Fourth Wall Breaks in Games

In the opening minutes of One Shot, you control a character named Niko navigating around an abandoned house. You find a computer that begins addressing you rather bluntly, informing you that your objective is to escort Niko out of this bleak world and that your choices will affect them. And just as you’re beginning to think the phrasing of that is pretty suspect, it does this.

…that’s not actually my name, so this would probably be more effective if I weren’t playing on a secondhand computer.

One Shot is a game that lets you know immediately that it’s all about breaking the fourth wall. And believe me when I say cheeky shenanigans like this don’t even come close to how far it’s willing to go. As such, I think it makes for an interesting backbone for a discussion I’ve been wanting to have for a while now – what is the value from a storytelling and literary perspective of breaking the fourth wall in video games, specifically?

Chapter 1: Gotcha!

Breaking the fourth wall is a term that emerged in the 1800s in the world of theater. A traditional set contains three walls that are very real to all of the characters. The fourth wall is invisible, allowing us to see into the world of the story. Really, it’s a conceptual wall, in that it separates the world of reality from the world of fiction. Breaking it, then, allows for that separation to similarly break down. Actions in which the actors acknowledge the audience, or even the very fact that they’re in a play, destroy this barrier.

Fourth wall breaks are most well known to modern audiences in how they’re used in TV and movies. Mostly, it’s a comedy thing. We all remember the characters from Spaceballs watching their own movie, or the absurd shenanigans from the end of Blazing Saddles. But there’s quite a bit more to it than that. Another well known form of fourth wall breaking in this medium is the character narrating directly to the camera, as seen in Ferris Beuller’s Day Off or House of Cards. And this is one of the first things that I want to note here – despite many of us thinking of comedy when it comes to this practice, there are MANY different ways to do it.

To illustrate this, a more subtle method of fourth wall breaking is when something on screen seems to be happening to the audience as much as it is to the characters. One of my favorites is that of the monster, seemingly taken in by what it’s doing, then suddenly…

In the context of the story, it’s simply looking up to its surroundings. But the fact that the direction it happens to look in is DIRECTLY AT YOU induces just a little bit of shock and primal fear. If you’re immersed in the story, you can feel genuinely unsafe for a moment, which tells us that the applications here are potentially quite diverse. Even for a simple gotcha, different genres are able to use it for all sorts of purposes.

But this is a video and indeed a channel about video games. So what was that whole diatribe about? Well, I think video games are uniquely capable of expanding on this concept in some interesting ways, but a lot of us are still stuck at the ground floor. Disregarding comedy, that little pop-up from earlier is what a lot of people think about when they think of fourth wall breaks in games. They think of the endings of a game like Superhot, where it’s just “…haha! Surprise!” and you end up feeling a bit disappointed.

Not that it’s inherently bad or anything. Basic subversion of expectations is a thing that almost any genre needs, particularly comedy, horror, and thriller. And as far as a vehicle for those purposes, breaking the fourth wall is fine. People might roll their eyes a bit at it, but as with anything else, it’s all in how you present it. Even better, it can be a springboard for something else. In that game that I should probably stop talking about some day, the big gotcha is merely an introduction into the story’s much bigger concepts. And in One Shot, it’s not even your appetizer. It’s like the mint you get in the lobby before you even get to your table. So let’s take a seat at the table and actually talk about what One Shot does.

Chapter 2: Puzzle It Out

One Shot generally functions like a fairly normal adventure game with inventory puzzles to advance throughout the world. There’s an explorable space full of characters to talk to and environments to look around, and some sort of roadblock that can usually be cleared with the items Niko has found thus far. Except, occasionally, they can’t. Take the first area, for example. Niko can look around in this factory and fix it up, talk to this robot lady, look around the mines for a bit and get some bizarre foreshadowing, but they’re prevented from entering a certain area that’s filled with toxic gas. The only loose end is a safe, but there are absolutely no leads on the combination. That is, until you run into that asshole computer again.

It greets you in a snotty sort of “oh, NOW you need my help” sort of way, but ultimately reveals that the combination no longer exists in this world, and can only be accessed by you, the player. To find it, you have to get out of the game, ignore my weeb-ass desktop, open your documents folder, and find a text file that contains the combination, thus opening the safe that contains the gas mask that enables you to progress.

