Abstract

This article sets out to explore the playful poetics of recent indie games in terms of what could be described as metareferential interfaces. Drawing on a range of theories from literary studies, media studies, and game studies, we propose to conceptualize metareferential interfaces as interfaces that foreground and draw attention to their own mediality. They thus allow for videogame-specific forms of metareference and metalepsis to be employed as part of often quite experimental and aesthetically ambitious approaches to videogame design. Using the recent indie games Pony Island (2016) and OneShot (2016) as our core case studies, we offer an in-depth analysis of this metaization of videogames’ playful poetics, focusing primarily on three salient aspects: First, the multiplication of interfaces can lead to mise-en-abyme-like structures that highlight and reflect on the mediality of videogames while also establishing ontological boundaries between different levels of videogame storyworlds. Second, the disruption of interface functionality is a metareferential strategy that can be used to establish specific gameplay challenges and reflect on the design conventions of videogame interfaces. Third, the transgression of ontological boundaries affects not only the borders between subworlds within a videogame's storyworld but also the more fundamental distinction between what is “in the game” and what is “outside it.”

The Playful Poetics of Metareferential Interfaces

While the question what an interface is has been answered very differently in software studies, game studies, and beyond (see, e.g., Ash 2015; Cramer and Fuller 2008; Galloway 2012),1 the following mainly draws on Kristine Jørgensen's (2013) influential conceptualization of videogame interfaces as encompassing “all the features that are revealed to the player and that provide information that assists them in interacting with the game system” (20). Jørgensen distinguishes between three types of interfaces in videogames: The physical hardware, the graphical user interfaces (GUIs) of the so-called WIMP devices (windows, icon, mouse, and pointer), and what she calls “gameworld interfaces.” In other words, the gameworld, understood by Jørgensen to be at once a digitally created representation of a world and an “activity space” (57; original emphasis) designed for gameplay, can itself be understood as an interface as it provides a window to the ludic system. While such an expansive definition of videogame interfaces can certainly be productive and we acknowledge the important mediating functions that are fulfilled not just by the GUI but also by the game spaces of many videogames, our terminological focus will in fact be slightly more narrow.

Integrating Jørgensen's account of videogame interfaces with previous research on the intersubjective construction of videogame storyworlds (see Thon 2015, 2016a, 2016b, 2017), we distinguish between (1) a videogame's storyworld as the spatio-temporal location of narrative events, the representation of which remains comparatively stable across different playthroughs; (2) the videogame's game spaces as the spatio-temporal location of ludic events, the simulation of which typically varies considerably from playthrough to playthrough; (3) the videogame's ludic system as entailing game mechanics, game goals, and other elements of what could also be described as its “state machine” (Juul 2005: 60); and (4) the videogame's interface as primarily entailing the above-mentioned WIMP interface devices, menus, and extradiegetic overlays that audiovisually communicate important information about the videogame's ludic system and game state, but are usually not perceived as part of either its storyworld or its game spaces.2 All of this being said, well-designed videogame interfaces are generally understood to not draw attention to themselves but rather to follow a logic of transparent immediacy as a “style of visual representation whose goal is to make the viewer forget the presence of the medium” (Bolter and Grusin 1999: 272). It is often the purpose of well-designed videogame interfaces to become invisible, to disappear from the consciousness of the player, enabling them to feel as if they were interacting directly with the game spaces and/or the storyworld.

Some videogames do so by means of diegetic—or, in Jørgensen's (2013) terminology, “gameworld”—interfaces which are integrated into the game spaces and/or the storyworld to varying degrees. The player character in Firewatch (2016), for instance, carries a diegetic map and compass that he can consult, essentially fulfilling the same function as an extradiegetic minimap or an interactive map accessible via the game menu (see figure 1).3 No less importantly, gameplay-relevant information can be integrated in the game by being “placed inside the geometry of the game environment” (Jørgensen 2013: 24), without necessarily being part of the storyworld.4 In What Remains of Edith Finch (2017), pictograms that give the player specific input instructions appear in front of or above relevant objects within the game spaces (see figure 2). Likewise, the text spoken by the various narrators is written into the game spaces not as an overlay or in the form of conventional subtitles, but dynamically integrated with the diegetic physical environment. Letters may, for instance, appear on walls or float out of the frame as if blown away by a sudden gust of wind (see figure 3).

In most videogames, however, elements of the interface are frequently presented in the form of overlays, menus, or loading screens that are neither part of the videogame's storyworld nor integrated dynamically into the geometry of its game spaces. Heads-up displays (HUDs), essentially 2D superimposed WIMP interfaces, may convey additional information about the ludic system and the game state, or visualize data pertaining to the player character's hit points, action points, and so on, while the gameplay is generated. Despite the visibility of this third type of videogame interfaces, their presence does not necessarily hinder the player's immersion (see, e.g., Ermi and Mäyrä 2005; Calleja 2011; Thon 2008). Features such as health bars, pop-up inventories, mini-maps, or quest markers have become part and parcel of “the conventions, the function, and the aesthetics of the digital game medium” (Jørgensen 2013: 6). Yet, some videogame interfaces seem to adhere not to a logic of immediacy, but rather to a logic of hypermediacy, which “multiplies the signs of mediation” and thus “makes us aware of the medium or media” (Bolter and Grusin 1999: 34) used—and it is precisely when these kinds of videogame interfaces break with the conventionalized usage that they draw attention to themselves and unfold their metareferential potential.

Indeed, recent indie games,5 from META (2005) or OFF (2008) via The Stanley Parable (2013) or Doki Doki Literature Club! (2017) to Pony Island (2016) or OneShot (2016), have radically challenged the paradigm of conventional videogame interface design. Instead of unobstrusively supporting the interaction between the player, the game spaces or ludic system, and the GUI, their interfaces take away control from the player, disrupt the flow of information, and subvert established representational rules in order to draw attention to their own functionality (see also, e.g., Altice 2015; Beil 2010; Bojahr 2012; Gualeni 2019; Janik 2017; Schwingeler 2014). The metareferential disruptions that define the playful poetics of the abovementioned indie games (as well as many other indie games that pursue similar metareferential strategies6) are not meant to be naturalized as part of the respective indie game's storyworld, nor even its game spaces. Instead of aiming to escape the player's attention, the interface design of these indie games seeks to contradict mainstream conventions and subvert player expectations.7

In the context of literary theory, a playful engagement with aesthetics and conventions in combination with an intense awareness of and self-referential preoccupation with questions of mediality and representationality have been identified as central to forms of metafiction and metareference (see, e.g., Hutcheon 1980; Waugh 1984; Wolf 2009). Often summed up in the shorthand “fiction about fiction” (Hutcheon 1980: 1), the term metafiction is usually applied to works of (literary) fiction that self-consciously comment on their own constructedness. More recently, however, theorists have increasingly noted that the phenomenon of metaization is by no means exclusive to literary texts, but rather can be realized across media.8 Werner Wolf (2009) has been at the forefront of attempts to develop the term metareference in order to acknowledge the transmedial nature of the phenomena under consideration. According to Wolf, metareference encompasses self-reflexive elements that a text or artifact may use to comment on itself or on the media system it is embedded in. The eponymous metalevel can thus be understood as a logically (and/or ontologically) higher level from which the artifact in question refers to an object level (i.e., itself). Not dissimilar to metafiction, then, the metareferential artifact encourages reflection in its recipients and draws their attention to its mediality and representationality.

