Sponsored By

The existence of meta-elements design techniques actually expands the ideological limit that narrative games, as a medium, can express. When the boundary between virtuality and reality becomes blurred, the content conveyed in the game is somehow connected to real life, leaving players with reflection on what just happened.

Not all meta designs are good designs. They often only appear as a way to take a break during the game process. However, the potential for conveying psychological ideas through meta elements is unquestionable.

Yongcheng Liu, Blogger

July 25, 2023

8 Min Read

The fourth wall" often refers to the virtual wall facing the audience in a traditional three-sided stage, meaning the boundary between the audience and the actors, and between reality and fiction.


Compared to traditional stages such as movies and dramas, story-oriented game is a more interactive way of entertainment; when the boundary between the game and reality becomes blurred, the player's perception of the game will be challenged. Imagine when you control the protagonist to travel in the map for fun, but he suddenly turns his head around to look at you and asks you to stop... this kind of design that breaks the fourth wall belongs to meta-elements design.

Meta-game elements, refers to the out-of-game elements that go beyond the gameplay itself. In a narrow sense, meta-game refers to certain process of the game with breaking the fourth wall as the core gameplay, while in general story-oriented games, different depths of meta-elements can also be added to provide instant stunning effects.

In the practice of traditional video game design, it emphasizes creating a virtual world that is isolated from real life as much as possible by various rules and limitations, as well as visual effects, music, dialogue, and other means to maintain the player's sense of immersion. Game design based on meta-elements, on the other hand, breaks the illusion of the game and blurs the boundary between the game and real life, thus bringing strong emotional experiences to players: general video games drag you into the screen, while meta-games elements always try to climb out of the screen.

1. Different types and depths of meta elements

Meta means breaking the concept of traditional games from a certain level, and meta elements can generally be divided into language, trick, and interactive experience; while some meta-elements can only be used to adjust the game atmosphere, but some could become the core of a game’s story or even the core of the gameplay.

1.1 “Easter egg” Meta elements design

As a meta element that adjusts the game atmosphere, it often appears in the form of surprises or Easter eggs, without a strong challenge to the player's cognition. In fact, it is a common meta design for game developers who were originally behind the scenes to appear in the game and interact with players; they often make statements that are extremely inconsistent with the game style or give players special items, allowing them to temporarily break away from the game stories and take a breath; some more detailed meta designs can also surprise players, such as stopping at the start interface for a while, and then a small animal with its back to the screen suddenly turning to look at you outside of the screen.

1.2 Meta-design of character story

One type of meta elements design that is used is the implication or explicit statement that the characters in the game have a sense of self-awareness that is not controlled by the player; the character knows that they are a game character, and can understand the existence of the player, and even read the name of the player's computer folder.

The experience of being known by a virtual game character is a double-edged sword. When the character recognizes the player with a friendly attitude, and there is no intense interaction, the player will feel that this is an interesting experience, such as Anna in "Cyberpunk Bartender Action" who knows that she is in the game and tries to escape. However, when the game character shows criticism, sarcasm, this experience of being watched will bring great psychological differences to the player and result them re-examining their game behavior.


1.3 Meta-design that challenges the concept of gaming

Common sense about games includes: the flow of time in the game world is independent of the flow of time in the real world, and a game can be exited and could often be restarted at any time; a game is an independent software, of which the process is not affected by the player's control input of the system, nor does it affect external life systems. There is a type of meta element that breaks game common sense and replaces it with real-world common sense.

In the RPG puzzle horror game "The Witch's House", if the player waits at the starting point for an hour without entering the castle, they can unlock the hidden ending of the game where a character dies due to being ignored for a long time and their life is in danger in the castle; in the game "Needy Girl Overdose", in order to achieve the hidden ending of the female protagonist quitting the internet, the player needs to disconnect from the internet while playing the game.

2. Psychological effect of Meta elements: Is this still a game?

In general story-driven games, when players control characters on the screen, they identify themselves with the protagonist in the screen, while still being aware of their own identity in real life. Being a player means being the only conscious character in the game, and the actions taken in game do not affect real life, so there is no need to take responsibility or suffer any real life loss for their actions - these common principles in the game ensure that players can safely immerse themselves in the gaming experience.

On the other hand, excellent meta elements design can bring unexpected, surprising, manipulated or even shameful emotional experiences to players, often derived from its challenge to the traditional relationship between "real-world players and virtual-world games".

2.1 becoming observed.

In story oriented games, players are often the only conscious person who controls in the game.

However, when characters in game behave like individuals who know and understand players, players will enter a social situation, and their behavior will somehow suddenly be watched unexpectedly.

Being watched means being exposed. When people feel that they do not want to expose themselves but feel like they are going to be exposed, they are prone to feelings of fear and anxiety. This is also why meta-elements often appear in games with horror elements.


2.2 Loss of Mask

The player's anonymity means that their identity in the game is indistinguishable from other players, which reduces psychological stress from group or peer pressure. This can lead to a relaxed mood and reduced stress, but also comes with a loss of social responsibility, and some even try behaviors that would not be possible in real social environments.

However, when the characters or the game is linked to the player's real life and their actions are monitored, this can suddenly violate their anonymity and turn them from a leisure player into an active participant in the plot/story, with them being responsible for everything that happens to their character.


2.3 Out-of-control experience in the safe zone.

The sense of control is a psychological state in which individuals feel that they have control over the direction of certain things. It can enhance positive emotions such as optimism and confidence, and reduce negative emotions such as depression and helplessness. However, in real life, people have to face various uncontrollable factors leading to a lack of control. Therefore, the important charm of plot-oriented games is to interact with the corresponding worldview, and the ability of players to decide the fate of virtual characters. On the other hand, meta-elements take a different approach by subtly depriving players of their sense of control in the virtual world. When players unexpectedly find that they cannot fully control their choices, cannot anticipate the relationship between their behavior and reactions, or the reactions triggered completely exceed expectations, a sense of loss of control arises. Just like a roller coaster, negative emotions temporarily erupt without real danger, and the anxiety brought by the loss of control can be a source of excitement for some players as well.


3. Design ideas for Meta elements

Currently, some common meta elements design in plot oriented games includes interface crash, intervention in reality, intervention of narrative, etc. Interface crash guides players to pay attention to the reality that games are softwares. For example, the start button in "Pony Island" is designed as "<error>" and players must repair “the system” first. Intervention in reality is a step further in the "program itself has life" level. For example, "IMSCARED" creates a strange new folder on the player's computer desktop and put puzzle clues in it, and players will also control a pixel computer in the game. The intervention of narrator uses independent commentary to interfere with the player's choices.

Many meta elements are designed for players' own potential meta-gaming behavior. The environment provides players with some prior knowledge. In regular games, players sometimes unconsciously use meta-gaming strategies, such as relying on outside elements in their minds to make decisions in the game, such as directly entering a password based on memory in the time playing puzzle-solving games. Regular games have no feedback on this strategy. However, recognizing players' meta-gaming behavior and setting feedback for it is a way of breaking the fourth wall.

4. Summary

The existence of meta-elements design techniques actually expands the ideological limit that narrative games, as a medium, can express. When the boundary between virtuality and reality becomes blurred, the content conveyed in the game is somehow connected to real life, leaving players with reflection on what just happened.

Not all meta designs are good designs. They often only appear as a way to take a break during the game process. However, the potential for conveying psychological ideas through meta elements is unquestionable.

Read more about:

Blogs
Daily news, dev blogs, and stories from Game Developer straight to your inbox

You May Also Like