Most video games have no trouble separating you from the gameplay, keeping you comfortably safe on the other end of the controller. In meta video games, though, the screen goes both ways. “Meta” refers to any element in media that breaks the fourth wall, includes the viewer in the story, or questions the nature of the medium in the first place. Though books, movies and television shows have been doing this for ages, meta video games take this idea to a whole new level. This list serves as an introduction to the genre of games that make you feel like the characters are going to step out of the TV and into your living room, rattling your brain until you question the boundary between the game world and reality.
5. There is No Game
Perhaps this game shouldn’t be on this list, because according to the title, There Is No Game isn’t a video game at all. Created in 2015 by French indie developer Pascal Cammisotto, known by his online handle KaMiZoTo, this anti-game was meant to deceive players into thinking there wasn’t even a game to play. The voiceover actively tries to convince the player to close out of the game or ignore the on-screen cues to keep playing. Despite its efforts to convince you otherwise, it’s a rather engaging puzzle game, forcing the player to play around with the mechanics until they find the evidence of a video game. The humor makes some rather clever commentary about how pointless video games can feel at times, and asks the age-old question: What makes a game, a game?
4. Doki Doki Literature Club
At first glance, Doki Doki Literature Club just looks like another Japanese-inspired visual novel, but upon further inspection, there’s something much more sinister looming behind this pseudo-dating simulator. In this 2017 horror video game, you play as a member of the titular literature club, and the story follows your attempts to woo the other members of the club with your heartfelt romantic poetry.
The game quickly takes a dark turn as one of the girls, Monika, becomes jealous of the other characters and attempts to win you over in increasingly violent ways. This character physically hacks into the player’s game files, removing from the game any mention of the other girls until there’s nothing left except your interactions with her. At the end of the game, the player is left in an empty room with just Monika, who expresses her rather obsessive fixation with the player, going as far as to mention the player’s real name.
This is a clever mechanic that several metagames have used before. When a game is installed onto a computer, that application can acquire access to all the other files around it. The developers of DDLC decided to turn this rupture of the fourth wall into a creepy detail to disturb its players and leave them feeling exposed. Meta elements aren’t always used to make a philosophical commentary; sometimes they’re used to make horror even more intimate.
Following its release in 2015, Undertale was an instant cult classic. Created by indie developer Toby Fox, Undertale is a short 8-bit RPG that encourages nonviolent problem-solving within the traditional turn-based combat system. Its colorful cast of characters and witty humor is very popular with internet meme culture, and the game left a permanent impact on the gaming landscape for the foreseeable future.
As a metagame, Undertale uses very similar strategies as Doki Doki Literature Club. This game pays close attention to your personal save files and continuously comments on choices you’ve made in previous playthroughs of the game. One character in particular, a yellow flower named Flowey, seems to have the most influence over these meta elements, teasing the player about new startups and encouraging them to engage with the game’s “genocide” route. When the player faces Flowey as one of the final bosses, Flowey has the ability to forcibly shut down the game application, taunting the player as they restart the software and distorting the opening sounds and images. Though not explicitly a horror game, these intrusive mechanics leave the player with a sour feeling in their stomach. Thankfully, these meta elements are balanced with friendly characters, lively music and bright graphics.
Bioshock is one of the older games on this list, released in 2007 by 2K Games. Though Bioshock doesn’t hack into your game files or taunt you for your past mistakes, this game was one of the first to question the nature of the relationship between the player and the story. Bioshock follows a man named Jack Ryan as he explores the dystopian city of Rapture, a failed underwater utopia run by a paranoid dictator. When Jack arrives in Rapture, barely escaping a plane crash with his life, he meets another character named Atlas, who speaks to him through a pocket radio. Atlas tells him that Andrew Ryan, the city’s founder, needs to pay for the lives he’s destroyed, and Jack needs to be the one to do it. The game follows Jack and Atlas as the former mows through waves of the city’s delusional inhabitants with antique guns and mystical bioweapons.
When he gets to Ryan’s office, though, the story’s tone takes a turn. In a shocking twist, it is revealed that Jack Ryan was genetically engineered to follow any orders given to him following the game’s iconic phrase, “Would you kindly?” Atlas isn’t even a real character and has been manipulating him the whole time using those trigger words. This beckons a very intense monologue from Andrew Ryan about the illusion of free will, especially as it relates to video games. When you plug in that controller, you are subject to all of the rules that the game outlines for you. This meta-commentary leaves the player wondering how far this philosophy goes. Does anyone have any free will at all?
1. The Stanley Parable
This title is probably the most well-known in the meta video game genre. Created by Galactic Cafe in 2011, The Stanley Parable is a disorienting practice in decision-making and obedience. In this game, you play Stanley, a voiceless character that wanders through an abandoned office building searching for his coworkers. His adventures are described by a faceless narrator, who the player can choose to either obey or challenge. The narrator will tease you for these choices, even going as far as to beg you to listen or kill you for your defiance.
There are over a dozen endings to this game, all of which depend on how far the player takes their choices. There are secret passages, Easter eggs and loops hidden everywhere within the compound, each one more bizarre than the last. Some routes even take the player through copies of other popular video games like Portal and Minecraft.
The Stanley Parable also takes a lot of cues from other mentioned games, like Bioshock and Portal themselves, but the creators wanted to take the meta elements as far as possible. As Davey Wreden, the original creator of the game, explained in a Vice interview, “Even in games that have a ‘message,’ most of them still have some sort of gameplay mechanic that ties you to the message in some way. I wanted to know if it was possible to deliver a compelling narrative without it being tied to any mechanic whatsoever.” The whole experience challenges the standard of how games should be played and what role the player plays in the story, if they have one at all.