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How to Undermine Your Message with Meta

[This is a piece I wrote for IGDA Perspectives magazine. The theme of the call for submissions was "Games About Games." Merry Christmas!]

There's a long history of meta-art in the older media – songs about music, books about writing, movies about movies, etc. These works might be further classified as either explicitly instructional (e.g. Stephen King's On Writing), or metafictive, (e.g. the film Adaptation).

The inherent problem of any work in the latter category is that it's cannibalistic. Worse than cannibalistic, it's a snake eating his own tail. While such works can provide profound insight, they are necessarily derivative. Of course, with satire (metafiction is the essence of all satire) it's a direct dependency; but in a larger sense, the message of any metafictive piece depends upon the established conventions of the medium it assaults. The fourth wall must first be built up before it can be torn down.

Successful management of this paradox is what separates the wheat from the chaff. At its worst, metafiction is just laziness – personally, I've come to react with instant disdain to the clichéd premise of a writer struggling with writer's block. At best, however, metafiction triumphs over itself by fully embodying the medium that it simultaneously rips to shreds. The key to Shaun of the Dead, for instance, is that it's both (a) a really solid zombie movie, and (b) a ruthless send-up of zombie movies.

That is to say, metafictive deconstruction cannot be successful (in an artistic sense) when the meta is simply a mask for flawed execution. Being meta is, in itself, not clever enough to serve as an excuse for a movie being a bad movie, or a book being a bad book, or a song being a bad song, etc. Quite the reverse, meta ironically demands respect for and competent adherence to the form.

Leaving aside the question of whether games can be considered "art," this same principle applies in our medium, and as designers we do well to maintain awareness of it. I was willing to forgive Alan Wake for its narrative premise because it's a really good game. Metal Gear Solid 4 cuts no corners in terms of quality of gameplay and execution, and the meta bits are sublimely hilarious as a result. Earth Defense Force dives headlong into self-awareness – it is a joyful celebration of video game-ness for anyone who truly loves video games.

I went meta in my own work with Super Elk Murder, a satirical hunting game for Flash Player, iOS, and Android. I wanted to make a statement about violence in games (a tired issue, but one which can never be escaped, since violence lies at the core of every competitive human pursuit). Rather than try to convince gamers to take a sudden, about-face interest in non-violent games, I believe we as developers can accomplish more with respect to questioning games' violent aspect by deconstructing it and/or pushing it past the point of absurdity. That's my statement, anyway.

Of course, I wouldn't (and probably couldn't) have made Elk Murder if I didn't also adore shooters, or have such fond childhood memories of Duck Hunt and The Oregon Trail. Not to mention, most of my downloads have come from fellow hunting-game enthusiasts. I target them with my keywords.

I've become a drug pusher, a peddler of vicious fantasies. I wanted to stand for peace, yet the blood of millions of murdered (virtual) elk is now on my hands. My game is its own toughest critic. All of this irony is the inevitable meta of the meta, the meta-meta, echoing infinitely upon itself as it dismantles even its own absurdity into über-meaninglessness... it's a maddening position to be in.

At any rate, the takeaway is this: if you want your creative output to do more than merely entertain, if you want to actually communicate something, and you're thinking about using meta as a means to do it – tread carefully. The validity of your endeavor depends upon its integrity, and yet in the end it cannot help but betray and destroy that integrity.

You've been warned. Good hunting!


Super Elk Murder 2017 and Elk Murder updated across all platforms!

We're pleased to announce the release of a comprehensive series of updates for Super Elk Murder 2017 and Elk Murder (the free-to-play ad-supported version) for web browsers, iPhones, iPads, iPod Touches, Android devices and Kindles.

The new updates, compiled with the latest AIR SDK, include:
  • Support for iOS 7 (iOS devices only, obviously)
  • A new distance-based scoring system
  • Multitouch support
  • Graphics optimizations
  • Speed optimizations
  • Improved memory management
  • Tons of other code optimizations and miscellaneous bug fixes
  • Year changed to "2017". That's right, now you can enjoy some truly future-tastic murdering!
Visit the Super Elk Murder website to play for free in your browser (PC and Mac) and to see a detailed version history, and be sure to check out the latest versions in the iTunes Store, the Amazon App Store, and the Google Play Store (links below).

Elk Murder for iOSElk Murder for Android - Google Play

We hope you enjoy all the improvements and thank you for your support.


Remembering Ryan Davis, 1979 - 2013

Ryan Davis was the host of Giant Bomb's podcast.

He was 34, and just gotten married the week before he died of unknown causes on 3 July 2013.

A podcast is a radio show that you download off the internet. This one, the Giant Bombcast, comes out every Tuesday. Ryan would always start every show the same, "IT'S TUESDAY, and you're listening to the Giant Bombast! I'm Ryan Davis..."

I came to podcasts through books on tape. I've logged many hours listening to podcasts -- while traveling, walking the dog, running errands, doing chores, exercising, and of course, driving around Los Angeles (which is how angelenos spend the majority of their time).

I love podcasts because they keep your brain engaged while leaving your eyes, arms, and legs free to do boring stuff. Also, you get to know people pretty well when you spend hours and hours, week after week, with their voice inside your head. For me at least, it's more personal than watching an actor on a screen or reading someone's words.

I especially love the Giant Bombcast. It's a video game podcast, and it is often about video games... it's also about whatever the guys feel like talking about. They are all unpretentious, intelligent, informed, insightful, hilarious people. For me, listening to the Bombcast is like hanging out with a group of old friends who share my mutual interests.

They're not really my friends, of course. Even though I know them, they don't know me. It's weird to feel so sad about the death of someone you've never met.

Nevertheless... it's Tuesday, and I miss you, Ryan. Requiescat in pace.


Thanks Ryan

Ryan Davis, 1979 - 2013 (Giant Bomb)

Ryan Davis, RIP (Kotaku)

Remembering Ryan Davis (Polygon)


Browser-based Super Elk Murder updated!

The latest version of Super Elk Murder is now available to play for FREE on your internet-enabled PC or Mac at the Elk Murder homepage (

It's a Flash game, so it requires Adobe's Flash player (also FREE) and as far as I know it works with the following browsers: Chrome, Firefox, Safari, Opera, Internet Explorer, and Internet Explorer (64-bit).

Not that there was anything wrong with the old, unsupported version (which can still be played here) but trust me when I say this new one is much better.

For those of you who don't have smartphones, or who prefer using mouse and keyboard over touch screen, or who can only get away with playing games at work if they're in the browser... this is the version for you!