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A Circular Wall? Reformulating the Fourth Wall for Video Games

July 22, 2009 Article Start Page 1 of 4 Next

[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.

Max Payne

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.

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Jeff Lee
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Let's not forget about the ne plus ultra of 4th-wall extension: the Nintendo DS. As the result of a kind of self-conscious conviction that the DS is an "innovative" platform, one is frequently invited to shut the console, shout or blow into the mic, or change the orientation of one's grip. A lot of the time these are kind of perfunctory and extraneous-seeming, but I think they fit the circular-wall bill pretty nicely.

Granted, some of this seems part of the system's regular input featureset (e.g., the mic), but I think the classification should have more to do with the expectations of the user, rather than what's explicitly offered to developers as an interface. In other words, dickeying with the 4th wall is all about the conventions of the audience and not of the production. Once the player starts seeing this kind of thing as normal, it becomes part of the regular interface and ceases to be notable.

Stephen Etheridge
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Great little article. It's encouraging to see the beginnings of an attempt to formulate a proprietary critical vocabulary for games apart from other entertainment media. Even if film and literature must be referenced in the first place, it's references like this that help us understand the elements we currently struggle to name but we know separate games from the rest of the crowd.


"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."

Regarding lens flare, most will recall the high dynamic range lighting techniques used in the Half-Life 2 game and expansion episodes to accurately simulate the eye's response to swift changes in light intensity. Transitions from shadowy indoor areas to brightlit exteriors provoked an 'adjustment phase' where bright objects slowly came into focus and became more recognisable. An interesting question is whether this is the optimal lighting technique in games or whether the lens flare effect is preferable in terms of immersion (talking specifically about 'immersion' as opposed to 'realism').

Stephen Etheridge
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It just occurred to me that maybe the 3rd-person 'camera' is what is being simulated accurately in the original example and it makes less sense for a first-person experience, where you view through the character's eyes.

Steven Conway
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Hi Jeff, Stephen,

Thanks for the thoughtful comments.

Jeff - Yes the Nintendo DS is a prime example of the circle expanding, to encompass the various hardware features of the platform.

The idea that the audience, through regular exposure, may soon find such features "normal" is very interesting, as this is exactly my argument against the invisibility of mundane fourth wall breaks such as dirt on the lens/lens flare.

We, as an audience, are so used to mediation, that we no longer blink an eyelid when the videogame regularly includes features traditionally viewed as limitations of other mediums, such as the camera shaking, motion-blur etc; these are seen by the audience as actually *increasing* "realism"/immersion, which is rather odd when you think about it.

Stephen - Thanks, the more we come to understand the digital game on its own terms, the more we can develop an effective vocabulary for communicating productive ideas and, *hopefully*, this will allow us to create better experiences for the user.

Also yes, I am indeed discussing the use of the third-person camera vis-a-vis lens flare etc., I fully agree that HDR lighting is an attempt at furthering the "realism" of the first-person perspective.

James Hofmann
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I'm surprised that there's no mention of ARGs, Tamogatchi, or Animal Crossing in this article - all great examples of the fourth wall relocating itself to include the real world's timeline, forcing the player to schedule activities around the game.

Steven Conway
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Christian - Personally I very much enjoy the Max Payne monologue, but contractions of the circle are definitely more contentious than expansions, as they generally throw the player out of the game, whilst expansions seek to further the immersion, which everyone seems to enjoy.

James - They are all of course great examples of the circle expanding (through both space and time in the case of ARGs), but I had only so much space to work with and wanted to use much of it to show how many taken-for-granted, "famous" fourth wall breaks in conventional digital games were in fact the complete opposite; once this was accomplished I knew people would logically apply it to these newer forms of gaming.

The purpose of this article was to introduce a new concept and get people thinking; it's like a new tool. I've used this tool on a few things to show how it works, and now I want people to try it out for themselves to see if it works. If you find it useful, and it seems you're already applying it effectively, then that's exactly what I was hoping for.

Scott White
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Excellent article. But he should have referenced Treasure World on the DS. Most of the references that he uses "kind of" break the wall or simulate it. But Treasure World truly shatters it.

This game uses the DS and its ability to spy Wi-Fi signals. With every Wi-Fi signal found it gives the player a treasure. Requiring the player to actually go out and and play in the real world. It is actually a real world treasure hunt that breaks the wall. Once treasures are found then they are claimed on the DS and then it becomes more of an interactive toy experience where they customize the world and character, make songs, etc.

In the first hour of playing I drove downtown and found over 500 Wi-Fi signals yielding me 156 treasures and lots of game dollars to buy new treasures. Obviously high-density areas have more signals. So when I hunted for treasure in the burbs I would only get about 20 Wi-Fi signals per block of houses.

Richard Marzo
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Cameras and motion control in games: this is the perfect time for such a relevant write up! Thanks for the intriguing article, Steven. With accelerometers, players are drawn into the circle, but with games literally looking at players through cameras, the magic circle is drawn around the player, placing gamers at the very center.

