Tuesday, July 28, 2009

EXP Podcast #36: Another Brick in the Wall

What happens when our universe and the digital ones we find in games begin to overlap? Inspired by Steven Conway's excellent piece about re-examining "the fourth wall" in the context of video games, we take a look at the strengths and weaknesses of playing a self-aware game. Much is discussed: we navigate the labyrinth that is the Metal Gear universe, explore the hidden meaning of Tingle, and dredge the depths of Rapture in search of answers. Help us break the fourth wall of our site by jumping in with your thoughts in the comments!

Some discussion starters:

- What games successfully play with the idea of the fourth wall? Do they employ subtle "winks" or explicit self awareness?
- Are games that "extend the magic circle" to encompass the player the ideal way to play? How does the rise of motion control effect this?
- How does the role of authorship impact the idea of the fourth wall? Is it necessary for a designer to extend the magic circle, or is it up to players to dictate their level of involvement in the game's fiction?

To listen to the podcast:
- Subscribe to the EXP Podcast via iTunes here. Additionally, here is the stand-alone feed.
- Listen to the podcast in your browser by left-clicking the title. Or, right-click and select "save as link" to download the show in MP3 format.
- Subscribe to this podcast and EXP's written content with the RSS link on the right.

Show notes:

- Run time: 35 min 47 sec
- "A Circular Wall? Reformulating the Fourth Wall for Video Games," by Steven Conway, via Gamasutra
- Music provided by Brad Sucks


  1. The classic Metal Gear Solid 1battle against psycho mantis where you actually had to switch which controller you use is my favorite example of breaking the fourth wall.

    Another nice example is in Manhunt if you use a headset, the microphone can pick up the sound of your breathing and if you make too much noise as you push your character closer to his kill, the person will startle at the sound and you will have blown your characters cover. Actually, Manhunt is very self-aware that it is a violent videogame and that you likely bought it because it is violent. It's got this whole self referential thing about this sick director of a personalized snuff film company that your character is forced to participate in, which you can try to be morally outraged about, but really as someone who purchased Manhunt, you are that sick and depraved audience and the only person REALLY forcing your character to do all those gruesome killings is you. That's why your reward for a perfect sneakup kill is an even more gorey slow motion death scene.

    Another Hideo Kojima example that is a little more subtle is the Zone of the Enders series. The storyline in both part 1 and 2 places strong emphasis on the importance of a good "runner" of the giant robot "orbital frames." This aids in your ability to play the role of the character because with a joystick in hand, you are a runner and it is really your skill that determines what happens in battle. Though ZOE2 was the better title overall, I liked that in the first storyline of the first Zone of the Enders you were a little kid (albeit an obnoxious little kid). I liked it because it emphasized that maturity, physical strength, or intelligence mattered as much in battle as your deft ability to pilot the ship. This is something I've always liked about videogames-- they are a great equalizer. Even when I was a little twerp of a kid with no power in the real world, I could still excel at a videogame and virtually kick the crap out of people that were bigger than me, older than me, even smarter than me. ZOE really brought back that empowering feeling of having videogame skill. It was nice that there was even a decent VS mode so you could challenge your friends.

  2. @ JT

    I'm with you on the Psycho Manti fourth wall breaking, definitely my favorite. That scene freaked me out when I first it, partly because it was something I never expected. If people go breaking the fourth wall all the time though, it'll just get tacky.

    Also completely forgot about ZOE, which I really enjoyed.

  3. Good topic! At some point one of you said that we might arrive at a situation where the only thing a player can REALLY do in a game is to stop playing. Well, funny enough, there is a nice fourth wall situation by the end of MGS2 where a fake Colonel is calling you on the Codec and trying to convince you to stop playing. I found that even more memorable than the Psycho Mantis thing.

    During the discussion I think it was Jorge who said he enjoys "being lied to". I think this particular seemingly inconsistent use of the fourth wall, where it's never really clear sense what "the rules" are is called a "Distancing Effect" (Verfremdungseffekt). It was used by the famous German playwright Berthold Brecht specifically with that intention - to keep the audience on their toes. To prevent them from getting lulled in by the narrative and constantly question what they see. I'm always quite surprised why that doesn't come up more often in the videogame 4th wall discussion. In a way Brecht was trying to do what games finally achieved - to make the audience an active part of a theater play.

    As for accessible ARG's I can recommend:

    Treasure World is an ARG extra-extra-light. Very accessible. Very simple. It's maybe a little too childish and a little shallow but it's not expensive, doesn't take up much time and an certainly an interesting experience.

    For something more advanced, yet still straight forward, I'd recommend Evidence: The Last Ritual (aka. In Memoriam 2). It's bascially a very stylized puzzle game with some wicked SAW'esque visuals and clever use of real E-Mail bots and real Internet Search Engines. I've enjoyed it quite a bit. And it's still quite easy to get into. No need to call anywhere or visit some place you might be thousands miles away from.

  4. Oh I just saw Evidence: The Last Ritual was also mentioned in the Article. Nevermind. ^_^

  5. I've always wanted to play Manhunt, and JT's description just made it all the more interesting. Maybe I'll rage against the new release machine and pick it up...

    Krystian, I'm glad you bring up Brecht. He's one of those playwrights who I know is important, even though I haven't read much of his stuff or the body of criticism around him. Once I do some reading, I'm sure he'll be referenced in a number of posts...