IF that Breaks the Fourth Wall?

Hey All-
Can anybody recommend any IF games that break the fourth wall (include the player personally in the gameplay somehow)? I’m most interested in parser, but I’ll look at anything.

Also, what are general feelings about this? I know that people have some strong negative feelings about this in film, but not sure about how such a thing would be received in IF.

1 Like

I suspect that it’s not so much that people in general are opposed to it in film, but rather that those who are opposed to it are very vocal about being so. These days, postmodern expectations allow winking at basically all rules as mere conventions that only stodgy people insist on. There are still those who believe that the “traditional Aristotelian” unities of time, place, and action are completely necessary for a drama to reach its utmost possible development, and they tend to be vocal about it, but they’re a rather small minority.

Beyond that, I think it depends on exactly where you draw the line between in-game commentary by the game on the game and explicitly addressing the audience, which is kind of fuzzy. How awkward and improbable does an NPC comment have to be before it edges past the fourth wall? If someone is following you around making comments that have little in-game plausibility but are actually hints for the player, does that count?

I think that probably the best-known example was some of the comments by Planetfall’s Floyd, one of which was recently discussed here: When saving, a game metacommand that has no in-universe relevance, Floyd, if visible, will ask if “we’re about to do something dangerous,” which is a pretty clear instance of breaking the wall.

Beyond that, I have a general sense that games that switch PCs tend to have commentary that addresses the player directly when that happens, which may or may not be what you’re looking for. It’s been a while since I played either, but I have a vague sense that this might include Everybody Dies and Common Ground might do so?

2 Likes

Parser IF breaks the fourth wall all the time, most directly with default responses like “That’s not a verb I recognize” and “You can see no such thing,” but also stuff like “But you would never stab your poor sister!” or even “That’s not a very good idea.” Any time the game says “No, your character doesn’t do that,” it has to tell that to the player, in the same voice that’s narrating what really happens to the character.

Even outside of those negative responses, the pseudo-conversation format of the parser means that there’s always a layer of indirectness or abstraction in play. Really, the narrator is addressing the player first and telling you about the game world secondarily. It doesn’t make sense to me to deny this aspect of the medium, so I ignore the fourth wall in all kinds of places, SUCH AS:

After doing this kind of thing so much I’ve never heard anyone say “this breaks the fourth wall, and that is bad, so this is bad” or anything like that. I think it’s just a rhetorical device like any other rhetorical device.

6 Likes

Like Veeder said, parser IF breaks the fourth wall all the time (see the triangle of identities - Triangle of identities - IFWiki) as a necessity of handling “I don’t know what you’re typing, those aren’t words.”

As far as intentional fourth wall breaks, I think that Laid Off from the Synesthesia Factory - Details has a section somewhere in it where the player character refuses to do what you want, except that I think that the player character refusing to do what you want could be interpreted as diegetic as well (don’t take my word for it though).

With regards to involving the player personally in the game, I’d be remiss to not mention With Those We Love Alive. It’s not parser, but it’s drastically different in an interesting way.

5 Likes

I hadn’t thought about it this way, and I’m so glad you said this, because of course you’re right. I’m thinking about much more explicitly including the player, and that could be a major train wreck of a bad idea, but this comment definitely helps me think about doing so within a larger context of the fourth wall being pretty fuzzy in IF by its nature. Thank you.

And thanks, everyone, for the recommendations. That guarantees I’ll have a lovely week of playing good IF and doing research. Two great tastes.

2 Likes

There’s Rover’s Day Out, best explained here

You play a virtual program (referred to as the ACU) in a simulation that has a deeper impact than it seems at first. Also, in order to operate the ACU you use a simple interpreter creating a nice explanation for the IF parser. Then there are the two programmers that wrote the simulation. They imbue it with life as they wisecrack about some of the stuff you do, giving the beginning of the game a great tone as you go through a lot of repetitive actions.

1 Like

Most of these games break the fourth wall in some way:

https://ifdb.org/viewlist?id=zvsvv91q9l244u78

4 Likes

This is a great list - you’ve got Constraints, Constraints is awesome!

3 Likes

Netflix’s IF game (it essentially is one, I suppose) Black Mirror Bandersnatch did this in a fun way. You control the decisions of the main character who eventually learns he is being controlled by someone and tries to resist you. Brilliantly done.

2 Likes

Thanks, Brian-- I admit I hoped you would have a big list of titles at the ready, and so my New Year’s wish comes true. Thanks!

2 Likes

I loved that show… game… whatever it was. For anyone who hasn’t watched it, although I don’t think it was entirely successful, Bandersnatch was really thought-provoking and fun, and I agree that it counts as IF!

2 Likes

As said before, classic IF is conventionally written in 2nd person referring to “you” with the parser usually as a removed narrator or just “the game” speaking to you which is an inherent mild fourth-wall break.

Most parser messages are neutral, but certain games give parser responses a personality, often referred to as “parser snark” where you might get a more obvious 4th-wall message like “You’ve been trying this for a while, are you sure you wouldn’t rather quit and do something else?”

It’s actually more unusual for the parser to not break the fourth wall and have all of the messages written in-character, such as in Jeremy Freese’s Violet or Infocom’s Suspended where the player is assumed to be commanding robots as a consciousness in isolation.

