Every video game tells a story. From Mario trying to rescue the princess to Nathan Drake uncovering ancient secrets, story and game have gone hand in hand since the minimalist days of Pong, a story about two people playing ping pong. In fact, nearly all games tell a story. Chess is about two armies battling and Go is about a struggle to acquire territory. These might not be compelling stories with deep characters and settings, but they are stories nonetheless.
If every game tells a story, then storytelling will inevitably become a part of game design, and sure enough we have been trying to tell stories with our games since the days of the Atari and the NES. Since technology was limited, we couldn’t include tons of text boxes or hours of voice acting in early games, so instead we had to tell story through game mechanics, much like Chess does.
For example, we knew Mario was the protagonist of Super Mario Brothers because he was the sprite that moved when we pressed buttons. We knew that Goombas and Koopas were enemies because Mario died when he touched them. We knew Bowser was the main antagonist because he showed up at the end of every world. The one piece of narration we got, that clued us in to our main quest, appeared after we triumphed over Bowser: “Your princess is in another castle.” Well, it looks like we are trying to save a princess then!
This is how videogames evolved for much of their early years. Mechanics and narrative went hand in hand, much like they did in pre-videogame times. Story was inferred rather than flat out exposited and if there was any exposition to be given, it was minimal or shoved in the manual.
Where to Build the Fourth Wall
I wouldn’t call early video games perfectly analogous to games like Chess. In chess, you are a commander of an army, trying to out think an opposing army. You are a character in the narrative, a piece of the game world. Player, mechanics, and narrative were all playing together.
But video games separated the player from the game world with a shiny glass screen, the video game version of the theatrical fourth wall. The player wasn’t a character or a protagonist. Mario was. The player wasn’t trying to save a princess. He was reaching into the universe to guide Mario to do so.
This power the player held over Mario was never explained. It existed outside of the narrative, a fiat to allow game control to be possible. It didn’t need to be explained. As an audience, we were largely OK with this. We looked at video game protagonists as our avatars, a separate entity from us that carried our will. We experienced the game universe vicariously through them, and that was how we got our story, our narrative, even if it wasn’t happening to us.
Eventually our technology advanced and our ability to tell stories advanced along with it. Increased data storage capabilities let us cram more text into boxes. Better sound cards allowed us to include voice acting, no matter how horrible. Stronger sprite engines, the introduction of 3D polygonal space, and full motion video allowed us to craft cutscenes to further elaborate what was taking place in the game world.
But as we gained all this wonderful graphical, audio, and processing ability, we lost something else. Namely, the gaps we filled with our imagination. Video game stories became less inferred and more directly exposited. The way characters sounded and looked were once decided by us, the player, giving us a tenuous connection to our avatars. These aspects were not fully in control of the game designer. It further reinforced the fourth wall between us and the game.
This wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. Being able to tell stories more intricately also allowed us to increase narrative complexity. Look at the original Final Fantasy. The story was basically “hey four guys are heroes, go do hero stuff.” It never even explained why you were heroes or why the villain was a villain or really anything beyond subtle hints poking at you to make you go in the right direction and speak with the right person. But more modern day Final Fantasy titles, despite their perceived quality, manage to craft entire cities, worlds, peoples. We get to see backstories in flashbacks set to orchestrated music. That’s undeniably better than having the same NPC say “Welcome to Corneria,” a million times.
But as great as this is, it also built up yet another wall. Now, we weren’t playing the story of our greatest games. We were being told the story. The wall was put up between gameplay and narrative. Now we would play a bit of the game, and then watch a cutscene, and then play some game, and watch a cutscene, lather, rinse, repeat. Story was your reward for completing parts of the game, not part of the game itself.
This became the standard model for video games which persists to this day. The player is separated from the game world by a wall and the game is separated from the story by a wall, a fifth wall if you will. The player was now three degrees removed from the actual action, experiencing the game world by proxy of proxy.
