'Welcome to Bummertown' Tells a Pointed Joke About Game Development

Metafictional narratives in games could help bridge the gap between the conditions facing creators and their audience's expectations.

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Apr 15 2019, 7:00pm

'Welcome to Bummertown' screenshot courtesy of Think Inside the Box

Postscript is Cameron Kunzelman's weekly column about endings, apocalypses, deaths, bosses, and all sorts of other finalities.

Warning: I lightly spoil The Beginner’s Guide here.

I’m a sucker for a bit of metafiction. I can’t help it. I love reading, watching, and playing media that knows, to some degree, that it is a piece of media and is trying to have a conversation with the player about the medium on that level. Welcome to Bummertown, a 2D side-scrolling adventure game from 2018 that I happened to stumble on via Twitter, is clearly made by people who also enjoy this same spice of life. Bummertown is a game about video games, or at least it is a game about itself as a video game, and as I played through it I was forced to ask myself why I enjoy this kind of interaction so much. What’s so special about a game going meta that makes it worthwhile?

Embracing metafiction as a creator can be a tricky deal. The whole idea behind the mode is that you’re pulling the curtain back and saying “hey there, this thing you’re enjoying is artificial, and we’re going to treat it that way.” Many people go out of their way to experience media to specifically avoid this kind of commentary on the things they enjoy. It’s a weird emotional space, and to some degree you’re breaking the pact between creator and audience. Films like Michael Haneke’s Funny Games or Lars Von Trier’s Epidemic generate some distinctly bad feelings by reveling in their constructed nature; Gene Wolfe’s The Fifth Head of Cerberus attends to the thin film between fact and fiction and myth and history.

The metafiction move is to complicate our position as someone on the receiving end of a media experience, and that works differently in games than it does in the other media listed above. After all, the whole pitch behind video games is that we’re already interacting. When I play a game, I am making moment-to-moment choices that either help or hinder me in my path toward some kind of goal. There’s a level of comfortable artifice here, and while there’s a lot of talk about “immersion” in games, I can’t say that I ever really feel absorbed fully into this weird interactive space of decision, choice, achievement, and loss.

A scene from 'Welcome to Bummertown' a game about game development.

So when Welcome to Bummertown opens with my character walking across a black screen, picking up a telephone, and being told that their only purpose is to find a lost character named Bedford, I was ready for anything to happen. Because it could get painful. It could be overwrought with memes and jokes and phrases so far from their cultural context that it would make a Borderlands game look restrained. The sky is the limit with bad metatextuality.

It wasn’t that, though, and instead Bummertown becomes something a little bit different. The key concept behind it is that the game you’re playing is a game, and you know that, and everyone in the world knows that, and because of that you need to interact with the infrastructure that supports it. The game is a little buggy and broken, and it’s missing four memory modules, so before you can even hope to find Bedford you need to get the computer that runs the world put back together.

The work of the game is doing short, character-based puzzles in order to find those memory modules and get yourself ever-closer to finding the doctor-turned-farmer who has gone missing. Along the way, there are a number of jokes that specifically work due to the fact that everything is in a game. Early on, a reboot of the whole system allows for a very 1990s restart screen in which a number of files, including hundreds of different versions of fart.wav, are primed and ready to go. That’s the kind of joke that the game goes for.

A bare theater stage lit by footlights in 'The Beginner's Guide' a scene which neatly encompasses its fourth-wall breaking themes.
'Beginner's Guide' screenshot courtesy of Everything Unlimited

While I was walking back and forth along the 2D plane that is the world and chatting with its denizens, I started thinking about another prominent metafictional indie game: The Beginner’s Guide. Despite only releasing a few years ago in 2015, it’s a game that has largely fallen from critical discussion, and I think that mostly has to do with how it positioned itself as a piece of metafiction. The game is a series of spaces and game-like experiences with a commentary track over it that explains that these games are created by a powerful, brilliant auteur that the narrator simply wants to celebrate. As the game goes on, you learn that the narrator has been editing the game and editorializing in the curation, and what begins as a celebration turns into a story of abuse, pain, and interpersonal violence.

And that’s uncomfortable in the Michael Haneke way, but it is also the common way for metafiction to go. These works often treat the medium they are working in as if it is always compromised from the very beginning. Metafiction often positions itself, and its reflex to point at its own artifice, as the only political way out of whatever conundrum we are in. We’re supposed to play The Beginner’s Guide and reflect on our relationship with games and consider what can get driven down into the substructure when we only consider a work and not its context.

Without spoiling it the whole way through, Welcome to Bummertown does the same thing but with comedy instead of tragedy. You need to talk to NPCs in the game who are hired actors (and who tell you they are playing a role), and then later you can see people in the game world playing the other games that those NPC actors starred in. You can see the To Do List that the developers have, which is a massive wall of post-it notes, and you can also see the broken noose that signifies, as one character puts it, “their incapability to do anything right.” This is a referential universe. Nothing is sacred. The sense of humor is dry and brutal, but it’s all in service to the meta move or the idea that we need to think about the media as part of its medium as much as we need to consume it proper.

A despairing sequence from 'Welcome to Bummertown'

Metafiction asks us to think not just about story and plot (finding Bedford), but also about the very construction of this object. We learn that the developers spent eight months crunching this game out. In a meta-meta move, we even “discover” that this wasn’t the original form of the game; we’re playing a strange pseudo-game, something that missed the mark of what they originally intended. The NPCs are all broad types (some of which, I have to say, border on the offensive: the “dumb” construction worker with too many kids; the “crazy” cat lady; the singular black character who is a fitness expert and also calls everyone youngblood). The situations are all stock ones. The puzzles are all classic sliding block or sequence puzzles that could easily fit into a Broderbund title from the 1990s. When we finally hear the voice of the developer in the game, it isn’t to make a grand point about the role of games in the lives of players or about culpability or responsibility. There’s no move like The Beginner’s Guide or even Spec Ops: The Line.

Instead, Welcome to Bummertown tells us that the best thing we can hope for is a big joke. The developers made a game that is a shadow of what they wanted to make simply because it’s the way things worked out, and once your job (finding Bedford) is complete, there’s no reason for you to be here anymore. When metafiction is brought into service for comedy, everything starts looking absurd in the joyful Albert Camus way: you’re here, and the world is the way it is, so you might as well give it your best shot.

When the developers start talking to the player in that meta way, I wonder if this could be useful for something beyond mere reflection or zaniness. Welcome to Bummertown is full of jokes, and to some degree the whole thing is a joke, but it is also a document of game development. The game we’re interacting with is entirely designed, but the struggles, timeline, and in-jokes about the developers and their capabilities seem a little too close to home to be fully fiction. There was that broken noose; sometimes a joke gets a little too real. And I wonder if the meta move can be put to use beyond sheer emotion like in The Beginner’s Guide or for jokes in Welcome to Bummertown. This game gets close to saying something about the struggles of being an indie game developer, and the stark reality that shines through gives me the hope that more people might use the meta move to educate their audience about the conditions under which their games are made. It’s more than jokes.

The game opens with the developers telling you that they will give you an achievement just for starting the adventure since one of the main struggles in game development today is getting people to even begin at all. It works as a brilliant joke, and when the actual achievement popped up, I had a melancholy feeling about how accurate the whole thing was.