Videogames offer an experience no other form of media can provide as they let you immerse yourself in a world where you have complete control, most of the time. No matter what films or books do there is always that divide between the fictional and the real world, but video games have the link between the game on the screen and the controller in your hands, where your decision affects the rest of the game, even if it is a simple endless runner game. Though some films are trying to use this concept, for example, Netflix’s Black Mirror Bandersnatch and Minecraft Story mode. They want to give the audience member control over the narrative.
But games started a new way to immerse the player even more into the game’s world by making the game protagonist aware that they are in a game or that their actions are not their own. Or even making the game itself interact with you the player and not the character you are playing as, and this is breaking the 4th wall.
The 4th wall is a performance rule in which an invisible, imagined wall separates actors from the audience. While the audience can see through this “wall”, the actors act as if they cannot. Technically because of the way games work they are constantly breaking the fourth wall as they ask for your input to the game telling you to press certain buttons. But it said most games are not actually breaking the 4th wall as instead of the box imagery usually used for the 4th wall with the audience outside of the box, games are a circle with the player inside of this circle, immersing the player in the game world, needing their input instead of separating them and some games take this concept and run with it.
In 2002 a horror game called Eternal Darkness for the GameCube was released by Nintendo and its unique feature was a sanity meter. This mechanic is used more frequently now in games like Amnesia: The Dark Descent which came out in 2010. The effects of the sanity meter going down is you will start getting hallucinations in-game, but if you let the meter get to the bottom the game will not only mess with your character but also you. One way they would do this is when you walked into a new room your inventory would be cleared, a bunch of enemies would be ready to attack you and your game controller has “unplugged” itself. Another effect is when trying to heal yourself you would instead get the opposite effect and die instead. Then some of the hallucinations would cause your game to fake a shutdown, reopen your game and delete your saved files of the game. But this was just a hallucination, and your saved files did not actually get deleted.
The game was very well praised and was said to be a massive achievement in the game development industry and so it became a trend for future games to use the 4th wall to mess with the players directly. An example of this is Metal Gear solid which is not a horror game but still used their villain Psycho Mantis to scare the players, and one of his many abilities was to read minds and this ability is demonstrated to the player when Psycho Mantis breaks the fourth wall in a cut scene and starts reading the players memory card on their console. This is meant to freak the player out making them question the link between reality and fiction.
More games of other genres hopped on the 4th wall breaking trend seeing the reaction it got from other games and an example of this is the original Animal Crossing from 2001. In the game, you are repeatedly reminded to save your game but if you do not save your game multiple of the characters would get annoyed and reset all your progress in the game, but not really, again this is an in-game character talking about something that would affect you not the character but you as the player.
Another example is Batman Arkham Asylum from 2009. At one point of the game, there is a chance Batman can get injected with a fear toxin which causes the game to display the wrong names for the location you are in-game and again pretend to crash your game a start you back at the beginning of the game.
But then Spec Ops: The Line Breaks which came out in 2012 decided to break the fourth wall but using the story more. You play as Martin Walker, he is a member of the United States Army’s Delta Force and your goal is to kill your enemies but at one point of the game you find you have killed innocent people who were on your side and after this scene, the game starts to blame you the player for what took place by using the loading screen as instead of giving you helpful tips for the game they instead asks questions like “Do you feel like a hero yet?” or just directly blaming you for killing those people saying things like “This is all your fault”. But the game also uses the characters by making them realise they are in a game, during a helicopter chase sequence Martin Walker has a sense of realisation that he has been in this situation before and he is right, you have played this scene before.
Now in the 2010s breaking the 4th wall was quite common in games, mainly in horror games as their target is to directly scare the player for example I’m Scared: A Pixelated Nightmare a PC game made by Ivan Zanotti in 2012. When you start the game, you are greeted with a warning telling you that the game will try to deceive you as many times as it can and telling you to check your folders outside the game file. Soon into the game one of the game files has become sentient and is telling you to continue playing the game this “glitch” continues to mess with you throughout the game for example constantly shutting down to open a new tab outside of the game linking you to a YouTube video made by the creator that gives you guidance on how to deal with the creepy things happening in the game.
An extremely popular example of a game-breaking the 4th wall is Undertale which came out in 2015. When playing the genocide route every major boss battle uses the 4th wall to try and beat you and the character Sans does it the most when he realises it is not Frisk (the character you play as) that is the problem but you the player. He uses things like your save files and menu screen to mess with you but once you beat Sans you get to The First Child who tells you that you have reached the end because you have maxed out your potential and so you are then given the choice to either become partners with her to help destroy the world or not and if you choose to not help her then her eyes become block black and she says “Since when were you the one in control?” and then proceeds to jump scare you her face changing and the background flashing red as she comes closer and closer to the front of your screen.
Then in 2016, a game called One-Shot was released. It follows a child called Niko who is placed in a world without the sun, now even though you are playing the game from the perspective of Niko, you the player is a separate character. The game contains many puzzles that the player must solve outside of the games window for example searching through files, changing your desktop background, and having to move the game window offscreen to change it. Niko and a character called the Entity both address you by name and the Entity tells you that you only have one shot to beat the game and this was true, if you closed the window and tried to reopen it the menu screen won’t show Niko and will have a dead broken light because without you Niko couldn’t find their way around and died as a result which the game tells you when you try to close the window again.
But in the second game, you are given a second chance and at the end of the game you are given two choices, to break the sun you have been carrying the whole game and return Niko home or return the sun reigniting the world, but Niko will be trapped in this world. Choosing the return Niko home by breaking the sun will cover the world in darkness but not before Niko is freed and goes home by walking through your game window and out of your monitor screen.
In recent years games have been using the concept that the main character is aware they are in a game and using it to scare or directly interact with the player for example Monika from Doki Doki Literature Club. She messes with Desktop files to mess with the Narrative attempting to have you all to herself.
It is interesting to see how games went from small 4th wall breaking features to slightly mess with the players, to breaking the 4th wall and being the main feature of their narrative, often developers will now base their entire game on the concept of pulling players into the circle mentioned earlier, involving players in the game world even more. It is a fascinating concept that makes for exciting games and it’ll be fun to see how else this concept is used in future games involving VR to further the player’s experience.