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Feature: 'Reformulating the Fourth Wall for Video Games'

In the latest Gamasutra feature, game academic Steven Conway uses games from Metal Gear Solid to Sonic The Hedgehog to explore how games can brea
The "Fourth Wall" is a term players, reviewers, designers, critics and scholars often use to describe instances when the video game medium consciously blurs the boundaries between the fictional and real world. Although books, films and other media consistently break the fourth wall and have established conventions for doing so, the interactivity inherent in video games can create a completely different relationship between product and audience. In a new, in-depth Gamasutra feature, game academic Steven Conway looks at games such as Max Payne, Metal Gear Solid and even Sonic The Hedgehog to explore how video games can break boundaries to refer to the world outside the game -- and how well it works. For example, Conway writes: "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." He also addresses one of the most widely-discussed fourth wall-breakers, Metal Gear Solid: "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." You can now read the full feature on breaching the fourth wall -- and how to make it work better -- at Gamasutra (no registration required, please feel free to link to this feature from other websites).

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