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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.

Random links

I tend to accumulate more links than I can post. Here is some stuff I found while cleaning out my attic:

  • A sure sign that we have successfully infiltrated mainstream culture is that people are asking: Who is the sexiest gamer in the US? Soon, comrades, we can finally cease the pretense and start making text adventures again - the One True Game Type.
  • Sometimes, the intersection of gamer culture with main culture is not so successful. This is a Neverwinter Nights ad that appeared in Maxim. I could ridicule it, but it would be like shooting fish in a barrel. With a +20 broadsword. Plus, Gamespy beat me to it.
  • Have you ever wondered what the best web page in the universe is? I can tell you, it's the web page of Maddox. To quote the man himself:
    This page is about me and why everything I like is great. If you disagree with anything you find on this page, you are wrong.

    He takes the style of the personal web page and extrapolates it to its logical extreme in a manner I find hilarious, but apparently offends some people. A while ago, he posted his opinion on the Xbox.

  • I know the connection to games is growing more and more tenuous, but I simply must tell you about the great English-to-12-Year-Old-AOLer Translator. It breaks the ice at parties. You know, you could probably do a hilarious text-based multiplayer game using this and some of the other automatic translators out there (see my previous posts on this subject).
  • Apparently ATI's new video card kicks ass in NetHack. Can NVidia catch up?

That's enough nonsense for now.

Blizzard overseas merchandise

Many games have been successful enough to have spawned merchandise articles. But Blizzard 's overseas merchandise beats everything else hands down. Learn English using quotes from Starcraft! Eat Warcraft III cheetos! Read a book explaining the socio-economic impact of Starcraft on South Korea! I shudder to think of the "new Korean management philosophies and strategies based on StarCraft". Will it involve purple goo?

Orson Welles' Batman

If you work in the games industry and you want to try and help make the medium become more sophisticated, you are likely to run into the problem of how to create intelligent work within the constraints of established genres and commercial viability. Luckily, this is a problem which other creative people in other industries have already tackled, and we can look to them for inspiration. For instance, I found it quite heart-warming to learn that Orson Welles worked on a Batman movie in 1946.

I know kung-fu

I wrote the previous post using a tool called Kung-Log, written by a fellow Dutch person. It allows me to write blog posts in an application instead of a browser. Which gives me advanced functionality such as, ah, undo (which Safari's text editing field does not provide), but more amazingly, HTML shortcuts, meaning I never have to type <a href="" target="_blank"></a> ever again. So far, I'm quite happy with it.

Update: It even allows me to go back and edit entries I've already posted.

Critical handmaiden

While going through my referrer stats - one of the many activities I never want to have to explain to my mother - I noticed a link from Timothy Burke's blog, which I mentioned in an earlier post on Star Wars Galaxies.

I found the following particularly interesting:

If you want to serve as a critical handmaiden to the work of creativity, then I think that requires a frankly utilitarian approach, a conscious desire to render service at the points of absence or frustration in ongoing cultural projects. That is certainly what lies behind my own writing about computer games: I am not interested in being seen as an academic specialist in computer games, and legitimated as such, but as an academic whose scholarly experience bootstraps an experience of games to being productively engaged in the act of game design. I want to work within a consciously middlebrow critical practice, like Eric Zimmerman and Katie Salen do in their recent book Rules of Play.

This warms the cockles of my heart, as it expresses a few of the reasons of why I write and talk about game design: to make better games, and to make games better.

And therefore my occasional impatience when I read something which is not aimed at this goal. I realize that this is unreasonable: other people need not share my objectives, and may have perfectly valid ones of their own. But then I am not a reasonable person.

On the other hand, I am perfectly capable of changing my mind. I would dearly like to see more writing that can help the average game developer, including myself, make better games. If you know of academic writing on games that obviously proves that I am a pig-headed fool, do let me know.

Jockstrap Vienna

Of the many games that have been inspired by GTA3, True Crime: Streets of LA is probably the one that tries to be closest to the original. Suddenly the rivalry has gotten a little less friendly.

(Thanks Kirsten!)

GTA Double Pack Xbox review

IGN has a review of the GTA Double Pack for Xbox. Interestingly, the obligatory-ad-you-must-see-before-the-review was for... the GTA Double Pack for Xbox.

Other than that, the under-the-breath comments from Tommy Vercetti in Vice City and from all the non-playable-characters in both games sound crisp and clear and will be coming from the appropriate direction so the immersion is definitely there. Likewise, the voice acting remains top-notch and is one of the strongest elements of the game.

Our final deadline for our final submission was on a Wednesday. We had to come in on a Thursday to fix some more stuff. Then we had to come in on a Friday to fix those pedestrian comments (in Vice City). So I'm glad somebody is taking note that they sound crisp and clear and are coming from the appropriate direction.

It's interesting to read what people think we changed: it doesn't always correspond to what we did. But it's nice to see Rockstar Vienna mentioned on a regular basis.

We're currently at number 16 (12 yesterday) in the sales charts (for all products, not just games). There's a lot of buzz for these games.