[In this in-depth article, game academic Conway uses games such as Max Payne, Metal Gear Solid and even Sonic The Hedgehog to discuss how video games can break boundaries to refer to the world outside the game -- and how well it works.]
The "Fourth Wall" is a term often invoked by the game player, reviewer, designer, critic and scholar to describe instances when the video game medium consciously blurs the boundaries between the fictional and real world, either drawing something into the fictional world from outside, or expelling something out of the fictional into the non-fictional (the narrative mused upon by a self-aware protagonist, a character monologue directed at the user, and so on).
Yet, whilst the notion of the fourth wall finds itself within a welcoming habitat amongst media such as books, television and cinema, the physical interaction demanded by computer games creates a completely different relationship between product and audience.
A Brief History
The fourth wall of course finds its roots in the theater, specifically in stages with proscenium layouts. If we imagine the proscenium theatre as a square, then the initial three walls are firstly the back of the stage, and then the two sides from where the cast members would normally emerge; each is varyingly a literal or figurative wall the audience cannot see beyond.
The "fourth wall" is the remaining side of the square, situated directly between audience and stage. This wall is transparent, so that the audience may voyeuristically observe the events of the play, entrenched in their suspension of disbelief, understanding and enjoying their position as invisible onlooker.
To briefly explain, we refer to everything contained within the fictional world as diegetic, whilst anything outside, or on top of the world, is referred to as non-diegetic or extra-diegetic; something that can be seen or heard by a character is diegetic, anything that can only be seen or heard by the audience is non-diegetic. For example, in a film a jukebox is playing within the scene, the music is diegetic. If music is playing over the scene, and it cannot be heard by the characters but only by the audience, then it is non-diegetic.
"Breaking" the fourth wall is when the audience's transparent view of the fictional world is reciprocated by those on stage, suddenly able to peer outside the diegesis into the non-diegetic world of the seated spectator, and to admit as such, generally through addressing, acknowledging or directly engaging with the audience. Herein lays the problem for video games. When you play a game, you fulfil the dual role of audience member and performer on stage, as Newman clarifies:
"Importantly, the... relationship between player and system/gameworld is not one of clear subject and object. Rather, the interface is a continuous interactive feedback loop, where the player must be seen as both implied and implicated in the construction and composition of the experience."
In television and cinema, the use of the term "wall" became something of a misnomer, as what we now view was to be shown from a variety of angles and distances. The fourth wall in this context became the screen, a technological division where the fourth wall breaks occurred through not only an acknowledgement of the viewer.
But the fourth wall was also broken through a character's recognition of the technological apparatus supporting the diegetic world; the camera, technical errors such as the presence of a boom mic in the shot, and so on. Of course such technical flaws were soon adopted for comedic purposes, and as we will see such practices are still prevalent within the digital game complex (McAllister, 2004).
Due to the sheer variety of methods available to break the fourth wall within numerous forms of media, it would be informative to clarify precisely what one can consider to be a traditional fourth wall break in video games. Firstly, a direct acknowledgement of the player by the game is a clear fourth wall break in the most conventional sense. Therefore a character directly addressing the gamer as player of the video game would be a breakage.
Secondly, a display of self-awareness by the product to its own status as game, such as a character's commentary on his position as avatar -- a break commonly used by games such as Max Payne (Remedy Entertainment, 2001).
Thirdly, making reference to an artefact, event or person that is obviously outside the fictional world of the game. A good example of this is can be found in God of War (SCE Studios Santa Monica, 2005); upon discovering an Easter egg the player is awarded a hidden cutscene where the creative director of the studio, David Jaffe, engages in an argument with the game's protagonist Kratos, who quickly loses patience and humorously kills his author.
Fourth Wall, Magic Circle, Magic Wall?
Reviewers and critics seem to agree that Lexis Numerique's Evidence: The Last Ritual (2006) is one of the prime examples of breaking the fourth wall in video games. Firstly, the game directly acknowledges the player by sending an email to the address added by him or her at the beginning of the game, and also references non-fictional items by asking the player to use commercial websites alongside the fictional websites created by the developer in their progression through the narrative.
