Editorial: The Game Within

For me that usually meant playing adult Legos.
Minecraft offers a welcoming environment for crafting player made games within the game.

I must admit, dearest admirers, that after the news of Nintendo’s financial woes I had planned to write something about the situation. I was going to write about how it was both a terrible sign and a very correctable misstep. But much has already been said, by me let alone others, about the enigmatic affairs of Nintendo. Instead this week I will be discussing something more positive than corporate financial trouble. I want to discuss a topic I had not fully realized until recently. I mean to discuss those special moments when I might find a game within a game. To clarify, there are some times while playing a videogame, usually an open world game, when I find something to do within that game of my own design. Instead of simply playing the game and following the cues given to me by the developer, sometimes I might make my own little objectives in a game that bear no reward. I find that these moments often mark the point where the game goes from being something I do, to being something I truly play. And games that have these moments are usually games I stick with for a long time and get some of the biggest thrills out of despite there being no designed reward or incentive.

So often of late games are designed to be crafted and scripted events to be interacted with. In this way, even games with multiple outcomes or progression paths can end up feeling like watching a movie but with failure conditions added in. However, even in games that have an intended method of play, it can be possible to think of and play by a set of goals that I create for myself. I commonly find this occurs with games that are more open ended affairs like Minecraft. When the game launched it was in alpha and had little in it beyond the ability to fight some monsters at night and build or dig in the world. Since then it has added some goals, an endgame encounter with a dragon, multiple world types and other directed incentives for the player. Yet I have spent so much time with this game not for any sense of direction handed to me, but by my own ideas and incentives that paid off only in the act of doing them. For instance, I would always build things in Minecraft that followed some sense of structural integrity. Despite the fact that only a select few block types in the game obey gravity, I would still put it upon myself to add support beams to things like bridges and raised platforms. Further still, I had rules as to which block types could be used in certain situations. Stone was used mostly as foundational support, wood mostly as interior flooring and decoration, metal blocks for larger expansive structures, and so on. Though I played in Creative Mode and could have built as freely as I wanted, it was by sticking to these rules and limits that I felt a sense of accomplishment and of inspiration to build even more. And those feelings were felt doubly so for the fact that they were by my own design and that, though I had no incentive to play by them, I was committed to them. Minecraft presented me with ample opportunity to make my own rules, but I have found it possible to do so in games less creative and more narrative focused.

In other words: collect ALL the things!
The Elder Scrolls series is known for its open world and player freedom, which can lend itself well to player-made goals and challenges.

Bethesda’s Fallout and Elder Scrolls series are another open world game type that offer a degree of freedom. This sense of player agency about where to go and how to build my own character remain the standout aspects of both of those series for me. In Skyrim in particular I found the little rules and goals I set for myself to be the biggest motivators, far above and beyond the story quests or the side quests. After playing for nearly one hundred hours I finally moved on to something else. But even in all that time, I never got past the opening story missions. Instead, I explored the world with my own sense of direction and with my own goals. My personal quest to find one of very book was probably my favorite thing. The little things like that, including how I organized and decorated my house, managed to see me through the hours of mediocre combat and the generic dragon-fantasy atmosphere.

But one so called “game within a game” that can be played in almost any game is the increasingly popular speedrun. Thanks to the Awesome Games Done Quick charity events that happen twice a year, awareness of speedrunning has only increased in. Its roots are likely as old as gaming itself, and I find myself no stranger to the appeal of what is perhaps the most famous example of playing a game by a different set of rules. For years, and for my own private gratification, I used to speedrun through all of the mainline Resident Evil games on the GameCube. For a time I was even speedrunning long RPGs to get “fast” completion times that were often above a dozen hours. I was never dedicated enough to do these things in a single sitting, content to take breaks and liberally fudge completion times to account for bathroom breaks and the like. My obsession also slightly predated the rise of Lets Plays and easily posted videos. But perhaps if I had kept up with it for longer I would have involved myself in the very avid online speedrunning community. And the very existence of this community speaks to the amazing flexibility of the gaming medium as one that can appeal to many different tastes even within one title. It also is proof of the deeply gratifying and compelling nature of playing the game within a game.

What experiences have you had with these kinds of moments in games? Ever tried speedrunning? And what about finding something else inside of a game that you set for yourself as a goal? If you have not found yourself with an experience like this, then why not and what is wrong with you? Just kidding, you are all wonderful people. Not really. But whether or not you are wonderful, you should comment!


  1. One of my favourite games-within-a-game is “find a way to get Mel killed.”

    I have tried this out in Portal 2 and Borderlands 2 with great success on numerous occasions, and I recommend it to anyone else who has the opportunity.

  2. Hey, Mel. You want to play borderlands 2 with me? It’ll be so fun!

    I made my own goals in Metal Gear Solid 3. At the area with the helicopter pad and the machinegun emplacements I would always try to shoot out everyone’s radio so they can’t call reinforcements, then get caught, run up to the building in the corner, knock them all out, and then walk out the door as I detonate the C4 I had placed there earlier. I never succeeded but I loved trying to do it.

  3. I’d be down to play BL2 with you, Jahan, except I’ve played about 450 hours of it… I’m just a wee burnt out on the game lol

Comments are closed.