Movies Are Going Meta And They’re Leaving Video Games Behind

Meta can mean a lot of things when it comes to video games. It might mean the best weapons, or the current popular strategy. It could mean ‘metagaming’, as in using information not accessible to your characters to discuss and inform their decisions. It could mean The Artist Formerly Known As Facebook and its foray into VR. Speaking of VR, it could also be the Metaverse, as even though no one can agree on what it is, how it works, or why it’s any better than Second Life or VRChat. In movies, meta generally just means one thing, and it’s better at it than video games.

To be meta in a movie is to be self-referential. This may be by breaking the fourth wall, and therefore admitting to itself that it is a movie, but the film industry is far more creative than that. The original Scream back in 1996 was one of the first ‘modern meta’ movies, heavily referencing other horror movies and their conventions, equally subverting and succumbing to them to keep audiences guessing. This, in turn, informed the likes of Scary Movie and Zombieland, the latter amongst others to riff on the ‘rules to survive’ framing.

Related: The Matrix Peaked With The Burly BrawlIt could be argued that The Last Action Hero, three years older than Scream with a 1993 premiere, was the first movie to do modern meta, but LAH is very video-game-like in its metaness, taking a single audience member into a movie, and going meta by exploring the processes of shooting and stunt coordination. Scream is much more holistic, and therefore more influential in laying the groundwork.

Flashing forward to now, and just being meta is not enough. After two decades of mockumentaries and Joss Whedon cracking jokes to lighten the mood, meta is now the default. If a movie wants to be meta these days, it needs to be subversively meta. Scream (the new one, also called Scream, for reasons I’ll get into) and The Matrix Resurrections are the best examples of how movies are leaving video games behind.

I’m not just bringing in video games because as TheGamer we’re contractually obliged to discuss video games. We write about movies and television on their own merits plenty. But video games are our most interactive art form, and it’s odd that they’re being left behind like this. In some ways, video games cannot escape referencing the fact they are video games. Die at a tense moment? Never mind, try again! And don’t forget to push B to dodge and hold LT to aim!

But modern video games are keen to avoid this reality. In Uncharted 2, treasure would sparkle to let you know when you’re close, huge button prompts fill the screen, hints are offered with a clear ‘push up on the D-pad’ suggestion, and what feels like every gunfight begins with specific combat tips. The Last of Us Part 2, made by the same studio 11 years on, deliberately suppresses the typical ‘this thing important’ glow, is stingy with hints, button prompts, and tutorials, and even sees you attacked while at a workbench – an area the game has typically treated as a safe space.

I have no issue with TLOU2 subverting conventions in this way, but when every game does everything in its power to make you forget you’re playing a video game, it makes them seem embarrassed of their own medium. I’ve written about games’ inferiority complex before, how they constantly attempt to be the same stale movie, how they lack the nuance to tell stories Hollywood can with ease, and how our competition pitting The Game Awards against the Oscars (while relying heavily on film stars and adverts for TGA to work) is a symptom of our desperation for approval. While games were busy trying to become movies, movies went and became video games.

The following paragraphs broadly reference events in Scream (2022) and The Matrix Resurrections but do not spoil any major plot points.

Take the latest Matrix flick, for example. It’s a remake in the style of a video game reboot – it’s Final Fantasy 7 Remake. The movie plays out like the first Matrix, but with key, meta differences. There is no Deadpool fourth wall break, no Jimming the camera, but large parts of the movie are directed specifically at us. Us as the audience and us, yes us lot right here, as gamers. Games borrowed the most from The Matrix, and we diluted it to bullet time and fight scenes. The movie resents us, it resents Warner Brothers, it resents what The Matrix and the Red Pill has come to represent, and it’s right to do so.

The Matrix is acutely aware not only that it is a movie, but that it is the fourth movie in a trilogy that ended nearly two decades ago, has had its second two movies panned and severely misunderstood, and has had all its themes either twisted 180 degrees or ignored completely because bullets go slow-mo. It knows what it is and it never lets you forget.

Then there’s Scream – the original meta movie. Much as Randy explains the rules of horror in the original, the new Randy (his niece, for added connection) explains the rules of the requel; that’s a reboot slash sequel.

Scream has grown more meta as it goes on, referencing the fictional, in-universe Stab movies that were made in reaction to the events of the movie. Stab 8, a reboot just called Stab, is mentioned throughout Scream, with characters complaining of the titling conventions and the lack of legacy characters – the latter of which Scream avoids by bringing back Dewey, Gale, and Sidney.

Scream is prepared to let you forget it’s a movie at times. It has some of the grisliest kills, builds excellent tension, and one of the best killer reveals in the whole series. My suspicions seemed oh so perfect until they died in a splatter of blood. But it’s never afraid of pulling you back in, of reminding you that the people in this universe watch Stab, and the people in our universe watch Scream. More so even than Scream 3, set on a movie lot, Scream (2022) consistently reminds you that this is a movie in a wider series, and that franchises have rules – and that rules can be broken.

Movies are not afraid of being movies. Most of them relish it, even if they don’t lean into it quite so much as Scream and The Matrix. Video games, however, are very afraid of being games – especially at a triple-A level. That’s because they want you to think of them as movies where you are the star. Every death is just a deleted scene. This is your story, no one else’s.

Games should be games. There are hundreds of conventions of various genres of gaming, and thousands of shared truths. You click the stick forward to sprint. LT is aim and RT is fire. A is jump. The Start button (and it is known as Start whatever your controller is) means pause. There are things we all know, things that a game brave enough could toy with, could use to tell a story bigger than itself, but instead far too many play everything straight. Video games have dabbled in meta before – Psycho Mantis reading your memory card, Batman: Arkham Asylum ‘breaking’ itself – and they have solidified their place in the pop culture zeitgeist.

These are not fresh examples, yet anyone who experienced them can instantly recall them. We love games that make us think differently, even if we’re prepared to buy the same over the shoulder third person action blockbuster with an emotional core beneath its gruff exterior over and over again. As video games got better at being movies, movies got better at playing with their audience in ways video games should be beyond the horizon from them by now. At least if games keep copying movies, they might understand meta in a decade or so.

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