I wrote a wiki entry for this without checking to see if concepts have wiki pages.... Ah well, I know now.
The concept of a 4 wall comes from the missing wall when an audience is viewing some form of production. It comes from theatrical sets that have 3 walls, but the 4 wall physically can’t be there as it would obstruct the audience from viewing the production.
The idea of a 4 wall has now evolved to mean the boundary that separates fiction from the audience that helps with immersion and belief in what is happening within a games world. Gamers accept the 4 wall so what they see on screen could actually happen within the games reality, without any thought to whether it could happen in this reality.
Breaking the 4 wall is the act of the game being aware that it is a game, or commenting on something that is not in the games reality. Breaking the 4 wall in games is often used for a comical effect or to re-enforce the fictional natures of the game. Games that break the wall in this fashion include:
- Super Smash Bros
- Crash Badicoot
- Ape Escape
- Metal Gear Solid
- Donkey Kong
- Destroy all Humans
- Monkey Island
- No More Heros
Tutorials that introduce new games to players are the most common way of breaking the 4 wall. Often instructing players to press buttons on their control pad either directly to the player or as the character being played. This is evident within the latest Pokemon games that introduced running shoes. The instructions read “Press B and blaze new trails of adventure!”. Obviously there is no B button for the character in game to press, so the instruction is directed at the player, breaking the 4 wall.
Metal Gear Solid 1 and 2 also break the 4 by instruction the player to enter a codec frequency that is found outside of the game. For Metal Gear Solid 1 it was found on the back of the CD case the game came in and for Metal Gear Solid 2 it was inside the games instruction manual. Metal Gear Solid 4 continues breaking the 4 by commenting about swapping discs only to realise that the game is on a high capacity blue ray disk and doesn’t need to swap out.
Super Paper Mario also makes references to the players control, that Mario doesn’t understand but the being that are watching from another dimension will
The Metal Gear Solid series continues to break the 4 wall with elements of it’s story. During Metal Gear Solid 2 Raiden is contacted and told to "Turn the game console off now!", obviously and instruction to the player, rather than to Raiden. Later on as the story progresses and the AI on the other end of the codec begins to crash, a “Fission Mailed” screen is displayed, (You get a Mission Failed screen when you die) obviously this is a reference that as the AI is malfunctioning, so is the game.
If a player attempts to us an auto or rapid fire enabled controller in Metal Gear Solid 3 during the torture scene, Ocelot will pick it up and tell the player "To Not
Even Think Of Using Auto Fire Or He'll Know!!!!". This is a reference to players cheating during Metal Gear Solid 1 to clear the torture scene there with ease.
Another way the 4 wall can be broken is for something within the games reality to comment on the action of a player, often bizarre or uncommon behaviour. Clicking multiple times on units within a Blizzard games will provoke the unit into anger, often asking the player to stop clicking on them.
Another example of this is a games character becoming impatient with periods of inactivity. Busby would knock on the screen, reminding the player that he is waiting for some input. In a Bard’s tale the narrator of the game would comment "there was a long period where nothing much happened". Refencing the players idle state. In EA's Skate if the player leaves the game on pause for a long time when un-paused the camera man will comment along the lines of "Did you
actually go skate for once" or "Where have you been? I've been waiting”
Characters who break the 4 wall through character awareness often comment or react to the fact that they know that they are in a game. In Jak 3 a monk yells at Jak and Daxter “This isn't a game!", causing Jak and Daxter to look at the player with confused expressions. In Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door, a disguised Lord Crump addresses the player as "you in front of the TV!” and asks you not to tell Mario who he is. In The Simpson’ Game, the Simpsons discover they are in a video game, that is being played by God, who appears as a character on Ralph's computer. Ralph then appears to notice the player.