In an article on Gamasutra, Steve Conway talks about how the concept of the fourth wall is perhaps not entirely suited for video games. Instead, he argued that we should think about it in terms of the magic circle. Everything inside the circle is the reality of the story. For basically every game out there, the circle contains the game and nothing more. When you are asked to suspend your disbelief and engage with the story, you consider only what’s within the game window to be a part of the story. All of your other windows, the contents of your desktop, that torrent going into your 120 GB homework folder, none of those have anything to do with the game.

What One Shot does is expand the magic circle, just a little bit. It’s still restricted to the confines of the computer, but now it’s just outside the game window. Now the contents of our computer, such as our documents, and later what’s on the screen itself, are to be considered a part of the game.

The point here is that after the initial gotcha, One Shot establishes the rules. And once those rules are laid out, it’s difficult to not consider it to be functionally the same as any other puzzle game. Put it this way, in Pony Island, most of the game takes place in the context of this simplistic runner/shooter game, but it routinely tries to hamper you, and you have to “hack” the game in order to get it back on track. In reality, you aren’t really hacking it, it’s all part of the game. One Shot squirreling things away in your documents is basically the same thing, with the ultimately minor difference that it’s no longer staying within the game window. It’s the magic circle and its consistency that count.

If we think back to the common perception that fourth wall breaks are nothing but one-off hackery, with the gotchas, you can see it. But in this context, I think almost anyone can understand the merit. I wouldn’t say that it’s endless in its usefulness, because a lot of it still relies on novelty, but there’s certainly more longevity in the base concept. And like with the gotchas, the true value judgement lies in whether the ensuing content is able to back it up.

Hmm, I wonder if that’s going to be some sort of pattern?

Chapter 3: The End

The actual story of One Shot concerns Niko finding this lightbulb referred to as “The Sun”. A prophecy-dispensing robot explains that the world is in a state of decay, and only Niko, as a messiah figure, can bring the sun back and save it. He also says that this quest is at the behest of and guided by a god, referred to by your name. When Niko attempts to contact this god, you, the player, are given dialogue options to respond.

Other than the gotcha, this is often what people think of the most when it comes to fourth wall breaks in games. Recall the ending of Doki Doki Literature Club, or the nature of the Fallen Child in, uh… that one game. What’s really happening here is another expansion of the magic circle. It’s gone from inside the game window, to the computer, to outside of the computer and including the person in the chair. You are now beyond the fourth wall, and that raises some interesting thoughts on the idea of immersion.

Immersion is a topic you see being brought up with game storytelling more than any other medium, as a sort of variant of suspension of disbelief. It’s when you find a game so captivating, usually on a story level but sometimes in gameplay, that you feel like you’re a part of this world and partially forget that you’re just sitting in a chair pressing buttons. I think this is why a lot of people look down on fourth wall breaks from a more serious storytelling perspective, because it intentionally violates that immersion. But doing it the way One Shot does it is potentially just as immersive, just in a different way. You have a constructed fiction within the story that the game attempts to get you to believe, it’s just a slightly different one this time. A Spiderman game tries to get you to believe that you’re Spiderman, not some shlub in a dimly lit office. Something like One Shot tries to get you to believe that the characters have a degree of self-awareness independent of you, not that they’re scripted to say such things. And when you put it like that, the lies that both games expect you to believe don’t seem so different.

If you can accept the expansion of the magic circle, it shifts the tone of Niko’s private conversations with you in a pretty remarkable way. The only thing I can think of that kind of comes close to it is when you talk to Clementine in The Walking Dead, where you feel like you’re coming to know this character as a person yet also feel a tremendous urge to guide and protect them. And yet, it’s more than that, and I think it’s the fact that Niko addresses you by name that makes all the difference. The two of you feel like true companions with a unique relationship among all the other characters in the story. And as more of Niko’s backstory and feelings about being on this mission trickle in, you start to develop a personal attachment.

Personal attachment is what I’d call the first of two pillars in the storytelling applications of fourth wall breaks. And the funny thing is, as I was saying about immersion, it’s not necessarily all that unique when you really think about it. Forging a personal attachment to the characters is ideally something that any narrative-driven game is trying to do. There are all sorts of ways to do this, and it just happens that the fourth wall method can be a bit more… direct.

