Breaking the Fourth Wall

Samuel Aronson
Oct 20, 2016 · 13 min read

Breaking the fourth wall is something that is possible and has been done in nearly any form of entertainment media. Breaking the fourth wall is done when a character in a work of fiction, be it a film, novel, or video game, says or does something showing that said character is aware of it’s existence in a fictional work of media. This can be done through dialogue, actions, or a simple knowing look into a camera. The term “Breaking the fourth wall” comes from live theater. When watching live theater, there is typically a left, right, and back wall in the scene being portrayed. There is obviously no fourth wall at the front of the stage, as it would obstruct the audiences view. This fourth wall is imagined by both the audience and the actors, as the audience is “looking in” on the events of the play, and the characters in the play are unaware of the fact that they are fictional characters in a play. If a character in a play were to address an audience member, or make reference to the fact that they were in a play, they would be, in a sense, breaking the fourth wall that the audience and actors had been pretending to exist. This fourth wall is extended to the screens with which we view television, films, or play games.

Breaking the fourth wall is done when a character in a work of fiction, be it a film, novel, or video game, says or does something showing that said character is aware of it’s existence in a fictional work of media. This can be done through dialogue, actions, or a simple knowing look into a camera.

Nearly any form of entertainment media has the capacity to break the fourth wall. Literature can accomplish this by having a character reference a specific page number, the author, or the reader directly. Television and film break the fourth wall far more frequently than written media. Characters in film can break the fourth wall with far greater ease; direct looks or motions to the camera are used frequently, even attempted conversation with audience members. Video games are yet another medium with the full potential for fourth wall breaks, if not more. Video games are more interactive than literature or film, so it stands to reason that perhaps it makes sense that the characters in such games should be more interactive as well. Some video games are quite lighthearted, without much in the way of a plot or story to speak of, while other games are very serious, with the plot being the centerpiece of the entire experience. Due to this, a question is raised, as to whether breaking the fourth wall in video games actually makes them more interactive, or causes them to be less immersive.

Video games are more interactive than literature or film, so it stands to reason that perhaps it makes sense that the characters in such games should be more interactive as well.

Breaking the fourth wall in video games is done in many different ways, for many different reasons. Video games are one of, if not the most interactive form of media. Video games, for the most part, require inputs through a controller or some form of interface, have options as completion, and have variable win states. While this is not intrinsically true for all video games, it is for the majority. Video games have more interaction, which in some circumstances lead to a greater chance for immersion. These two possibilities pose the most problems for the breaking of the fourth wall.

Video games have more interaction, which in some circumstances lead to a greater chance for immersion. These two possibilities pose the most problems for the breaking of the fourth wall.

One of the simplest, early breaks of the fourth wall in video games is done by Sonic the Hedgehog. Sonic the Hedgehog was one of the first popular video game mascots, and was quite popular. He starred in popular platformers in which he would run through levels. At the start of a level, if the player were to not touch the controls to move Sonic forward for a period of time, a fourth wall break would occur. Sonic would begin to look at the screen, presumably staring at the player, tapping his foot waiting for you to begin using the controller. This is a break of the fourth wall because, by giving the player the sense that he is waiting on them, he is acknowledging the existence of a player, as well as his own existence as a video game character.

At the start of a level, if the player were to not touch the controls to move Sonic forward for a period of time, a fourth wall break would occur. Sonic would begin to look at the screen, presumably staring at the player, tapping his foot waiting for you to begin using the controller.

Breaking of the fourth wall is done for several reasons in video games. One of the major, simplest reasons for doing so is for tutorial purposes. In the beginning of many games, a tutorial is played to familiarize the player with the games controls and mechanics. Great deals of these tutorials are conducted through a non-player character instructing the player. In some circumstances, when using dialogue to instruct the player, characters instructing the player will break the wall out of necessity. Tutorial givers may end up breaking the fourth wall by instructing the character as to which button results in what action. For example, if a tutorial giver says something along the lines of “Press A to jump,” the character has then broken the fourth wall, if only slightly. This character is telling the player to press a button on a controller. This character, as a character in a video game, should be unaware of a player of any sort, as well as any form of controller. This fictional character being aware of its existence as fictional character within a game allows it to reference the player, as well as buttons on a controller breaks the fourth wall.

if a tutorial giver says something along the lines of “Press A to jump,” the character has then broken the fourth wall, if only slightly. This character is telling the player to press a button on a controller. This character, as a character in a video game, should be unaware of a player of any sort, as well as any form of controller.

This fourth wall break during tutorials is not that severe however, and is done out of necessity. While it could be argued that this breaks some of the immersion of a video game, it may be necessary from a design standpoint. From the standpoint of immersion, these sorts of breaks typically occur early in the game, so they would not be detrimental to a player’s immersion so early on. This has also become so common in video games, that players typically aren’t fazed by it, recognizing it as a common trope. This is a breaking of the fourth wall almost always done out of necessity.

