There is a debate in the world of game design about the definition of game, play, playing the game, et caetera... Well, this article is absolutly not about that. But, we can notice that if we hear « players playing the gane », we don't often hear about the « game playing with the player ». Which means, in that case, that the interraction is not from the player to the game, but from the game to the player. What of the ways to do that is to use the fourth wall.
What is the fourth wall ?
The origin of the fourth wall goes back to a french writer and philosopher, Denis Diderot in his 1758 book « Discours sur la poesie dramatique ». He talks about theater and says to the actors : « Imagine on the border between the scene and the spectators a big wall. Play as if the curtain was never opened. »
Concretly, the fourth wall is an imaginary wall separating a fictionnal world (such as a play, a movie, or a video game) from the people who are looking at it (playing it in case of a game). Basicly it correspond to the surface of the TV screen. Inside the TV, characters of the game are unaware of the existence of the player. They don't know they are characters of a game. While outside the TV the player/spectator knows he is looking at a fictionnal world. But when you decide to break that wall, something very special happens.
Breaking the fourth wall
We use the term « breaking the fourth wall » when, in the game, movie, sometimes even comic book, suddenly the fourth wall disappears. For a short amount of time, characters are aware of their condition and the existence of the spectator. And so they can speak directly to them. Basicly this is a very powerful joke.
Let me give you two examples. First, the hero Deadpool, is one of the characters that are sometimes very aware of his condition of a comic book characters, and so you can find in the comic book jokes like this :
Second, we have that incredible scene form Woody Allen's Annie Hall when he speaks directly to the spectator.
It's a very strong joke when it's done properly. You have to not take your game too seriously. Basicly when you do that all the immersion of the game collapse. There is no more identification to the caracter because the game reminds the player that it knows the player is here and he is just the player.
Breaking the immersion for a joke ? Is it worth it ?
Yes, totally. The player will be thankful to have the recognition of his status and condition.
After all, great games have left a strong mark on players mind because they used the fourth wall in there games. One of the most known game designer is a partisan of this notion.
Do you remember Metal Gear Solid 2 ? When you activate the virus ? There is this awsome conversation in the CODEC where your chief tells you « Oh right Raiden, you've played enough know, it's time to shut the console down and take a break. ». How cool was that ? Yes, Hideo Kojima is a master of the fourth wall. Always reminding us that we are a player and that this is just a game. He's real strength is that not only he use the fourth wall to remind us that we are the player but also he consider the console as a full accessory to play the game, and not only the game's support (remeber how to defeat The End in MGS3 or Psycho Mantis in MGS). And this is supported by the script as well and the story of machine domination.
Can we use the fourth wall without breaking the immersion?
I would like to make a small parenthesis and talk about another way to use the fourth wall : Place it behind the player. That's what In memoriam did in 2003. The game talk about a serial killer leaving a CD with enigmas leading to his last victim. But the game treats the player in a very specific way, it include him in the game. By the use of internet, mails, text message send by the killer or other people looking for the last victim, the line between being the player and a character of the game is lighter than ever. By placing the fourth wall behind the player, your game include him inside and the immersion is stronger than ever. Because the player does not identify with one of the characters as himself is one of the characters.
Using the fourth wall is a risky bet. Trading the immersion of the player against a joke. But yet having an interraction in an unspected way (The Game talking to the player) strongly catch his attention.