The Fourth Wall
I’ve been doing some thinking lately about how different games deal with the fourth wall, and a neater way of categorizing the different approaches, as well as some possible reasons for a writer or designer adopting each. This is a little list of what I’ve come up with.
1. Ignoring The Wall
This is what most games do; it’s the most conventional approach, and as such does not really require a motive, rather just a lack of motive for choosing any other approach. This is when a game contains elements that might break immersion (things like a HUD) and therein make you aware of the fourth wall, but the wall itself is never actually referenced diagetically.
2. Hiding The Wall
This is still conventional, but a slightly less common approach. Sometimes game designers would rather that immersion was never broken, for example in simulation and survival horror games, and thus they remove all game elements that point to the existence of a fourth wall. With this approach, elements that would usually cause a game to be put in the first category (such as a HUD) are either translated into diagetic game elements, or removed altogether.
3. Using The Wall
Perhaps least conventionally of all, some games (such as pet sims) are built entirely around the existence of a fourth wall, but without ever really breaking the immersion as a result. When your puppy starts excitedly pawing towards you in Nintendogs, it’s very obvious that his paws are colliding with the screen, almost as if you were interacting with him through a soft sheet of plastic, but it never really causes a player to start thinking outside of the game world.
4. Breaking The Wall
This is a fairly common approach, although one that often gives rise to interesting gameplay and narrative elements. In my own game Incursion for example, the fourth wall is broken straight off the bat, the reason being that Incursion is intended as a text-based adventure game in love with text-based adventure games of yore, and so by breaking the fourth wall, we are subtly saying to the player, “Don’t worry man, we know exactly why you’re playing this, and you’re in good hands”.