How is player immersion affected by breaking the fourth wall?
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.
Below is a research paper which I constructed last year while studying the Professional Masters in games development (Mprof) at the University of Abertay Dundee. This is a subject of particular interest to me and so I thought I would share my research with gamasutra to gauge others interest in the subject matter.
"Immersion”, whereby an audience willingly suspends their sense of disbelief, is a widely used term within video game design yet its definition and how it is achieved remains highly ambiguous. It is thought achieving and sustaining immersion in games is made harder by players’ active involvement in the narrative, compared to passive experiences in media such as film and literature. As such games are increasingly being designed to feel as realistic and authentic as possible by hiding unrealistic interactive aspects of the design, such as the HUD. As a result designers are often fearful of utilising techniques including breaking the fourth wall, whereby a narrative directly or indirectly acknowledges its fictional state to an audience. It is often seen as a threat to creating immersive experiences rather than as a tool for serious game narrative and so frequently reserved for purely comedic effect.
By examining psychological studies of immersion this report found that suspension of disbelief cannot be broken by an individual narrative technique, rather too many variables contribute to create and sustain player immersion for it to be broken so easily. In fact players within all media seek involvement in narrative, breaking the fourth wall facilitates this allowing for potentially heightened player immersion. Due to their interactivity, games are uniquely positioned to not only break the fourth wall but move it behind players to include them within the narrative. As such utilising fourth wall techniques in games can extend beyond narrative and can be used to create truly immersive and innovative gameplay experiences.
Immersion is so often sought after and cited within the latest blockbuster titles and yet what is meant by immersion and how a game can achieve and sustain it remains ambiguous. Due to technological advances and the consequent budgetary and team size increases in games development, the pressures on commercial game releases have never been more intense. As a result aspects of game design which may impact upon immersion are intensely scrutinised. Methods of breaking the fourth wall ,whereby a narrative will draw attention to its fictional state, are often judged to dismantle immersion. Consequently breaking the fourth wall has rarely been utilised with serious game narrative for fear of damaging the realism which developers strive to produce. Unlike other media, video game players are considered active rather than passive participants and so the control players have over game narrative serves as a constant reminder that it’s fictional. It is argued that this makes it even harder to immerse a video game player compared to more traditional media.
This report investigates the true meaning of immersion to ascertain how it can be achieved and sustained within games as well as what impact breaking the fourth wall can have upon it. Considering the growing number of games which deal with mature subject matters and the increasingly authentic way in which games are now able to convey their narratives. If the notion that games are harder to immerse players is to be believed then there is a risk that methods such as breaking the fourth wall may be spurned for fear of dismantling the audience’s suspension of disbelief further. Should breaking the fourth wall impact positively upon immersion designers risk missing out on opportunities to create more engaging and immersive games by embracing the technique.
2. BREAKING THE FOURTH WALL
The fourth wall refers to the fourth invisible wall separating an audience from a media piece. While originating in theatre it is now referred to within television, film and literature as well as video games. By breaking this wall the narrative piece will in some way acknowledge its own fictional state often by directly or indirectly conversing with an audience. While theatre  and cinema have on occasion broken the fourth wall through physical audience interaction, fundamentally video games’ interactivity is what sets it apart when utilising fourth wall techniques;
“The audience of video games is given one ability that book readers and film watchers don’t have – control [sic]”
Video games are increasingly allowing players to direct the course of a narrative through the characters’ decision making. This can be seen within alternate storylines, endings which in some cases can be so extreme as to determine the fate of the main protagonist..  It is often felt this degree of control can make it harder to immerse players as they’re continually aware of the fictional nature of the media which they have control over.
Fourth Wall Techniques
Fourth wall breaking has commonly been used in games since the early 1990s. More importantly however the medium has shown from a very early stage how its interactivity can allow it to utilise fourth wall techniques in new and engaging gameplay experiences. This can be seen in titles such as ‘StarTropics’  which required players to uncover plot details by dipping the physical game manual into water. While ‘X-Men’  asked players to use the console reset button to reset an in game computer (which could lead to players accidentally resetting the game, misguided perhaps considering the lack of save functionality). That is not to say video games have not employed traditional techniques of breaking the fourth wall. For instance many platformers including ‘Jak 3’ , ‘Secret of Monkey Island’ (21) and ‘Crash Bandicoot’  utilise aside glances to silently converse with the player, while exposition in the form of narration has more recently been used as a storytelling aspect of ‘Bastion’ . Other titles, including ‘Max Payne’  and the ‘Banjo Kazooie’  series make in-game references to themselves as games and as well as other titles within their respective series, a form of medium and genre awareness.
