The fourth wall was originally meant to describe the area of the stage that the audience saw through to watch the events of the theatre play. The characters would be surrounded by the three walls of the set, but the fourth wall could only be seen by the characters in the plays world. If the characters faced the fourth wall and directly addressed the audience then this is referred to as breaking the fourth wall. Here’s a compilation of moments in film where the fourth wall has been broken. But for video games how do we understand what is breaking the fourth wall considering that we control that wall through our agency and characters in games address us. But they are not really addressing us are they? They are addressing the character we are playing. Breaking the fourth wall would mean the game would acknowledge the world outside itself. This happens frequently in a lot of games in the form of tutorials.
The tutorial is commonly the first section of a video game that teaches the player the controls of the game. Some games teach the player throughout the whole game but most teach the basics of movement within the game world in the first level of a game. This commonly breaks the fourth wall as you will hear characters within the game tell the player character to press X to jump. Now how might that character press X? They can’t, it is directed at the player who is learning the controls of the game. This break in immersion is a necessity for games for the purposes of teaching controls but some games have broken the fourth wall for other purposes in incredibly interesting and strange ways.
The game Medieval 2: Total War has players control large armies against other large armies on a battlefield. These battles, because they involve a lot of separate units, are usually taxing on the hardware of the computer they are being played on. If the computer cannot handle it the game steps in and shows this message. Click on the image to read the text easier.
The player had already defeated one army but was most likely to going to be destroyed by the second army when they arrived. However because of this message he won the battle. This event broke the fourth wall and the immersion of the player. Game developers, just like movie directors, have also used the breaking of the fourth wall as an aspect of the games narrative, for example in this instance in Assassins Creed 2 where the god/alien thing addresses the player directly.
All the while the players character Ezio has no idea who they are talking to. The question is does this break immersion or enhance it? The player is now a character in the game in a sense. The outside world has been acknowledged by the game itself but does that mean that being the person playing the character counts as immersion since it’s an acknowledged aspect of the game? Can the player now be properly immersed as Ezio anymore? Disregarding all philosophical questions, this implementation of a fourth wall break was very very cool.