Necessity can be the driving force behind some fourth wall breaks in video games. Some of these breaks are done not just for instructional purposes, but to instruct the player as to how to do something that wouldn’t be easily explained in the realm of the video game. By breaking the fourth wall and explaining something in a matter of fact fashion, it saves the in-game universe from needless over-complications. These over-complications could end up ruining some of the immersion a game has worked to develop by attempting to jam a mechanic or action into the plot or world that the game has built up. In these cases, breaking the fourth wall is done to the effect of actually benefitting the immersion of a game.

An example of this particular type of fourth wall break can be seen in the video game Borderlands 2. In this game, a mechanic is being explained to the player character. The mechanic has to do with an item bank that is accessible to any and all characters a player was to create. After an attempt to explain the mechanic is unsuccessful, the non-player character explaining tells you that the mechanic is used for “twinking items between your characters.” “Twinking” is a term that has several definitions in the gaming community. One of these definitions, used here, is to mean outfitting or giving a new or low-level character items not initially accessible at their current state of the game. The non-player character tells you that this mechanic is simply for “twinking” items, because it may be clunky to create an in-game explanation of this mechanic. Creating an obviously shoehorned explanation for something in a game could do more to detract from immersion than this slight break of the fourth wall, which does serve a purpose aside from comedy.

Another common reason for breaking the fourth wall is for comedic purposes. This is quite possibly the most common reason for breaking the fourth wall in the context of video games. This is done far more often in games based around comedy or with a less serious plot or premise. Games will offer breaks of the fourth wall to engage the player from a comedic standpoint. Games such as the Monkey Island series engage in this comedic use of breaking the fourth wall. This series is that of a point and click adventure style with a focus on comedy. These games are not intended to be taken seriously, and as such will break the fourth wall in a comedic fashion. The main character of this series, Guybrush Threepwood, will address the player to express discontent with the occurrences of the game, asking if the player feels the same. In one section, a phone can be accessed in the game, and an option is to call LucasArts, the producer of the game, to complain about some in-game events. These are very clear and obvious fourth wall breaks, but they are done so in a comedic and almost expected manner, in way that immersion is not lost.

There are other factors that can possibly be involved in breaking the fourth wall. Some of these have to do with simple tradition. While these traditions may seem to fall in line with the likes of comedy, they can more over be used in the sense of the overall culture of video games. Games like the Metal Gear series have a long history of breaking the fourth wall through dialogue. Metal Gear is a game series focused on relatively serious espionage and global diplomacy. There have been many games in this series, and a great deal of them break the fourth wall through dialogue. These breaks occur in a relatively serious game, so while they are providing comic relief in a way, it is almost a staple of the series.

Breaking the fourth wall can be done in a way that actually factors in and affects the plot and themes of a video game. The game Spec-Ops: The Line illustrates this most clearly. Spec-Ops, on the surface, is an average military style third-person shooter. The player assumes the role of Captain Walker, a member of the United States Army. Walker and his two teammates are sent in to Dubai to evacuate another platoon of U.S. soldiers. As the player progresses, Walker is forced to commit more and more brutal acts in the name of saving the platoon, as well as civilians encountered along the way. The first scene in the game puts the player in the middle of a mid-air firefight, manning the chain-gun in a helicopter. The player’s helicopter is eventually shot down, leading to the opening credits and a jump back in time to explain the events leading up to the helicopter battle.

Breaking the fourth wall can be done in a way that actually factors in and affects the plot and themes of a video game.

After playing through a good portion of the game, the player, as Captain Walker, makes their way to the point in the story where the helicopter battle occurs chronologically. Leading up to this point, clues have been given as to the fact that Walker’s sanity may be questionable. Upon reaching the same scene as in the introduction of the game, Walker yells out “This isn’t right! We did this already!” This doesn’t make sense to his teammates, but the player, having seen the earlier scene recognizes this fourth wall break. This break of the fourth wall goes to further prove Walker’s dwindling sanity in a game where the plot is the centerpiece.

Upon reaching the same scene as in the introduction of the game, Walker yells out “This isn’t right! We did this already!” This doesn’t make sense to his teammates, but the player, having seen the earlier scene recognizes this fourth wall break. This break of the fourth wall goes to further prove Walker’s dwindling sanity in a game where the plot is the centerpiece.

