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A Circular Wall? Reformulating the Fourth Wall for Video Games
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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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