Shovel Knight

and Self-Reflexivity: The Retrogame as Metafiction and as History

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David Boffa is a Visiting Assistant Professor of art history at Beloit College in Wisconsin. His interests include artistic status and identity in the Italian Renaissance, critical approaches to video games, and the Open Access movement in academia. When not teaching or reading he also co-hosts a podcast on Olympic Weightlifting.
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Yacht Club Games’ Shovel Knight (2014) has been a retro-gaming hit, lauded as much for its crisp gameplay, attractive visuals, and catchy chiptune soundtrack as for its success in channeling and revitalizing the feel of classic 8-bit video games. The game focuses on the eponymous hero’s quest to rescue his companion Shield Knight from the evil Enchantress, doing battle with knights from “The Order of No Quarter” and collecting treasure along the way. As players and reviewers have noted, the game is effective because it does not rely simply on nostalgia, even if (as its developers have stated) it is strongly influenced by games like Zelda II, Castlevania, and Super Mario Bros. 3, among others. Rather, Shovel Knight employs nostalgia as just one of many tools in its impressive arsenal to create a meaningful and rewarding gameplay experience. I’ve now played through it nearly three times (twice normally and once in “New Game Plus” mode, in which I have yet to conquer the final stage).

Yet, Shovel Knight is more than just a really fun game; it is also a seriously postmodern work and a critical take on the history of video games. Indeed, for me a great part of Shovel Knight’s appeal and brilliance is that its theme is essentially about gaming: i.e., in a multitude of ways, both explicit and implicit, Shovel Knight is a game about video games. Through the consistent and effective use of metafiction and irony—hallmarks of postmodernism—it does more than just create this meaning and content. Instead, Shovel Knight provides the player with the tools to be a participant in the creation of meaning, as it asks the player to appreciate and recognize its status as fiction and its place within the history of video games.

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Metafiction in games

In literature, metafiction generally refers to “the capacity of fiction to reflect on its own status as fiction”(Neumann & Nünning, 2014). Video games have long played with their fictional or ludic status via techniques that might be termed “metafictional” (or self-referential). Lucasfilm Games’ classic 1990 point-and-click graphic adventure The Secret of Monkey Island contained several references to its own artificiality; at one point a character actually says, “WOW!!! This was well worth $59.95 + Tax.” But, it’s only more recently that games critics and writers have started giving serious attention to issues of postmodernism and metafiction in games. From a deeply critical perspective, this is still somewhat unexplored territory, at least in comparison to something like literary studies, where metafiction and (related techniques) have been written about for decades.

James Cox has proposed four types of metafiction in video games, and while his framework will ultimately benefit from continued dialogue and development, it offers a useful starting point for those of us interested in games that call attention to their fictional or ludic status. That said, any system of categorization is likely to fall short, especially for a medium as varied as gaming; thus, the metafiction in Shovel Knight highlights some benefits and drawbacks of Cox’s framework, while also underscoring the potential for games to use metafiction in ways unavailable to other media. It’s also worth mentioning that the impetus for this essay, aside from a lot of Shovel Knight playing, was seeing James Cox’s talk “Metafiction in Videogames” at the Games+Learning+Society Conference this July in Madison, WI.

Metafiction and Shovel Knight

If we’re to follow Cox’s proposed categories of metafiction in games, then much of what qualifies in Shovel Knight would fall under his term “internal metafiction”—i.e., metafiction that takes place between characters in the game rather than with the player “outside” the game. Shovel Knight is filled with instances of this. The most obvious example of characters talking about the game itself takes place in the Village, where a character named “Grandma Swamp” (but whom Shovel Knight calls “Kindly Witch”) will tell Shovel Knight his in-game stats:

Grandma Swamp: Double, trouble, soil and shovel. My third eye knows your useless info! EXCAVATIO! The number of dig piles you’ve dug is [x]! AURUM INFINIOSA! The amount of gold you’ve collected is [x]! THANATO REFUTATUM! The number of times you’ve fallen in battle is [x]! TEMPORUM PERPETUA! The total time you’ve spent adventuring is [x]:[x]:[x]! I magically see all of your acts, come back again for more useful facts!”

