INSiGHT: Breaking the Fourth Wall - A Glimpse into a Misunderstood Art

By Ian Soltes 23.04.2017 3

Breaking the fourth wall is an art form that is very poorly understood. The term comes from the old plays in which each would have three walls (stage right, stage left, and the back of the stage), as well as the 'fourth' wall between the play and the audience. Whenever a character directly addressed the audience, especially when it would make little sense to, those involved directly in the play, it would become known as 'breaking the fourth wall'. A prime example of this would be the famous Marvel character Deadpool or, for a more gaming relevant equivalent, the Disgaea series as a whole, or even the recent point-and-click adventure release, Thimbleweed Park.

Image for INSiGHT: Breaking the Fourth Wall - A Glimpse into a Misunderstood Art

Neptune: Or me! Your most loveable, and adorable, protagonist!

What the, Neptune, what the heck are you doing here? Didn't you learn your lesson back when I wrote your character profile?

Neptune: Of course I did. I mean, I'm not stupid or anything like that, but I figured you could use a biiit of help on this one. You're talking about breaking the fourth wall and I'm totes all over that.

Yes, but I don't need a secondary voice! I'm fine writing this on my own. You're not even real! Heck, you're just someone I'm writing into the article right now, so it's not like you're even just writing in bits of text without my consent.

Neptune: Yup. I'm still here though, right?

I… I… Gosh darn it!

Anyways, breaking the fourth wall is something that's very hard to do. Rather, it's very easy to do, but it's hard to do properly. After all, it's easy to throw a baseball, but it's hard to throw a strike, especially against a good batter. Let this count, then, as a bit of a guide on how to do it right and what pitfalls to avoid.

1.) The character's actions need to make sense, even when they make no sense. This one is actually the easiest to do. Each and every character is different but it's important to keep them consistent both with themselves and the world. Imagine playing a game like Dragon Age in which things are grim, dark, and played totally straight. There may be the occasional Easter egg, like a Krogan head mounted as a trophy, but nothing that would really break the fourth wall. Then, suddenly out of nowhere, Sten turns to the screen and says something like, 'You know, with all this walking and questing, it almost feels like something that J.R.R. Tolkien would have written, but with all this grimness and death, it's closer to J.R.R. Martin.'

Neptune: Oh wow. That would totally suck. My immersion would be broken and I'd have no fun.


Neptune: They need to be a bit more like me!

Image for INSiGHT: Breaking the Fourth Wall - A Glimpse into a Misunderstood Art

That's actually kind of spot-on. From Pinky Pie, to Neptune, and Deadpool, all these characters need to act in a manner consistent with their characterisation - one that makes sense for their universe and story, even when they are making no sense. In the Marvel universe, for example, crazy stuff happens a lot. Be it stories about a massive amount of clones, giant monsters that snack on planets, time travel, superheroes in 1602 A.D., or whatever, crazy stuff happens all the time. That a character in such a world would become aware of the fact that they are in a comic isn't just some arbitrary notion but, instead, sensible.

Neptune: Yeah. Like me. In my games I'm always a bit off, but unlike my fellow goddesses I'm always playing games and the like, as well as being the personification of a game console.

Actually, Neptune, what are you, really? The game acts like you're a goddess, but you lost your powers and became a human, but at least various bits about you seem to imply you're at least electronically enhanced...

Neptune: Truly. A mystery for the ages… or until the next game gets released.

The theme, however, is consistency. Deadpool is always of questionable sanity but he can be predicted to act in certain ways and mannerisms. If he showed up being grim, depressed, and drinking copious amounts of tea, people would recognise that something was wrong with him instantly. Pinky Pie cares immensely about making other ponies happy and having fun and her fourth-wall breaking is just part of that. It makes sense for her in-character, as well as remaining consistent to her whacky and up-beat personality. You don't need to have a humorous and slightly crazy character to break the wall, just a character to whom breaking the wall makes perfect sense. Especially since, in point two…

Image for INSiGHT: Breaking the Fourth Wall - A Glimpse into a Misunderstood Art

2.) Neptune: The world matters!

Hey! My article!

Neptune: Sorry. I just want to handle this one first-hand. You see, in my world, games are love and games are life. Our nations are ruled by goddesses who are the personifications of consoles and we even kind of follow the console wars fairly closely. Heck, people pirating games even weaken us as goddesses! That means a character from such a game, one that's a goddess of games no less, would be aware that she's in a game - it just makes sense!