It is however video games ability to take fourth wall techniques and integrate them into the interactive aspects of gameplay which highlight how the medium can uniquely utilise fourth wall techniques. In a fairly rudimentary fashion video games have directly referenced players within plot, seen in ‘Mother 3’  and ‘Panzer Dragoon Saga’  where as a consequence of players entering their name the player is discussed within the narrative, a mechanic which not only involves the player a great deal more but one which cannot be replicated in other entertainment mediums as an audience is not so directly involved.
Considering games often require non-diegetic aspects such as a Heads-up display (HUD) and Graphical user interface (GUI). Techniques such as camera abuse, menu time out and interface screw when used within television, simply break the fourth wall by acknowledging the camera and audience. When used within games they can create challenging gameplay experiences. This has been seen in both ‘Batman Arkham Asylum’  and extensively in the game ‘Eternal Darkness’ (2002) where the latter challenges the player by introducing fake enemies to the gameplay and changing the on-screen HUD should the characters’ health fall to a critical level .
Perhaps tellingly fourth wall techniques have often been used for comedic purposes within more serious narratives, such as the ‘Metal Gear Solid’  series. Its use, while prominent, has been restricted to providing a light heartedness to the proceedings. While the series makes a great amount of use of synthetic wall breaking, such as requiring changing of controller ports to overcome the character Psycho Mantis, interface screws, camera abuse as well utilising similar manual techniques as ‘StarTropics’ . When used purely as a narrative technique fourth wall breaking is largely used only for comedic effect often poking fun at the games’ mature content . Some commentators however have been quick to argue that fourth wall should be restricted to purely comedic content:
“When used in more serious games that involve life-or-death situations. It almost feels like a slap in the face.” Going so far as to argue: “But is this joke really worth the cost of jeopardizing the player's immersion?” .
While video games have proven their capability to evolve fourth wall techniques into new gameplay experiences such cynicism remains within the industry as to what effect it has upon player immersion. Yet while the term immersion is so often cited in games, its exact definition remains fairly ambiguous. If how immersion is achieved and sustained cannot be understood and agreed upon then how can judgements be made towards its effect on games specifically those which break the fourth wall?
Like many within the games industry, Tomb Raider creator Toby Guard considers immersion of paramount importance to the quality of games:
“The power to immerse the player, to absorb his attention completely, is the common attribute of the greatest and most successful games.” 
What exactly is immersion though and how is it achieved and sustained throughout gameplay? Considering game content varies considerably by genre, platform and maturity, to argue that all games achieve immersion in the same way would mean ‘Tetris’  can immerse a player in the same way ‘Heavy Rain’  can. To do so would be short sighted considering the vastly different nature of such games. Yet games are so frequently considered immersive with seemingly little consideration as to what that means to a player. To ascertain whether fourth wall techniques can be viably implemented within mature narrative we must first understand how immersion is constructed and whether fourth wall methods impact negatively or positively on player immersion and engagement.
Immersion is often cited as where an audience “willingly suspends their sense of disbelief”  whereby “the extent to which a person’s cognitive and perceptual systems are tricked into believing they are somewhere other than their physical location”. 
Alternatively psychologist Jamie Madigan  categorises immersion within a different moniker, “spatial presence”, which he argues is achieved through players forming a mental model of game space and then “favour(ing) the media-based space (i.e., the game world) as their point of reference” . For instance immersed players will utilise in-game transportation aspects of design rather than navigate the game-world via fast-travel techniques using menus. He argues that there are specific gameplay aspects of design which can help achieve spatial presence. This includes games which “lack incongruous visual cues in the game world”  such as hit counters, NPC (Non player characters) interacting with the game world without player interference while he also argues that a game world should not be interrupted by non-diegetic aspects such as loading screens. It is clear that in his view immersion is heavily reliant on creating an authentic feeling detached from the game aspects with the aim of replicating real world behaviour allowing players to feel spatially within the virtual world.
