Definitions

Fourth wall

Fourth wall

The fourth wall is the imaginary wall at the front of the stage in a proscenium theater, through which the audience sees the action in the world of the play. It was made explicit by Denis Diderot and spread in nineteenth century theatre with the advent of theatrical realism. Critic Vincent Canby described it in 1987 as "that invisible screen that forever separates the audience from the stage.

Origin and meaning

The term "fourth wall" stems from the absence of a fourth wall on a three-walled set where the audience is viewing the production. The audience is supposed to assume there is a "fourth wall" present, even though it physically is not there. This is widely noticeable on various television programs, such as situational comedies, but the term originated in theatre, where conventional three-walled stage sets provide a more obvious "fourth wall".

The meaning of the term "fourth wall" has been adapted to refer to the boundary between the fiction and the audience. "Fourth wall" is part of the suspension of disbelief between a fictional work and an audience. The audience will usually passively accept the presence of the fourth wall without giving it any direct thought, allowing them to enjoy the fiction as if they were observing real events. It is the invisible barrier between realities.

The presence of a fourth wall is one of the best established conventions of fiction and as such has led some artists to draw direct attention to it for dramatic effect. This is known as "breaking the fourth wall". For instance, in A.R. Gurney's The Fourth Wall, a quartet of characters deal with housewife Peggy's obsession with a blank wall in her house, slowly being drawn into a series of theatre clichés as the furniture and action on the stage become more and more directed to the supposed fourth wall.

Besides theatre and television, the term has been adopted by other media, such as cinema, comics, and more recently, video games.

Breaking the fourth wall

"Breaking the fourth wall" refers to a situation in which a character reveals his or her awareness of the audience (this can also be called metatheatre). The technique has been used for millennia: it was standard practice in Greek comedy. For instance, at one point in the Greek playwright Aristophanes' play Peace, the hero Trygaeus (who is being lifted into the air by a crane situated offstage) tells the crane-handler to be more careful.

Most often, the fourth wall is broken by having a character directly address the audience (one example is the Stage Manager in Thornton Wilder's Our Town). A similar effect can be achieved by having characters interact with objects outside the context of the work (e.g., a character is handed a prop by a stage hand). Another, by Paul from Funny Games; looking at the audience while Anne, the protagonist of the film is searching for her dog.

Productions of William Shakespeare's plays, which frequently feature asides and soliloquies which the characters in question presumably speak only to themselves, sometimes present the dialogue as being delivered directly to the audience. In Sir Laurence Olivier's 1955 film adaptation of Richard III, Olivier addresses the audience directly, a groundbreaking technique in film. A notable case of Shakespeare breaking the fourth wall is the end of A Midsummer Night's Dream, in which Puck suggests to the audience that they pretend, should they have disliked the play they just saw, that the entire production was only a dream.

Various artists have used this jarring effect to make a point, as it forces an audience to see the fiction in a new light and to watch it less passively. Bertolt Brecht was known for deliberately breaking the fourth wall to encourage his audience to think more critically about what they were watching, referred to as Verfremdungseffekt ("alienation effect").

Breaking the fourth wall is often employed for comic effect, as a sort of visual non-sequitur; the unexpected departure from normal narrative conventions is often surprising and creates humor. A very early example of this occurs in Francis Beaumont's play The Knight of the Burning Pestle, which contains three characters who are purportedly part of the audience. They frequently interrupt the performance and demand to be consulted on the plot, ordering a number of sudden (and usually extremely awkward) changes throughout the play, with often comical results.

Such exploitation of an audience's familiarity with the conventions of fiction is a key element in many works defined as post-modern, which dismantle established rules of fiction. Works which break or directly refer to the fourth wall often utilize other post-modern devices such as meta-reference or breaking character.

In the early days of sound motion pictures, the Marx Brothers' stage-to-screen productions often broke this barrier. In their 1932 film Horse Feathers, for example, when Chico sits down at a piano to begin a musical interlude, Groucho turns to the camera and deadpans "I've got to stay here, but there's no reason why you folks shouldn't go out into the lobby until this thing blows over." Bob Hope, who also frequently addressed the audience, uses a similar gag in Road to Bali: just as Bing Crosby begins a number, Hope tells us, "He's gonna sing, folks. Now's the time to go out and get your popcorn."

