The term “fourth wall” was derived from the idea that a movie set has three walls, and a camera acting as the fourth; the invisible barrier between the audience and the hypothetical stage. In gaming, the art of breaking the fourth wall is that of the game communicating with the player as opposed to the in-game protagonist.
Just a heads up: there will be spoilers galore in this column. Apologies for any ealier columns which spoiled any games for you unnecessarily.
Perhaps the most famous occasion of fourth-wall smashing was in Metal Gear Solid. You all know about Psycho Mantis, right? Switching to port 2 and all that jazz? It was awesome, but I’ve discussed it before, so I’m going to share a few other instances in the series when a similar instance took place.
The sequel, Sons of Liberty, is no stranger to this concept. As the story is reaching its conclusion, Raiden and the player are forced to doubt who they can trust and generally what the hell is going on. The Colonel, who has been your point of contact for the entire mission, goes slightly mental and starts spouting off gibberish. When this started to happen the first time I played the game, I was genuinely scared. I felt vulnerable, confused and didn’t know what was going on.
Aside from his codec image changing to a disturbing x-ray version of itself, Colonel tells Raiden, “Turn the game console off right now!”. When the protagonist questions his orders, he is told “Don’t worry, it’s a game! It’s a game just like usual” In addition to turning into your mother all of a sudden, Colonel also begins referring to Raiden as “Snake”, issuing orders which were relevant in previous Metal Gear titles.
“You can use that against Sniper Wolf! Hurry up and save Meryl!”
Creepy as fuck, but brilliant.
Persona 4 was my second Shin Megami Tensei game, and having been massively impressed by Persona 3 I was excited to play this bad boy. The entire game consists of breaking the fourth wall, figuratively speaking of course, in that the characters are forced to enter and exit the TV world. The premise is that people from the real world are disappearing into this alternate reality after watching a show called the “Midnight Channel”, and our gang of makeshift heroes must travel back and forth to rescue and to defeat the shadows. In effect, these guys are breaking the fourth wall consistently in the game, physically travelling between reality and fantasy.
What really made me laugh about Persona 4 came about very early on, when our guy sits down to read a book after arriving in his new home. Just take a look at these screenshots.
How fantastic is that? Clearly the guys at Atlus aren’t fans of the Twilight series…
I love little details like this that suggest the in-game reality and our reality aren’t too far apart. Such a connection, as insignificant as it may seem, actually serves to make the player feel more in tune with the game they are playing. This example in particular is brilliantly done, because let’s face it, plenty of people hate Twilight. Plus, I’d say it’s a pretty fair bet that the kind of people who are playing Japanese RPGs are not the ones who will go and queue up for hours to get tickets to the première of Breaking Dawn Part II. In a way, this is like a cheeky nudge from the developers to the players, saying “Hey, we can bond over this, lets laugh about sparkly vampires!”
For the record, I really enjoyed the books when they first came out, but hate all of the films and the final novel. This has tainted the entire experience for me, and allowed me to chuckle along with the rest of you when I saw this for the first time.
The final game I’d like to discuss is Conker’s Bad Fur Day for the Nintendo 64. Originally intended as a family game, surprisingly the developers took a different path with it and aimed the title at a more mature (or not) audience. It’s got sex, alcohol and violence, plus lots of references to bowel movements.
The entirety of the game is tongue-in-cheek, never taking itself or its audience too seriously. The ending sequence, however, is quite thought-provoking. It’s also an excellent example of a game breaking the fourth wall, as Conker actually begins talking to the game designers and even takes the mickey out of their incompetence.
It’s funny at first, keeping to the tone the game has set for the entire experience so far. However, the actual conclusion is slightly disturbing. It was far too poignant for a game with massive piles of poo for baddies!
“It’s true what they say; the grass is always greener, and you don’t really know what it is you have, until it’s gone .. gone … gone.”
Wow! Seriously guys, bloody hell! Way to depress us after all that! If it hadn’t been for the sequel a few years later, I’d have bet good money that Conker topped himself after the credits rolled.
So guys! I only touched the surface with this one, partly due to laziness, and partly due to a broken wrist (excuses, I know). I’ve missed out loads, so don’t let me get away with it. Kick my ass and tell me what I missed.