This is not the first time authenticity has been cited as a fundamental aspect of immersion, Toby Guard argues:
“When we are creating worlds in games, immersion is only possible for the player if we can convince the players that the space is authentic (whether stylized or not.) If the critical features on screen don't match up with the critical features of the player's schemata, then he or she will not be fooled by it.” .
Such arguments would imply that immersion is a reasonably fragile construct which can be broken easily, designer Brain Moriaty agrees;
“The suspension of disbelief is fragile. It's hard to achieve it, and hard to maintain. One bit of unnecessary gore, one hip colloquialism, one reference to anything outside the imaginary world you've created is enough to destroy that world. These cheap effects are the most common indicators of a lack of vision or confidence. People who put this stuff into their games are not working hard enough” .
Should such arguments prove to be the case, developer scepticism of fourth wall techniques, which draw attention to the fictional and unauthentic aspects of game design, would be valid meaning breaking of the fourth wall would impact negatively on player immersion. By looking into psychological studies of immersion evidence suggests otherwise. A study designed to measure player reaction to significant changes in a games’ mechanics and style goes some way to disprove such theories. The study involved players progressing through a series of specially made environments whereby the game rules continually changed e.g. gravity settings altered while the art style changed from realistic to cartoon between environments. It concluded that in some cases players barely noticed any changes or if they did they were not put off by it. Players continued to be immersed in the game regardless of any changes, perhaps more interested and involved in the playable aspects of the game . If such blatant disregard for authenticity does not generate the type of player reaction designers would traditionally expect, immersion must not be as fragile as first considered. It seems clear that to achieve immersion, other variables unrelated to narrative must be considered.
A study by David Nunez  can help explain why immersion isn’t so easily dismantled in video games. The study concludes that player expectation plays a key part in how easy it is to immerse an audience. Considering games often deal with abstract game concepts such as aspects of science fiction and fantasy players will have fewer expectations of what to expect and so will have fewer complaints should something feel out of place or unlikely. I would argue however that this is perhaps more relevant in games which deal in abstract concepts while those games grounded in reality, such as L.A Noire (2011), are possibly more at risk of dismantling players disbelief.
Due to the often abstract nature of video game design and narrative, comparisons have been made with the horror genre in the respect that viewers’ expectations are largely different than with other forms of media. By looking at whether audiences are passive or active participants in media can help identify what impact fourth wall breaking can have upon player immersion.
Chuck Jordan, designer on frequent fourth wall breaking titles including ‘Secret of Monkey Island’ (1990) and ‘Sam and Max’  argues that audiences are not passive participants and in fact seek out participation ; “The audience remains constantly aware that they're witnessing a story, if only because what's being shown is too fantastic or too horrible to be real. Acknowledging the storyteller acknowledges that disconnect and invites the audience to suspend their disbelief.” It is arguable then that by breaking the fourth wall and engaging with an audience, fourth wall techniques can impact player immersion positively.
While the abstract nature of horror makes it more comparable to video games, it is argued that audiences seek involvement with other forms of media in much the same way; “Good filmmakers appreciate that watching a film isn't a completely passive experience.  It is argued that audiences ‘gameify’ film viewing in order to involve themselves further in the narrative by, “forming connections with what they've been shown before”  and “guessing, making predictions about what they're going to be shown next”. Such practice can be endorsed by the prominence of transmedia narrative which engage audience with deeper knowledge of a narratives universe through alternate platforms, as well as non-canonical fiction whereby audiences unofficially engage with a narrative with full control over proceedings. If audiences are actively seeking involvement in media even if that media doesn’t facilitate it, then fourth wall techniques which invite audience participation will arguably immerse players further.
This theory has been supported further by Interest-Involvement Research . The study which carefully used breaking the fourth wall techniques found that “people like to be included in the context of their media” and that when producers acknowledge an audience they’re consequently “ready to take part”.
