This week I was reminded of a couple of my favourite moments from throughout my gaming past, both concerned with the breaking of the fourth wall.
A notoriously tricky topic to tip-toe around, fourth wall breaking occurs when a character in a game, or you as the protagonist, become aware or informed of their own fictional nature. It derives from the imaginary fourth wall separating actors from a theatre crowd. To acknowledge the existence of the crowd within the context of the play would be breaking the fourth wall.
With movies and television, fourth-wall breaking is well-established. Kevin Spacey in House of Cards is a notable recent example, Deadpool did it dozens of times, taking it to its logical extreme with a wall break inside a wall break, while Fight Club, well, the one rule is you must never talk about Fight Club.
In games, breaking the fourth wall is practically a necessity (any tutorial or button prompt becomes a wall break by definition), but precious few manage to integrate it in a smart and self-referential way beyond this. Because of the necessity of fourth wall breaking in video games, the aim for most developers is to attempt to steer as far away from it as humanly possible. The so-called ‘cinematic’ experience.
But done right, fourth wall breaking in games can be pretty awesome. There are two examples that have really stood out for me though, and that’s Eternal Darkness and Metal Gear Solid.
Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem was a fairly low key buy critically acclaimed psychological horror game for the Gamecube. It was one of Nintendo’s many ill-fated attempts to an adult fan-base, but it featured a sanity mechanic that was pretty groundbreaking at the time. By now we’re pretty familiar with this concept thanks to Amnesia and the like, but it was a system wherein the player’s sanity would drain every time an enemy looked at them. This would result in changes to the environment or unusual events, with lower sanity causing more severe events.
This was all pre-YouTube so the effects were totally unknown going in, but aside from in-game events like bleeding walls or fake death, Eternal Darkness would also simulate the TV changing channel, the controller being unplugged, or the volume changing. This led to uncertainty on the player’s as to whether it was an in-game effect or an actual technical issue, effectively busting the insanity effect ouside the confines of the game and into reality.
The second one is perhaps the most notorious example of them all. If you've played Metal Gear Solid you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about. It’s the Psycho Mantis boss fight, of course. In this infamous boss battle, Psycho Mantis uses his telekinetic powers, reading from the memory card to discover what other games you’ve played and mocking how bad you are. He then assumes control of the DualShock controller, making it rumble and then ‘reading your mind’ (copying your controller inputs) to dodge every attack without fail. Only by unplugging the controller and putting it into the second controller port can you actually escape his mind-reading grasp and win the battle.
Both of these are, I believe, some of the most fantastic moments in gaming, and certainly high bars for fourth wall breaking.
But, these aren’t the only ones. What are some of your favourite examples of fourth wall breaks in games? Do you think games will ever be able to disconnect from the fourth wall for total immersion? Share your thoughts below!