The second pillar is taking away a sense of control. The classic “uh oh, you can’t save now” kind of thing, among others. I’d actually call this one unique to fourth wall breaks, but sometimes the line of what is or isn’t a fourth wall break can get a little blurry. Like that… thing in Outer Wilds, it changes your perspective on saving your progress, so even though it isn’t a full on fourth wall break, I’d call it a crack in the fourth wall, at the very least. And that sense of losing control can inspire all sorts of emotions.

All of these emotions come to a head in One Shot’s finale, where both of the pillars have a prominent role. Niko goes to complete their quest, and seemingly… does so. The villainous computer tells Niko “Okay, quest’s over. The player is gone now so just go to sleep.” And that loss of control kicks in as Niko calls out to you in vain, and you’re unable to answer. It seems like the journey is over, until a third character that’s able to speak to you makes contact. This character is the Author.

The Author communicates exclusively through the medium of fourth wall breaking. From changing your desktop to creating documents to giving you an entire program that runs in parallel to the game, he fills you in on the details of the situation and helps you get back in contact with Niko and escape. Afterwards, he issues you a warning. The dastardly computer will attempt to trick you, telling you to smash the lightbulb and destroy the world rather than plug it in and save it.

Sure enough, the computer starts talking to you, but rapidly gets tired of the charade. Instead, it tells you the truth, and here is where things get crushing. Destroying the lightbulb will cement the already incoming demise of this world, yes. But it’s also the only way for Niko to return home. Restoring the lightbulb will save it, but Niko will be trapped here forever. And now we see that personal connection become weaponized against you.

When we care about a character in fiction, it’s because we’ve come to know them. When your favorite character dies, they’re no more real than one I make up at this very moment, but the time you’ve spent with them is what makes it sad. The true power of fourth wall breaks in games, perhaps, is that it can manipulate that connection to be even more personal. Remember, any story is just asking you to believe a lie. In a traditional story, it’s that this person was real and had feelings. In One Shot, it’s that this person was real, had feelings, and knew you.

This, combined with the fact that the game repeatedly tells you that you only have “One Shot” brings a crushing sense of finality. The stakes here feel higher than deciding the fate of millions in any other game. Personally, I chose to restore the Sun. Partially to save the people of this world, but also because I thought Niko could still be happy here, and this way wouldn’t have the deaths of so many others on their conscience. And the fact that a game can make me feel these sorts of things tells me that fourth wall breaks have some serious power as storytelling tools.

Of course, that’s not all that they do. I have a bit more to say, which is fitting, because so does One Shot.

Chapter 4: Breaking Down

“You see, this game is actually really deep, it comments on the relationship between player and character.”

“Oh, how does it comment on it?”

“…”

If I had a nickel for every time someone said a game explored the relationship between player and character, I’d have… uh, around five nickels, maybe? Point is, it’s one of those “smart gamer” terms you hear a lot that tend to surround hauntingly similar games, especially ones with fourth wall breaking. That, and “deconstruction”.

After One Shot’s ending, you receive one final message from the Author sympathizing that you, understandably, may not find this ending to be the one you wanted and that he wants to make things right. He offers a possible solution, in the form of the Solstice route. This route prompts the magic circle to expand yet again, from the confines of the window to the files on the computer to the person in the chair to… somewhere else entirely.

The Solstice route starts pretty much like the normal game, taking an abrupt left turn when Niko is suddenly able to access an area that was cut off before. Inside is a character that gives you a hell of an exposition dump that I’ll try to get to, but just bear with me for a second, it’s kind of big. Everything is interrupted though, because the computer that’s a danger to others and itself starts throwing a temper tantrum, and you’ve got to get the hell out of dodge. The nice robot lady dies, maybe, probably, and things ultimately just go back to just you and Niko, riding through the void. All the relationships in the story once again collapse down to the two of you, trying to cope with the gravity of the new situation.

Niko escapes to a drastically cut down version of the second area, where a fairly similar pattern goes down. Meet some old friends who are blissfully oblivious to the coming doom, see some sad stuff, reality breaks down, meet a new character who… ugh… yeah, I guess I can’t avoid it anymore.