Spec-Ops also breaks the fourth wall in order to drive some of its themes home. Throughout the game, carrying out violent acts without question is shown to be a central theme of the game. Loading screens in video games have traditionally been used to deliver tips or hints. For most of the beginning of Spec-Ops, loading screens are used to display messages such as “Take cover using A” or mentions of Walker and his mission. Towards the end of the game, especially once these themes and Walker’s sanity become apparent, message begin to be posed directly to the player. These messages will say things critical of the player, not Walker, but of the actual person playing the game. Messages such as “How many Americans have you killed today?” “The US military does not condone the killing of unarmed combatants, but this isn’t real, so why should you care?” or “To kill for yourself is murder. To kill for your government is heroic. To kill for entertainment is harmless.” These messages take a stark departure from the messages that had been shown, and messages that are typically shown in video game loading screens. These messages are used to address the player directly, by breaking the fourth wall, and inform them of the serious themes and messages the game is putting forth.

Towards the end of the game, especially once these themes and Walker’s sanity become apparent, message begin to be posed directly to the player. These messages will say things critical of the player, not Walker, but of the actual person playing the game. Messages such as “How many Americans have you killed today?” “The US military does not condone the killing of unarmed combatants, but this isn’t real, so why should you care?” or “To kill for yourself is murder. To kill for your government is heroic. To kill for entertainment is harmless.” These messages take a stark departure from the messages that had been shown, and messages that are typically shown in video game loading screens.

One of the most interesting ways in which the fourth wall is broken is as a gameplay mechanic. This can be done in quite creative ways. One of the most famous examples of this occurs in Metal Gear Solid. In this game, the player is faced with a battle with a character named “Psycho Mantis.” Mantis uses “psychic” powers to combat the player, and eventually breaks the fourth wall. At some point in the battle, Mantis will read the player’s memory card, and then, in-game, reference a game saved onto the memory card, asking the player if they enjoy that game. To defeat this character, the player is instructed to remove their controller from the first port and plug it in to the second port. This is so Mantis “can’t read your mind.” This is a blatant break of the fourth wall, as characters in the game should be unaware of controllers existing in the “real world.”

Mantis will read the player’s memory card, and then, in-game, reference a game saved onto the memory card, asking the player if they enjoy that game. To defeat this character, the player is instructed to remove their controller from the first port and plug it in to the second port.

Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem also breaks the fourth wall as a gameplay mechanic. This is a survival horror style game that utilizes a “sanity bar” as a form of life-bar. If this sanity bar drops too low, detrimental effects begin occurring. Some of these effects are simple, such as damage to the player or the appearance of monsters. Other effects however break the fourth wall. For example, if the player were to attempt to save the game without any “sanity,” a prompt would appear asking if they player would like to delete all save files. Even if the player selects no, a screen saying “Deleting all files” appears, making the player think their files may have become corrupted. Other ways sanity effects break the fourth wall include error screens when there is nothing actually wrong with the system, as well as the causing the controller to stop working. These are very effective uses of fourth wall breaks because the game is attempting to give an experience of tension and fear. These seemingly real world effects of the game give heavily to this experience, and provide a perfect context where these are effective.

if the player were to attempt to save the game without any “sanity,” a prompt would appear asking if they player would like to delete all save files. Even if the player selects no, a screen saying “Deleting all files” appears, making the player think their files may have become corrupted.

The effect of breaking the fourth wall is entirely reliant on context. Much like MacLuhan’s concept of “the medium is the message” the medium in which the breaking of the fourth wall is delivered defines the effect or effects that it will have. A fourth wall break in film or literature will not have the same effect as that of a video game. Continuing this idea, a breaking of the fourth wall will not have the same effect in a video game with a comedic tone that it would have in a game with a serious tone. This is the definitive factor when considering whether or not a fourth wall break in a video game also breaks immersion.

The effect of breaking the fourth wall is entirely reliant on context. Much like MacLuhan’s concept of “the medium is the message” the medium in which the breaking of the fourth wall is delivered defines the effect or effects that it will have.

When playing a video game that is intended to a light-hearted, funny experience, a fourth wall break that engages the player humorously is welcome and helpful towards the game’s tone. Similarly, a fourth wall break that is used to further the plot or theme of a serious wherein that is the focus would also be helpful to immersion. Fourth wall breaks can prove very useful towards building immersion in video games, if they are used suitably and in a context that is appropriate for the medium.

Fourth wall breaks can prove very useful towards building immersion in video games, if they are used suitably and in a context that is appropriate for the medium.

Works Consulted

Brown, Tom. Breaking the fourth wall: direct address in the cinema. Edinburgh University Press, 2012.

Conway, Steven. “A Circular Wall? Reinventing the Fourth Wall for Video Games.” Gamasutra. N.p., n.d. Web. 01 Dec. 2014.

Holden, Dean. “The Fourth Wall and the Sledgehammer in Spec Ops: The Line.” The

Writing Center at MSU. N.p., 31 Jan. 2013. Web. 01 Dec. 2014.

McLuhan, Marshall, and William Terrence Gordon. Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. Corte Madera, CA: Gingko, 2003. Online.

Moin, Ali. “Top 5 Games That Break The Fourth Wall.” GearNuke. N.p., 07 Oct. 2013. Web. 01 Dec. 2014.

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