A particularly salient metareferential strategy that blurs, transgresses, or otherwise plays with the supposedly distinct “diegetic levels” that many complex narrative representations establish is commonly described as metalepsis within literary and transmedial narratology. Initially coined by Gérard Genette in the context of French structuralist narratology, the term narrative metalepsis can be defined as “any intrusion by an extradiegetic narrator or narratee into the diegetic universe (or by diegetic characters into a metadiegetic universe, etc.), or the inverse” ([1980] 1983: 234–35; see also Genette 2004). For various reasons, including its ultimately unconvincing reliance on the narrator as a necessary feature of fictional narrative forms (see, e.g., Thon 2009, 2014, 2016b), Genette's conceptualization may appear problematic from the perspective of a more transmedially oriented or indeed videogame-oriented narratology, but the term nevertheless continues to be revisited, reconceptualized, and productively applied to a range of narrative forms beyond the literary text (see, e.g., Bell 2016; Feyersinger 2017; Ryan 2004; Thoss 2015; Wolf 2005; or the contributions in Kukkonen and Klimek 2011), including (though certainly not limited to) videogames (see, e.g., de la Maza 2017; Harpold 2007; Schlarb 2019).9

An important contribution to the transmedial conceptualization of metalepsis comes yet again from Werner Wolf (2005), who proposes to use the term to refer to “a usually intentional paradoxical transgression of, or confusion between, (onto)logically distinct (sub)worlds and/or levels that exist, or are referred to, within representations of possible worlds” (91). At its core, Wolf's conceptualization of metalepsis does away with the problematic reliance on the narrator, while still connecting both to Genette's influential distinction between “narrative” or, rather, “diegetic levels”10 and to more recent attempts at analyzing this specific form of “layered” narrative complexity in terms of a hierarchy of possible worlds, fictional worlds, or storyworlds (see, e.g., Herman 2004, 2009; Ryan 1991, 2014; Thon 2016b, 2017).11 In any case, in foregrounding the mediality and representationality of the media texts they appear in, metalepsis can often (though perhaps not always) be considered a salient form of metareference. However, having established that both metareference in general and metalepses in particular may appear as transmedial strategies of representation and can thus be realized not just in literary texts but also in a range of other conventionally distinct media, the question remains how this necessarily medium-specific realization can be theorized and analyzed when it comes to videogames.

The medium-specific affordances and the digital materiality of videogames and the devices they are played on12 furthermore complicate the conceptualization of videogame-specific metalepses. Some scholars even argue that metalepses in videogames are of a fundamentally different nature from those in other media forms, or that videogames’ interactivity makes them “always already metaleptic.” As Marie-Laure Ryan (2004: 458) suggests in her early exploration of metalepses in videogames, the latter “offer a particularly favorable environment for metalepsis: as programs that produce fictional worlds, they can play with the levels of world and code; as worlds that invite the player to play the role of a character—the avatar—they can exploit the contrast between the player's real and fictional identities; and as fictional worlds, they can resort to many of the metaleptic tricks of standard literary fiction.” Analyzing the canonical example of Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty (2001), she further notes that this kind of metaleptic videogame “does no more than simulate the spread of the metaleptic process to the real machine,” but goes on to hypothesize that, “in contrast to the . . . inability of verbal narrative to stage metaleptic events that literally affect the ground level of the stack, it would be fairly easy to write a computer game that destroys the user's system” (Ryan 2004: 461). Of course, most videogames are unlikely to actually destroy the player's computer system,13 but even merely hinting at this possibility is sufficient to highlight videogames’ unique mediality, which also enables them to extend the metaleptic process into the computer's operating system in less destructive ways. In this sense, metareferential interfaces challenge and subvert traditional conceptualizations of metalepsis and metareference that have primarily been derived from the study of literature.

More recently, Alice Bell (2016: 298) has drawn on examples from the area of ergodic digital literature (which at least partially intersects with the area of indie games) to argue that metalepsis is an “inevitable feature” of the genre: “That navigation in ergodic digital fiction produces a visual and ontological manifestation of the reader in the storyworld means that this non-trivial form of reading necessitates interactional metalepsis because the reader, or rather a representation of her/him, crosses the ontological boundary between actual world and storyworld” (279). As useful as Bell's conceptualization of “interactional metalepsis” may be for particular elements of ergodic digital fiction, we remain skeptical whether the concept of “interactional metalepsis” is able to fully capture the intricacies of agency that ergodic digital fiction affords its users, and even more skeptical that this account of interactivity as always already transgressing ontological boundaries can be productively applied to videogames (as suggested, e.g., by de la Maza 2017).14 In any case, we would not consider unmarked cases of this kind of “feedback loop” to have particularly metareferential implications in and of itself. However, videogames still provide ample demonstration that metareference can be realized not only through various semiotic resources across media but also through the feedback loop between a computer and its user(s). Videogames thus force us to expand the concept of metareferentiality beyond metafictionality and toward what could be described as “metaludicity” (see Ensslin 2014a; as well as Backe 2016).15 If metafictionality can be understood as the core quality attributed to “fiction about fiction,” metaludicity could then be attributed to “games about games.” The term therefore does not refer to the practice of “metagaming” in the sense of employing knowledge about dominant gameplay strategies or game-external information (see, e.g., Boluk and LeMieux 2017), but rather to a videogame's design drawing “productive aesthetic and procedural attention . . . to the uniqueness and formal possibility of videogames” (Fest 2016: 4) as a medium (see also, e.g., Backe 2016; Backe and Thon 2019; Ensslin 2014a; Jannidis 2009; Krampe 2021; as well as the contributions in part IV of Nöth and Bishara 2007).

While videogames can employ a broad range of metareferential strategies, some of which may be primarily or exclusively defined via their narrative qualities, it will not come as a surprise at this point that many of the more noteworthy metareferential moments in recent indie games happen when their storyworlds intersect with their game spaces, ludic systems, and (graphical user) interfaces in unconventional ways—and thus employ what could be described as metareferential interfaces. To further build on the basic formula introduced above, metareferential interfaces can generally be understood as “interfaces about interfaces,” referring to those moments in which the presence of the interface is foregrounded so that it becomes itself a topic of reflection. Metareferential interfaces problematize the player's interaction with the game spaces as well as the ways in which videogames conventionally communicate information about their ludic systems. Accordingly, metareferential interfaces draw attention to overlays, menus, files, or input and output hardware, shifting the videogame's aesthetics from a logic of immediacy to a logic of hypermediacy, and also often entailing a paradoxical blurring of the ontological divide between the storyworld a videogame may represent and the ludic system it may constitute.

Against this background, we can identify three particularly salient aspects of the metaization of videogames’ playful poetics: First, the multiplication of interfaces can lead to mise-en-abyme-like structures that highlight and reflect on the mediality of videogames while also establishing ontologically distinct levels or subworlds. Second, the disruption of interface functionality is a core metareferential strategy that can be used to establish specific gameplay challenges and reflect on the design conventions of videogame interfaces. Third, the transgression of ontological boundaries blurs not only the representational distinction between the extradiegetic, diegetic, and hypodiegetic levels but also the more general distinction between what is “in the game” and what is “outside it.” In the following, we will offer two case studies of recent indie games in order to provide a more nuanced account of the often quite complex ways in which these three interrelated aspects of metareferential interfaces can be realized in current videogame design.

The Game within the Game: Metareferential Disruptions in Pony Island (2016)

Daniel Mullins Games’ Pony Island was initially developed during the Ludum Dare game jam in December 2014 and subsequently released via Steam Greenlight in January 2016, to generally favorable reviews (see, e.g., Metacritic 2020b; Steam 2020b). Unlike the videogame's title might suggest, however, Pony Island is not (just) about ponies. Rather, it lets the player take control of an initially unnamed character who appears to play different versions of the barely diegetized arcade game Pony Island.16 In the sketchily represented diegetic storyworld17 of the actual indie game Pony Island, Pony Island soon turns out to be “possessed” by demonic forces under the control of Lucifer (or “1U©iF#r”) himself, hell-bent on keeping the souls of its players trapped for all eternity.18 One of these “lost souls” then makes contact with the diegetic player character and subsequently guides them in overcoming the ever-evolving challenges that the diegetic arcade game presents. The self-identified “hopeless soul” (or “h0peles$0uL”) subsequently gives the player character access to the operating system of the arcade machine in order to delete the three demonic “core files” azazel.exe, beelzebub.exe, and asmodeus.exe, each generating manifestations of the respective demons to be defeated before the player character can proceed to initiate a “system dump,” confront Lucifer in his various manifestations, and ultimately free the “lost souls” trapped within the arcade machine.

