Ars Poetica

Despite having an extended weekend (Labor Day, for those outside of the United States), today was the only day in which I actually sat back and played some videogames. The first game saw me defeating the last two assassins in the UAA to see the completion of No More Heroes. Then seeing the deal Valve was offering on Portal, I decided to finally purchase the game and saw its completion a few hours later. The fact that I finished both games today had me see something vI found worth noting.

One term that one usually does not want flung his or her way while playing Dungeons and Dragons would be metagaming. Yes, we know that you as a player realize the weaknesses of the Iron Golem in front of you, but how did your character know that a lightning bolt will slow it down? A common phrase muttered around a D&D table can well be, “If your character doesn’t know, you don’t know.”

While the endings of both NMH and Portal had metagaming references, they were usually spoken to both the character and player at the same time. The disconnect of player and character knowledge can be much more difficult to achieve, and if done correctly lends itself more to irony as a device with which we’re familiar.

What I’d propose is that we’re seeing a refinement of the metagaming into a metalanguage device more commonly called Ars Poetica. The two take different approaches with the effect, however.

NMH lends itself toward a very satirical mode through the entire gameplay (sometimes needlessly, or frustratingly, so), and as the True Ending’s boss fight started, the boss’s cajoling of Travis and the player having not figured out something yet points itself more to an acknowledgment of the experience of playing the game. “Hey! We’re showing you the wires here, remember that you have a controller in your hand and that you are only cognizant of Travis’s past in so far as the information we have given you.” Brechtian? I definitely see elements of the verfremdungseffekt in operation here.

On the other hand, Portal makes the metaknowledge a reward. In the ending song, two particular lines struck me: “And we’re out of beta. We’re releasing on time!” This acknowledes the process that occurs in making a game, and rewards the player with humor at its own expense. The other line we hear is, “Maybe you’ll find someone else to help you? Maybe Black Mesa?” After delivering the line, GLaDOS laughs at the player/character for ever being so foolish as to believe such. This line rewards Valve fans who would recognize the name in conjunction with the Half-Life series, giving players a sense of the reward a reader finds in honing his or her intertextual skills (by reading). While one can now purchase Portal on its own (as I did), it is important to remember that it was originally released with the Orange Box, which included a Half-Life 2 expansion.

Beyond these references, both games comment on other games through their own gameplay, making comments not only on past games, but the process of playing a game itself. With NMH we see repetitive minigames, collections, and are still left with an empty world where none of it seems to matter. While it is weak by itself, it comments quite nicely on the vapid nature of most games that promise an open world where there are still very limited options as opposed to the scope of what one sees. Portal builds itself up as a training game to start until the plot switches. Being in a first person perspective, the only glimpse of one’s avatar comes through the infinity concept that occurs when the two portals are positioned so that one can see one’s self. Unlike Bioshock, there is no promise of a choice, and one is given a very linear path to follow, even when one abandons the training course. The song Jonathan Coulton wrote for the ending credits wraps everything in a heart-bespeckled companion cube for the player to chuckle.

Videogames (much as with comics) occupy an odd space where they can utilize the tools of literature, art, film, and many other mediums. While it is still making awkward steps in the direction of defining its own strengths, it makes for interesting sport to recognize these uses and determine whether or not they succeed.

P.S. For a chuckle, you may wish to see what one can do with the Mario Paint Composer.

About Denis Farr

Writer interested in intersectionality, games, comics, nerdy stuff in general, theater, and how it all mixes. Graduate of Wabash College, with studies in Theater, English, German, and Gender Studies.
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