use this is as an example of how a game at least can incorporate a meta narrative into its gameplay. Specifically, the Undertale example takes us beyond the mere concept of “putting the game down.”

Pathologic 2 and Replaying

So one game I started recently is Pathologic 2. I’d seen the video by hbomberguy on the original game, and it had left me with some lingering questions. I watched and rewatched it, and hbomberguy ends up recommending that viewers buy and play the sequel (but not necessarily the first game). I heartily recommend the video itself. But in my many viewings I had initially decided to avoid Pathologic 2 because it seemed like a game that wasn’t actually good. It wasn’t until very recently that I decided to give it a shot purely out of curiosity, and in doing so I have found myself enjoying the game immensely.

Like, just as a brief interlude, I do genuinely recommend the game. I can’t promise that you’ll enjoy it, and I don’t begrudge anyone for only playing a couple of hours. But it is going to end up being among those games – much like Dark Souls or Undertale – that I will urge people to at least try, because the experience of playing is going to be significantly different from the experience of watching.

So in playing through Pathologic 2, I am confronted by several aspects of the game that definitely deliver on this meta storytelling.

The game’s beginning is really the game’s ending. You’ve come to the point where everything has gone wrong, and you make a journey to a theater. As you walk the streets you see a town that has been utterly destroyed by a plague, and the outcome of that – bodies piled up, coffins lining the streets, people being shot for looting or trying to escape, sick people being killed to prevent them from spreading disease. And when you reach the theater, you find a strange character who offers you the opportunity to go back. A chance to return to the beginning and “do things right.” Which of course involves revisiting the scenes that lead up to where you are now. And, naturally, you take that option.

So the game has already set up the idea of “retrying.” Where playing a game over and over again might be something you do simply because you liked it, or because you want to make a few different choices, or because you played a good character the first time and now you want to play an evil character, Pathologic 2 bakes the idea of starting over into the very foundation of the game. You are caught by so many surprises, so many oddities, that at first glance just seem weird. The game is incredibly tough, because you are managing so much – you need to eat, sleep, drink water, get around, and all this with a very limited time. All of this together would normally be a recipe for disaster – the game is setting you up for failure. But it sets you up for failure while simultaneously telling you that you need to try again – the entire journey you’re going on is an explicit attempt to “try again,” even though it’s your first time through as a new player. The game is using its own meta narrative to instruct you that you need to learn about the twists and oddities to gather knowledge. You need to fail so you can learn to succeed.

Moreover, the game constantly breaks the fourth wall in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. Some NPCs have dialogue that raises strange questions about the player character’s perception of the world, and about the player’s interaction with the world. You sometimes find NPCs that ask you questions that can be answered through the perspective of you as the player or as the main character. The game uses the theming of acting and plays as a way of reminding you that you yourself are playing a role within the game. The point is to blur the line. You are both yourself and a character when you play any game. You inhabit two roles at once. And what you do with those two roles is a choice, one being constantly made and remade.

The breaking of the fourth wall then supplements one of the game’s larger themes about fate. Can you fight fate? Should you? Since video games are so often about choice, an important choice is to go against what the game “wants” you to do. But games so often don’t really allow you to do what they want. They’ll keep trying to push you back on to the main quests, maybe not even let you have side content to do. And so your choice is to do what the game says, or stop playing.

Another important element to the game is death. In most games, the penalty of death is time. You return to a prior save point and have to get through challenges you already overcame. In some games death might also exact a penalty on experience or currency – you will lose something that can be accumulated again, but will require an even greater time investment.

In Pathologic 2, death has your standard time penalty. You save at certain spots in the game, and if you die, you are returned to your last save.

But in addition, upon death you are warped to a theater, where a character informs you that you are going to be punished for your death mechanically. Not only will you be sent to your last save point, but you will suffer an additional penalty. These include lowering your maximum health, your maximum exhaustion (how often your character needs to sleep), and your maximum hunger (how often your character needs to eat). Since so much of the game is about managing your character with limited resources and limited time, these penalties make the game harder. Which, of course, means that it’s easier to die or means you’re more likely to screw something up, which gives greater penalties, and so on and so on.