The technique was arguably first employed in the modern sense (in which the fourth wall is demolished to the point that there no longer remains any significant division between performance and audience- with drama blending into reality or vice versa, depending on one's perspective- rather than merely having an actor make a clarifying note or aside to the audience) in the sensational 1921 premiere of Pirandello's play Sei Personaggi in Cerca d'Autore (Six Characters in Search of an Author), wherein six ordinary people come to the rehearsal of a play to demand that their stories be told as part of the performance. This type of fourth wall breaking is also used in The Aliens Are Coming! The Aliens Are Coming! where at one point it is impossible to tell what is real and what is not in the play, as the aliens end up everywhere.

The fourth wall is sometimes included as part of the narrative, when a character discovers that they are part of a fiction and 'breaks the fourth wall' to make contact with "the real world", as in films like Tom Jones, which won the Academy Award for Best Picture in 1963, Woody Allen's Annie Hall (with Marshall McLuhan) and The Purple Rose of Cairo, Last Action Hero and Jonathan Gash's Lovejoy novels. Both Peter Pan and Captain Hook break the fourth wall in the 1954 musical adaptation of Peter Pan. George Burns commonly addressed the audience in his 1950s TV comedy show, and sometimes even watched it on TV in another room.

The fourth wall has also been broken in literature such as The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov , Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes, Lost in the Funhouse by John Barth, Midnight's Children and The Moor's Last Sigh by Salman Rushdie, Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote by Jorge Luis Borges, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead by Tom Stoppard, If on a Winter's Night a Traveler by Italo Calvino, Travelling People by B.S. Johnson, Double or Nothing by Raymond Federman, The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco and The French Lieutenant's Woman by John Fowles, which actually has the author inserting himself into the story and discussing what the possible endings he was considering, thus causing the reader to wonder which ending he would choose. It can be intentional as well as some television series involve a character telling the audience important factors, such as gun violence in schools, help people with certain kinds of diseases, and death in immediate family, and to help people with other problems as well.

Mel Brooks frequently breaks the fourth wall in his movies for comedic effect. In one scene from Blazing Saddles, in which Rock Ridge is being invaded by desperadoes, an old woman, who is being pummeled mercilessly by a group of bandits, looks directly at the camera and says forlornly, "Have you ever seen such cruelty?" In another scene in another part of it, Harvey Korman, as he sits plotting at his desk asks questions, then asks the viewers, "Why am I asking you?" The climax features the characters crashing into the set of "another" production -- the fight between the townsfolk and the gunfighters is such that it literally breaks the fourth wall. In Robin Hood: Men in Tights, the characters review the script of the movie during the archery competition scene. Spaceballs features several examples including reviewing the script, a character hitting a camera, the actors' stunt doubles mistakingly being captured, Rick Moranis' character Dark Helmet addressing the camera directly to ask if "everyone [got] all of that" after a lengthy explanation of the plot by another character, and viewing a copy of the movie on an "instant cassette" that was released "before the movie [was] finished." Bernie Mac broke the fourth wall during scenes of reflecting on family life in The Bernie Mac Show.

The TV show The Monkees has employed this technique in a number of episodes, notably, Dance, Monkee, Dance. Micky tries to find a resolution by suggesting talking to the writers. He then precedes to walk off the set of their pad, past the cameras and crew to the writers' room. The writers, being monks, type up a response and Mickey reads it on his way back to the set. When asked what the solution was, he responds, "Man, those guys are really overpaid".

Will Smith breaks the fourth wall in many episodes of his TV series The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. This is often done with glances directly into the camera or him addressing the audience directly. One such example is when in response to a question from Carlton Banks about a young man he left town to avoid fighting responds, "The dude who be spinnin' me over his head in the opening credits!" In the Fox sit-com Malcolm in the Middle, Frankie Muniz's title character often engages in this practice as a means of narration (though, this was done less frequently in later episodes). In the NBC Saturday-morning sitcom Saved by the Bell, the character of Zack broke the fourth wall in almost every episode.

