The eponymous 4th wall is an idea derived from theatre but has since stretched to virtually every other storytelling medium, from literature to film, comic books and, yes, video games.
Below you’ll find ten video games which have broken through the fourth wall, to some degree or another. In some it might be a part of the premise, in other it’s a throwaway joke, in others still a key element of the gameplay. Either way, these games have broken through the inviolate boundary and glimpsed into the real world. THERE ARE SPOILERS IN THE TEXT
Top 10 Fun Games That Break The Fourth Wall
Batman: Arkham Asylum
For most of its length, Batman: Arkham Asylum is a pretty straightforward game, with no disjointed funny business going on. Joker is on the loose in the eponymous asylum, a decent chunk of Batman’s rogue’s gallery is on the loose as well, so the World’s Greatest Detective has to fix this mess. Simple. But among the rampant rogues is Scarecrow, and he’s always up for messing with people’s fears.
…and he decided to mess with you, the player by tricking you to think your game is crashing and that there’s something wrong with your PC or console. Soon the game seemingly restarts…with roles reversed – Batman captured and about to be contained in Arkham. The game gives you a chance to escape…but command prompts speak of buttons that don’t exist. A 4th-wall-breaking scare, indeed.
|Developer||High Moon Studios, Mercenary Technology|
Using Deadpool is cheating, because the most famous gimmick of Merc with a Mouth is his absolute disregard for the 4th wall and awareness that he is just a character in a medium… no matter which medium he’s in. Deadpool isn’t Deadpool’s first game appearance, but the only one that’s so thorough. It starts when Deadpool contacts the developer about a game…
That’s right: Deadpool is a game about Deadpool making it. He runs out of budget on a level, so it become a rudimentary platformer, he mentions Nolan North, who is the actor voicing him in this game, and he’s constantly referencing the development process. The game is quite fun, by itself, but it’s the 4th wall breaks and Deadpool’s attitude that give it so much character.
|Developer||Black Isle Studios|
The original Fallout wasn’t a humorless game, but it mostly played its cards straight, without too much wacky side content. Fallout 2, however, was less uniformly serious. It had a large number of easter eggs, for example, and the unique dialogue options available for a character with very low intelligence. There were also some cracks made in the wall between the game and reality.
For example, your character could make references to their character sheet and the number of hitpoints they have. Some NPCs know they are NPCs, and hope to be featured more in a future game, and there are quite a few in-universe references to the developers and the way the game’s designed. It doesn’t distract from the post-apocalyptic world, and provides a welcome bit of levity.
Remedy’s noir crime story in the form of a third-person shooter was an exceptional game, with a very dense, heavy atmosphere, a great story involving police corruption, betrayals, gangsters and drug deals pushing an experimental juice out to the streets of New York. The main character provides out great internal monologues that would feel right coming from classic hardboiled detectives.
At one point he is forcibly given the Valkyr drug he’s trying to get off the streets. One of the hallucinations involve him thinking he’s in a graphic novel, which, incidentally, is the way the “cutscenes” are done: they are laid out in comic panels, with a voiceover from actors added in. At another moment, Max will thank the player for shooting an annoyingly loud alarm ringing in the location.
The Metal Gear Solid series
|Release year:||1998 (Metal Gear Solid) – 2015 (Metal gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain)|
|Developer||Konami Computer Entertainment Japan, Kojima Productions|
Hideo Kojima’s Metal Gear series is famously complicated on many levels and keeping up with all the Snakes and Adjectives can require some dedication. These games are also keen on breaking the fourth wall not as a mere gimmick, or an off-hand joke, but as an actual mechanic of the game, a way to solve one challenge or another. Some of these methods have become quite famous.
For example, there’s the case of a boss fight against Psycho Mantis, who could read Snake’s mind and predict his actions. The game’s intended solution was plugging the controller to a different port. He also could read the memory card (it was back in those days of PlayStation) and mock some games you played before based on game saves. It made players someone more than just holders of the controller.
|Developer||Daniel Mullins Games|
Pony Island poses as an arcade game, with pretty rudimentary graphics, and simple basic gameplay: and endless runner game. There are also tonnes of bugs and missing features, so the game will ask you to fix the corrupted code, and “code” the necessary features. There’s also a metanarrative related to the state of this game-within-the game, and it involves supernatural forces.