Thanks for all the famous examples of the past too, since I was unaware of most of them.

Luis Guimaraes
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Also in Metal Gear Solid, this time Snake Eater, third in the series: when Snake get in prision, the player can't figure out how to get out of there, and induced by a clue that he lost the only chance to interact with the guards, and that it won't happen anymore, the player soon figures out that the solution is reset the console due to retry. What happens is that the console comes back in another game, not MSG3, an strange avatar with two swords inside an arena with many enemies coming everywhere around. After playing a few seconds thinking there's something wrong recorded into the game DVD, Snake wakes up in the prision from a nightmare.

Steven Conway
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Thank you for your feedback Scott, Richard and Luis.

Scott - Thank you for an extremely interesting example! I've not heard of Treasure World before, it seems an excellent instance of the circle expanding to draw in aspects of the outside world into the realm of the game, I'll have to get a copy.

Nicholas Muise
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Great article! It made me think of times playing Mario 64, leaving the controller as a kid to go eat supper only to return to Mario or Yoshi sleeping and resting up for my return.

So expansion of the 4th wall draws the player inside, encouraging both interaction with the game physically (tilting the sixaxis in Rachet and Clank to control the tornado gun) and mentally (our shock at when Max addresses his realization of his place in a virtual world).

I was wondering how you feel about the 4th wall being broken during "tutorial" sections or "hint" queues in games. For example, Fallout 3 is a very atmospheric experience which is established early in the game, especially when your avatar first exits their underground fallout shelter and emerges in the post apocalyptic world. The first time we use the VATS targeting system we are prompted with a text tutorial on screen explaining the proper input commands for each action available to us. I feel that this breaks the immersion level of the game and detracts from the experience, preferring to have an explanation of an in-game system presented in a more clever way that does not detract from the level of immersion. I recognize that input devices (sixaxis vs wiimote vs natal technology etc.) are a necessary part of the video game equation, but I do believe they have the potential to both expand and contract the circle.

Hopefully my question/comment is clear.

Richard Marzo
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Another example just occured to me with Metal Gear Solid: Portable Ops for PSP. With the Japanese version (which I own) and the GPS peripheral (which I had at one point), you were able to locate other players across Japan, find them, then play an ad hoc game with once you were within reach. Sadly, I never tried this feature out when I was in Japan, so I can't comment on how it worked out, but maybe some of our Japanese reading audience can scan the Japan web for reports on its implementation.

In theory, it made the entire country of Japan the magic circle. Really wish I had tried it out, but the game has been out there quite a while now, so even if I did try it during a visit to Japan, it probably would meet with little success. The idea is neat, still. Something about the Treasure World example reminded me of this, so thanks to Scott for bringing that up.

Jol Lamotte
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Interesting article.

Instead of "breaking the 4th wall", we should just say "playing with the 4th wall".

I think that's more explicit with the kind of usage in our medium.

By the way - if other didn't already point the error - the Psycho Mantis example is not from Metal Gear 4 but the first on Playstation.

Rafael Kuhnen
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Thanks for the great article Steven.

One question though. If you consider the dirt in the camera as breaking the 4th wall because you admit the existence of a camera, why isn't Psycho Mantis power to make the controller to vibrate isn't? It's admitting the existence of a controller and so that you are only playing a game.

Steven Conway
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Sorry for the late reply chaps, I'm on England time!

Nicholas - Yes I absolutely agree that those obvious "press A button to punch" tutorials detract from immersion, they contract the magic circle by throwing the player outside of the gameworld, reminding you of your limited ability to interact through peripherals, and in reminding you of this they break the immersion, I find them very... lazy I suppose.

Christian - I still very much enjoyed the joke at the time, though I'm sure Ernest Adams completely agrees with you!

Jol - There is no error, the Psycho Mantis example is from the last level of MGS4. If you had bought a recently released dualshock controller for the PS3 the described scenario would take place. If you had only the sixaxis, Psycho Mantis would mock you for not having a dualshock.

I believe the term "4th wall" is just not compatible with videogames. I think seeing them as expansions and contractions of the magic circle (a psychological engagement with the fictional world) can be much more productive.

Rafael - Very good question!

The dirt on the camera is a 4th wall break because at *no* point in any of the games (that I've played anyway!) does any character or narrative make reference to the camera following them. It is not ever acknowledged as existing by the game, much like the camera is never acknowledged as existing in your standard action film. Thus an acknowledgment through the "technical error" (fabricated as it is in games) of dirt on the lens is a fourth wall break, much like a boom mic entering the shot in Arrested Development et cetera; something invisible made visible.

Now your question stems from the same conundrum; something invisible to the fictional world is now made visible when you fight Psycho Mantis.

The crucial differences are twofold.