The TV series Moonlighting also had characters who were aware that they were in a TV show, though eventually they overused the technique. The first season of She-Spies, which employed some of the Moonlighting writers, occasionally did likewise. Most recently, Boston Legal has employed the technique, but that show has been careful not to overdo it.

The fourth wall is frequently broken in cartoons, often in very imaginative ways difficult or impossible with live actors. Perhaps one of the most humorous is to "fight the iris", i.e, right before the picture ends and while the image gradually is diminished by a contracting circle, a character uses his hands or body to force the "eye" open in order to interject a wry comment or complaint. (Often the iris seems to stretch and go out of shape like pliant rubber during this stunt.) Often this technique is combined with physical comedy, e.g. having the iris snap back into shape and painfully pinch the person's nose or finger for their trouble. Another variation is having them appear onscreen after the iris is closed, walking or running over a solid black background. Warner Bros. directors like Bob McKimson and Tex Avery used the gag to good effect in the forties and fifties, and many modern cartoon directors have adapted it. The award-winning cartoon Duck Amuck breaks the fourth-wall for literally the entire running-time, with Daffy Duck fighting with his own animator and Bugs Bunny addressing the audience at the very end. A modern example comes from the early 90s cartoon adaptation of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. When Donatello decodes a villain's clue as written in latitude and longitude, Raphael makes an aside comment, "And they say cartoons aren't educational."

Another common instance of a fourth wall reference is where the character(s) will directly mention the content they're featured in. For example, Ichigo Kurosaki and other Bleach members are frequently seen reading Shonen Jump, the magazine the Bleach manga is serialized in. This is also featured in Gintama. Sket Dance, also makes references to various series (such as Belmonde le VisiteuR and Gintama), which are all featured in Shonen Jump.

Also, Deadpool tends to break the fourth wall in comics. His slogan was "Breaking the fourth wall, one brick at a time!" In one instance, when he meets Bullseye, Bulllseye asks "When was the last time we met?", to which Deadpool replies "Issue 16 I think."

Another Marvel comics character shown to occasionally break the fourth wall is the She-Hulk. At times she is aware that she is a comic book character and would engage in arguments with writers, particularlly John Byrne, as well as to accomplish other feats.

A moment of breaking the fourth wall in the DC Comics occurs when the villain the Joker addresses the reader outside of the comic book. The other characters present in the story just ignore his behavior as he is obviously insane.

Additionally in traditional British pantomime the audience is encouraged and expected to interact with the cast in breaking the fourth wall by booing the villains, who will often respond, cheering the heroes, who will often thank the audience, and by providing hints to the characters as to what to do next, e.g. shouting 'he's behind you' when the villain is sneaking up on the hero, or 'She's in the cellar' when Prince Charming is searching for Cinderella who has been locked in the basement by the Ugly Sisters.

Another way of breaking the fourth wall is when a character changes a part of the scene; for example, in Chowder, Schnitzel is often instructed by Mung Daal to change the scene when they are running low on time.

Another case of breaking the fourth wall is in a halloween graphic novel of the Simpsons, Bart Simpson's Treehouse of horror, Heebie Jeebie Hullabaloo, when Sideshow Bob states that "[They] are all merely pen and ink, creations trapped in a juvenile comic book, when the cover is closed, we will all cease to exist. If you dont believe me then tell me why we are in all these little boxes?!" This drives the town into panic and Homer shouts to the reader "Please for heavens sake don't close this comic!".

In video games

Breaking the fourth wall in video games is very common, mostly because the players play an active role within the game. It's usually done as a comic relief, as a part of the game, or to increase the player's awareness of the game's fictional nature. Some game series are known to use this technique very often, such as Super Smash Bros, Super Smash Bros Melee, Teen Titans, Super Smash Bros Brawl, Crash Bandicoot, Ape Escape 2, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Melee, Banjo-Kazooie, Final Fantasy V, Donkey Kong Country, Paper Mario, the Metal Gear series, Contact, Spyro The Dragon, Destroy All Humans 2, Destroy All Humans! Big Willy Unleashed, Monkey Island, Earthbound (series), The Sims 3 and No More Heroes.

