(Disclaimer: Just so we're clear here, these are my definitions of "mini-game" and "meta-reference:"
Mini-game: a system of rules that exists outside of the central mechanic, theme, or idea of the greater game.
Meta-reference: a game's reference to, inherent understanding of, or exploitation of the fact that it is a game.)
When I was younger, I hated mini-games and meta-game references. I felt like they took me out of the world of the game I was playing. Whether it was a little subsystem in a tabletop RPG, or a segment of a videogame RPG, I thought of them as cheap tricks to pad the quality and quantity of a game's content, or inside jokes made because the writer couldn't hold the story together. I remember in particular hating all of the minigames in the older Final Fantasy titles (the racing sequence in 7, especially), and the meta-references in Metal Gear Solid (the mind-reading boss you could defeat by plugging your controller into the second player slot).
But, as is often the case, taste changes with age. Now I quite enjoy meta/mini-games. In fact, I'm pretty sure one of my trademark moves as a GM is in bringing mini-games and meta-reference experiences into a game. Looking at my Firefly campaign, I made it a point to include mini-games and meta references in literally every session. From guessing Q's kill switch to an actual meta-episode, Firefly was virtually defined by the stunts I'd pull from one session to the next. Now, currently as I work on World Gone Mad, I notice I make all kinds of meta-references. My "shotgun blast" move requires the player to make a chik-chik sound, like he's pumping the shotgun. My "grenade" move requires the player to mime pulling a pin and throwing the grenade. Numerous moves require the player to act out scenes as part of the trigger to do the move.
What's changed? I think I've come to realize that, although meta/mini games can pull players out of the experience, they can also put players more fully into the experience. As far as meta-references go, being aware of the fact that you're having an experience can in fact make that experience more special. Like sarcasm with comedy, these things have to be carefully timed and sparingly used. But also like sarcasm with comedy, when used properly the absurdity of their existence can paint a big exclamation point on the moment itself.
I'll end this entry with a list now of my favorite mini-games or meta-moments from gaming, whether tabletop or otherwise. Please feel free to contribute your own favorite meta/mini experiences, too!
-World Gone Mad: Okay, it's a little cheap and self-serving to reference my own game, but I'm really happy with the level of player participation a lot of my moves and mechanics bring into the game with their meta-level references!
-Pet Battles, World of Warcraft: I'm not a big fan of pet battling games like Pokemon. But somehow, World of Warcraft manages to do it right. It's the perfect thing to do to break up the rhythm of that game's grind, while waiting for a battleground or dungeon queue, or to have something unique to earn.
-Adventure Cards, Savage Worlds: I've never actually used these, but I love the idea of them. Savage Worlds is already a fast-paced, wildly versatile game, and those cards add another dimension to all of that without weighing the game down at all!
-Cattle grazing, Aces & Eights: Another game I love but have never played, Aces & Eights is THE definitive game of the Wild West. Not some "Weird West" that's afraid of embracing history, but an actual simulation of what it'd be like to be a bandit, bounty hunter...or cattle wrangler. The rules for beef quality and directing your herd are complex, but they're part of what gives this extraordinary game its flavor.
-Bonds, Apocalypse-engine games: I technically consider this a mini-game because it falls just a little outside the core mechanics of these games. Their simplicity is astounding. It's amazing how just a few fill-in-the-blank sentences can pull a group together and begin the fun even before the first die hits the table.
-Playsets, tremulus: I've already gone on and on about how much I love this little derivative of the Fiasco concept within a full-on RPG, so I'll just leave it at this: I'd buy tremulus for this idea alone.
-Drug dealing, Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars: I remember virtually nothing about the plot of this game, I spent so many hours just running drugs from one part of the city to another, buying low and selling high, and avoiding sting operations and driving away to safety. It was awesome!
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