[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:
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
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.