Friday, June 10, 2011

The Fourth Wall – Easiest to break, hardest to see

One of my favourite webcomic writers, Chris Hastings, has just finished producing a comic with Marvel; he has written a Deadpool comic entitled Fear Itself.  It looks great, and Chris’s sense of humour is perfect for Deadpool I think.  Check out The Adventures of Dr. McNinja under my webcomics list and you’ll soon see why.  As a result of this comic’s creation, I’ve looked a little more into Deadpool and I really want to read some of his comics.  He just looks like so much fun.  One of his most famous qualities, however, is that he is aware that he is in a comic.  He breaks the 4th wall every other line, which is hilarious.

This got me thinking though, about the 4th wall more generally, especially when it’s broken.  It’s a really interesting concept in all forms of art, from paintings to video games.  It comes from (I believe) the set up of a theatre where there is the back, the sides, and the open front of the stage beyond which the audience sits.  The 4th wall almost never exists – it is the imaginary barrier between the audience and the play.  Really it’s only in video games and TV that it exists because of the monitor, which you can actually touch.  Still, to break the 4th wall is to dispel the illusion that you are watching something real.  If you’re reading a book about a crazy world where mutants exist and people can shapeshift and fly, you can suspend your natural disbelief and immerse yourself in that world leaving your own behind – hence the term escapism.  If a character suddenly looks at you and says, “Sorry about the typo on the last page, by the way.  The editor will be shot at the end of the chapter,” suddenly you’re forced back into your own world, and reminded where you are.  Of course, you could get all metaphysical and start talking about the blurring of the lines between fiction and reality because really, can you guarantee that that isn’t what’s happening?  But that just gets complicated.  Very cool though.

There are loads of examples of this in the world of webcomics and video games.  I’ll mention a few here.
Schlock Mercenary’s cast make frequent references to the comic and the artist, and often the narrator will comment on the need to repair the wall now that it has been broken yet again.  Psycho Mantis from the Metal Gear series is a superb example of clever wall-breaking – he reads your memory card and comments on it, he makes your controller shake, and other really freaky direct-to-the-player effects.  I quite want to make a boss somewhere in an RPG that is Psycho Mantis and Deadpool just messing with the players – stealing character sheets, telling them to lay off the cookies or go outside, or just forcing all the players to play blindfolded.  I don’t know if it would really work, but it would be cool to see.  Oh yes, and in most of the Blizzard games like Starcraft and Warcraft, if you click on a unit enough times, will shout at you for being annoying.  I love that.  I love that a lot.
Copyright The Tayler Corporation

Breaking the 4th wall is a fun twist to anything.  A friend of mine once tried to play a 4th wall aware character in D&D, but utterly failed, which is a shame.  Deadpool is probably the quintessential example of this though, and I highly recommend Fear Itself to anyone interested in comics at all.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting issue, and one I've never seen explored before for RPGs (apart from metagaming discussions). Good post!