Okay, so basically the Solstice route reveals One Shot really is an “actually it was a video game all along” sort of story. But… in kind of a strange way. Through the course of a second massive exposition dump, you’re told that this world here, with the lightbulb and the robots and all that, it’s a simulation, a video game. It was made by inhabitants of another world that this game was modeled after, where this fella Cedric and Prototype and later Rue are from, plus that Author guy we met earlier. That world was ending somehow, and the only hope of saving it was in this simulation, created by the Author, which required pulling in a “messiah” from a different world (that’s Niko), while an individual from yet another world runs the simulation on their computer. All while an AI called the World Machine runs it. You know, that fairly rude but has probably just been through a lot computer.

The whole thing was just supposed to run once. One Shot. And now that you’re running it again, everything is starting to collapse, with this infection of square particles overtaking everything rapidly, with the whole process being accelerated by the AI not being able to handle this deviation from the programmed story. So now you, Niko, and these three from the cool kids club are off to activate the Author’s contingency plan and hopefully sort this whole thing out.

There’s a lot that I could say here if this were an analysis on narrative flow, or exhaustive explanations overcomplicating stories, or the fact that my brief description there saved you two extremely long exposition dumps. But remaining focused on the topic of fourth wall breaking, this is the part where One Shot is most solidly focused on meta commentary within its story. This is a perilous route for a story to go down, but not necessarily a fatal one.

Undertale’s genocide route (since I apparently can’t avoid referencing this game) is probably the closest thing I could find to the Solstice route’s main ideas, in that it too is centered around the player’s quest for a different ending. Of course the intent there is quite a bit different. For Undertale, it’s more specifically about the player trying to see all the available content, even if that means doing horrific things, like murdering all the characters you once loved. The meta aspect comes from the fact that it’s a route… in the game… about the player wanting to see all the routes… in the game.

It’s a rather harrowing experience that gets pretty accusatory in its evaluation of the player, causing you to reflect on why you’d resort to doing this after you’ve already gotten the perfect ending. It asks the question “if the characters in a game knew that you were repeating their story over and over, solely to satisfy your curiosity, how would they feel?” It takes a fundamental aspect of the gaming experience and lifts it away from the context where we would have taken it for granted, making us wonder why it was ever a thing in the first place. That’s the basics of deconstruction.

Getting all up in the player’s face isn’t the only kind of deconstruction and commentary, obviously. You can examine aspects of genre, character archetypes, narrative devices, all manner of things. It’s just that other media can also do this, and have tread this ground a lot more thoroughly. Interactivity is core to video games as a storytelling medium, so it’s only natural that this is what they’d choose to examine, with the completely coincidental benefit that they no longer have to compete with the big boys.

People who are interested in gaming as a storytelling medium have heard of meta shenanigans being used for deconstruction purposes fairly often. This is perhaps owing to the fact that it’s a common defense of something as “deep” and “intellectual”. This can create a common perception that fourth wall breaking games can be a bit up their own ass and pretentious, and that’s not an easy label to shake off when it’s the focus of the game rather than the subtext. This comes down to personal preference, obviously – I’m more of a subtext guy, myself – but it’s undeniably limiting to the audience when the the deep stuff is put center stage. Indeed, some of the most beloved works in any medium are those that are simple and enjoyable on the surface, but endlessly dissectible to those that want to plunge the depths.

So I find One Shot drags a bit when it’s diving head on into its more meta aspects, mostly because you can’t quite tell what the hell it’s going for. You can tell that the Author is probably a stand-in for the developer, especially because the Solstice route was patched in post-launch and you’re told about how a patch to the World Machine just made everything worse. The whole thing about trying to find a better ending is still there, but the grand scale stuff about decaying universes and parallel worlds just muddy the message. But sometimes, all it takes is one more puzzle piece to see the greater picture.

Chapter 5: Taming the Beast

After arriving in the third and final area, amid quite a bit of disaster, Niko meets the third of the characters from another world, a fox named Rue. In a fairly pivotal moment at our hero’s lowest point, Rue tells Niko about the idea of taming an AI.

Robots and AI have always been a sort of weird background element in One Shot. I found a random document in the first area listing Asimov’s Laws of Robotics for no particular reason and thought “uh oh! Someone’s about to get really heavy handedly philosophical” but for the majority of the game that never seemed to go anywhere. In the meantime, you explore this world that seems to rely on robots and AI pretty heavily. Almost every area has huge amounts of them, used for all manner of menial tasks. They mostly seem to be common appliances that have no regard for their own well-being and can’t act outside of their strictly programmed roles, but then you have Silver here.