Tutorial method

The most common way to break the fourth wall in video games is in a tutorial fashion. A character in the game instructs the player’s avatar (or in some cases, directly instructs the player) how to perform a specific action within the game world.

In the game Pokemon Diamond and Pearl, when the player gets the item 'Running Shoes', their 'mom' says "Here, let me read the instructions. Press B and blaze new trails of adventure!". Saying "Press B" is breaking the fourth wall, as there is no "actual" B Button in the game universe (though there is one on the game console). Notable instances occur in Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake and Metal Gear Solid as the character must input a radio-frequency which is never given in-game, but instead printed on the video-game's manual (in Metal Gear 2) or back CD cover (in Metal Gear Solid). This particular kind of phenomenon was also seen in the NES game Startropics, where the user is asked to enter coordinates that are found in the game manual. (An alternative interpretation of this technique is to prevent software piracy, with the assumption that pirated game owners will not have access to the original packaging.) In the video game Super Paper Mario, when Mario is instructed to press the A button,the instructor says," What is this A Button anyway? Are we being watched by another dimension?" In SoulCalibur III, Olcadan often breaks the fourth wall in this fashion because he serves as the instructor in the game's training mode. In Eternal Sonata, the tutorials have the characters (such as Polka and Allegretto) explain the battle commands by speaking about the x button, y button, b button, etc.

Story-driven

The fourth wall can also be broken simply through story-driven elements within the game. In the game Tak and the Power of Juju, the Shaman addresses the player directly as an omniscient being throughout the story. The player in the seventh Fire Emblem game is represented in-game as the tactician of the army. Characters, particularly the Lords, have conversations with the player; the gender of the player (entered as a new game is created) slightly alters this, as the flirtatious knight Sain will flirt with female players and the timid pegasus rider Florina will be more shy towards a male player. During the dream sequences in Max Payne, if the character answers a ringing telephone a voice will say something like "Wake up! You are in a computer game!" or Max will gain partial awareness that he is being controlled by the player and is not a real person.

The narrative of Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty breaks the fourth wall a number of times, by communicating to the player indirectly through the protagonist Raiden. For example, during a codec conversation, Raiden (and by extension, the player) is told to "Turn the game console off, right now!" Later on, the message "Fission mailed" appears on the game screen (instead of "Mission failed") as the artificial intelligence of the GW program in the narrative (and by extension, the game itself) begins malfunctioning.

Physical interaction with the Player

The advent of force-feedback and controller vibration gave a new way for a game to reach out for the player. The use of such feedback is prominent in the Metal Gear Solid video game series on the PlayStation systems. In Metal Gear Solid, during an encounter with Psycho Mantis, the player is asked to place the console controller, the DualShock, on the ground so Psycho Mantis himself might move it with the powers of his mind. The controller vibrates causing it to move erratically as to mimic the forces of telekinesis. Later, after the torture scene, the player is asked by Naomi Hunter to press the controller against his or her arm; then the controller vibrates as a kind of massage to compensate for the stress done on the arm during the torture. Some claim that breaking of the fourth wall enhances the player's interaction with not only the game but also the story of the game while others contend that this only further enhances the players' awareness of the game, thus drawing them out of the story and forcibly ending their suspension of disbelief. This physical interaction between the player and the protagonist is further employed in its sequels Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty, and Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots, and its prequel Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater.

