Breaking the fourth wall

Over at Gamedevleague, Jamie has written a post about games breaking the fourth wall, and how it tends to spoil his experience. (Breaking the fourth wall is a term from theater. The actors can pretend there is a fourth, invisible wall between them and the audience, or they can ‘break’ it by talking directly to the audience.)

Suspension of disbelief is subtle and complicated. Jamie mentions two cases of breaking the fourth wall he doesn’t like. The first is games referencing the fact that they are a computer game (and I mean games that make some effort to make the player believe in a fictional world – not Tetris). Metal Gear Solid 1 did this: what I didn’t know was that Metal Gear Solid 2 and Max Payne did this as well. Jamie thinks this happens when designers are too pretentious, and he’s got a point. On the other hand, I encourage designers to become more sophisticated and use more fancy tricks from traditional storytelling. The Metal Gear Solid series and Max Payne series, whatever their faults, have definitely shown that you can achieve both commercial and critical success doing this.

The audience’s ability to suspend disbelief is based on an unspoken set of rules about how a medium functions. The audience comes in with certain expectations (e.g. from other, similar, works). As an artist, you can bend or break these rules, but to do so consciously and effectively, you must first be aware of them. When certain rules have become very familiar to your audience, you can start playing around with them without causing confusion. Watching movies has become such an unconscious skill that we have no problem when Brad Pitt talks directly to the audience in Fight Club – especially since the filmmakers have already subtly communicated that they are playing by a different set of rules beforehand, through the use of voice-overs, camera work and special effects. Movies, novels, etc. have a learning curve, just like games.

There’s an additional aspect in games. Great designers know how to create a feeling of safety in the player’s mind. At some point in Chrono Trigger, all of your weapons are taken away, yet I wasn’t scared that I might end up getting screwed, that all the time I had invested until then might end up being for nothing, because up to that point in time I had not experienced any bugs or design errors, and I had consistently been entertained. As I expected, I got all my precious objects back at some point.

A game that referenced its videogameness without shaking the foundations of suspension of disbelief was Lucasarts’ Day of the Tentacle, where one player-controlled character, after having just done something pretty awful, mentioned that he sometimes felt as if he was the plaything of a malignant force. In a recent discussion on notable quotes in games, someone mentioned that when you saved your game in Planetfall while Floyd was with you, you’d get:

Floyd’s eyes light up. “Oh boy! Are we gonna try something dangerous now?”

That’s Steve Meretzky for you. Note how the unifying element in the last two examples is humor. As Mark Barrett once pointed out to me, you can get away with an awful lot if you make people laugh.

The other case of breaking the fourth wall Jamie mentions is in-game characters referencing, say, controller buttons. I am in two minds about this. On the one hand, the wrong use of point of view in in-game text is definitely a problem. (For instance, in KOTOR it’s pretty screwed up, even beyond the problems that RPGs can create.) But in Zelda: The Wind Waker I wasn’t disturbed by characters saying to me which button to use for what. In my opinion, this is because my expectations of the complexity of Zelda’s fictional world are not that high. It’s obviously a children’s book world, with cartoon visuals, cartoon physics, cartoon logic, and cartoon characters. (I mean this in a good way!) Therefore, and because I am consistently entertained, I don’t mind it when characters give me very direct hints and reference controller buttons – something which I would find bothersome in games with a more realistic setting.

Setting up, maintaining, and manipulating the unspoken rules of a game in order to create emotional effects is perhaps both the subtlest and the most crucial aspect of game design. This is where a turn of phrase or a judicious choice of color can make a huge difference, where there are no easy rules because everything is interconnected and every element must be designed to work well together, no matter how they work individually.

Comments 5

  1. Timothy Burke wrote:

    As you say, it all depends. One of the most brilliant fourth-wall breakings I can think of, where it reinforced the mood of the game, is The Sims–where at a number of points, a sim will look up with exactly the correct head positioning to be looking where the player’s head is likely to be, as if the sim is gazing upon the deity that controls it, and sometimes gesture in entreaty.

    Then there are fourth wall breakings which are amusing *and* inaccessible enough that you only get to them if you’re trying to, easter eggs of a sort–say, for example, the responses you get from your units in Warcraft or Starcraft if you click them enough times. Doesn’t break immersion, and provides an amusing acknowledgement of what bored players are likely to do with the mechanics.

    But I agree that when a fourth-wall acknowledgement comes in direct violation of the emotional mood or fictional setting the game is otherwise laboring to establish, it’s annoying as hell, and one of the key signals that games are still being created by people with limited creative skills who have played too many games and are stuck in a hopelessly inward-looking referential frame.

    Posted 10 Nov 2003 at 5:15
  2. Jurie wrote:

    Those are good examples. It is really hard to justify (in a clear and logical way) why that works in The Sims but would not work in other, very similar situations. You need a certain sensibility to judge these things. (A background in writing probably helps to develop this.) This sensibility must be applied consistently, and this can be a big problem in game development. You need a lot of authority as a game designer to be able to overrule everyone else and say: now this character can address the player, but now he can’t. Creating an environment where the right people have the right responsibilities, and then finding the people who can assume those responsibilities is very hard. It is a reason why some games fail even when everything else goes right.

    Posted 10 Nov 2003 at 9:07
  3. Jamie Fristrom wrote:

    That was a brilliant line in Day of the Tentacle. Don’t remember who I lent that to. Must acquire new copy.

    Saying not to break the fourth wall was an overgeneralization on my part, I admit. I might as well have said you should never break the fourth wall in a movie. Still think Zelda would have been better my way, though.

    Posted 10 Nov 2003 at 11:12
  4. tobe wrote:

    Breaking the fourth wall might easily be mistaken for actually expanding the user interface.
    The user interface in theater, for example, is sometimes extended to draw the audience into the play by actually letting the actors converse _with_ the audience over short time periods, which does not ruin, but strengthen the immersion.
    An addition to interface could recently be found in the latest Kojima-game ‘boktai’, which features a UV detector to measure the sunlight, a crucial element in the whole game. This is used in various ways, so I happened to come across a section where my avatar was blown off a small bridge by the wind frequently. After I fell twice, the in-game sidekick asked me whether I thought that the sunlight influenced storms and wind… I covered the sensor with my thumb, and voilá, the winds got weaker and eventually subsided. I was not, however, able to attack, since my thumb was busy keeping the light out of the game.
    This little episode proved to expand the game’s setting across the screen’s boundaries, without breaking the suspension of disbelieve.

    Posted 10 Nov 2003 at 16:40
  5. Jurie wrote:

    Hmmm…. interesting. So you could also say:

    Suspension of disbelief is subjective for each audience member: what may be disruptive for, say, Jamie, may not bother someone else. As designers, we have to use our sensibility and insight into the typical player’s experience to make decisions (supported by the judicious use of user testing perhaps).

    Breaking the fourth wall is subjective for the designer. She takes a decision to put something in the game. Hopefully she is in some way aware of the concept of the fourth wall, and of the consequences of breaking it.

    Posted 10 Nov 2003 at 22:38