Pony Island begins by allowing the player to start a “new game,” configure a number of “options,” show the “credits,” or close the program within a largely conventional and thus unremarkable start menu, but the videogame's focus on metareferential interfaces becomes immediately apparent after the player has clicked on “new game,” which results in a noteworthy duplication of the interface. While the initial start menu is colorful and accompanied by upbeat music, the player is then confronted with another start menu, the aesthetics of which adhere more closely to expectations evoked by the horror genre (see figures 4 and 5).19 This monochromatic start menu is accompanied by an ominous humming that contributes to the eerie atmosphere. Moreover, the monochromatic start menu is surrounded by a concave brown frame, indicating that the menu is shown through the screen of an arcade machine and thus identifying it as part of a diegetic rather than an extradiegetic interface, mediating the interaction not between the actual indie game Pony Island and the actual player, but rather between the diegetic arcade game Pony Island and the diegetic player character, who is controlled by the actual player.

Being confronted with the monochromatic start menu, the player—or, rather, the diegetic player character within Pony Island's sketchily represented primary diegetic storyworld—is seemingly offered a choice here: They can click on “start game,” choose to proceed to the “options & help” menu, or ask to view the “credits.” However, all but the “options & help” menu option are denied by Lucifer, who has taken control of the diegetic arcade game. Clicking on the “start” button, for instance, causes a short white noise effect on the screen of the diegetic arcade game accompanied by a dissonant sound effect that is conventionally used to signal an error. Repeated clicking on the “start” button even causes it to change to “<ERROR>” (see figure 6). In contrast to the colorful superimposed actual interface of Pony Island, then, Pony Island's monochromatic diegetic interface is unreliable in the sense that it does not seem to be doing what it is conventionally supposed or expected to do—that is, to “facilitate communication between the game system and the player” (Jørgensen 2013: 21). Of course, what may appear to be a technical malfunction at first swiftly turns out to be simulated by the videogame, resulting in a metareferential disruption of the player's interaction with the videogame interface as the latter fails to meet the player's expectations and becomes a source of irritation that commands the player's attention.

Nevertheless, the diegetic interface retains at least some of its functionality as an interface because it remains “meaningful in the given gameplay context” (Jørgensen 2013: 21). Employing a simple trial-and-error strategy, the player/character20 can easily solve the puzzle that the diegetic interface poses: Since there is only one option left, the player/character has no other choice than to click on the “options & help” menu in order for the game to continue. Here, the player/character can choose the option “fix start menu,” which causes yet another unexpected, irritating event, as the “back” button of the options menu falls off (see figure 7). Once more, the player/character is left with only one choice: to drag and drop the “back” button to its original position, so that it can be clicked on again. While it may generally be “important for an interface to be functional and to promote gameplay in a clear and consistent manner” (Jørgensen 2013: 3), the diegetic interface in Pony Island is clearly designed to do the exact opposite, mocking the player and limiting their agency. Yet, it is precisely in mocking the player and limiting their agency that the diegetic interface also introduces the player not only to a substantial part of both Pony Island's and Pony Island's gameplay but also to the broader metareferential point that the latter is making. By playfully “copying” the start menu while also blurring the boundaries between the extradiegetic and the diegetic interface, Pony Island presents itself as a videogame about videogames that draws attention to and metareferentially comments on videogame conventions by at least partially subverting them. Moreover, it is precisely the subversive use of the interface, the invalidation of its functions, and the continuous playful contradiction of player expectations that allow Pony Island to develop its own distinctly “indie” horror aesthetics, even if its audiovisual aesthetics and ludic design may initially foreground artifact emotions rather than fiction or gameplay emotions.21 This disruption of interface functionality is a core metareferential strategy that occurs repeatedly throughout each playthrough and thus shapes the entire gameplay experience.

While both the mise-en-abyme of the game within the game and the comments offered by Lucifer on the design of Pony Island build on the repertoire of metareferential forms that we know from literary fiction, the suspension of interface functionality is decidedly novel. In this context, Alexander Galloway's (2006: 2) argument that “video games are actions” and thus (only) “exist when enacted” seems instructive. According to Galloway, the ability to act, and thus call the videogame into being, lies not solely with the user. Rather, videogames are also shaped by machine actions. To their very core, videogames are active media “whose very materiality moves and restructures itself” (3). In narrative videogames (such as Pony Island), players may imagine themselves to act on a fictional world. In reality, however, a large portion of these actions takes place outside the videogame's storyworld, in the game spaces and, crucially, the interface. In this sense, Pony Island's (and/or Pony Island's) malfunctioning interfaces remind the player of their role as an operator. Seemingly developing a will of their own, both Pony Island and Pony Island can be read as allegories of the processes taking place “under the hood” of the videogame; processes that are not necessarily dependent on player input. Evidently, then, both Pony Island and Pony Island metareferentially comment on the mediality of videogames in general. At the same time, these metareferential reflections are arguably not elicited primarily by words and images (i.e., the display of the game menu on the screen), but by the absence of the expected (inter)action. In other words, the analysis of interfaces in Pony Island reveals a form of metareferentiality that is action-based, algorithmic, and specific to videogames.

Unsurprisingly, then, the metareferential play with the start menu that defines the beginning of Pony Island is not all there is to its playful poetics. Once the diegetic start menu has been fixed, the player/character still needs to fix the code of the diegetic arcade machine in another “hacking-themed” puzzle, drawing further attention to the mediality of videogames, since fixing code is not typically part of the gameplay experience that actual arcade machines afford their players. After the player/character has solved the “hacking-themed” puzzle, Lucifer reluctantly allows them to progress to the first of a number of side-scrolling sequences during which they take control of one of the titular ponies. However, the first of these side-scrolling sequences does not yet give the player/character-controlled pony its characteristic ability to shoot “pony lasers” at a never-ending queue of demonic opponents, with the gameplay instead consisting exclusively of the rather trivial effort of making the pony jump over a few obstacles, for which the player/character is then rewarded with a comically exaggerated number of “points” and “levels” that evidently comment on the way that such “rewards” are commonly used to establish positive reinforcement loops in conventional videogames (see figure 8).

After having successfully completed the thoroughly underwhelming challenges that the first side-scrolling sequence presents, the player/ character is asked to “insert [their] soul to continue.” Yet, upon attempting to do so, the player/character is instead confronted with another “hacking-themed” puzzle sequence, the completion of which causes the diegetic version of Pony Island to crash, as indicated by the error message “Pony Island has stopped working” that appears in a separate window (see figure 9). If the player/character proceeds to close the error message, they are unexpectedly confronted with the interface of the arcade machine's operating system, the design of which resembles the desktop GUI of older operating systems, such as GEOS for the Commodore64 or AmigaOS for the Amiga 500, rather than an up-to-date operating system like Windows. Thus, it will likely be simple enough for the player to distinguish the diegetic interface of the arcade machine from that of their own actual computer.22 The diegetic desktop is filled with several files and programs, one of which is a chat messenger that the player/character has to interact with in order to progress further. After having talked to Lucifer as well as the “hopeless soul” that is trapped within the diegetic operating system, the latter introduces the player/character to their mission, which is to delete the three “core files” in order to diminish Lucifer's power.