In some ways, this walks the line between Cox’s “emergent” and “internal” metafiction—i.e., it seems to address both the player (emergent metafiction) and the in-game character (internal metafiction). Yet, it never explicitly breaks the fourth wall. The player is not addressed directly, although Shovel Knight’s deeds are of course the player’s deeds.

The Hall of Champions stage offers another take on metafiction’s blurring of game space and the real world, again without explicitly breaking the fictional space. At the entrance to the stage (which costs 5,000 gold to enter—a substantial sum, but not an outrageous one in the game world), the Ticketer says, “This is the Hall of Champions, a living monument to the founders of this great land.” Inside, the walls are adorned with the pixelated portraits of people who donated $200 or more to the Kickstarter campaign (along with their initials in a coded language, the key to which is in a couple of the rooms). By displaying the fictional land’s “founders,” the game is also admitting to its own artifice. Yet, it does so in a playful, ludic way: through clever puns and dialogue. The Kickstarter campaign, while never mentioned explicitly, is hinted at by the Ticketer in the following line (after apologizing for the Hall being haunted): “Then again, that’s the risk you run, paying for something in advance before you know the details!”

 

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Clever ironic meta-references continue with the character interactions that take place inside the Hall. One Patron remarks, “Wow! What impressive use of a limited color palette!” The NPC is referring to the paintings, but it is also intended to be read as a comment on the game’s visuals, which (in keeping with the 8-bit aesthetic) feature a limited number of colors. Another character, named “Cultured Fellow,” says, “It’s good to see that even common brutes can appreciate fine artistry!”, which can be taken as a rip on Shovel Knight himself (strolling around the gallery as he is in armor and holding a shovel). But, I—the player—am Shovel Knight, and the joke thus extends to me and to the game: Shovel Knight is fine artistry, and the fact that I’m playing it (despite being a “common brute”) suggests my ability to appreciate it.

We can see a further blurring of the line between me (as the player) and the character Shovel Knight (as well as a blurring of the fourth wall) in an interaction with the Troupple King, a giant fish NPC. The Troupple King, in response to a request for aid, will say: “I sense a Troupple Chalice! I can fill it with magical Ichor. That’s pronounced eye-core.” This is interesting, since within the fiction of the game these two characters are talking to each other, which begs the question: Why would there be a need to explain pronunciation? Of course, the characters are not speaking—they’re communicating via text in speech bubbles. Clearly, the clarification is for my benefit (the player, outside the fiction), and not for Shovel Knight himself.

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Again, this is metafiction within the bounds of the game; it hints at the real world and, in doing so,  calls attention to its status as a piece of fiction. We see something similar with the Bard character in the Village: throughout the levels, you can collect music sheets and sell them to the Bard, who will then play them for you. This sort of thing—a soundtrack to your exploits—can only really exist in a game. Also, the Bard himself is very likely a stand-in for the game’s composer, Jake Kaufman. The Bard even references the game’s other composer, Maname Matsumae, who developed the sound for the original Mega Man. When talking about the song “A Thousand Leagues Below,” for example, the Bard says, “Another masterpiece from my foreign colleague. She was serenading adventurers when I was still in Bard college!” The reference here works in several ways: to Matsumae, to the world beyond the game, and to a  time when Matsumae was composing music for the 8-bit games that would ultimately influence this game.

Metafiction and audience/player reception

As clever as the above examples are, they are not entirely groundbreaking in terms of how games employ metafictional techniques to craft an interesting and engaging game experience. What makes Shovel Knight compelling as a case study is the way it calls attention to the dialogue between the player and the game (and, presumably, the game’s designers). This is more than just interactivity; rather, this is about meaning being created and completed by the player, meaning that depends as much on the player as on the game. Just as Linda Hutcheon argued that self-reflexive novels requires readers to be “co-creators” in the fictional process (Hutcheon, 1977), a game like Shovel Knight asks that the player participate in the game’s “fiction” in a way beyond simply playing the game.