Breaking the Barriers of Expectation
As I said before, separating different aspects of a video game with metaphorical “walls” is not necessarily a negative thing. Some of the best games of all time were made with this two wall formula. For example, Chrono Trigger was made with walls all around it, and was still one of the best video games of all time. The player did not exist in the game world and controlled characters that were distinct from them. The gameplay of choosing attacks from menus was detached from what was actually happening on screen and did little to convey the narrative of fighting against a giant green time traveling space porcupine. Yet it is still fun and is undeniably one of our great gaming works of art.
As more and more good games were made this way, we came to accept it as the gaming norm. But the cool thing about something becoming a norm, is that breaking that norm can provide a unique gameplay experience. So developers decided that they were going to start poking holes through the fourth and fifth wall.
Metal Gear Solid’s Psycho Mantis is probably one of the most notable examples of a game leaking through the fourth wall
Metal Gear Solid’s Psycho Mantis is probably one of the most notable examples of a game leaking through the fourth wall into the real world. Not only did the data on your memory card affect his dialogue, but you had to change controller ports just to be able to beat him. Suddenly, your actions outside the game world affected the game world, which created a phenomenal feeling of immersion, even though you, the player, were never really an entity in the game world.
Certain games flirted with addressing the player directly. Spec Ops: The Line was one of these games. While all the action in the game was directed toward the character, Walker, it was supposed to feel wrong. The game pointed out how ludicrous action set-pieces were compared to real warfare, and by the end of the game, the dialogue directed at Walker served a double purpose of addressing the player. The player was asked to consider their morality, and their motivations for continuing to commit atrocities instead of simply quitting the game are highlighted as flawed at best and psychotic at worst. It was a fantastic way to spin a narrative, and yet the player was still not an in-game entity. Instead the game was used to start a conversation with the player outside of game space.
Countless games also poked holes in the barrier between game and narrative. Certain missions in Tactics Ogre would change the path you were on depending on who died in battle. Fire Emblem does something similar with its permadeath mechanics. The Banner Saga would change its story around not only who lived and who died, but how you managed your resources. But these games too kept the player separate from the game world.
While all of these games pushed forward video game storytelling, it could be argued that they still didn’t connect player, game world, and mechanics as much as a simple game of chess did. Obviously, the narratives in modern day video games were far more complex than Chess, and it’s possible that sufficiently complex narratives simply give up a level of immersion for the sake of their more complex story. No one would be sad making that trade.
But some games went even further.
Fourth Wall Bound
Rarely, a game would come along that would reach all the way through both walls and tug you into its universe. The first game I played that did this was Earthbound, a much loved cult classic RPG from the SNES days. During the game, you control a band of kids who are going up against a cthuloid alien entity from beyond time (and yes, Earthbound fans, I know that’s a gross simplification of the plot, but it gets the point across for the purposes of this article.)
When you finally make it through the game and face off against this immortal formless being, nothing you can do is able to hurt it. All your powerful psychic attacks and legendary weapons can do nothing against something that is essentially a god. So you do the only thing you can think of. You pray for help, which actually seems to hurt the creature. (Once again I know there is a long and involved plot explanation here stemming back to the events of Earthbound Beginnings, but once again I am keeping it simple for brevity’s sake.)
You pray to all your friends, family, and allies. You reach out to every single NPC the game has to offer. They all offer up their prayers to you and… nothing happens. Praying doesn’t work anymore and, once again, it seems as if you simply cannot defeat an immortal primordial being of darkness just with four kids and willpower. But if you continue to pray, something interesting happens. The characters in the game reach out to someone else. They reach out to you, the player. They call out your name. At this point you have forgotten that way back near the middle of the game you were inexplicably asked to put your real name into the game during a mysterious phone call, so it feels like the prayer is coming out of nowhere. They reach out for you, and you as the player feel a desire to see them succeed. And then, all of the sudden, with an animation reminiscent of turning off a television, the heroes win.