Put in a nutshell, the first quarter of Pony Island focuses on establishing the narrative framing, the game goals, and the basic gameplay mechanics of the “hacking-themed” puzzles, the desktop GUI puzzles, and the side-scrolling sequences, the latter of which change markedly once the player/character's pony has acquired the ability to shoot “pony lasers,” before eventually allowing the player/character to defeat the demon Azazel and delete the first “core file” (i.e., azazel.exe). The second quarter of Pony Island tasks the player/character with beating the “adventure mode” that has the player/character-controlled pony travel across a “world-map” to conquer a somewhat repetitive series of puzzles and side-scrolling sequences, before eventually allowing the player/character to defeat the demon Beelzebub and delete the second “core file” (i.e., beelzebub.exe). The third quarter of Pony Island further shifts the form of the metareference from the narrative to the audiovisual dimension, as the player/character is here tasked with playing through various “earlier versions” of the diegetic Pony Island, the audiovisual aesthetics of which not only allow for an even more explicit reflection on the disconnect between the previous “hacking-themed” puzzles’ game mechanics and its “textures” when they suddenly present in a much more colorful and cartoony way but also reimagine the previous side-scrolling sequences within the audiovisual aesthetics of older videogame genres, such as early 3D graphics (see figure 10) or even earlier text adventures (see figure 11).23 These “earlier versions” of Pony Island generate a mise-en-abyme-like structure of playable minigames that advance the aforementioned multiplication of interfaces even further.

To progress to the fourth and final quarter of Pony Island, the player/ character has to confront the demon Asmodeus, who guards the third and final “core program” (i.e., asmodeus.exe). Just as the side-scrolling sequences, the “hacking-themed” puzzles, and the increasingly “corrupted” top-down map that defines the “adventure mode,” so does the desktop GUI mode continuously evolve, requiring the player to access it from a number of different accounts (“ <1U©iF#r>,” “CORRUPTED,” “<hopeles$ouL>,” and “Guest”) in order to interact with a range of different programs. The metareferential qualities of the way the desktop GUI is employed here also become particularly salient at the end of the third quarter of Pony Island. Metaleptically breaking the “fourth wall,” Asmodeus directly addresses the player/character, challenging them to type certain words or phrases such as “something vile” to prove that they are devoting their full attention to the game. What may initially seem like a simple task is further complicated by sudden Steam notifications that appear to originate from one of the contacts in the actual player's friends list.24 It is not long before the player is positively bombarded with alarming messages (e.g., “lol” or “did someone hack you”) and ultimately even insults (e.g., “ANSWER ME MORTAL” or “PATHETIC FOOL”) (see figure 12). Distracted by the pop-ups or even distressed by their content, the player may very well miss the key word they are asked to remember, in which case the scene starts all over again. At this point, however, most players will have realized that the Steam notifications are yet again only part of Pony Island's diegetic interface and that Pony Island has been playing them, rather than the other way around.

An even more salient form of metaleptic metareference that combines the transgression of ontological boundaries with the disruption of interface functionality occurs when Asmodeus asks the player to type a sequence of four numbers. After the third number, the screen suddenly freezes and a window in the style of the Windows GUI pops up, notifying the player that “PonyIsland.exe is not responding” (see figure 13). By simulating the crash of the program, Pony Island continues to play with the player's fear of losing their current progress, which ties the metareferential exploration of various interface metaphors back to the emotional range conventionally evoked by the horror genre. Perhaps even more strongly, the worried and ultimately hateful reactions of the supposed Steam friends appear to link in-game actions to real-world consequences, effectively subverting the conventionalized interpretation of gameplay as taking place in a “magic circle.”25 By pretending to take control of the player's online identity on Steam, which in turn would negatively affect their actual social relationships, Pony Island at least hints at the possibility, unique to videogames, to stage metaleptic events that extend beyond the (fictional) storyworld to affect the player's computer system, and even their “real life.” At the same time, however, Pony Island of course only uses metareferential disruptions such as the simulated Steam notifications or the error message suggesting that the program has crashed in order to pretend to go beyond the “magic circle.” This illusion is dissolved as soon as the player understands that these features are part of the videogame's design and are only supposed to look real, while, in fact, they are not. As seen in Ryan's (2004: 461) analysis of Metal Gear Solid 2, the game “does no more than simulate the spread of the metaleptic process to the real machine.” However, in doing so, Pony Island refers to the fact that, unlike in literature or film, in videogames it is quite possible to get “code to run other than it is supposed to run [and] systems logically responding to input in ways other than designed” (Fest 2016: 21) or expected. The final quarter of Pony Island, then, consists of the aforementioned “system dump” that takes the form of an extended side-scrolling sequence during which the player is tasked with leading the pony-shaped souls of all previous players to freedom while the actual Pony Island's audiovisual aesthetics simulate the increasingly corrupted state of the diegetic Pony Island's program files (see figures 14 and 15).

In summary, we can say that Pony Island's playful poetics employs metareferential interfaces in a number of ways. As we have seen, the multiplication of interfaces does not stop at the diegetic start menu (which mirrors Pony Island's actual start menu), the diegetic arcade machine (which mirrors the player's actual computer), or the diegetic desktop GUI (which mirrors the GUI of the player's actual operating system); it is further intensified by the “hacking-themed” puzzles, the multiple earlier versions of the diegetic Pony Island that the player/character has to play, and the multiple user accounts that they have to use in order to access the diegetic desktop GUI. We have also seen that the player/character's interaction with all these layered interfaces is made more challenging by a constant disruption of interface functionality, as interfaces commonly appear to “malfunction,” refuse to “play by the rules” of conventional videogame design, and thus become a source of irritation that provides ample opportunity for metareferential reflection. Finally, we have seen that Pony Island's metareferential interfaces occasionally include the transgression of ontological boundaries not just between the extradiegetic, diegetic, and hypodiegetic levels but also between what is “in the game” and what is “outside it.”26 While the aforementioned simulation of messages that mimic elements of the Windows operating system and the videogame distribution platform Steam will soon be recognized as a mere illusion by most players, Pony Island also includes a brief epilogue during which the “hopeless soul” directly addresses the actual player of the actual Pony Island and asks them to delete the “corrupted bytes” of the videogame from their computer in order to free the last remaining soul from its digital prison, thus transgressing the ontological boundary between the diegetic arcade machine and the player's actual computer a final time.27 That being said, this kind of “seamless” integration of the GUI and file system of the player's actual computer into the play with metareferential interfaces is employed much more extensively in our second case study, Future Cat LLC's OneShot.

Breaking the Frame: Player-System Interaction in OneShot (2016)

Future Cat LLC's OneShot was initially developed for the 2014 Indie Game Maker Contest using a modified version of RPG Maker 2003 (see RPG Maker 2020). A significantly expanded remake was released via Steam in 2016, where it was positively received by critics and players alike (see, e.g., Metacritic 2020a; Steam 2020a). In 2017, a major update was published in the form of the OneShot: Solstice DLC, containing, among other things, an alternative new game plus version and different endings. In any of the versions,28OneShot's story focuses on Niko, a child with blue hair, blue whiskers, and yellow, cat-like eyes, who wakes up in a strange bed in a strange room, only to learn that they are supposed to save an entire parallel world. To do so, Niko must make their way through three distinct areas and return the world's “sun,” a light bulb Niko carries with them, to the top of a tower at the center of said parallel world. What starts out as a top-down adventure with a prototypical quest structure—Niko's first task is to find a way out of the locked room they wake up in—soon takes a decidedly metareferential turn.

A few minutes into the game, Niko gains access to a computer sitting on a desk beside the bed (see figure 16). As the computer in the parallel world boots up, the OneShot program window is filled with the image of a desktop software interface (see figure 17), leading to a multiplication of interfaces not dissimilar to the one found at the beginning of Pony Island. Next, a series of pop-up windows appears, spelling out a message apparently sent by the represented computer itself. Choosing the only available option (“OK”) will lead to the appearance of the next window: “You found me. . . . [OK] Why?” About halfway into its monologue, the represented computer—later identified as a manifestation of the mysterious “Entity,” which can be understood as something in between the simulation engine that runs the parallel world and its guardian spirit—refers to Niko in the third person, generating the impression that it is talking directly to the player (“Your actions here will affect Niko”; see figure 18). This metaleptic effect further intensifies at the close of the conversation, when the represented computer refers to the player by their actual computer's log-in name (“You only have one shot, [username]”; see figure 19). Unlike the prior parts of the message, this line does not appear within the videogame interface, but is delivered as a pop-up window within the GUI of the actual computer's operating system.29 The pop-up notification thus disables OneShot's program window, forcing the player to interact with their computer's GUI before being able to return to the videogame.

