Over the last few years, I've been collecting examples of metagames — not the strategy of metagaming, but playable games about videogames. Most of these, like Desert Bus or Quest for the Crown, are one-joke games for a quick laugh. Others, like Cow Clicker and Upgrade Complete, are playable critiques of game mechanics. Some are even (gasp!) fun.
Since I couldn't find an exhaustive list (this TV Tropes guide to "Deconstruction Games" is the closest), I thought I'd try to pull one together along with some gameplay videos.
This is just a starting point, please post your additions in the comments or email me and I'll add them in. Note: I've tried to stay away from specific game parodies (like Pong Kombat or Pyst), and stick to games that comment on game design, mechanics, or culture.
Most bad games don't try to be bad. But these games deliberately test your patience by taking a single game mechanic and make it hard to endure. For more information about abusive game design, see this academic paper and presentation by Douglas Wilson and Miguel Sicart at the University of Copenhagen.
Penn & Teller's Smoke & Mirrors (Sega CD, 1995). Download. Like their earlier Cruel Tricks for Dear Friends video from 1987 — see Vidi Kopy or Super Kleener for meta-VHS examples — Smoke and Mirrors was a collection of small pranks that used unique aspects of the medium to let buyers play tricks on their friends. In Desert Bus, the most notorious of the mini-games, players drive a tour bus on a mind-numbing eight-hour trip from Tucson to Las Vegas. Driving off-road gets you towed back to Tucson in real-time, making it difficult to cheat. And if you manage to complete the trip, you get one point. In interviews, Jillette said Desert Bus was their attempt to make the most mundane, realistic game ever, a direct response to the Clinton Administration's fight against violent games in the mid-1990s.
I Wanna Be The Guy: The Movie: The Game (Windows, 2007). One of the hardest games ever made, Michael "Kayin" O'Reilly's "nail-rippingly difficult platform adventure" pays homage to countless 8- and 16-bit era games. If you play it in the easiest setting ("Medium"), your characters has a pink bow in his hair and all the save points are renamed from "SAVE" to "WUSS."
The Unfair Platformer (Flash, 2008). A frustrating, and not very fun, platformer with a very unreliable narrator. Have fun in Sunshine Mountain.
Janey Thomson's Marathon (Flash, 2009). Speed run. Ostensibly made for the 1984 Olympics, this Flash game made for TV channel E4 by Rob Manuel and Matt Round asks players to run a 26.2 mile marathon in real-time, Track & Field-style. Here's video of one poor bloke beating the game, after nearly three hours of button-mashing.
Tetris HD (Flash, 2009). It can take upwards of 15 minutes to complete a single line.
The flipside of abusive games — games so obvious that they're barely games at all.
Progress Quest (Windows/Linux/Web, 2002). Eric Fredricksen's cult favorite "streamlines the more tedious aspects" of modern RPGs by cutting out the middleman: the player. There's no interaction at all, just watching your character stats increase as the game plays itself in progress bar status messages. Try it in your browser. See also: Statbuilder Classic from 2008.
Don't Shoot the Puppy (Flash, 2006). A game of inaction.
4 Minutes and 33 Seconds of Uniqueness (Windows, 2009). Petri Purho, creator of Crayon Physics, created this experimental program that's barely a game. Your goal is simply to be the only other person running the game online for 4 minutes and 33 seconds straight. If anyone else starts it up during that period, the game quits and you lose. No interaction, just a giant black-and-white progress bar.
Super PSTW Action RPG (Flash, 2009). The "PSTW" stands for "Press Space to Win," which is all you need to know. Don't miss Dot Dot Dot, the hilarious dramatic reading of a frustrated player's review of the game.
Progress Wars (Web, 2010). Jakob Skjerning's modern HTML5 click-fest describes itself as "Like Progress Quest for people who aren't old."
Godville (Web/iOS, 2010). Inspired by Progress Quest, Godville is a "massively-multiplayer zero-player game" that requires no interaction to play. Even when you're not playing, your character's busy wandering the countryside, fighting battles, and leveling up, with your character's actions summarized with text largely created by the community. It's free for iPhone/iPad and currently invite-only beta on the web.
Game Mechanics Gone Wild
These games take a single game mechanic or cliche and blow it out, usually for comic effect. The result is a game that's not so much about the experience, but about what actually makes a game fun or not.
Retro Sabotage (Flash, 2007-Present). A collection of brief minigames, each using elements of a classic game as its backdrop. In an interview, the pseudonymous creators behind the site said, "The idea is to use games against themselves to have gamers think about the medium." Highlights: Mario escapes the NES, the Cold War context of Missile Command, Pong 2.0 parodies game tutorials, and Twenty Lines, which combines Tetris with Kubrick's 2001. (Read Emily Short's thoughtful column about the game.)
Achievement Unlocked (Flash, 2008). John "jmtb02" Cooney brilliantly lampoons the achievements craze, heaping endless awards on players for doing the most mundane tasks — starting the game, muting the sound, or not moving at all.