This brought up a ton of questions that are still debated today in Earthbound communities. Who are you in the game? How did you help the kids? Did you “turn off the game” to defeat an otherwise unbeatable enemy? Are you some kind of god on the scale of the final boss? What is the “real world?” These questions linger because Earthbound managed to do something few other games could. It broke the fourth wall, and made you a part of its game world.
While you and Ness were too different people, much as you and your King are two different entities in Chess, you existed in the same universe, and you were both important to the narrative. The real world and the game world became one and the same for a brief instant.
Mr. Goombahchev, TEAR DOWN THIS WALL
Many more games started experimenting with breaking the walls between player and game and game and narrative, and they weren’t all good. Baten Kaitos put the player in the role of an ancient deity, but that couldn’t forgive its strange battle system and cardboard tube voice acting.
But the ones that were good were amazing. Many of you may remember The Stanley Parable, which puts you in the seat of Stanley and breaks the fourth wall by having a narrator which you can defy. Who you are and what your exact role is in the game universe is unclear but the fact that you were a very real entity in the game universe was unmistakable.
The recently released Pony Island puts you in the position of a lost soul in hell, being tortured by a poorly made computer game, but then turns around and started to suggest that you, the player, are that lost soul, and the game you are playing right now is that torturous game.
And of course, I would be doing a disservice if I didn’t mention Undertale, which also brings in the player as an in-game entity that has a scary power over the in-game universe. The power to save, load, and otherwise overwrite the game’s timeline.
These games create a sense of immersion that few other games can. Since both walls are destroyed, once again mechanics are having an effect on narrative, but since our games are far more complex, the poignancy of these mechanics become more complex as well. In Chess, the most you could do was move a piece, representing a member of an army moving. In modern day games, saving and loading become strange and dangerous time powers. Closing the game could be an enemy attack, and deleting a game could be an attack that you make against a powerful enemy invading your computer. Simply choosing not to play can be considered an in-game action because you, the player, are a part of the game universe.
A Future Without Walls
As technology continues to advance, we continue to try and find ways to make the barriers between game world and real world disappear. 3D technology was the buzzword a few years ago, allowing real world depth to be brought to an in-game world. Now, virtual reality is all the rage with the Oculus Rift releasing soon, promising to put you inside the game world.
If we can now graphically immerse a player in a game world, it’s also important to know how to immerse them narratively.
If we can now graphically immerse a player in a game world, it’s also important to know how to immerse them narratively. Wouldn’t it be kind of strange if you were able to experience a game world and yet, the character that people refer to isn’t you? I’m not talking about the character itself being someone who doesn’t share your body or history. Of course it’s fun to roleplay as different mystical creatures and I certainly won’t judge you for wanting to step into the shoes of an orc.
But still, that orc IS you. It has your motivations. Wouldn’t it be strange and kind of disconnecting if, in a virtual world, characters treat you as if you have a mind and motivations that simply aren’t your own? In a way, games like this are practice for an era of gaming where the character’s eyes will be our eyes, and their actions will be our actions.
Some players are not going to want this sort of immersion. It can be argued that making you part of a game world is inherently emotionally manipulative. Asking you to take responsibility for what happens to imaginary characters may go against the idea of games being used as escapism. Not everyone is going to want their real world actions to matter in a game world, considering our real world actions matter so much in… what’s that thing called… real life. Being forced to stress out over deleting a game from your computer may simply not be healthy for some people.
But the game industry, as a whole, has always been trying to find more ways to put you right inside the game action. Everything from the growth of the open world genre, to the creation of voice and motion controls, has been in service of trying to bring you and the game closer together. If we can produce this effect, simply by changing the way we write and design games, then I say we should do it.
So I personally hope that in the future, some AAA studio attempts to make a game where you, the player, are an important part of the in-game universe. Until then, there’s always these strange and meta indie-game hits.