This unexpected disruption of the frame of the parallel world in combination with the mise-en-abyme-like multiplication of the desktop interface of the represented computer on the screen of the player's actual computer and the metaleptic direct player address are arguably designed to heighten the player's medium awareness.30 Similar to Pony Island, the videogame interface also makes use of nondiegetic actions for the same purpose. What is more, OneShot, too, diverges from established conventions of videogame interface design and disables game mechanics experienced players are likely to expect, not least by taking the instruction “you only have one shot” literally in that there is no save and reload mechanic, and once played, OneShot cannot be restarted from the beginning.31 Although somewhat more subtle than the malfunctioning “options” menu in Pony Island, the absence of this highly conventionalized element in OneShot will go against most players’ expectations and thus can be understood as a no less disruptive design decision.

Since the nesting of different (sub)worlds and diegetic levels in OneShot is in fact fairly complex, a few additional words of explanation seem in order before we engage further with the ways the game employs core metareferential strategies. Most of OneShot's story takes place in “The World,” the parallel world Niko unexpectedly finds themselves in. Yet, “The World” can best be understood as a secondary hypodiegetic rather than a primary diegetic storyworld, as it is represented as being embedded in another, higher-order storyworld in which a diegetic author is responsible for the creation of a multitude of subworlds of which the present one is but the latest manifestation. In the OneShot: Solstice DLC, it is then revealed that these secondary hypodiegetic subworlds are actually simulations run by the Entity, the self-aware simulation engine that the player encountered in the beginning of the videogame. Unbeknownst to Niko, the Entity interacts with the player at various points, often through the interface of hypodiegetic desktop computers, but also via the actual computer's GUI. In Solstice, the Entity is then referred to as “the World Machine, a Universe simulator that runs on [username's] computer.” Explicitly connecting the diegetic storyworld and the hypodiegetic storyworlds to “actual” hard- and software existing in the world of the player, the game reflexively highlights the capacity of code and computing power to build and render storyworlds as habitable environments (see also Krampe 2021). The distinction between levels that are conventionally seen as (onto)logically separate—namely, the primary diegetic and the secondary hypodiegetic storyworld(s), the game interface, and the computer's operating system—is then complicated by means of multiple metaleptic transgressions.32

OneShot's complexity does not end with the often paradoxical interconnections among multilayered worlds, but extends to the player's relation to Niko and to the identities of both within the videogame's convoluted hierarchy of diegetic levels. For starters, OneShot explicitly acknowledges the player's control over Niko and diegetizes the feedback loop between the player and the videogame. As Niko learns from the aptly named ProphetBot, the player is conceived of as a deity within the storyworld's lore (see figure 20). While several characters know of the player's presence, Niko is the only character in the secondary hypodiegetic storyworld who can directly communicate with them (see figure 21). In turn, the player-as-God is supposed to provide “guidance” for Niko on their quest to saving the world, which can be read as a self-referential (and not particularly subtle) nod to the player's God-like status in and control over the game spaces and the storyworlds of most videogames. Perhaps most saliently, the special relation between the player-as-God and Niko is realized via the latter's frequent direct address of the player. Niko may even protest against some player commands but seems unable to resist them physically. Motivated agency is restricted to the player, whereas Niko is reduced to a merely responsive role. Niko seems very aware of this, addressing their powerlessness in a sometimes reproachful, sometimes humorous manner. For instance, having caused a small explosion in a generator they are not supposed to touch, Niko will nonchalantly, yet accurately, remark “[username] made me do it.” Niko's awareness of being controlled by the player, and their ability to speak to them directly can be described as a case of ascending metalepsis. Conversely, the player's seeming ability to dispense with the intermediaries of interface and avatar by means of “entering” OneShot's secondary hypodiegetic storyworld as its deity—albeit metaphorically rather than physically—can be described as a descending metalepsis. Yet, in reality, player intervention of course continues to be mediated via the computer's software interface, which OneShot is quick to point out on multiple occasions,33 and thus does not actualize the kind of “real” transgression envisioned by Ryan (2004) just yet.

The multiplication of complexly layered (sub)worlds and the complication of the player's position, then, set the stage for what arguably defines the playful poetics of OneShot's metareferential interfaces: a number of metaleptic level transgressions that threaten to collapse not only the distinctions between storyworld, game spaces, and interface but also the one between the game and its “outside.” While OneShot also exemplifies the multiplication of interfaces and the disruption of interface functionality that already characterized Pony Island, it turns out to be rather more radical when it comes to the blurring of ontological boundaries. A significant portion of the gameplay is actually being played outside the frame of OneShot's designated program window and thus requires the player to interact with the GUI of the actual computer's operating system. Simple examples of this include a password to an in-game door that can be found in a .txt file among the program files saved in the actual computer's “Documents” folder, or additional .exe files that need to be executed in order to start minigames that extend across two program windows. At the same time, as a kind of reverse mirror image of the player's motivated agency, OneShot increasingly seems to develop a will of its own. Similarly to the player controlling the game spaces and/or the storyworld, the videogame itself demonstrates that it is able to act on the computer's operating system, changing the appearance of the GUI or adding new files in the “Documents” folder. Since these transgressive techniques go well beyond Pony Island's simulation of messages that mimic elements of the Windows operating system and that of the videogame distribution platform Steam, it seems worth offering a detailed analysis of two more complex examples.

When Niko enters a dungeon called The Ruins in the second area of the game, they encounter the Entity, in the form of a hypodiegetic desktop computer, a second time, though now in a rather unlikely location. This time, the sentient AI does not even bother with pretense: “Hello again, [username]. It seems I need to help you again. . . . This time, the information you need has fallen to the most easily accessible place on your machine.” The structure of the conversation with the Entity is very similar to the first encounter in that OneShot here combines the metaleptic address of the player with a representation of a desktop software interface that is likely quite similar to that of the computer on which the game is being run. This time, however, the reference to the actual computer is made explicit (“your machine”), already cuing the player to redirect their attention toward the computer's operating system (see figure 22). If the player, as recommended, plays in window mode, they may notice how the actual GUI's wallpaper changes. Dragging the videogame window out of the way reveals another Windows pop-up notification that, similarly to the one in the first encounter with the Entity, continues the conversation: “Do you see it?” Players then have a choice to either click “Yes” or “No.” In the latter case, OneShot will provide further hints directing the player to the symbol that is displayed on the new wallpaper behind the pop-up and that functions as a kind of iconographic password in the game (see figure 23).

Requiring the player to consciously interact with windows and icons, data and text outside the main program window, OneShot draws attention to the computer's operating system and GUI as they support the execution of a specific program such as the videogame itself. At certain points, modifications the player makes to the program files will even effect physical changes in the game spaces and the storyworld.

In a particularly memorable puzzle shortly before the end of the OneShot: Solstice DLC, players can only achieve the desired in-game effects by making the appropriate changes to the actual file structure. As Rue, a self-aware character resembling a fox spirit, explains, “I'm . . . sure [username] is already pretty familiar with retrieving puzzle pieces from this world on their computer. But this time, [username] would need to move around some things, as well.” Story-wise, Niko and their companions have reached a dead end. It is then revealed that the diegetic author has hidden parts of a decryption key in the code of three characters, “with a .txt file as its shell.” To access the keys, the characters first need to be “removed from the world and decompiled.” Then the keys are “combined into a central location,” which unlocks a new area so that the characters can continue on their way. Since Niko seems clearly overwhelmed by this technical and highly metareferential explanation—and presumably to avoid similar confusion in the player—Rue adds more world-consistent instructions: “Basically . . . these portals all represent a physical location on [username] 's machine. . . . When we enter these portals, we will be sent to that location” (see figure 24).

