The Art of Shattering the Fourth Wall
We all know that a story is just a story. That fiction is just fiction. That’s what the word means. It isn’t real. Many of the stories we see were created by someone’s imagination.
What we experience in many forms of media isn’t real. At least not in the context of our world. But in the world of that story, everything is real. The actors become their character. Those characters become living, breathing people. In the closed space of their world, everything is real.
But that’s just the thing. Their world is closed off from everything. It isn’t ours. It exists within the bounds of its own reality. It’s a box. It’s a room. A room that’s sealed off from the real world. A room where the creator of the story can run wild.
However, that room is not necessarily full-proof. If it were truly a closed space in every aspect, we would never be able to see that story or experience it. We need a window into that closed room. We need a way to see into the story.
The window that lets us see into these stories is on the fourth wall. The fourth wall is something that only we can see through. The characters in the story have no way of knowing about it. It’s a one-way window—one only for us.
That’s how it should be. But on occasion, those characters in the story may be able to see that fourth wall as well. They may even shatter it, given them a look into our world. Our window to their world becomes theirs to ours.
And when that fourth wall is shattered, well, nothing is stopping the world inside of their room from blending with ours.
Shattering The Fourth Wall
The term “fourth wall” actually comes from a pretty obvious source when you think about it. On a stage, the box set the actors, well, act on is comprised of three walls to set the backdrop for the story.
If there were to be a fourth one, as you might expect, it would be located in front of the audience. So that audience can experience the show rather than staring at paint dry, the fourth wall doesn’t physically exist and is instead a metaphor for the boundary that separates the story from the real world.
So when you hear about breaking the fourth wall, it doesn’t mean one of the characters walking up with a sledgehammer ready to do some damage. It means they shatter the proverbial fourth wall. The thing keeping fiction as just that, fiction.
I’m sure many of you have seen some example of this. Personally, It’s one of my favorite things in fiction. Though I do admit when overdone, it can get annoying. But if done right and with enough care, breaking the fourth wall can shock you or just make you laugh with a quirky joke.
It’s quite a versatile trope, depending on how it’s used. That’s why I wanted to make this post in the first place. I wanted to outline some of the various ways I’ve seen it used in my favorite mediums.
Now, fair warning, because of the nature of breaking the fourth wall, it’s often used for shock value. That means ahead there will be some spoilers. If you haven’t finished Doki Doki Literature Club, maybe steer clear from this post. Unless you don’t care about spoilers, or more likely, you still know about the ending already.
As I said, there are many ways to knock that fourth wall into next week. One of the most common and simplest ways is to give a reference that the wall exists. This can be done in quite a few more ways than you might think.
That’s from Oresuki, by the way
You don’t have to destroy the fourth wall to break it. Characters don’t need to acknowledge the real world. They can make a self-referential joke or what we’ve come to know as a meta joke.
In a lot of ways, this almost tips the trope on its head. Rather than the characters talking about the real world, they may make a joke that references the fact that they are not in the real world.
Above is something as simple as a joke referencing the fact that the characters are in a TV series. But it’s done for humor. It’s not like they suddenly get an existential crisis. It’s simply a joke, just a joke that makes little sense in their world. Still, it counts as breaking the fourth wall.
That is just a fairly tame example of it. On the flip side, you can make the exact same kind of joke but just in the opposite way. Rather than the characters joking about being in a story, they could instead reference that people are watching them in the real world.
That isn’t as common as the other kind, but it does show up and still very much counts as breaking the fourth wall. Still, both ways are pretty on the nose. That’s why a lot of people don’t find them very funny. Is it really a joke when they spell it out for you?
In times like that, it may be better to break the fourth wall with a slightly more subtle approach. Futaba from Persona 5, for instance, does it all the time. Every other word out of her mouth practically mentions something meta.
She talks about gaining experience. Getting “key items.” She talks about RNG. She even calls one of the side characters an NPC, which has got to be the most hurtful things I’ve ever heard in my life. Then again, he did say “kek,” so he deserved it.
She absolutely smashes the fourth wall on a daily basis, but it still isn’t that on the nose. Despite the fact that we know she is a game character, her referencing things about video games isn’t the same as what we discussed earlier.
Futaba is, for lack of a better term, a giant nerd. Her referencing her skill levels or how she’s about to get a trophy or an achievement isn’t out of character. It makes sense why she would do that. It’s her personality.