Yet crucially, the game always addresses the player as a character within the fictional world, and also treats all non-fictional websites as if they too were part of the fiction. The game makes no division between actors and audience, between player and game, between fiction and non-fiction, instead opting to blur the boundaries between game and everyday life.
Thus we can see Evidence: The Last Ritual as a prime example of how the video game does not break the fourth wall, but instead relocates the fourth wall entirely, moving it behind the player, as they are now placed by the designer within the fictional world of the game.
To put it another way, this is what we can call an extension of the magic circle; beyond the limitations of the program into other software or indeed hardware, for example checking an SMS sent by the game on your phone or browsing the fictional websites from your office computer.
The magic circle of the game, generally limited to the fictional world generated between game console/PC program and the user, can be expanded by the developer to envelope numerous segments of the player's technological interactions.
As hinted at earlier, a famous example of self-awareness takes place in Max Payne. The user plays one level that is a nightmare taking place inside Max's drug-induced dream. The environment turns out to be a grotesque version of the opening level of the game, which is Max's family home recently torn apart by drug addicts who murdered his wife and only child. After progressing through the level for a while, you come across a note left by his deceased wife.
It reads simply, "You are in a computer game, Max", which instigates a memorable monologue from the player-character:
"The truth was a burning green crack through my brain. Weapon statistics hanging in the air, glimpsed out of the corner of my eye. Endless repetition of the act of shooting, time slowing down to show off my moves. The paranoid feeling of someone controlling my every step. I was in a computer game. Funny as hell, it was the most horrible thing I could think of."
This is of course a traditional fourth wall break, and something Ernest Adams calls "a slap in the face" in his Designer's Notebook articles for Gamasutra. This paper disagrees completely with the sentiment, as do some of Adams' fellow designers (Weise, 2008).
One cannot disagree that it is indeed a "slap in the face"; it absolutely is. Yet there is an enjoyment to be had in such breaks, a thrill in the unexpected independence of the technology, like the child who dreams of his toys living their own secret lives when he or she is not watching.
So whilst Evidence: The Last Ritual expands the magic circle, instances such as this in Max Payne actually contract the magic circle. Suddenly the player is outside of the magic circle, momentarily cast out as the game inverts the hierarchy of control, taking it away from the player.
This is illustrated famously by one of the games in the Sonic the Hedgehog series. If you leave the control pad alone for a few minutes, Sonic will tap his foot impatiently, waiting for the player to resume action.
Sonic the Hedgehog
This example of contraction, through the game asserting its own autonomy and control, completely inverts the preconception surrounding video games, perhaps even our preconception of technology as a whole. We believe that we are in power, and we assume that the computer or console has no personality or consciousness. Such comedic contractions rely on, and play on these assumptions.
Another well-known, decidedly more dramatic contraction occurs as a plot twist in the Gamecube title Baten Kaitos, where the male avatar expels the player, known in-game as his guiding spirit, from the gameworld, turning the screen blank (simulating the television's standby mode.)
Soon, you to return to the world via another avatar; again, the developer shows a fascination with the technological apparatus required for the functioning of the digital game.
This enthrallment with technology is found in one of the most famous early examples of the magic circle being contracted; 1993's X-Men for the Sega Genesis/Mega Drive. For the entirety of the game, the narrative is situated within the AI-controlled "danger room", where the AI has apparently malfunctioned and refuses to stop generating dangerous scenarios, placing the characters in peril.
On the last level the cast are finally brought back into the basic danger room setting and asked by Professor-X to reset the computer to destroy the virus that has infected the artificial intelligence. Yet, there is no in-game switch to do so, and what the game actually required was for the player to perform a soft reset on his or her own Mega Drive by lightly pressing the reset button; complaints were naturally received about this design decision as pushing too firmly would indeed reset the console, meaning the game would start all over again.
Once more, this is not a breaking of the fourth wall, as Professor-X neither talks directly to the player as player of a video game, nor does he reference the Sega Mega Drive as the computer that needs resetting. He instead tells the game characters to reset the danger room's computer.