Once the player manages to retrieve and interpret the clues from these explanations, they will realize that, to unlock the next area, the three characters need to be moved onto portals that are indicated by three colored bars. From there, they must be teleported to the “big portal” that the characters believe to be located “outside the game,” where their keys can be combined. “Teleportation” can be achieved by means of moving three .txt files, each corresponding to one of the characters, from one folder to another within the OneShot program files. Accessing the (actual) computer's “Documents” folder, players will now find four new subfolders, three of which contain images of the characters and corresponding .txt files (see figure 25). To move one of the characters into the big portal, the corresponding .txt file needs to be removed from the numbered portal folder (e.g., “Portal 1”) and inserted into the folder “BigPortal.” This causes the character to temporarily disappear from OneShot's storyworld and “teleport” to another location. This example illustrates once more how OneShot uses not just its own videogame interface and the simulated interfaces of various hypodiegetic desktop computers but also the actual computer's GUI to metareferentially identify the storyworld it represents as a computational construct, every aspect of which corresponds to strings of code and data stored in “a physical location on [username] 's machine.”

As was the case in Pony Island, we can identify the multiplication of interfaces and the nesting of multiple (sub)worlds, the disruption of interface functionality, and the transgression of ontological boundaries as three core strategies that characterize the use of metareferential interfaces in OneShot. The playful poetics of both games supplements these metaleptic techniques with reflexive, self-referential, and metafictional comments, yielding innovative forms of metareference that make use of (and take place in) the videogame's multiplied interface. The relative weighting of each of these strategies, however, turns out to be quite different in our two case studies. While Pony Island places more emphasis on the disruption of interface functionality, in OneShot, the multiplication of interfaces and the transgression of ontological boundaries between diegetic levels take center stage. Heavily alluded to but ultimately not realized in Pony Island, the “spread of the metaleptic process to the real machine” (Ryan 2004: 461) finds a more complete implementation in OneShot, the metareferential strategies of which more clearly extend beyond its own program window, even including the GUI of the computer's operating system in the metareferential play. Not only is the extension of the ontological boundary transgression beyond the storyworld and the game spaces no longer merely simulated, but it also implicates the player, whose operator actions take place both within the program window and outside it. In this sense, OneShot appears as a celebration of the videogame's potential for aesthetic innovation, and an object lesson in the medium's ability to appropriate and reinvigorate long-familiar forms of medial self-reflexivity in creative ways. Indie games such as OneShot (and, indeed, Pony Island) thus present videogame interfaces as a place where major innovations with regard to the forms and techniques of metareference are currently taking place, and, consequently, the study of metareferential interfaces turns out to be a highly productive site for expanding and “fine-tuning” the conceptual toolbox of metareference as a transmedial phenomenon.

Conclusion

While not quite the same as Ryan's (2004: 461) hypothetical “computer game that destroys the user's system,” both Pony Island's and OneShot's metareferential interfaces evidently go well beyond the unmarked case of what Bell (2016: 279) describes as “interactional metalepsis.” Throughout our detailed case studies, we have put particular emphasis on three aspects of indie games’ playful poetics: First, the multiplication of interfaces leads to mise-en-abyme-like structures that highlight and reflect on the mediality of videogames while also establishing ontologically distinct levels or subworlds, the borders of which can then be blurred via various forms of metalepsis. Second, the disruption of interface functionality is a core metareferential strategy that not only adds an interesting twist to the gameplay experience but also yet again offers plenty of opportunity for reflection about the conventions that commonly govern the design of videogame interfaces. Third, the transgression of ontological boundaries refers not just to the established narratological distinction among the extradiegetic, diegetic, and hypodiegetic levels but also to the more general distinction between what is “in the game” and what is “outside it,” allowing for the “seamless” integration of the GUI, the file system, and the operating system of the player's actual computer into the playful process of metareferential reflection that is at the core of our two case studies. Yet, while our close analyses of Pony Island and OneShot already make a valuable contribution toward a better understanding of the ways in which videogames in general and indie games in particular may employ metareferential interfaces, the diversity of metareferential strategies encountered there will likely go beyond what we were able to discuss in the previous pages.34 That being said, we hope that the theoretical-conceptual groundwork we have provided and the illustrative case studies we have presented to demonstrate its heuristic value will provide a solid foundation on which future studies aimed at the playful poetics and metareferential interfaces of a broader range of indie games can build.

Notes

1.

Cramer and Fuller (2008), for example, distinguish five types of interfaces: “1. hardware that connects users to hardware; typically input/output devices such as keyboards or sensors, and feedback devices such as screens or loudspeakers; 2. hardware that connects hardware to hardware; such as network interconnection points and bus systems; 3. software, or hardware-embedded logic, that connects hardware to software; the instruction set of a processor or device driver, for example; 4. specifications and protocols that determine relations between software and software, that is, application programming interfaces (APIs); 5. symbolic handles, which, in conjunction with (a) [sic], make software accessible to users; that is, ‘user interfaces,’ often mistaken in media studies for ‘interface’ as a whole” (149). Our focus in the following is indeed on Cramer and Fuller's “symbolic handles” (which we will usually call software interfaces), but we will also occasionally touch on hardware interfaces, particularly those that Cramer and Fuller call “hardware that connects users to hardware.”

2.

Again, this article is not the place to unpack the theoretical arguments behind this terminological distinction in more detail, but it is worth noting that our claim that some videogames can be understood as representing storyworlds that remain comparatively stable across playthroughs may be considered controversial by some scholars. Yet, while it is certainly true that the early days of the interdisciplinary field of game studies generated “a vehement and often polemical body of criticism . . . directed at studies that saw the computer game as one possible form of future storytelling or that simply treated the computer game as a new narrative medium” (Neitzel 2014: n.p.; see also, e.g., Aarseth 2019; Frasca 2003), the notion that at least some videogames can be considered to be narrative in some ways is by now a largely accepted tenet of the field (see, e.g., Aarseth 2012; Backe 2012; Domsch 2013; Eskelinen 2012; Jenkins 2004; Thon 2015, 2016a). It should also be noted that, while we use the term interface primarily to refer to the GUIs of the so-called WIMP devices, we will also occasionally refer to hardware interfaces and our discussion of storyworlds and game spaces will at times likewise include aspects of what Jørgensen (2013) calls “gameworld interfaces.”

3.

It will be necessary to complicate this distinction further when we come to discuss different “diegetic levels” in the context of the kind of paradoxical transgressions of ontological boundaries that are usually described as “metalepses” in current transmedial narratology, but for the time being it may suffice to note that “diegetic” objects, characters, and events are part of a videogame's game spaces and/or storyworld, while “extradiegetic” objects, characters, and events are not. The observation that not all elements of a videogame's game spaces should be taken to also be part of its storyworld evidently suggests that this is a fairly imprecise way of applying the distinction between “diegetic” and “extradiegetic” objects, characters, and events—but it is still common practice within current game studies to designate both objects, characters, and events that are part of the game spaces and objects, characters, and events that are part of the storyworld as “diegetic.”

4.

As hinted at above, the question what is and is not part of a videogame's storyworld is perhaps more controversial than we have time and space to unpack here. However, while we certainly acknowledge that some videogames represent more than one storyworld across different playthroughs, we would still maintain that “there is a narratologically significant distinction between the different playthroughs resulting from what can be roughly described as video games’ interactivity and the different playthroughs resulting from what can be abbreviated as their nonlinearity” (Thon 2016a: 18). Put in a nutshell, “not all elements of the gameplay are meant to contribute to the intersubjective construction of a video game's storyworld to the same extent” (21) and most players will recognize this at least to some extent and thus be able to draw a distinction between the representation of a videogame's gameplay and the representation of its storyworld(s). However, see also Domsch 2013 for a markedly different conceptualization of videogame storyworlds as individual (and, thus, subjective rather than intersubjective) mental constructs.