Unusual player actions

Another common method employed by video games is to address the player when he does something unusual while playing; e.g, clicking numerous times on a character in a Real-time strategy game, such as the Warcraft Universe or Starcraft, or waiting a long time without moving their avatar. An example of this would be in the video game Bubsy where, if left idle for some time, Bubsy will knock on the TV screen, trying to get the player's attention, or the video game The Bard's Tale where, if left idle for some time, the narrator of the game will state that "there was a long period where nothing much happened". The series of "Sonic the Hedgehog" games routinely break the fourth wall, especially if Sonic is left idle for a certain period of time. In the early games, Sonic would look directly towards the screen and impatiently tap his feet, among other things. Sonic CD takes this to an extreme where, if left idle for too long, Sonic tells the player off and leaves, resulting in a game over. In Ultimate Alliance, if a player is using the character Deadpool and repeatedly runs into a wall, Deadpool will sarcastically say:"It's as if I can't go this way." (Deadpool talking directly to the player). In Icewind Dale, clicking numerous times on a character causes him or her to express annoyance at the player. In Roller Coaster Tycoon, if you pick up a guest and just leave them hanging in the sky the guest will think, "I have the feeling that someone is watching me." If you drop a guest into water and allow them to drown, you get a slight drop in funds as it implies that you had to pay the guest's funeral expenses. In Roller Coaster Tycoon 3, when the cursor is moved over water, ripples appear. If you click on a person numerous times they act as if they were being tickled. Their thoughts might read: "What is that little white thing" or "Hehe that tickles!" In EA's game Skate if the player leaves the game on pause for a long time when un-paused the videographer that follows you around will make a comment on this action such as "Did you actually go skate for once" or "Where have you been? I've been waiting". In Bionicle heroes if the player waits for a certain period of time the toa that the person is playing as will tap the screen or something else. In Guitar Hero Aerosmith, DMC is staring at you. Then he jumps off the stage to you, as if you were real in the game.

Character awareness

The fourth wall is broken by the game Pathologic. During the last day of events, the player can visit the Theater (which is somewhat a metafictional entity throughout the entire gameplay). In a dialogue taking place there the player will be presented with a choice to answer the question "Who is saying this?" either as "It is me, Bachelor" (or another playable character) or as "It is me, the player". In the latter case the NPC will show the full awareness that he is "merely a bunch of triangles on your monitor". In Shadow Hearts, the character Roger Bacon can be named by the player, but he will appear in the far-foreground afterwards and emphatically reject the name. The main character, Yuri, asks him who is he talking to. In Tales of Symphonia, the main character, Lloyd Irving will sometimes reference the usage of a warp option in a dungeon, often in the form of a complaint that there is no way to use it at the time. In Jak 3 a monk scolds 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 badly disguised Lord Crump addresses the player ("you in front of the TV!"), and tells them not to tell Mario who he is, to which the other characters react in confusion. In the SimCity series, if the game is paused for a short time and then resumed, the news ticker will mention a citizen being institutionalized for raving that everyone was just standing there, and nobody was doing anything, as if he were the sole person who was NOT paused. In Paladin's Quest, an NPC says that the game doesn't use an MP system, with spells consuming HP instead. In The Sims 2(PSP version) the main antagonist told the Protagonist "..And take control of the being that is controlling YOU! This horrible CREATURE thinks that it is merely playing a harmless game. It feels no compassion for the lives it destroys!". The Sims 2 story arc is about hunting a mad scientist that trying to escape from the control of the player(via the iconic Sims' Green Diamond) by taking control of the Green Diamond itself. The MMORPG Runescape makes a reference to the real world too. When the player speaks to a bartender, the bartender states that the entire world (RuneScape) is just a video game. Your character assumes the bartender is insane, and leaves him. And in The Simpsons Game, the fourth wall is broken frequently--The Simpsons discover they are in a video game, that is being played by God, who appears as a character on Ralph's computer screen. Ralph then appears to notice the player.

Easter eggs

Easter eggs are another way to break the fourth wall. Easter eggs in video games are objects, quotes, characters (either avatars or NPCs), levels, or any other element of the game that makes a reference to the exterior world. The references may be to a picture of the programmer, a reference to another game of the same or affiliated company, an element created by a rumor circulating about the game or a previous one in the same series, or any other entity which does not exist directly within the game world. This breaks the fourth wall by introducing an element that is superfluous to gameplay, reminding the player of the virtual nature of the game. One such example is in Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords. After finishing the game as on both the light and dark sides, Atton Rand will say this quote when you find him:

"I'm Atton. I actually wasn't supposed to make it into the final game, but I was created at the last minute. Blame my agent. I was actually slated for a spin-off to Jedi Knight, but I don't want to talk about what happened there."