True, but even if you aren't in such a place, the world still matters - even in a more serious setting, what happens needs to make sense in the context of the world. In Eternal Darkness, one of the key features is that the adventure is meant to be spooking the player and freaking them out. This is done via breaking the fourth wall and doing things such as making it seem like the controller is disconnected, or that the volume is being turned down (complete with sound bars), and the like. This makes perfect sense because the idea is that it's toying with the player's sanity. In-game, the player suffers few, if any, ill effects; however, it can cause the real-life player to start wondering, get jumpy, do things for no reason, and even start to wonder if what they are doing is actually part of the game or a trick. While it probably won't make them paranoid, it can unsettle them.

Neptune: What about Baten Kaitos?

No! That's a good example, but one I've sworn to never spoil.

Neptune: Awww.

Image for INSiGHT: Breaking the Fourth Wall - A Glimpse into a Misunderstood Art

If you mix these two things together you can end up with a perfectly good wall-breaker. If you do not, however, all that goes out the window as things fall apart. The wall breakage turns the character into someone annoying instead of enjoyable, whipping the player out of their immersion simply to relay bad puns, as sadly seemed to be the case in Thimbleweed Park where Ron Gilbert's writing attempted to reference too many real world point-and-click games from competitors in the past, talking about how the characters were in a videogame world, and so on, ruining the atmosphere somewhat. The world suddenly seems fake and artificial and, worst of all, no longer enjoyable. Characters become irritating and shallow as the player is jarred from their comfort zone.

3.) Have a reason to break the fourth wall. This can be very difficult at times, but be it from transitioning from the bottom of the screen to the top as part of navigating a twisted mind, complete over-the-topness in an already over-the-top game, or even something as simple as an actually solid joke, there needs to be a reason for actually breaking the fourth wall.

Neptune: Yeah. You do it too much and people get mad at you. I've been told I need to stay on-script a bit more myself.

Image for INSiGHT: Breaking the Fourth Wall - A Glimpse into a Misunderstood Art

You don't say! Another good example comes from the web-comic, Order of the Stick in which one of the main characters, Elan, is a bard. He relies heavily on bardic tradition, which often gives him immense insight into situations. When he ends up having to deal with his very genre-savvy father, it becomes clear that this isn't just a contest of wit but of understanding of how stories work. As a result, Elan's breaking of the fourth wall and its subsequent insights makes sense, as well as his father who clearly knows what evil overlords should and should not do. Breaking the fourth wall on a whim leads just to whiplash and pained groans.

Neptune: Hey, wait a minute. Didn't you recently review Dragon: A Game About a Dragon and whine about its fourth wall breaking?

S-so, what if I just did?

Neptune: Pardon me from asking, but are you actually trying to help people understand the art or just vent your frustrations at the game?

The first one, of course! I mean, someone would have to be really shallow and petty to write an entire article that likely took longer to write than it did to complete the game he's getting steamed at…

Neptune: Really?

Yes. Well… Erm…

Neptune: Just come out and say it, instead of hiding behind that fake wall of insight.

Image for INSiGHT: Breaking the Fourth Wall - A Glimpse into a Misunderstood Art

It's both. You see, I love the fourth wall. I love games that manage to respect it even when they break it. I guess that, really, that's the most important thing and the reason it irritates me so much when people break it just for cheap laughs and stupid reasons. When you do that, you're establishing a direct link to the audience and, if you're going to do it and act disrespectful of them while treating yourself as smart and superior to them, you're not being funny, random, insightful, or even enjoyable. You're being that annoying little brat who thinks he's so much smarter than everyone else because he thinks Batman would beat Superman in a fight just because Batman does so in his story. His story in which Batman is treated like a god and Superman is an idiot. That's why I hate it when people break it so cheaply. It ruins the entire experience simply for the sake of self-gratification, which indeed seemed to be the case in Thimbleweed Park, as well, with the writer trying to be a bit too clever for his own good. To make it seem like you're so smart and capable that you can make jokes like that without having earned them through halfway decent writing or a passable character/setting means that you're not a fantastic writer, you're just the epitome of the negative aspects of the 'lol' emoji.

I guess that's ultimately the final and best point…

4.) Respect your audience.

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The way it worked in Eternal Darkness was masterful! Speaking from recent experience, the way it was done in Thimbleweed Park was far too forced. It's a fine line to walk, definitely...

Adam Riley [ Director :: Cubed3 ]

UNITE714: Weekly Prayers | Bible Verses

The Nep, there is no fourth wall she cannot break!

Smilie She sounds pretty cool, and I love how you slotted her into the character profile and this article. Well done, sir! Smilie

Adam Riley [ Director :: Cubed3 ]

UNITE714: Weekly Prayers | Bible Verses

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