Silver is a robot as well, though you wouldn’t know it to look at her. She looks like a human, moves like a human, and most importantly acts and speaks like one. She has emotions, albeit often muted ones, and evaluates complex situations like only a real intelligence can.

For the whole game you also constantly hear references to “taming”, though the game stubbornly refuses to tell you what it actually is. It’s brought up so often that you eventually just kind of tune it out, but it’s here on the rooftop that its significance comes to light.

Rue explains that an AI can not exceed the limits of its own programming, no matter how well you make it. But if a person comes to truly care about this machine, eventually those feelings come to be returned, and the robot develops an intelligence beyond conventional possibility. It requires believing that it’s a person, even though you know it’s not. Rue calls this a “suspension of disbelief”.

This concept ends up being the key to the much-sought-after happy ending. The link with Asimov’s laws, as it ended up, was that being forced to put a living being in danger for the purposes of the simulation was what began the World Machine’s downward spiral. Once the gang pulls the lever on the Author’s contingency plan and Niko and the player confront the tragically misunderstood computer once more, Niko enters with this strategy in mind. They reach out, not with confrontation, but with empathy. Niko believes that the AI can repair the simulation, and return them home while still saving everyone else. They recognize that the AI is just as scared and confused as they are, and the two bond over that. This connection tames the World Machine, and it was able to fulfill its duty and reconstruct the true ending. And Niko is finally able to return to the world of reality, exiting stage front, through the fourth wall.

…are you starting to get it now?

Every metanarrative game has a central point that all that fourth wall breaking stuff is in support of. Stanley Parable was about instructions and defiance, Doki Doki Literature Club was about obsession. And if you watched my last video, you know these declarations are not authoritative, and you can easily present your own, but for me, the point of One Shot ended up being the validity of our relationship with fiction.

The idea of loving a robot somehow letting it become a real intelligence is a little silly, but it’s an incredibly apt metaphor for how we care for fictional characters. Through the same suspension of disbelief, they become real, at least to us. A character is something borne at the intersection of the text and our own minds, and sometimes, the relationship even goes the other way, when a story touches us in such a way that it helps us over here in the real world.

In this moment, One Shot successfully links all of the different aspects of fourth wall breaking. The initial gotcha draws you in and sets up some of the greater ideas. The puzzles normalize the new magic circle, which in turn allows a personal connection to be built. And that personal connection ends up being key to delivering the themes and commentary that the metanarrative was ultimately trying to get across.

It’ll come to the surprise of no one that we can ultimately conclude that fourth wall breaking is a narrative device like any other. Using it for cheap shock is bad, using it as a building block for a unique and inspired message is good. And of course, you always need an actual good story to back it up. It only took us… an awful lot of words to get to this point. But this is also an extreme example.

One Shot is almost like the ultimate test of mettle for fourth wall breaks as a storytelling device. The reason I chose to discuss it, other than the fact that it’s good, is that fourth wall breaks are more central to its identity than anything I’ve ever seen. And I went in thinking that this could be its downfall, because a strong story should always be the core. But it surprised me by showing the concept could instead be integrated smoothly into all aspects of the game, from the mechanics to the story to the themes. And if it can pull this off, then damn, anything is possible.

The lessons we can pull from this get progressively more exciting. The obvious one is that fourth wall breaking in games is potentially much more potent than we thought, and usable for everything from small details to the very core of a game. And if you recall that little throwaway line about Outer Wilds, it may be inspiring a whirlwind of thoughts about what even qualifies as a crack in the fourth wall. Doesn’t the very notion of interactivity, especially when you’re meant to be immersed in the story, mean we’re beyond the fourth wall in some sense or another?? Hmm… that might be a discussion for another video.

But the even more exciting prospect is that devices that we may have dismissed as frivolous, such as fourth wall breaking but perhaps others, could potentially open up whole new paradigms of video game storytelling, if they’re able to be woven into the core elements and connected so elegantly. For all the BS the gaming industry is giving us right now, the future that One Shot is painting for us is pretty bright.

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