In one sense, this simply means “getting” the puns and ironic elements. Some of these have already been mentioned; e.g., the character quotes from the “Hall of Champions,” but puns abound in the game. “The Order of No Quarter,” for example, is likely a reference to gaming’s arcade origins and the (now outdated) need for a quarter to play a video game. And, there’s a character (Croaker) whose dialogue is essentially one bad pun after another. Indeed, one of the game’s “Feats” is the Pungent Feat—itself a pun—accomplished by listening to all of Croaker’s puns.

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Yet, the significance runs deeper than puns or the use of irony for comedic effect. Fully “getting” the game on a metafictional level also depends on the player’s awareness of the game’s references to earlier video games. As James Paul Gee has noted, “To play [a game] well you have to read the signs well” (Gee, 2009). In Shovel Knight, one method of playing well means attending to and acknowledging the game’s metafictional and critical signs. A critical player completes this dialogue of meaning by recognizing Super Mario Bros. 3 in the world map, seeing Zelda II or DuckTales in the Shovel Drop attack, recalling Mega Man via the themed bosses, and Castlevania via the relics, as well as in any number of other ways the game pulls from the history of video games. (Admittedly, I only “got” some of the signs; many of them were only made clear to me through reading about the game.)

It is via this compilation of signs pointing to earlier games that Shovel Knight inserts itself into gaming history and thus serves as a form of history. It’s history, only pixelated rather than strictly oral or textual. Like any history, it selectively draws from its primary source material, choosing elements of classic games to craft a playful historical “narrative” about the history of games—at least for players who know how to “read” this text. And, while most games draw from earlier traditions to some extent, very few do so with such self-awareness or reflexivity. Furthermore, the work’s consistent references to nearly every facet of game creation—from funding to gameplay to music to graphics—underscore the notion that Shovel Knight is inherently concerned with and commenting on video games and their history. There is even a minigame within Shovel Knight: a secret room where an NPC named Mona will, for 100 gold, let you play a bottle-breaking game reminiscent of a classic Breakout-style clone. In this and in countless other ways, Shovel Knight implicitly and explicitly draws the player’s attention to its status as a game and its relationship to gaming’s past.

As players, we are meant to experience these references—some of which are intended ironically or as puns—in a variety of ways: ludically, visually, aurally, textually. This is what makes Shovel Knight so successful as a game about video games. It uses all aspects of play to create and contribute to this experience, including and especially the players themselves. It is thus more than a tongue-in-cheek homage to the 8-bit era or a simple nostalgia piece; rather, it is a history of video games inscribed into a game itself. For players who are already aware of this history, the references call to mind their personal narratives and relationships to gaming’s past; for players less familiar with this past, it only takes a little digging (pun intended) for them to begin learning about it, and the game is the entryway. By calling attention to this history, and via the clever use of metafiction, Shovel Knight succeeds not only at highlighting games as complex fictions, but at raising new questions about how players create meaning and where exactly that meaning is located.

Endnotes

¹Quotes from other characters in the Hall further push the irony:
Patron: “I hope no one commissioned these dreadful paintings!”
Patron: “These bizarre faces reflect the artist’s tortured mind.”
Cultured Fellow: “You surprised me! I was absorbed in these paintings.”

²In the Nintendo 3DS version of the game (which is the one I played), there is another clever moment of character and player doubling or blurring: as you (the player) look at the world map, the bottom screen of the 3DS shows an image of Shovel Knight pondering a map. This simple image, to me, seems especially rich in the ways it invites the player to identify with the figure of Shovel Knight, even if the image puts some distance between us, as well.

³When talking of Matsumae’s other song, “Flowers of Antimony,” the Bard says, “Full disclosure: I transcribed this opus from another bard in a faraway land. Brilliant!”

Bibliography

Cox, J. (2014). “The Four Types of Metafiction in Videogames”. Retrieved November 3, 2015, from http://www.gamasutra.com/blogs/JamesCox/20141006/227006/The_Four_Types_of_Metafiction_in_Videogames.php.

Dales, C. (2015, May 13). “Author has Re-entered the Game”. Retrieved November 3, 2015, from http://www.firstpersonscholar.com/author-has-re-entered-the-game/.