Normally when games break their fourth walls it’s in order to have the characters within references the real world. Pony Island breaks the 4th wall in the other direction: it brings you into the game to become of the characters in the progressively darker storyline. You aren’t just controlling the character who does everything, you ARE that character. And it’s a weird feeling.
The Elder Scrolls
|Release year:||2002 – 2014 (relevant entries)|
|Genre:||Action role-playing, Open world|
|Developer||Bethesda Game Studios|
The Elder Scrolls series has a fancifully convoluted deep lore (just consider Dragon Breaks and CHIM), but for the most part it plays it straight. It changed when Morrowind introduced a snarky Khajiit called M’aiq, with a well-deserved nickname “the Liar”. M’aiq, implied to come from a long line of M’aiqs, shares many funny lies with you, and often has something to say about the games he’s in.
For example in Morrowind, he would comment on the lack of skill “Climbing” or the lack of horses, while in Oblivion he references the lack of children in the game, or the lack of multiplayer. M’aiq’s comments aren’t the blatant breaking of the wall, but they gently phase through to address and mock continuity changes, mechanics added or removed, and common discussion. Or he’s just lying.
The Secret of Monkey Island
|Release year:||1990 (first release) – 2010 (latest release)|
|Developer||Lucasfilm Games, Telltale Games|
It comes as little surprise that the Monkey Island series is full of the 4th wall breaking, given that their entire thing is friendly mockery of numerous tropes under the guise of a swashbuckling pirate adventure. Some characters are quite keen on addressing the player directly, and it’s not only the main character, Guybrush Threepwoood doing it, either. And it doesn’t end there, either.
In The Secret of Monkey Island, the original game, you can ask an NPC about another game made by Lucasfilm Games, and actually get some info about it. When Guybrush dies for a while in another game, a character witnessing that remarks that he thought it was impossible to do in LucasArts adventure games. The Monkey Island is what Pirates of the Caribbean made by Mel Brooks would be.
The Stanley Parable
|Genre:||Interactive story, adventure|
It’s hard to write about The Stanley Parable, because it’s very much about the experience, and about the snarkiness of the game’s Narrator, who has no chill, and will complain about the game’s story as eagerly as he’ll tell you you’re bad at this, and express frustration at the character you’re playing. It’s quite satisfying to go against the story he weaves just to see what happens and what he says.
The Stanely Parable began life as a Half-Life 2 mod, but in time it bloomed into becoming a standalone release, with more content, more choices, and more chances to annoy the narrator enough for him to break character. It’s definitely worth taking a look, just like The Beginner’s Guide, its spiritual successor which is just as metafictional as the parable of Stanley.
Undertale was made famous partially because of its 4th wall-breaking features. The game begins innocently enough, with a human child falling to the underground world of monsters, but things start to get weird before you’re even properly out of the tutorial. See, Undertale reads your saves, and it knows when you reloaded a game to avoid a certain event…and that’s not all.
There are several playstyles in the game, and if you decided to go for the so-called Genocide run…the game will never, ever let you live that down unless you purge the saves and start anew. It’s a great way to highlight the time-traveling ability for a certain character, and the themes of the game in general. It’s also very creepy, almost invasive, making you feel worse about you did in the murderous playthrough.
Break through, one brick at a time
What is the fourth wall? Originally it referred to a style of acting in which actors would behave as if the audience wasn’t there, creating an illusory “fourth wall” of a box set. Breaking the fourth wall was actors-characters tearing that wall down for a moment, and addressing the audience, or acknowledging they are just a part of the play.
In different media, it may take slightly different forms, but the core idea remains the same: a character realizes just a part of a work of fiction, and refers to something they should not know, or does something they shouldn’t be able to do. In movies, the character might take a look at the script, in comics they may jump from panel to panel, seemingly teleporting. In video games… we’re about to discuss that.
This concludes the list of games that questioned their own reality to great effect and frequent amusement of the players. There are, as always, more examples out there because it’s a popular trope, but the games listed above are a solid start on your journey through demolishing the boundaries between reality and fiction.