5.

During the past decade, the interdisciplinary field of game studies has increasingly begun to explore the production, aesthetics, and reception of so-called indie games, despite the fact that discussions surrounding the term remain contentious. For a selection of current approaches to the study of indie games, see, e.g., Garda and Grabarczyk 2016; Harvey and Fisher 2013; Juul 2019; Kagen 2018; Lipkin 2013; O'Donnell 2014; Parker, Whitson, and Simon 2018; Westecott 2013; and the contributions in Clarke and Wang 2020.

6.

The list of indie games that make use of metareferential interfaces is long and diverse. Virtual (and usually retro style) operating system interfaces, for instance, can be found in the crime investigation game Her Story (2015), in the genre-bending first-person shooter SUPERHOT (2016), and in the metareferential puzzle game There Is No Game: Wrong Dimension (2020). The latter in fact all but abolishes the distinction between the HUD interface and the game spaces. Most of the gameplay takes place within or between game menus and desktop interfaces, with interface icons doubling up as objects for the player to use inside the game spaces. In The Hex (2018), developed by Pony Island's creator Daniel Mullins, we can also find metareferential strategies such as the appearance of simulated Steam chat windows or a health bar that drops down and injures the player character during one of the boss fights. A similar moment occurs in Undertale (2015) when the character Asgore destroys parts of the turn-based combat menu with his trident. In the metareferential platformer Break the Game (2019), some of the game menus are themselves playable levels, and the core game mechanic of The Magic Circle (2015) is editing the rules-based behavior of the game world's objects via an overlay interface. Loading Screen Simulator (2017), finally, is a game about an (excruciatingly slow) progress bar displayed on a simulated desktop interface.

7.

Perhaps self-evidently, we are not claiming that there are no AAA videogames that challenge the conventional parameters of interface design, nor are we suggesting that all indie games do so. That being said, recent indie games arguably put metareferential interfaces at the center of their aesthetics more commonly than recent AAA videogames. In focusing on metareferential interfaces, we of course do not mean to deny that many highly metareferential indie games also remediate the audiovisual, ludic, and/or narrative aesthetic of older videogames and/or other media forms, but this is not what we are primarily concerned with here. For further discussion of indie aesthetics, see Thon 2019, 2020.

8.

Thinking about films, television series, comics, or indeed videogames in this way presupposes a conceptualization of media as conventionally (rather than “merely” technologically and/or semiotically) distinct (see, e.g., Ryan 2006; Thon 2016b; Wolf 1999). While we cannot unpack this conceptualization of conventionally distinct media in more detail here, it is worth noting that the distinctions between such media forms can be (and indeed often are) drawn quite differently (see, e.g., Backe 2021; Goodbrey 2021; Wilde 2015).

9.

It is also worth noting that popular discourse around films, television series, comics, and videogames tends to speak of “fourth-wall breaks” when fictional characters acknowledge their audiences (see, e.g., GameCentral 2016 on Pony Island; Winkie 2017 on OneShot; as well as Favis 2016 and Giant Bomb 2020 for rankings of “fourth wall–breaking videogames”; see also, e.g., Conway 2010 and Waszkiewicz 2020 for scholarly perspectives on the “fourth wall” in videogames).

10.

As is well known, Genette “define[s] this difference in level by saying that any event a narrative recounts is at a diegetic level immediately higher than the level at which the narrating act producing this narrative is placed” (1983: 228; original emphasis). Distinguishing between “diegetic” rather than “narrative levels” is preferable because the former includes various “kind[s] of recollection that a character has (in a dream or not)” (Genette [1980] 1983: 231), all of which may be part of a narrative representation but would hardly be considered a narrative representation in themselves.

11.

While the theoretical and methodological orientation of these approaches differs, terminology coined by Genette ([1980] 1983; [1983] 1988) and other early structuralist narratologists (such as Bal [1997: 43–75] and Rimmon-Kenan [2002: 87–106]) is still helpful in analyzing what could be described as the diegetic hierarchy of subworlds (or “diegetic levels”) by drawing clear distinctions among primary diegetic storyworlds, secondary hypodiegetic storyworlds, tertiary hypo-hypodiegetic storyworlds, and so on (see also Schmid 2010: 67–68 on the distinction between primary, secondary, and tertiary narrators; as well as, once more, the detailed discussion in Thon 2016b).

12.

The devices that videogames are played on need to be considered here, as they already raise certain expectations and media awareness in the players. In contrast to nondigital media forms such as books, players are aware that the operating system of a digital device can crash or otherwise malfunction at any time. Particularly when playing games on a mobile phone, players know that their gameplay can suddenly be interrupted in many different ways, be it by incoming pop-up messages or phone calls, a “freeze” of the screen, or a shutdown of the phone due to low battery status. It is, then, hardly surprising that one can find various simulated interruptions and intrusions of interface elements in so-called found phone games such as A Normal Lost Phone (2017) or SIMULACRA (2020), which typically start from the premise that a diegetic character has found a missing person's phone and thus confront the player with a mystery to solve, but commonly proceed to metareferentially play with the player's expectations regarding their own phone's mediality and digital materiality.

13.

An exception to this general rule would be Lose/Lose (2009), an alien-themed shooter that deletes a random file on the player's hard drive for every opponent shot. The highscores displayed on the designer's digital portfolio indicate that the game, despite its virus-like behavior, is actually being played (see Gage 2009).

14.

Somewhat surprisingly, de la Maza proposes metalepsis as “a new concept to define with greater precision the relationship between the player and the framework of the possible expected in a given ludofictional world” (2017: 113; our emphasis), but in highlighting “the rupture of the fictional framework” or “the rupture of the diegesis” that results from the “constant action of the player in the ludofictional world” (167), his conceptualization of the term turns out to be quite similar to what Bell (2016) describes as “interactional metalepsis” (279).

15.

Ensslin (2014b: 128) elaborates that “metagames, that is, games that are about games and gaming, are among the most salient and poignant forms of art games. They use metaludic design strategies, such as borrowing or emulating interface items from other games; intertextuality; and intermediality, often in a tongue-in-cheek manner.” These kinds of metagames (of which both Pony Island and OneShot would certainly be good examples) invite their players “to close-read the multiple codes and layers of the interface in order to work out new navigational and ludic strategies” (Ensslin 2014b: 134).

16.

To distinguish the actual Pony Island game from its diegetic versions, the title of the actual Pony Island game will be set in italic type, while the title of its diegetic versions will be set in roman type. At the same time, the gameplay of the diegetic versions of Pony Island is of course very much part of the gameplay of the actual Pony Island.

17.

As previously noted, we employ established narratological terminology to refer to different narrative or diegetic levels that indie games such as Pony Island or OneShot may represent. In terms of narrative or diegetic hierarchy, the diegetic storyworld is the primary storyworld that a videogame represents. Within that primary diegetic storyworld, additional storyworlds may be represented via the use of narrators or other narrative media, including diegetic videogames. The secondary storyworlds thus represented are called hypodiegetic storyworlds (Genette calls them metadiegetic, but we follow Bal (1997) and Rimmon-Kenan (2002) in arguing that hypodiegetic is the more appropriate choice here). Within such hypodiegetic storyworlds, tertiary hypo-hypodiegetic storyworlds may be represented. Within those, quaternary hypo-hypo-hypodiegetic storyworlds, and so forth. For further discussion of these kinds of narratorial and more generally diegetic hierarchies, see, once more, Thon 2016b.

18.