Gagne, K. (2014, June 30). Shovel Knight. Retrieved November 4, 2015, from https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLmQ-r_fmIh3K7OkIFx25897AFNXytaovm

Gee, J. (2009, March 10). “Playing Metal Gear Solid 4 Well: Being a Good Snake”. Retrieved November 3, 2015, from http://press.etc.cmu.edu/content/metal-gear-solid-4-james-paul-gee.

Hutcheon, L. (Waterloo, ON: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 1977). “Introduction.” Narcissistic Narrative: The Metafiction Paradox. Retrieved November 3, 2015, from https://tspace.library.utoronto.ca/bitstream/1807/9456/1/-Introduction-No%20Printing.pdf.

Lawrence, C. (2015, April 8). “Link Dons the Mask of Truth”. Retrieved November 3, 2015, from http://www.firstpersonscholar.com/link-dons-the-mask-of-truth/.

Neumann, B., & Nünning, A. (2013, January 24). “Metanarration and Metafiction”. Retrieved November 3, 2015, from http://www.lhn.uni-hamburg.de/article/metanarration-and-metafiction

Shovel Knight. Yacht Club Games. http://yachtclubgames.com/shovel-knight/

Shovel Knight Wiki. (n.d.). Retrieved November 3, 2015, from http://shovelknight.wikia.com/wiki/Shovel_Knight_Wiki.

Welsh, T. (2011, January 11). “Just a story: Video gaming and Metafiction”. Retrieved November 3, 2015, from http://www.timothyjwelsh.com/2012/01/just-a-story-video-gaming-and-metafiction/.

Williams, M. (2014, May 24). “Game Dev Recipes: Shovel Knight”. Retrieved November 3, 2015, from http://www.usgamer.net/articles/game-dev-recipes-shovel-knight.

 

Suggested Reading

For a different take on how or whether players contribute to meaning within a game, see C. Warren Dale’s essay “Author Has Re-Entered the Game” (http://www.firstpersonscholar.com/author-has-re-entered-the-game/)


Discussant’s Reply

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Dominic Arsenault is Assistant Professor of Film Studies at the University of Montreal. His research focuses on games within the larger spectrum of media, focusing on game narration and design.

I’ll say it: Shovel Knight is one of my favorite games in recent years. I love everything it has to offer. Reading your piece, David, has brought out a number of things in that game which I haven’t noticed. This is the mark of good criticism. But it has also raised a number of interesting questions worth pursuing, which is the mark of good scholarship. In fact, I will submit an in-depth essay to the FPS editors as a follow-up to your excellent piece so that we may perhaps get a conversation going. In that spirit, I’ll only briefly mention two things for now. Metafiction is indeed at work in many of the things you brought up in Shovel Knight (the Hall of Champions referring to the Kickstarter campaign being the best of them in my mind), but I’m not sure that’s the most productive way to account for these effects. I think intertextuality is a better frame for understanding many of these occurrences. (More to come in a follow-up post.) If we do follow along the trail of metafiction, it might be a good idea to inscribe it into the larger question of reflexivity, which also includes specularity and mise en abyme. I’d offer Jean-Marc Limoges’ model, developed for film (and in French, which might be an issue, but nothing that the nicely laid-out tables and Google Translate can’t handle), as a complement to Cox’s model. Limoges presents it succinctly here: http://french.chass.utoronto.ca/SESDEF/miroir/limoges.pdf and in-depth in his doctoral thesis here: http://theses.ulaval.ca/archimede/meta/25113. There are all kinds of reflexivity at work (or at play, I guess) in Shovel Knight, but they don’t all deal with fiction precisely, hence the need to broaden the spectrum of metaness (reflexivity). Finally, as a closing point, let me remark that the French translation of Shovel Knight is impeccable. It is one of the best translations I’ve seen in games, period. It hits that sweet spot of irony, witty wordplay, bad puns, and the camp tone of retro-heroics perfectly, which is not something we usually see in game localizations; typically, they get neutered and become a kind of washed-out, tasteless globalized flavor that talks to everyone around the world but never gets to you personally. More, way more to come in a follow-up post. For shovelry!