By encompassing the technical features of the video game console, and in doing so creating a new, novel form of interaction with the game, the developers again are not breaking the fourth wall, but instead expanding the magic circle to include the hardware features of the console.
The hardware of the game system is also encompassed by the magic circle in Metal Gear Solid, when the controller is taken over by a supporting cast member, Naomi Hunter; remarking that the avatar (Solid Snake) must be stressed, she asks that you place the controller on your neck. A second or two later the controller starts vibrating, attempting to mimic a neck massage.
Though cited fondly by critics and fans as a memorable fourth wall break, this is not truly a breaking of the fourth wall in the traditional definition, as it is not actively breaking the suspension of disbelief. Instead, it is relocating the fourth wall, enhancing the sense of immersion, as the fourth wall is moved from in front of the player to behind, and they are drawn further into the fictional universe of the gameworld, which now includes the control pad's hardware features.
For a game that thrives upon "slapping you in the face", that is to say contracting the magic circle, Gamecube's Eternal Darkness: Sanity's Requiem provides many instances. One of its key features is a "sanity meter" mechanic; a bar reflecting the protagonist's mental state that can be depleted in various ways.
As the bar is drained, to reflect the protagonist's journey into insanity, various effects will be instigated by the game; for example, a contraction such as a fake "blue screen of death" familiar to anyone who used the Windows 95 operating system, or the save screen asking "Do you wish to delete all save files" with the only options being "Yes" or "Continue without saving". Either option makes it appear that all files have been deleted.
Of course, whether this is construed as dramatic or comedic depends upon the player's cognizance of the joke, as real complaints about these fictitious bugs and errors were all too common within the first few months of the game's release. The game will also shift into more dramatic contractions, such as the controller suddenly refusing to respond to commands, leaving the player-character vulnerable to any nearby attackers.
Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty
This theme of technology corrupting and disobeying is used as an extremely important contraction within the narrative of Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty. In the game narrative your advisor, Colonel Campbell, is revealed to be an AI construct gone haywire, and the AI's distortion escalates until Snake is told to turn the console off, and also greeted with the infamous 'Fission Mailed' screen instead of 'Mission Failed' as an indication that the AI is completely contaminated.
Again, the computer draws the magic circle in upon itself, taking control away from the player, instead threatening to autonomously implode. The pleasure for the gamer lies in witnessing this surprising autonomy, in feeling a loss of control over the system.
The Hidden Breaks
As may be obvious, the common link amongst a certain number of these contractions is that they can be labeled as standard fourth wall breaks. Indeed, there still exist many common, mundane breakages of the fourth wall.
The problem remains, though, that the majority of these obvious breakages of the fourth wall are consistently overlooked, for example, the all too common representational break of dirt on the "camera" following the player in a third-person perspective.
Dirt stuck on the screen implies the user is watching through a camera, implying a camera crew, which of course implies the player is watching television; all the features something attempting to immerse the player should avoid.
Or of course, the omnipresent graphical feature of lens flare, again implying the presence of a camera. These graphical features are used frequently across many games, from role playing to action, where cold weather makes the screen frost up, or dirt, dust or water collect upon the lens, and so on.
Whilst this would normally be a technical flaw in many of its native mediums, it is actually introduced by the developer to heighten realism, as audiences have come to associate such technical flaws as an admission of reality, as if the producer is admitting that there are certain natural forces that technology still cannot overcome, such as the sun causing lens flare.
Breaking or Enhancing?
Why then, are these contractions and expansions conjured by the developer? What is the motivation is behind these often sophisticated and complex expansions, and what they have to tell us about the video game medium and culture?
Again, it is informative to consult the history of the fourth wall. Traditionally the fourth wall was our suspension of disbelief; it was the demarcation between stage and audience, the wall of the cinema screen, the television set, it was the barrier that allowed us to see into another world without becoming part of it.