In fact, Pony Island uses Christian mythology to establish a more extensive narrative framing, but does so in a rather vague way: During a number of prerendered cut-scenes that the player can watch in the course of the game, it is suggested that the diegetic character is named Theodore, has died at the “foot of Jerusalem's Wall 1252 years after Christ was born,” and is now trapped in the limbus, metaphorically realized in the form of the arcade machine.

19.

While Pony Island's title would hardly be associated with the horror genre and it also seems unlikely that most player's primary emotional response to its gameplay is fear (either as a fiction emotion or as a gameplay emotion; see, e.g., Frome 2006; Perron 2005; Thon 2019), it is still generally categorized as a horror game (see, e.g., the tags on the Pony Island Steam page, Steam 2020b).

20.

Here and throughout, we use the term player/character to refer to the amalgam of the actual player and the diegetic player character that Pony Island/Pony Island attributes agency to. As mentioned above, the narrative framing and the distinction between the actual indie game Pony Island and the diegetic arcade game Pony Island becomes less clear as the player proceeds through the former, but at least initially, in-game actions such as “clicking on the ‘options & help’ menu” are attributed to both the actual player and the diegetic player character. See also, e.g., Backe and Thon 2019; Schröter and Thon 2014; and Vella 2016 for more detailed discussions of player agency in connection with avatars and other characters. a comic, or a videogame—rather than what that representational artifact represents. For a more detailed discussion of the distinction between artifact emotions, fiction emotions, and gameplay emotions as it applies to the kind of experiences that videogames typically afford their players, see, once more, Frome 2006; Perron 2005; Thon 2019.

21.

Originally coined by Ed Tan (2011) to describe certain aspects of spectators’ responses to fiction films, artifact emotions can generally be understood as those emotions that have as their object the design of a representational artifact—whether a film, a television series,

22.

It may be worth noting here that the diegetic software interface metaphor of the desktop differs from the diegetic hardware interface of the arcade machine in that the former seems to refer more to the mediality of a desktop PC. As briefly mentioned above, however, Pony Island is generally quite vague with regard to the “diegetic logic” behind its complex narrative framing, with the difference between the diegetic software interface and the diegetic hardware interface being only one of several “tensions” that the player may pick up on.

23.

This section of Pony Island thus also constitutes a particularly playful and metareferential take on Juul's concept of “independent style,” which he defines as “a representation of a representation” that uses “contemporary technology to emulate styles from earlier times” (Juul 2019: 31; original emphasis).

24.

The fact that an arcade machine is unlikely to be connected to the videogame distribution platform Steam further reinforces the impression that Asmodeus addresses the actual player rather than the diegetic character here—but, as we have seen before, Pony Island is not making particularly consistent use of its various diegetic interfaces and one of the later cut-scenes also suggests that the diegetic arcade machine may at least include a keyboard as part of its hardware interface.

25.

In terms of Pony Island's narrative qualities, these kinds of transgressions are of course clearly metaleptic, but they also have implications regarding its game spaces and ludic system that are connected to the concept of the “magic circle.” While, according to Johan Huizinga (1949: 12), the magic circle is a “temporary suspension of normal social life” in which “the laws and customs of ordinary life no longer count,” Pony Island seemingly crosses the boundaries set by such a “magic circle,” thus presenting the gameplay experience as much more “open, permitting interchange between the game and the world beyond its frame” (Salen and Zimmermann 2004: 96; see also, e.g., Calleja 2015; Consalvo 2009; Stenros 2014 for additional critical perspectives on the concept of the “magic circle”).

26.

While we cannot unpack this here, it might be worth exploring further how this notion of ontological transgression connects to broader notions of playful transgression that have recently gained some traction in the interdisciplinary field of game studies. See, e.g., Mortensen and Jørgensen 2020; and the contributions in Jørgensen and Karlsen 2018.

27.

This is just one of several endings, though. One of the other options is a secret ending that occurs if the player has collected all the “pony tickets.” In this alternative ending, the player/character must fight against and ultimately defeat the “hopeless soul.”

28.

While its reasonably complex publication history is worth highlighting as a fairly prototypical case of current indie game development processes, the following analysis focuses primarily on the 2016 version of OneShot and the 2017 DLC chapter OneShot: Solstice.

29.

In the case of the 2016 version of OneShot, this will be some version of Windows, though it is worth noting that the original 2014 version of the videogame also runs on Mac OS X and Linux.

30.

According to Werner Wolf (2009: 56), mise-en-abyme, “the ‘mirroring’ of parts or the totality of a framing or embedding higher level [of a sign system] in a discernible unit located on an embedded, lower level,” holds high metareferential potential, especially when it is combined with other, salient forms of metaization. See also, e.g., Cohn 2012; Dällenbach 1977; Wolf 2010.

31.

Unless, that is, the player makes a concerted effort to thoroughly delete all saved data and disable the game's synchronization with the digital distribution platform Steam. In the 2014 free version of the game, it was not even possible to quit and resume the game. In the 2016 remake, closing the game window acts as a save and quit and only entails minor consequences: Upon restarting the game, Niko will seem anxious, claiming that “everything just went really dark,” which additionally frames OneShot's storyworld and the characters within it as somewhat player-independent and more-than-merely fictional.

32.

Niko's sudden appearance in “The World” is a case in point, as is certain characters’ awareness of the existence of both the primary diegetic and the secondary hypodiegetic storyworld(s), as well as their metaleptic ability to (appear to) speak across ontological boundaries directly to the player. It is, however, not entirely clear whether Niko's homeworld is located on a higher or the same ontological level as the secondary hypodiegetic storyworld in which most of OneShot's story takes place. In the latter case, Niko's transportation would qualify as horizontal (or lateral) metalepsis—i.e., the crossing from one (sub)world to the next without a change of diegetic level (see, e.g., Thoss 2015; Wagner 2002; Wolf 2005)—even though it is disputed whether transgressions between (sub)worlds that are not stacked hierarchically should be included in definitions of metalepsis (notably in Klimek 2010 and Kukkonen 2011).

33.

In fact, even the generator example cannot do away with interface or mediation, as the player will need to repeatedly click on the visual representation of the generator for Niko to fiddle with it. The same ambiguity applies to the player-as-God, a figure that is structurally and functionally similar to Theodore, the arcade user in the primary diegetic storyworld of Pony Island, in that both blur the line between the diegetic player character and the actual player. Since the presence and agency of the player is folded into OneShot's primary diegetic storyworld by means of the figure of the player-as-God, it could be argued that it is them, rather than Niko, who functions as the avatar of the player in OneShot. However, the framing of the player-as-God is increasingly blurred with the “actual” player, with OneShot frequently invoking the player's “nondiegetic” abilities, which they must use in order to solve certain in-game puzzles. For a more detailed discussion of the avatar/player relationship, see also, once more, Backe and Thon 2019; Schröter and Thon 2014; Vella 2016.

34.

Beyond the metareferential play with the mediality and materiality of specific digital devices (see n. 12), metareferential interfaces also seem closely aligned with the critical impetus of reflective and queer game design. As Jess Marcotte (2018) notes in her recent call for queering videogame control(ler)s, design aspects that feel counterintuitive or glitchy may create “emergent possibility spaces” (n.p.) for queer play and critical thought (see also Bagnall 2017; Sicart 2017 for queer perspectives on videogame controllers). Whitney Pow (2018), in turn, calls attention to the way interfaces become placeholders for bodily presence in the game Curtain (2014). Persistently filling up part of the screen, Curtain's text box both acts as part of a regular extradiegetic interface and takes on symbolic meaning in the context of a game about domestic abuse in a queer relationship (see Pow 2018: 55). Metareferential interfaces can furthermore be found in critical art games such as the zines designed by Nathalie Lawhead (e.g., EVERYTHING IS GOING TO BE OK [2017]; A Desktop Love Story [2018]), further supporting the observation that metareferential strategies are well suited for critical self-reflexive design and play practices. For a more detailed discussion of queerness in videogames, including game mechanics and interfaces, see Ruberg 2019.

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