Firstly, Psycho Mantis does not address the player, but instead addresses Snake. This means instead of breaking the fourth wall (HEY YOU PLAYER OF A VIDEOGAME!), he talks to you as the character within the fictional world.

Secondly, Snake does in fact own a PS3 controller; remember how he controls little Metal Gear Mk2? Yep, that's a PS3 pad!

So in talking to Snake and telling him (you) to place the controller on the ground, the fourth wall is not broken, as it is made completely plausible that he is in fact talking to Snake, who you are playing the part of.

By expanding the magic circle to encompass the features of the PS3 controller hardware, the goal is to make you feel a direct connection with the gameworld as the character of Snake, instead of trying to make you feel "outside" of the gameworld, as a traditional fourth wall break would.

I hope that is all clear.

Devin Monnens
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Hi Steve! Glad to see this finally published.

Regarding that Max Payne example, I think it's as much a jocular commentary on the medium's narrative abilities as it is a fourth wall break. I will still have to agree that contractions of the fourth wall do tend to be more dangerous than expansions because they can play the same role as the spoilsport who breaks both the suspension of disbelief and the magic circle (the last bit being the worst part because it in effect makes the game cease functioning as a game).

I remember the Star Tropics example from an early presentation of this paper. I'm curious as to how you interpret this in relation to other 'feelies', particularly games that require you to enter a word from the manual in order to play them. Reflecting back on my own experience with such games, I recall them as more frustrating than anything else, similar to what Miyamoto referred to as 'labor', and so perhaps these are more contractions of the 4th wall. In contrast, other old text adventure games required the player to read a passage from the game manual before proceeding. Here, I think these text passages would be part of the interface rather than any breaking of the wall itself (similarly, we could look at videotape boardgames in the same way).

The Mario 64 camera is also an interesting example. The game recognizes the fact that a 'camera' is used to interact with the game world, and uses the Lakitu cameraman as a way of explaining this to the player (in a way, it's similar to manga instruction manuals). As a result, the magic circle expands just enough to contain the camera system of the game itself. This illusion is only really broken in a few places, primarily the intro and ending cutscenes. We become aware of the cameraman again when Mario is in front of a mirror and we see the Lakitu behind him - the scene functions as a live TV camera pointed at its display, which is in itself an interesting fourth wall break. This awareness of the technology behind the game seems to me a fourth-wall break because it is letting the player cognizant of the underlying technology of the game.

Finally, for some ridiculous fourth wall breaks, check out Pac-Man Adventures on the SNES.

Steven Conway
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Hi Devin,

Thanks for some fascinating examples! I am particularly fond of the Mario camera, as you say, the magic circle expands into other media, plucking the apparatus of the televisual experience and placing it within the gameworld, perhaps as a joking nod to the celebrity status gained by Mario since the original NES and SNES games?

The expansions of the circle into paratextual materials, such as the game manual, box et cetera are very interesting, but as you say, can sometimes be frustrating and self-defeating, if they reveal themselves too transparently as anti-piracy measures.

There must be a careful balance between fun and labour in such circumstances, and too many fall short. I believe the Star Tropics instance works because of the novelty of performing a task; you are not just reading/copying something, you are "creating" something through the use of the water and bucket, "revealing" something like some kind of treasure hunter.

It provides for the gamer a sense of autonomy and accomplishment, as if they've solved a puzzle on their own initiative.

Too many paratextual expansions fail at this and instead reveal themselves as cheap anti-piracy measures, which is both insulting to the gamer's intelligence and dignity; I remember feeling particularly annoyed whenever the "ENTER CODE FROM BACK OF MANUAL" box would pop up in certain game installations, which basically demands you prove yourself not to be a criminal.

By adding a sense of novelty or fun, the developer can easily sidestep such faux pas and instead make it a valuable part of the gaming experience.

Hanneke Debie
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I can't help thinking about Bioshock myself, because I feel like it is playing with the circle. You are in and out of it at the same time at one point in the game, during 'the revelation'. The speech is indeed entirely intended for the in-game character that you play, but at the same time it also applies to you as player. It showed me that as a player we indeed always blindly follow the instructions we get from a game.

And what I really liked about it was, like I said before, you're in and out at exactly the same time.

I wonder though, if a game (dev) decides to include the player in the magic circle, how far should he go to explain game quirks to uphold the suspension of disbelief, without falling into over explaining. I think that is actually quite difficult to do right.

Steven Conway
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Hanneke - Bioshock is an excellent example, specifically of course the "revelation".

The revelation acts as an insightful commentary on the power the developer holds over the magic circle itself.

They are basically saying "we have the power to expand and contract the circle as we wish, you are simply a slave to our whims". The circle then contracts, as a display of this power, so that the gamer finds him or herself sitting outside the game, able only to feebly observe the proceeding events, before expanding the circle once more to allow the gamer back in.

It is a brilliantly self-aware moment in videogame design.