Breaking the fourth wall was breaking the suspension of disbelief, whether that is Bertolt Brecht's "alienation effect" that sets itself as the polar opposite of the suspension of disbelief, or a wink to the camera in a film such as Into The Wild that attempts to make the audience smile through a breaking of narrative convention.
No matter the technique, to break the fourth wall is normally to break the suspension of disbelief, to remind the audience it is just a film, just a television show, just a performance. Yet in video games, the inverse will often apply.
As discussed, many of these so-called fourth wall breaks actually serve to further immerse the player, extending the immersion beyond the screen, and this is where we find the term "breaking the fourth wall" extremely lacking.
This attempt at immersion by expanding the magic circle is taken to an extreme when the paratext, being the game manual, box or anything else included or associated with the game, becomes a crucial part of the game experience, for example in 1990's Star Tropics for the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES).
Packaged with the game was a mysterious letter. The whole plot of the game revolves around the character's missing uncle, and at one point in the narrative, the player-character receives an odd message from his uncle telling him to "dip the letter in a bucket".
Plunging the packaged letter in water would reveal a code required to make further progress in the game; in doing so the magic circle expands to drag the player, letter, bucket and water into the permeable reality of the gameworld.
For dramatic situations it seems an expansion of the magic circle is generally favoured by the developer, and this is where the concept of the fourth wall is absolutely incompatible. In Metal Gear Solid 4, the protagonist comes into conflict with the infamous Psycho Mantis character. This antagonist is legendary within the game fiction for his specialization in mind-reading and telekinesis.
During this particular encounter, to prove the potency of his power, Psycho Mantis asks Snake to put the controller down so he can demonstrate his skill. A few seconds later, in accordance with Psycho Mantis's instruction, the controller vibrates on one side or the other, moving itself left and right at his command.
Again, the fourth wall is not broken, but instead moved, as the magic circle expands, so that the player goes beyond and inside the fourth wall, and immerses his or herself further into the fictional world of the video game. A direct connection is made not simply between avatar and gameworld, but player and gameworld.
To conclude, we have illustrated that the concept of "breaking the fourth wall" is at the moment insufficient for describing the possibilities of interaction between the gamer and the fictional world of the digital game.
The ability of these products to not only break the fourth wall, but to expand it, relocating it entirely behind the player, as a tool of immersion, is something quite unique, and actually in complete opposition to the motivation of breaking the wall in the first instance. Whilst breaking the fourth wall is traditionally the flow of diegetic into the non-diegetic world, certain video games reverse this flow, drawing the non-diegetic into the diegetic instead.
Rather than continuing the flawed practice of labelling these examples as fourth wall breaks, we need to begin to understand how they change the gaming experience. By viewing them instead as the contractions and expansions of a dynamic magic circle, within which the player is situated, we can gain a much more precise understanding of how and why they are employed by the developer, and what this has to communicate about the new possibilities offered by the digital game.
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McAllister, K., Game Work: Language, Power, and Computer Game Culture (Tuscaloosa, The University of Alabama Press: 2004)
Newman, J. (2002). "In Search of the Video Game Player: the Lives of Mario." New Media & Society 4(3): 407-425
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Digital Games and Media
Black Isle Studios, Icewind Dale (2000)
Kojima Productions, Metal Gear Solid 4 (2008)
Konami Computer Entertainment Japan, Metal Gear Solid (1998)
Konami Computer Entertainment Japan, Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty (2001)
Lexis Numerique, Evidence: The Last Ritual (2006)
LucasArts, The Curse of Monkey Island (1997)
Lucas, G., Star Wars (1977)
Microsoft, Windows 95 (1995)
Namco, Baten Kaitos (2003)
Nintendo IRD, Startropics (1990)
Penn, S., Into The Wild (2007)
Remedy Entertainment, Max Payne (2001)
Rockstar Games, Grand Theft Auto series (1997-present)
SCE Studios Santa Monica, God of War (2005)
Silicon Knights, Eternal Darkness: Sanity's Requiem (2002)
Sega, Sonic The Hedgehog series (1991-present)
Western Technologies Inc., X-Men (1993)