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Panzadolphin56 avatar 2:49 AM on 07.05.2012  (server time)
The Fourth Wall and taking games seriously

So lately I've been thinking a lot about the Fourth Wall in games and more specifically how that relates to how seriously games take themselves, after a desire to replay MGS4 caused me to think about the Metal Gear Solid series and its relationship to breaking the fourth wall.

It hit me because MGS4, for the most part, didn't really seem to have any stand out Fourth Wall breaking moments for me like earlier MGS games had – oh, there's plenty of moments in there to be sure, stuff like your MK. II being a reference to Snatcher, Otacon making another Snatcher reference with the line “In 50 years time, everybody will have one of these..”, Raiden asking for Dr Madnar from Metal Gear, the 'Don't forget to swap the disc' joke at Shadow Mosses, and the fact the controller for the Mark II resembles the PS3 controller, aswell as the fact that the PMC soldiers are mentioned as having experienced VR training 'like a game'. So it's not like Kojima missed out on a chance to break the Fourth Wall, but more that for me the game was more about being a cinematic, narrative-driven experience than challenging and breaking the Fourth Wall.

Which seems a shame, I really like when a game uses the Fourth Wall to do something unusual - it always interests me when a game stops to involve the audience as something other than passive observer or simply 'player'. I think it's because I really like the idea that a game is an interactive experience and often part of the point of any kind of experience (whether it be game, film, TV program, book, or even a story told by word of mouth) is the illusion of reality it attempts to create and sustain throughout it's length – when you read a Dickens novel, you obviously know what you're reading is fiction but it's written convincingly enough that you're able to immerse yourself and be 'fooled' into believing it's happening - atleast happening in the sense that you're experiencing it in your mind as you read.

A good book, a good TV program, or movie, or even game, is about creating that sense of reality, even when the material you're working with is total fantasy. So when a game (or anything for that matter) turns that dynamic on it's head in order to engage the player and expose the fiction, even just for a moment, it intrigues me, because it's essentially turning the invisible observer into the visible, and potentially makes them vulnerable when before they were safe in their anonymity.

The early Sega CD FMV games are a good example of this, they didn't always break the Fourth Wall but they relied a lot on the Fourth Wall acting as your link to the game world. The premise of the games were often very simple – you're a person who's put in control of some sort of sophisticated surveillance system, with some sort of attack capacity (possibly to stun or to trap whatever the game's adversaries are.) You have a selection of scenes where you have to hit a button at the right time, to progress you have to repeat this process over and over again.

What often made these games stand out (and indeed made them notable for engaging with the player) was the fact that more often than not the in-game characters would acknowledge or even recognise your presence – individuals were not only shooting at your camera, but also at you and even talking directly at you, the player.

At the very start of Night Trap for example, the scene opens on a small trailer in the middle of nowhere, we cut to inside and a rather stern looking man, 'Simms', proceeds to instruct us about what we're doing and how we're going to do it – even going as far as to pick up a Sega control pad and point out the controls. On multiple occasions throughout Night Trap characters within the game look directly at you (at the cameras, I mean) and talk to you, the player, as if you're really there, again reminding the player they're playing a game but at the same time really making you feel as though you're in the game, and experiencing what's happening ...atleast, it felt that way in 1993!

On a more fundamental level though Night Trap as a game revolves around a system much like the setup of a TV and VCR or games system – in a sense mimicking the way the player has to plug their system in and connect it up before they can play. We get the impression that instead of us just interacting with pictures on a screen to beat a boss or win a level we're actually connecting up to some sort of larger system outside of just the games console, and 'really' in the action, as opposed to just being an observer.

Ground Zero Texas was similar, much like Night Trap the game focused on a camera system where you switched between different feeds from a camera network and had to stun on-screen adversaries; In Ground Zero Texas's case you fought aliens disguised as humans, then later dudes in squidgy alien costumes then exploding android before going back to fight squidgy aliens again. I'm pretty sure I've ruined the whole game for you there, but ah, what does it matter? Twenty years is long enough, right?

While I'll admit I don't think Ground Zero Texas really breaks the Fourth-Wall I feel like it's worth mentioning because of the way it tried to immerse me as the player – with a long introduction cutscene putting the player in the place of the agent (who really is just meant to be you) being talked to by his/your superior and game over scenes that involved said superior kicking down your door and angrily declaring you're finished. You weren’t a detached force that controlled an on-screen character, you watched the 'action' as it played out in-front of 'you', making you feel much more involved in the game.

Ground Zero Texas took itself a lot more seriously than Night Trap, so you didn't get the knowing winks you got with Night Trap or too many to camera 'hey, you're the guy with the controls!' moments, but playing it you did feel yourself being put in the place of the character and almost as if the characters in the game really were talking to you, rather than to your character.

In a sense what both games did is to use the very game system you're playing them on and the fact you're playing them through a TV to reinforce the reality of the fictional events happening on-screen – it's not just that you're playing a game or watching a movie, you're in the action, you're part of what's going on, and the fact that somebody holds up a megadrive controller and says 'this is your weapon!', reinforces the ties that bind you to the on-screen events.