She just happens to be a character in a game that loves video games. And because she is in a video game, we know that she can make jokes that break the fourth wall without being aware that it exists.
It’s jokes like this that I think flow far better. A meta joke has to have some level of finesse to it. Otherwise, the joke is just that the character or world isn’t real, which you already know.
“Did you see how I just said I’m like some protagonist?”
“Did you see me call that girl a walking character trope?”
“Wasn’t that so funny?”
Well, sometimes, yes, it can be. It depends. But no, you aren’t funny, I’m sorry. Jokes are, of course, subjective, but meta jokes have become pretty overused to the point where repeating the same copy and paste line doesn’t have as much impact as it used to.
Raising the Stakes
That’s perhaps why the concept of breaking the fourth wall has surpassed mere jokes. In some cases, shattering the fourth wall is part of the overall experience.
If you want to get really technical with it, video games break the fourth wall constantly. Every time a tutorial screen pops up or some special effect tells you you’ve leveled up, or the game pauses to let you choose a new skill, that’s all breaking the fourth wall.
The game itself is giving information directly to the player without the need for the middle man. But I think most of you would agree that there’s a difference between a video game being friendly to its players and the game being meta.
Still, games, both new and old, have taken things a step further. They directly affect how you play the game by messing with you, not the person you control, but yourself.
Take one of my favorite bosses in video games, for example – the fight against Psycho Mantis in the original Metal Gear Solid.
I wouldn’t say I like this fight necessarily for the fight itself. The combat is like the original MGS, you know? You shoot stuff. What I love about this fight is that our buddy Solid Snake really isn’t the one doing the fighting. It’s you, the player.
Psycho Mantis does nothing but plays mind games the entire time. But not to Snake. When he says he can read your mind, he’s speaking to the player. Mantis does all sorts of fourth wall breaking. You can’t talk about the topic without mentioning him.
Where do I begin? Well, he can read the memory card you have in your console. Meaning he’ll change his dialogue to call you out based on the saved data of the games you’ve played. Obvious, the lines are also different for the various versions of the game.
“So you like SUIKODEN?”
“You like Castlevania, don’t you?”
“I see that you enjoy Nintendo games.”
“Oh, so you’ve played Super Smash Bros. Melee before.”
And that’s not even all of them. If those lines weren’t off-putting and somewhat humorous enough, Mantis takes it even further. By reading your memory card, he has access to other information. You taste in game genres, for instance, whether you like action games or RPGs.
He can even read how you’ve played MGS thus far. How many times you’ve saved, how many times you’ve been spotted by guards. He knows everything about you.
Mantis even shows off what his powers can do in the real world. He’ll ask you to put your controller down (in one version, Snake gives you a look to make sure you do it), and he’ll make the controller rumble on command if your controller has the feature. It kind of kills the immersion if not.
But this is far from his only trick. You’ll notice when you start the fight that you can’t really hit him. No matter what you do, Mantis manages to move out of the way somehow. It feels impossible. This is because he can read your mind. I mean, he did tell you that.
What is absolutely insane about this fight is that he actually is reading your mind and stopping your attacks with that. You need to figure out some way to break that connection he has with you.
Since we know there’s no fourth wall anymore, we can start thinking of logical ways he may be able to read our moves in the real world. How do we tell Snake what to do? With our controller.
The way you win the fight is by unplugging the controller from slot one and into slot two, severing the connection Mantis has, allowing you to finally beat him.
This is still one of the biggest instances of breaking the fourth wall in any form of media. Mantis doesn’t just break it; he disregards it entirely. He treats Snake as a catalyst for the player and nothing else. Mantis completely shatters the immersion of the game.
Still, there are various limiters stopping this from being as mind-blowing as it could have been. Most with the hardware the game was on. That and getting the rights from other game publishers to let Mantis mention their games.
A lot of little things stopped this from making the player rethink their life decisions and what is and isn’t real. But games have since gotten better with that. They’ve learned how to do something similar but to a greater degree.
Just a “Normal Game”
Like Psycho Mantis, you cannot talk about breaking the fourth wall without talking about this character. She has only been around for a few years, but she has destroyed what is and isn’t real. She even has a Twitter account, making you question your life more than ever.
This girl has transcended the line of code she was born from and has become a living, breathing person for many people. Like Mantis, she has secured her spot as one of the most memorable characters in any video game. I am, of course, talking about Monika.
