[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!