Breaking the fourth wall

February 8, 2012, Author: Andy Corrigan

“Breaking the fourth wall” is a term nearly as old as theatre itself. When watching a live show, viewers in the audience can obviously see only three walls in a set, for they are viewing through the fourth.

Breaking the fourth wall, then, is when the major players in a scene break from theatrical convention and the restrictions of their fictional world to interact or speak directly with the audience, or reference things that are to the audience member’s benefit rather than the intended fictional listener.

For example, in Shakespearian times, breaking the fourth wall would be used for characters to express their inner monologues to the audience, separate to the ongoing plotline. These days, it’s a major plot device in movies. Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Goodfellas, Spaceballs, Devil’s Advocate, JVCD: a small selection highlighting the variety of movies that have used this technique at some point throughout to convey a message to the audience.

It’s not something that’s often used in games, though, because most games nowadays aim for immersion, and breaking the fourth wall simply jars that immersion. When it is used, it’s used only to tell the player about typical gaming conventions.

Imagine that you’re walking through the snowy plains of Skyrim. You and your trusty companion, Lydia, have been aimlessly wandering for hours, desperately looking for a town to rest your weary limbs (and maybe to rob at night). Through the snowy haze, there’s a silhouette of a building ahead. Could it be a worthy safe house?

Oh no. That roar. No! Not now! We’re so close!


A tenacious dragon lands right in front of you both, spreading his wings majestically with a frightening beauty, his hot breath escaping through gnarled teeth and misting in Skyrim’s cold winter air. He’s going to attack soon. You make eyes at Lydia to prompt her to ready her weapon.

Imagine, if you will, that at this point she tells you… ‘Press right trigger to attack the dragon’

It doesn’t matter how many times your horse has vanished, how many flying mammoths you’ve seen; had Bethesda taken that route above, with just that one line, you’d be pulled right out of any immersion that they’d had worked so hard to create.

The direction of game development these days is all about creating believable and engaging worlds for the player to explore, while trying to make them feel as much of a part of it as humanly possible. Having characters talk to the protagonist about the controller that the player’s using is, on the whole, damaging to that ethos. Yet it remains the most common example of how games tend to break the fourth wall, and how they do so differently to other mediums.

Back when the original Metal Gear Solid hit the PSone (long before the story turned into an impenetrable wall of cheesy, unwatchable bullshit), it featured one of the cleverest usages I’ve seen. Even back then, when immersive and tense worlds with real stories were still a relatively new idea, it caused upset for some.

When tackling one of the game’s most whimsical bosses, Psycho Mantis, Mantis tries to prove his power to Solid Snake by asking the player to place their pad on the floor, only for him to ‘move’ it with his telekinetic ability. This actually meant that he vibrated the pad using Dual Shock…

He followed up that parlour trick by reading Snake’s mind, which amounted to him revealing the games for which players had save data on their memory cards. Long before that, the game had already asked the player to locate the radio frequency of a character by looking at the actual, physical game case.

Today, this is viewed as a fun and innovative use of the available technology. At the time, however, when tense and gripping games were few and far between, some gamers really didn’t like it. The reason: it broke the illusion and reminded them that they were just playing a game. They weren’t actually Solid Snake, merely his distant proxy.

Other games have been breaking the fourth wall for years without losing any of their famed charm or immersion, though. The Legend of Zelda has always engaged the player in this way, and sometimes the developer would even make fun of that fact.

Take certain inhabitants of Mabe Village on 93’s Link’s Awakening (Game Boy) as an example. One of the villagers would blurt out things like ‘I’ve heard that you can press Select to look at the Island Map…’, but following that up with ‘…but I don’t understand what they mean by that!’ or ‘Don’t ask me what that means, I’m just a kid!’

In 2011 and with Skyward Sword, Nintendo still love this approach, and while the self-mockery is no longer evident, characters still talk to Link about such things as Wii Remotes and A Buttons. All things that should serve to detach the player from their fantasy world, only here it doesn’t. Somehow, the Legend of Zelda still manages to keep its charm and immersion factor in spite of constantly breaking the fourth wall in this manner, and while I can’t fully put my finger on exactly how or why, I suspect it’s largely to do with the absence of voice-acting in the Zelda universe.

Whatever the reason, all I know is that Fi informing Link that my Wiimote batteries were dying was the first time that I really noticed it, and it was entirely adorable and endearing, as little sense as it made. Had that happened in Skyrim, I would have only have found myself detached and disappointed.

While I’d hate to be one to bang on about how games should be more like movies instead of blazing their own trail, I have to wonder why developers aren’t using this technique to further enrich their story-telling, rather than for mechanical gaming conventions? Why aren’t they using a potentially powerful story-telling device?

Imagine a moment like this in a big game, totally out of the blue. A powerful moment in a serious, gritty affair that forgets the peripheral characters for just a moment in time, and in that moment addresses the player in a deep, thoughtful manner in a way that connects us further to the characters and drives the plot like never before.

Say what you like about the film industry’s influence on the game’s industry, but there are still lessons to be learnt from them. Done right, it is entirely possible to break the fourth wall without breaking the illusion, and it’s a technique that games could experiment a lot more with.

Just a thought.