Monika is not real, ok. She just isn’t. I know that. You know that. Everyone knows that. But my god, does Doki Doki Literature Club not want you to think that.
When you start the game, everything seems to be normal. But as you meet the various literature club members, you notice little things start to go wrong. Eventually, the world itself begins to break down.
The more observant player may notice why that is. In the files of the game on your computer itself, weird things start occurring. New files pop up at random, and some files go missing. It seems like someone has been tampering with the game.
That’s because “someone” has. Monika has been going into the code of the game and changing various things. Even deleting characters from the game’s files, causing them to die in horrible ways.
This is because Monika is a psycho like her Mantis friend, but also because she has surpassed the bounds of her game. She grew a conscience and now sees the other club members as nothing but code.
Even the nameless MC of the game is nothing but a mindless puppet to her. No, it’s you, the player behind the screen, that she is interested in. You are the only other thing in the world that feels “real” to her.
That’s why when the game’s reality breaks down, she drops your MC’s name, goes into your computer, and starts referring to you by that name instead. The name that is typically your real name.
This is probably the craziest instance of fourth wall breaking that has ever happened in any form of media, and it will likely stay that way for a long time.
This moment and Monika as a whole are the reason DDLC is even remembered. People will discuss this game for generations because of her and the mind-bending things she does.
And the only way to free yourself from this world where just Monika exists is to go into the game files and delete her character. To exploit the fact that she is still just code and end things once and for all.
This action leads to the credits, where Monika manages to redeem herself by slowly deleting every singles aspect of the game before finally putting a stop to the madness by erasing DDLC off of your computer.
If you ever want to play it again, you need to redownload it, starting the nightmare all over again. This ending was so tragic for some that they created almost an alternate ending to the game.
In this, you take Monika’s character file and load it onto a special USB. That way, she can live on in the real world with you forever. The fact that people are willing to do that for a few lines of code should tell you the impact she had on fourth wall breaking as a whole.
In the Future
Of course, I didn’t mention every instance of breaking the fourth wall, nor did I cover every way you could potentially do it. Fourth wall breaking has a ton of potential, and if done sparingly and correctly, it can leave a lasting impression on people.
But when done wrong, it just comes off as an overused trope. Like most tropes, there’s nothing inherently bad about any of them. It comes down to the way they’re used. The creator will determine whether it becomes memorable or not.
This trope has no signs of slowing down; it will be around for a long time, and I would say we’re far from reaching its peak. We’ve seen some crazy examples of what breaking the fourth wall is capable of from Monika and Psycho Mantis.
Still, you can do better than that yet. Could you imagine how crazy a modern Psycho Mantis could be? One that could read your Steam library or your internet history? Sure, that may be breaking a few privacy laws, but it would be fascinating.
But I think gaming’s newest advancement is where fourth wall breaking will reach its strongest. Virtual Reality has been around for a while now. It’s getting better, more realistic, and developers are learning how to produce better games and experiences for it.
VR, by nature, is already breaking the fourth wall. It’s inserting the player into a different world. The fear we experience from playing a horror game, for instance, becomes pseudo-fear for our actual lives.
Likewise, Tokyo Chronos takes the simple concept of a visual novel, which mostly involves chatting with people and inserts yourself directly into the protagonist’s role. When they refer to Protag-Kun, you feel as though they’re referring to you more than ever before.
Tokyo Chronos is also a game I would love to talk more about in the future. Though it’s extremely rough around the edges, it holds the key to future visual novels as far as I’m concerned.
Both examples, despite being so different, do the same thing. They let you into the closed space with the characters rather than just breaking the fourth wall.
As VR gets more advanced, we could see all kinds of crazy stuff in the future. One Idea I imagined is some type of horror game where when you have the headset on, you see the camera watching you in the real world, and with AR, some monster or something shows up behind you.
You get freaked out, throw the helmet off and see nothing there, and the game hits you with a scream or something. VR has the ability to break the fourth wall hard and will lead to many psychological experiences, which is what fourth wall breaking is best at.
I’m very excited about the future of fourth wall breaking. Monika may be the craziest instance we have right now, but I assure you things will just go up from here. It’s a fun time to be alive, that’s for sure.
Thank you very much for reading
What’s your favorite instance of fourth wall breaking? There are so many types that I’m sure different things stick out in each person’s minds.