Upgrade Complete (Flash, 2009). Directly inspired by Achievement Unlocked every element of this game can be upgraded, from the graphics and sound to the menu buttons and copyright notice. Even the ending is lame at first, berating you for choosing a game based on the complexity of its upgrade system instead of how fun it is... but you can always upgrade to a happier ending.
Free Will: The Game (Flash, 2009). Marcus "Raitendo" Richert made several games about elements of gaming, starting with this experiment that injects a dose of reality into a simple Gameboy-era platformer.
You Only Live Once (Flash, 2009). In most games, death is a temporary setback. Here, Raitendo made it as permanent as possible. Your girlfriend mourns your death, the enemy arrested, and a memorial erected in your honor... but no extra lives. After playing through, try reloading the page or switching browsers. (This trick was reused to great effect in One Chance.)
Mr. Destiny's Adventure (Flash, 2009). Noyb's riff on Super Mario Bros. seems broken at first, but it's intentional. Are you playing the game, or is it playing you?
Cow Clicker (Facebook Game, 2010). Ian Bogost's Facebook game about Facebook games is "partly a satire, and partly a playable theory of today's social games, and partly an earnest example of that genre." To his partial dismay, it became the most popular piece of art he's ever made. Last week, Bogost extended the game into a platform, complete with API, widgets, an iPhone app, new Facebook game, and Cow Clicker-branded search engine.
Commentary about violent videogames or those who protest against them.
Super Columbine Massacre RPG!, (Windows, 2005). Created by a Colorado college student, this polarizing game let players loosely reenact the Columbine shootings as Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold. It was met with extremely mixed reactions, and created a storm of controversy when it was accepted and later pulled from the Slamdance game competition. In 2008, Ledonne produced Playing Columbine, a documentary about the controversy. While flawed, it's still provocative experiment. Clive Thompson wrote in his Wired review, "It uses the language of games as a way to think about the massacre." Watch the complete run-through.
I'm O.K.: A Murder Simulator (Windows, 2005). In 2005, disbarred attorney/videogame activist Jack Thompson wrote "A Modest Videogame Proposal," a satirical open letter offering $10,000 to the first developer to create and release a game in which game developers were murdered. Three talented developers took up the challenge, creating a comically violent side-scroller that fulfilled Thompson's spec to the letter. He never paid up. Watch the complete playthrough.
Murder Simulator (Unity, 2010). Northern University Illinois student Andy Saia's student project is a response to the post-school shootings debate about violent videogames in politics and the mainstream media.
These games all reflect on game development and gamer culture.
The Game Paradise: Master Of Shooting (Arcade/Sega Saturn, 1995). This Japanese shoot-em-up takes place in an arcade, where characters from other Jaleco games must defend themselves from a range of game-related enemies, including cocktail cabinets, printed circuit boards, and pinball machines. In one stage, an 8-bit CPU captures the Saturn's 32-bit CPU and forces the graphics down to the Space Invaders era.
Segagaga (Dreamcast, 2001). Only released in Japan, this strange game parodied the console wars, with players taking control of Sega in a desperate attempt to try to regain marketshare from DOGMA (a thinly-veiled Sony). In an interview with the game's creator, Edge Magazine revealed it was secretly developed for two years with a marketing budget of only $200.
WarioWare, Inc. (Nintendo DS, 2003). WarioWare is a game loosely structured around making and playing games. After hearing that videogames are a huge business, Wario buys a laptop and starts making games. Frustrated by the time commitment, he hires friends to churn out as many "microgames" as they can. One character, 9-Volt, bases all his games on Nintendo classics.
Retro Game Challenge (Nintendo DS, 2007). This is like the Inception of games: a game where you play videogames to appease a character based on a man who plays videogames on a long-running Japanese television show. If you get stuck, read fictional gaming magazines to get hints to beat the fictional NES games. Oh, Japan.
Rara Racer (Windows/Mac, 2008). Increpare parodies YouTube playthroughs, with self-referential commentary, popup windows, and other unexpected intrusions. It really has to be played to be appreciated.
First Person Tetris (Flash, 2010). David Kraftsow fixes each Tetris block in your view, revolving the entire world around it — NES, TV and all.
Game Dev Story (iOS/Android/PC, 2010). Run your own videogame company over a 20-year span in this highly-addictive RPG/simulation, developing a string of fictional games for slightly-fictionalized consoles ("PlayStatus," "Intendro DM," "Uranus"), with the help of some familiar names ("Gilly Bates," "Steven Jobson," "Shigeto Minamoto").
Passage in 10 Seconds (Flash, 2010). Raitendo made three short, playable parodies of artsy games, starting with this direct parody of Jason Rohrer's acclaimed Passage. He followed up by poking fun at Abstract Art Game in 10 Seconds and Experimental Gameplay in 10 Seconds.
Great Game 1/5 (Flash, 2010). A parody of Internet game reviewers, this game constantly berates the game designer with one-star reviews for every one of the game's flaws.
What did I miss? Post them in the comments, send me tips on Twitter, or email/IM me.
February 3: Wow, thanks so much to everybody who sent in suggestions. I now have more games to add than in the original entry! As a result, I'm going to do a long second post with all of them, which I'll publish next week. Thanks.