Likewise an empirical study into Parasocial Interaction, where one party in a relationship knows substantially more about the other, can better explain how an audience reacts to breaking of the fourth wall. The study found that when two groups were shown a situation comedy heavily influenced by breaking the fourth wall (with one group’s material edited to remove those aspects) results showed, “subjects viewing the more interactive programming scored significantly higher on the PSI scale” and so were more actively engaged . Authors of the study however note how frequent breaking of the fourth wall could lead to audiences tiring of such concepts. While I would argue this can be said of any technique it does trivialise fourth wall breaking somewhat and so it could be argued that audiences are only engaged by it because of its sporadic use. The authors also argue that "willing suspension of disbelief - so necessary in dramatic programming to allow us to accept plot and action -would most certainly be shattered by characters making asides to the viewer”  there is however no concrete evidence to support this in their research and is a mere observation.
Another factor which must be considered as having an influence on how immersion is achieved within games is whom audiences play games with. A study in 2006 determined that “the nature of the opponent (computer, friend, or stranger) influences spatial presence.” It concluded that playing another human can severely affect our cognitive responses by “elicitation of higher spatial presence, engagement, anticipated threat, post-game challenge appraisals, and physiological arousal” . I would argue that had breaking of the fourth wall techniques been used within this study the results would not have been negatively impacted considering that the immersive effect was generated not by narrative techniques but the competitive and co-operative nature of the situation.
Considering the number of available game platforms, from full body motion tracking to touch screen tablet devices as well as the wide ranging complexity of the different game genres, to argue that all game immersion is achieved in the same way is naive. Instead designer Ernest Adams argues  that it is player motivation which can determine how players are immersed and that breaking the fourth wall would only having an effect within narrative driven games.
He argues game immersion can be categorised into three types;
1. Tactical immersion, achieved by how intuitive the game is while it can be destroyed by poor level design and controls.
2. Strategic Immersion, which can be affected by poorly programmed and balanced mechanics while players motivated by strategic games will not be so highly affected by narrative techniques including breaking the fourth wall.
3. Finally narrative driven immersion where immersion is achieved in players through well rounded storytelling and character development, poor implementation of these aspects is likely to disrupt players’ suspense of disbelief .
Yet while Adams doesn’t necessarily argue that strategic and tactical immersion is largely affected by fourth wall techniques, at no point does he consider fourth wall techniques beneficial to any type of immersion. Instead he argues that a game can immerse players in spite of it “the self-referential nature of MGS could only be irritating” . He is of the opinion that breaking the fourth wall should be reserved for comedic purposes and not serious mature storytelling.
What is clear from this however is that video game immersion is far from fragile and is created through a combination of various gameplay, narrative and player environment variables. Consequently it is unlikely that a specific narrative technique can break immersion as a result.
Those fearful of breaking the fourth wall point to the fragility of immersion and the need for authenticity within games in order to achieve and sustain it. Evidence suggests however that achieving immersion is not a simple process achieved through realism. Not only is immersion affected by narrative and gameplay but also the motivation driving players as well the environment in which games are played. While the often abstract nature of game design means player expectations are substantially reduced and so game narrative does not need to confine itself to the same rules and regulations which governs other media. Consequently how immersion is achieved depends largely upon the individuals’ needs and expectations.
While comparisons are often drawn between active and passive participants of narrative it is clear rather than detach themselves from media players or audiences actively seek involvement within a narrative. Considering the inherent interactivity of games and the increasing degree of controls players now have upon narrative. Games, though use of the fourth wall, are even better positioned to facilitate this player desire resulting in greater player immersion rather than dismantling players willing suspension of disbelief.
As titles including Eternal Darkness  have shown games are able to utilise fourth wall techniques within gameplay as much as narrative. Rather than simply break the fourth wall game design has the potential to move it behind the player and involve them further within the narrative. While evidence within this report suggests player engagement and immersion stands to benefit from breaking the fourth wall within serious game narrative, like any gameplay mechanic such techniques should be applied where appropriate. Fundamentally however application of breaking the fourth wall within games is capable of producing truly engaging experiences which cannot be replicated within any other media.
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