Many games also are fuzzy about whether “you” are a player playing the game and directing a character in the story, or referring to “you” as the actual character in the story, and the voice of the prose may vary stylistically based on what the author is going for.

If the game is in first-person it could be either way - the character narrating their own actions “I open the door.” could be just talking to themselves with the player as their subconscious directing them, or the character may talk back to the player: “What should I do next?” and even refuse certain actions. The IFComp entry Closure where the character was directing the character by speaking on the phone to them is a good example of this.

4 Likes

Thank you for bringing up Closure, because it illustrates a worry I have about involving the player. Closure was brilliantly done, but the part that bugged me about it was my complicity in a friend snooping on her ex, as in real life I would have told her not to do it and hung up on her. You always take a chance of alienating the player by forcing them into the story and directing their actions. Closure was good enough that I could forgive that, but it was a bit of a sticking point for me.

3 Likes

Both ways go way back. Adventure started by saying “I WILL BE YOUR EYES AND HANDS. DIRECT ME WITH COMMANDS OF 1 OR 2 WORDS.” But then also “OH DEAR, YOU SEEM TO HAVE GOTTEN YOURSELF KILLED. I MIGHT BE ABLE TO HELP YOU OUT… OKAY, NOW WHERE DID I PUT MY ORANGE SMOKE?”

The following tradition of parser IF has kept the ambiguity, really.

4 Likes

This has been a fun question to think about.

There is something about rhetorical analysis that seems to invite triangulation. The classical ethos-pathos-logos, the more contemporary author-audience-subject, and Nelson’s player-narrator-protagonist.

These schemata are usually presented as points connected by lines, but I think sometimes these lines might be more accurately depicted as vectors. In other situations, there may be no direct connection at all between two points.

The narrator may be a point of connection between player and protagonist, but they can also be a point of estrangement. The player usually issues second-person commands to a narrator who is not themselves the protagonist. They presumably interpret and transmit the information along, but players generally do not know what this translated message is. Sometimes there are errors in translation–is it the narrator or the protagonist who rejects the message?

I think most of us have typed out a perfectly reasonable command, only to have it misunderstood. We blame the parser, which is mechanically accurate, but rhetorically it is an estrangement between protagonist and player. Some authors have exploited this divide by implementing unreliable narrators. The outcomes can be very compelling. This may not be fourth wall play, but perhaps it is its friendly neighbor.

In-character narrators are a different situation, but perhaps some level of estrangement is inevitable. I’m not familiar enough with the tactic to say.

In a typical case, the player enters a sort of brain-in-a-vat situation, only they are accustomed to seeing the vat now and then. Suspended is quite good at hiding the vat, ironically, since it is essentially a brain-in-a-vat story by design.

I appreciate the thread, the lists, and the comments, very thoughtful stuff to read on a Saturday morning.

4 Likes

I totally had the same reaction and repeatedly just told her LEAVE! That wasn’t implemented, but would have been a good opportunity for an unreliable narrator/protagonist. That was my one suggestion for this otherwise well-done game.

4 Likes

The friend had acknowledged that it was wrong but that they were doing it anyway and clearly would have kept on doing it if the player opted out, so I was willing to just accept that this is the premise and roll with it. But, sure, in the real world the only reasonable response would be to implore the friend to leave and if that didn’t work, to wash one’s hands of the situation. I can understand how it could cross the line for any given player. But I’ve gotta say, I don’t think it comes close to the worst behavior I’ve fictitiously engaged in in a game.

(Apropos of little, a funny thing in my playing of Closure: it prompts you for a name. For no fathomable reason, I said Leo. Later, when you open the fridge and see the cake iced “Happy Birthday, Leo!” I thought it was a reveal that I, the player character, had been seeing the narrator’s ex!)

5 Likes

After some thought, are we perhaps complicating things?

Fourth wall breaks occur to involve a viewer and interact with them.

In cinema it’s more likely the wall is maintained and the audience watches and is not acknowledged. There’s narratives like Ferris Bueller’s Day Off where the audience is acknowledged as a confidant, but nothing the audience does will affect what happens.

In theater the fourth wall exists but is more transparent. Often it’s a one-way mirror for an audience to appreciate and build energy for performers. Performers can reach out individually and talk to or look at any observer, and narratives can involve the audience and let them interact - usually on a limited level unless it’s on the order of The Mystery of Edwin Drood or immersive like Sleep No More where audience participation is designed to change a plot or perception of a plot in a pre-scripted fashion.

Would it not follow that interactive fiction is more unusual when it doesn’t break the fourth wall? If the reader doesn’t interact, it’s a book.

5 Likes

Yes, I think you’re right. I was thinking about very explicit involvement of the player (as in Closure), but after looking at all these responses, I think there really is no fourth wall in IF. Maybe like a 3 1/2th wall.

2 Likes

By a broader definition of fourth wall breaking that includes the game calling attention to its status as fiction, and not just acknowledgement of the player’s existence as player, I’d add:

  • Degeneracy – describing why it qualifies is a major spoiler: the game degenerates in a fashion the player would inevitably initially assume to be a bug: rooms lose their names and descriptions, etc.
  • And Then You Come to a House Not Unlike the Previous One – I imagine hasn’t already been mentioned just because it’s too fresh in our memories!
4 Likes