Another example of this is the Konami Eyes models in Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty, posters of the magazine models appear on the inside of lockers and on the backs of doors, even in a codec transmission. Not to mention, a toy figure of Vulcan Raven (from the original Metal Gear Solid) scares Solid Snake during his original sweep of the tanker. In Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots, Snake can find a hidden concrete slab with the hand-prints of several of the game's creators - including director Hideo Kojima - during the Act 2 "Tracking" scenario. Lying Snake down on the slab and activating his OctoCamo results in getting a unique camouflage pattern: HandCamo. Also, later in the game, Snake gets an emergency Codec call from support member Otacon, telling him to change the discs before moving on. Snake, of course, has no idea what Otacon is talking about, and then Otacon remembers that there's no need to change discs since the entire game is burned onto a single Blu-ray disc. Members of the gaming community took this as a subtle dig against the Playstation 3's competition.

One other example of a good easter egg is in the game Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. In the game there is a very big, red bridge which connects the provinces of San Fierro and Las Venturas. To find the easter egg, the player must acquire a jetpack and fly up to a high girder. Up there the player finds a brown sign stating that "There are no Easter Eggs up here. Go Away": ironically, the sign is itself an easter egg. Along with a billboards that spoofs a GTA clone True Crime: Streets of LA" which reads 'True Grime: Cleaning the Streets'. Also, in Grand Theft Auto IV, if you're able to get to the feet of the Statue of Happiness, there will be a sign that says "No Hidden Content this way". Though actually there is a huge beating heart inside the statue.

To answer this, True Crime: New York City has an easter egg pointed at Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. When you play a certain taxi mission, Marcus says something similar to "Huh, I made it to be a taxi driver... Well, at least I don't have to drive RC vehicles".

Another example is in the game Spider-Man for PC. In numerous levels where you must web-swing to other buildings, there may be a billboard featuring Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 3. Another is in the first level of the game. After the large building that has NEW YORK on the side in large green letters, you will swing to another building, and if you look, you may see a billboard advertising an interview with Cletus Cassidy a.k.a. Carnage. This may be a reference to him being a boss in the game. A way to get to many of the game's easter eggs is the code: UATUSEES. The game will enter a "What If? Content" mode. For example: in the second level, you will see a Fantastic Four building that normally has a comic book on it. Instead, you briefly meet up with The Human Torch. He will say something about fighting Mole Man. This may have been a boss that was taken out of the original game. Another example of the UATUSEES code is when you fight Doc Ock in his undersea lair. His fortress will be what is commonly known as "hippyized". The walls will feature a picture of Dr. Love and the floors will be dotted with hearts and smiley faces. Another example is in the Hostage Situation level. Where Spider-Man crawls through a vent and comes out in a room with 3 switches. Open the one that releases the hostage. Walk into the room and you will be greeted with a disco party. The only way to leave is to restart the level or quit to the menu.

In the game Summoner 2, beating the game awards the player with two extra movies. In the first, player characters are shown talking as themselves in the aftermath of the game's events. They are unusually out of character, and make humerous references to the events and locales of the game. Neru the pirate prince (a combat-skill oriented, vendetta-seeking character) even makes a remark about turning the first level of the game-Teomura Island-into a tourist resort, something that is extremely out of place with the rest of the world. The scene still follows the story however, as the main protagonist and a notable party member are not present due to having died/left the world. In the other scene, characters are inserted into real-world locales and give commentary on being a part of the game's production. This too, is made to be humerous, with characters commenting on their character's misfortunes that made the role less than desireable to play and on past jobs. The scene is portrayed to resemble a movie "making of" interview series, or possibly to mimick the commentaries provided by actors in early games like Phantasmagoria that utilized live-action scenes. The protagonist appears inside of a limo to give the bulk of the commentary on her feelings about the production of the game, but the other "dead" character remains absent.

Yet another example is the appearance of sound programmer Dan Forden appearing in Mortal Kombat II in the lower right-hand corner of the screen, shouting expressions after the performance of certain in-game combination moves. It also contains a fatality which involves dropping a MKII arcade machine on your enemy.

References

See also

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