(The following written piece includes spoilers from the following games; Bioshock, Bioshock Infinite, Spec Ops: The Line and Uncharted 2.)
At their core, video games are authoritarian. They have rules that need to be followed, and you are restricted to the game play systems and a story the programmers and designers have created. However, compared to other forms of media, they offer a breadth of freedom that is unmatched. I will not be speaking about the freedom of exploration. What I will be talking about is the freedom of creating a different type of narrative that is only possible through video games by breaking the 4th wall between the game and the player. This is one of our mediums greatest advantage, however, very rarely, is this power explored. With video games, we can have truly powerful forms of narrative, but at most we get ideas that could theoretically work as movies. Open-world sandbox games can dodge this because the player is free to create their own narrative alongside the main plotline, and this is a concept that is entirely unique to video games. It’s the linear story-based games where the narrative is usually much harder to distinguish than what you would get from a book or movie.
Linear video games are seen as a negative, a bad word, by some of the hardcore gaming crowd. Not the hardcore gaming crowd which spends countless hours of the day on online gaming, but the type of gamer who feast on games like Deus Ex, and the old Fallout games. To them, a linear video game doesn’t offer anything different than what you would get from a movie. While that might be true to some degree, creating a game where you feel as though you are in a movie is one of the strengths of video games. They are undeniably fun to be a part of, and you are the star…or at least that is what you think.
In most linear games, the story always centers on the main protagonists, not the player. The game rarely makes a statement about the person playing the game, which is odd because the player is the most crucial part of the narrative; the player essentially makes everything possible.
Acknowledging the 4th wall and allowing the game to comment on the player’s actions or mood can make a story more engaging. Games that don’t do this offer the player the ‘primary’ narrative which is the information the game gives at face value, through cut scenes and collectables you might pick up. Games that do take into account the 4th wall or speak with the player in a more profound manner comment on what is being played out in the players mind as he is going through the game. This isn’t easy to pull off, and even the industries best games fail to capitalize on this, often ignore it altogether or do a poor job at it.
Uncharted 2 has garnered high praise from video game reviewers and gamers. Much of the approval of the game comes from its ability to “infuse movie production quality with enjoyable gameplay” and that is why I am choosing to look in to it. According to Metacritic, Uncharted 2 is the one of the highest rated games of all time. The industry also by large, is ticketing at making their games look and feel like Uncharted which is likened to a blockbuster film.
While Uncharted 2 is a well-made game, it fails to recognize the 4th wall between the player and the game. The storytelling in Uncharted 2 is extremely basic; it relies on a single octave which keeps the game moving. If the game’s plot were to be translated into a movie, we would not lose much in what it offers. The game is about the story of Nathan Drake, not experiences the player has with the game while playing as Nathan Drake. It has the primary form of narrative down to the granular detail, but when it comes to acknowledging the player – it fails. At the end of the game, Nathan Drake has literally committed genocide, killing pretty much anyone coming in his way. Drake and the player’s morals come into question at the finale, but this is done in a poor manner. Zoran Lazarević, the games main antagonist, debates that him and Drake are the same; they have both killed – Drake thinks about it but the player just doesn’t care. The reason this back and forth between Lazarević and Drake failed was because that was the only time the game had ever communicated with the player in a deep way. Now, this has more to do with developer intent than anything else, and I want to be clear, Naughty Dog were very much interested in creating a summer movie blockbuster like experience, and they succeeded. The Uncharted series has always been a fun riddled rollercoaster ride and doesn’t need to concern itself with anything deeper than a dude who has flings with cute girls and hunts treasure. The game is superbly written, although ultimately shallow.
On the flip side, Spec Ops: The Line, created by a German studio called Yager, uses the 4th wall and is a mature shooter aimed at the older audience. At the core of the narrative is the story of Captain Martin Walker, his squad, and what they experience in Dubai. To the player’s surprise, the game actively breaks the 4th wall. This 4th wall breaking narrative is the experience the player has with the game while playing as Captain Walker. Yager accomplished this by allowing the player to become a military Captain faced with making difficult decisions. All the hardships, all the mistakes Walker makes through the game are reflected on the player because the player is responsible for Walker’s actions, just like Walker is responsible for his own. This works because the game lets the player know it is indirectly communicating with them. The game also directly communicated through loading screens which often say things like “This is all your fault” and “How many Americans have you killed today?”. However, the game also clearly knows that the player is an active participant in the narrative right on the offshoot in the opening credits, labelling the gamer as a “Special Guest”. Over the course of the game, the player and Walker become one character because they both feel guilty for their actions. There is an emotional connection which is real. You relate to him because you understand his frustrations as they become your frustrations. Spec Ops: The Line goes a lot further than most games with its usages of the 4th wall. It fully breaks it, directly commenting on player actions, other times, it rests on it and takes into account that the game is being played by someone.
Similarly, the 4th wall approach is found within Bioshock 1 and its sequel Bioshock Infinite, both games developed by Irrational Games. In Infinite, you take the role of Booker DeWitt, a man who has hit a low point in his life. He is given a chance to repay his debt if he rescues the girl, Elizabeth, from the city above the clouds called Columbia. The 4th wall method found in Infinite is much more nuanced than the one found in Spec Ops because this is still largely a story of Booker DeWitt and Elizabeth. Irrational does the job extremely differently than Yager. While Spec Ops was all about the player going through the same frustrations as Walker, in Infinite, the player and DeWitt actively takes part in finding more about the game world. This comes in the way of the primary form of storytelling, which are the main objectives you go through as well as the recorded messages you pick up. As DeWitt and the player are learning about Columbia, and its people, the game isn’t afraid to question what has been learned by both attending parties through the course of the game. However, at the ending sequence of the game, Booker is thrust into Rapture, the setting of the original Bioshock. This reference to Rapture was Irrational’s way of acknowledging the person holding the controller – Rapture had no bearing to Booker. Rapture and the numerous light houses were a direct reference to past events the player had been through in their journey as Jack in Bioshock.
Going back to the original Bioshock, the game accepts it’s being played and has a little bit of fun with the player. Jack, the protagonist of the game, is led on by Atlas in to doing his work by muttering the phrase “would you kindly” after each request. The phrase is a programmed trigger to control Jack, almost like a form of hypnotism. In turn, the player, taking control of Jack, does everything Atlas (or any any other character) tells them to do. However, at the final confrontation between Jack and Andrew Ryan, the game takes away control of the player at the most crucial moment of the game, which makes the effect of the player having little control over Jack that much more stronger. This goes with the major theme of free-will that is so dominant throughout the game. While both Bioshock games don’t outright break the 4th wall, they sure as hell do kneel on it; the narratives in both games take into account that it is being played by someone.
Making gamers reflect on their experience with a video game by acknowledging the 4th wall by making the player an active participant in the narrative is a sure-fire way to make linear video games more compelling. Bringing in thought provoking questions and the ability to create a point in the game where the player goes through self-discovery is one of the ways this can be achieved.