Between 2007 and 2008 there were two games that were more remarkable for what they did than what they were, and what they were were games doing commentary on the act and experience of playing games themselves.
The first was, of course, You Have To Burn The Rope, which gave you its FAQ, walkthrough, and spoiler-alert straight up front, skipped essentially all of the formalities of the game itself, and then rewarded you with a love-song ode to how brilliant you were at doing what it wouldn’t let you do otherwise. It was a one-off joke, but one smart enough to be selected for and turn heads with a selected as a finalist at the Independent Games Festival.
The second, less indie-industry-shattering game was John ‘jmtb02‘ Cooney’s Achievement Unlocked, a game that rested itself entirely on the Microsoft-created monster of playing for and focusing on the meta-game of satisfying secondary goals.
And so, a year or more on, two more games have emerged that take that meta-gaming to the next level. The first, and newest — again from Cooney (and even starring Unlocked‘s now-beloved elephant), and again telling you what it is up front, is This Is The Only Level (top), which it is, though split up into some 30 takes on the same in-game terrain. Better you discover the best of its surprises for yourself, but it encapsulates some truly devious expectation-undermining throughout, and while perhaps less successful than Unlocked (wholly relying on monotony of its single task to drive its point home, where even the former rewarded careful exploration of its own single level), still will be one of the best 10 minute browser-games of the month.
And, finally, the culmination of all the games above: Antony Lavelle’s Upgrade Complete, from the same author as the monochrome-navigating web series Shift (which just recently came to the iPhone, as well). The trick here: starting the game rewards you with nothing but a blank screen. No developer logo, no title menu, no loading, no nothing, and every bit, piece, and even-better-bit of the game itself has to be purchased by playing.
Obviously, the game makes the minor concession of giving you some cash to spare to get to the ‘game’ itself — a simplistic top-down scrolling shooter — but from there, every, well, upgrade, be it increasing graphic fidelity through generational shifts of 8- to 64-bit, adding sound, credits, and piecing together a deadlier ship to make collecting more money even easier, has to be earned and bought.
Like the above games, it’s excessively linear by design, the game itself not actually being as important as the meta-game, but, like Burn The Rope, its true ending is similarly my-god-aren’t-you-amazing cockle-warming, though this time, probably slightly undercut by the fact that you had to pay them to tell you in the first place. But what could be more meta than that?
This Is The Only Level [John Cooney]
Upgrade Complete [Antony Lavelle]