Video games, more so than films or other storytelling media, are a very involved experience for those who play them. We feel like these games are our lives because, while we play them, they literally are our lives. Because we are so actively involved in the experience, we usually think of gaming, and the stories, concepts, and mores that we consume while playing games, in a passive manner, accepting them for little more than what they are on the surface.
This is why self-aware video games are useful to us — they confront the player with these issues, forcing them to, at the very least, acknowledge them, and hopefully to internalize and critically evaluate them.
Knowing about the stories we engage in through gaming also allows us to see patterns in ourselves, both as creators and consumers, and analyze those patterns. Trope creation is something that occurs naturally in realms of creativity; it happens because people respond to characterizations, plot points, and settings in certain ways, usually because they respond positively, and it is not, at all, a bad thing.
But here’s the thing: tropes get stale. They are, by definition, overused, and creators tend to be overindulgent with them. Sometimes they present problems of a practical or ethical nature, and sometimes they just stifle creativity. Elements of self-awareness in games allow us to bring those overdone tropes to the attention of the community surrounding these games, and that results in more creative and artful games and more mindful gaming communities.
Self-awareness does not have to act against a trope, however; it can also act in tandem with the trope and provide a fresh take on it. We can point to Hatoful Boyfriend as an example of this. It requires some familiarity with the tropes of the visual novel games it riffs on, but it rarely openly mocks or subverts these tropes, choosing instead to exaggerate them to absurd extremes as a means of highlighting them.
The game urges you to laugh at the absurd notion of birds at a prestigious bird academy, rather than just laughing at the academy trope itself. While it isn’t completely reverent of the trope, and it certainly seems to have the intent of sending it up, it doesn’t actively discourage the player from engaging in it or enjoying it.
Other games try harder to analyze and prove a point about tropes. 2015’s indie darling Undertale is notable for taking on RPG narrative and gameplay tropes head-on while still finding a good amount of recognition and success. The ways it does this is a column all on its own, but Undertale’s treatment of the in-game “enemies” is a significant example of a game working to expose tropes, and even the unwritten rules of video games as a whole. By giving the option to befriend, rather than fight, the “monsters” in the game, and by having those decisions impact the emotional tone of the ending in such a severe way, Undertale directly attacks convention and our ideas of the necessity of fighting within the video game multiverse in the first place.
Video games, in a way, are inherently a postmodern medium; they allow us to, with a flick of a switch, at least partially detach ourselves from our everyday lives and turn ourselves into soldiers, athletes, adventurers, wizards, or whatever else you can think to make a game out of. That’s a very valuable aspect of the experience. However, the end result is much more fulfilling for everyone if we are at least aware of why we play and enjoy the games we do so that we can celebrate, with confidence, this beautiful and complicated hobby we share.