The point of these penalties is explained within the game itself. It’s to encourage you to play more carefully, but also to see what you do in the face of these additional challenges. Will you give up? Will you persevere? Can you still get to the end despite these additional handicaps?

But the interesting thing about these penalties is that they are applied to your character retroactively. You are told that you can’t just load up an old save and escape the penalty. If you’ve lost a bit of your max health, that will carry with you all the way to your very first save. The only way you can get rid of it is by literally starting from scratch.

These mechanics are certainly interesting, but there’s a strategy that a clever player could employ. You only get hit with this penalty if you die. So what if you didn’t? I don’t mean that in the way of “play so well you never die.” But what if you were about to die, and then just paused your game and loaded up your previous save? You’re going to start back there anyway, so really it’s saving you time, as well as avoiding the penalty.

It’s possible to see this as just a clever exploit of the game’s rules. The game doesn’t check to apply the penalty until the character actually dies, so you just make sure to escape that check. There are tons of similar exploits throughout gaming.

But the framing of the game’s own narrative, including how you as the player are being pitted against the game, makes this more than just a potential exploit. It is a strategy that has meaning within the game’s own world. I would argue that this exploit is so obvious that the designers not only realized that players could do it, but expected people to eventually figure it out and use it. And that solution is to some extent a part of the intended experience.

You, as the player, are not just fighting against the game’s challenges. You are fighting the game itself. The penalties for death go beyond fighting an enemy or managing stats. They are meta challenges. And meta challenges require thinking outside of the narrow rules of how the game works – the rules for fighting and using items and exploring and so on. They require you to think about the rules of how games work more generally – the ability of the player to effectively control time and space within the game through the mechanics of saving and loading.

These mechanics, and your ability to manipulate them, become an important part of how you play the game and how you interact with the game. Loading the game is now not simply something that you do when you’re ready to continue, or because you died, but is a tool you make use of just as much as you might make use of a weapon within the game.

Which brings us back to the concept of fate, and fighting fate. The idea that these penalties are inescapable is true if they are applied. You cannot fight fate. But by understanding how that fate works, you can then learn how to avoid it. Which fits within how the game as a whole works – it requires you to learn how the game works by failing so that you can retry and use that knowledge to succeed.

There’s plenty more I could and really want to say about Pathologic 2, but hopefully this explains how meta storytelling can work.

The player is confronted with a theme, and the mechanics of the game draw the player’s attention not simply to the “internal” mechanics of the game, but to the “external” mechanics as well. Not simply to running around and jumping and talking to characters, but to components of games we effectively take for granted: codes and rules and saving and loading and all of that. How those themes and mechanics draw our attention to the fact that we are playing a game and what that means – how we as the player become a part of the story – allows the game to transcend the narrow confines of plot as mere events that happen to characters.

Concluding Remarks

When interacting with any medium, we usually take that interaction for granted. When we read, we recognize in the abstract that we are reading, but we don’t really think about the act of reading and what it means for the story we are reading. The same goes for watching a movie or show or play. And the same goes for playing a game.

All stories are able to remind us of these activities. But meta storytelling is about more than just reminding you that you’re reading a book or watching a movie or playing a game. It’s easy to remind the audience of that fact. It’s also quite boring, because we’re being told something we already know. It also serves to draw us away from the experience itself: so much of storytelling requires the audience to forget it is experiencing something that is not real.

But there is an art to meta storytelling that can remind the audience that the story is not real while drawing the audience in. We can create stories that make the audience a direct participant in the storytelling, to feel as though they are not merely observing events – or in the case of games, controlling characters – but that they themselves are truly a part of the narrative. It is a fine line to walk, and perhaps not every game is suited to the task. But it is useful to think about how we can design the mechanics, themes, and plot of games to promote this kind of meta storytelling and explore the idea of what it means to partake in these activities.

[1] If you’re already trying to explain to your screen how that’s not actually what happens: Yes, I know. Just go with it. We don’t have time to unpack everything about these lines, and it’s not the point.

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