For the most part these early games didn't really take themselves too seriously – despite the content, and the furore in the media and society that surrounded their release, and I think it was partly this almost flippant attitude towards the games they were creating that allowed developers to bend the rules about how the player and game world interact (rules, mind you, that weren't even completely fixed as conventions in gaming yet).

Obviously FMV games weren't the first or the last games to involve the player directly but it's interesting the way they did. Often when it comes to the Fourth Wall humour is a big factor, a lot of the more popular early point-and-click games involved moments where your character or characters in the game would acknowledge the player's input (for example, if you tried clicking on something too many times or tried to do something obviously stupid or dangerous to the character.) No doubt to some degree this was included to keep the player amused through often long and difficult puzzle stages.

There are times though when breaking the Fourth Wall is more introspective though, like with the whole Night Trap thing, there was an element of the on-screen fiction helping to reinforce itself by acknowledging it was just a game – and the fact that the system it was played on resembled your system affected how you felt you were playing the game and how immersed you felt.

More often than not we view a game like we would read a book or watch a movie – just with an interactive element, as an immersive experience that we consume and then move on from, but sometimes a game will step outside that for either thematic or again comedic reasons and challenge the player by making the player reinterpret they view of the game world.

The first Metal Gear Solid game is a good example of this (though, admittedly, every Metal Gear Solid has these moments), with Kojima not only making sly references to player agency but also off-hand jokes and overall themes that make reference to the fact (or atleast remind you of the fact) that you're playing a game.

This applies not only to the main game but the subsequent 'VR' missions pack, that reinforced the message of the original MGS. Throughout Metal Gear Solid references are made to the fact that the soldiers Snake fights are genetically altered, but also VR trained 'for them it's like they're playing a game', like you the player they feel themselves that they're playing a game – leading you to query your own sense of reality. The 'VR' aspect for the soldiers, much like the added third dimension in Metal Gear Solid for you the player (compared to it's predecessors Metal Gear 1 and 2), adds an extra layer of reality to what you're playing.

Kojima then uses the overall plot of the game to disrupt the Fourth Wall, not enough to break it but enough to remind you that you're just playing a game and indeed maybe question what you're playing when you play a game.

As a kid a lot of this went straight over my head, or atleast I never really examined it in much depth. What struck me though, and still strikes me, as breaking the Fourth Wall in a very literal sense was the moment when Snake is told how to find Meryl's frequency (probably one of the most novel ways to break the Fourth Wall): by checking the back of the case.

I distinctly remember sitting there thinking 'what case?' and wondering if there was an in-game item I'd missed or something else in-game that Baker was referencing. When it finally did hit me and I realised he meant the back of the game case I was really surprised.

Often with games a big part of how they try to immerse the player is how seriously they take themselves, and this includes never really treating the game world and what you see in-game as anything other than 'real', this is especially so in games about war or horror games – or more generally anything than tries to create a serious atmosphere. Going into Metal Gear Solid without really knowing anything about Kojima's game design style I expected it to be serious, very serious – especially compared to what I'd come to expect from games, so when instead I encountered moments where my perception of the barrier between real world and game were breached it really surprised me.

The other big scene is when Psycho-Mantis reads your memory card, and forces you to switch controller ports, which was really staggering. For me, atleast, this moment was really shocking, obviously in games there's always an element of 'hey, this is a game', where something in-game will reference the fact you're obviously playing a game, but in Metal Gear Solid it was almost like a culture shock for the game to reference the real world so blatantly, and one of the reasons I ended up loving the game so much.

Like a lot of Kojima games Snatcher makes a lot of the fact you're playing a game when you play Snatcher, though it's themes aren't necessarily as multi-layered as Metal Gear Solid's it likes to poke fun at the fact you're essentially just playing a game.

A pastiche of various films including Blade Runner and Terminator, at times it makes it's origins and source material all too clear: In one scene, probably about mid way through the game you go to a night-time hangout – a sleezy bar where a stripshow goes on, only for your character to find himself surrounded by a cast of familiar characters. In the version I played they were characters from other Konami games, but originally they were parodies of iconic characters from sci-fi canon. There's also the Metal Gear references: your companion for much of the game is a small robot called 'Metal Gear Mk. II', who even has an introduction not dissimilar to how Metal Gears in the MGS series are revealed

While I wouldn't consider Snatcher as a game that drastically breaks the Fourth Wall, like much of Kojima's work it does try to do something interesting with the concept of a game, and realises the fact that a game may be an experience like reading a book or watching a film but it's an interactive experience, and one that doesn't necessarily have to be interpreted or understand in one particular manner.


I think this is part of why I like Fourth Wall breaks in games so much, because games themselves as a medium have so much potential – there's no right or wrong about what a game is (apart from obviously, what sells) so you can pretty much do whatever you want with them – especially if it means something that will make the player feel more immersed. I feel like part of the lesson we can learn from why players enjoy seeing the Fourth Wall broken is that players enjoy an engaging experience – sure mindless fun is good but we want some original, something novel, if the game challenges us in an original way that's also good. Perhaps that's why the MGS games have done so well, because not only are they fun but also intelligent and engaging on a level that even most books or Films can't be (because of the way their mediums work.)

So while I enjoyed MGS4, and I loved the little nods and references to other games and entertainment, I hope there are more games in the future that challenge our presumption about how the player/game dynamic works and break the Fourth Wall in their own way.

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