For as long as there have been video games, there have been developers adding moments to break the fourth wall. These are times that the game and characters show they are aware of the player and they’re within a fictional world. From easter eggs & throwaway comments to sequences changing how we play, they have come in all shapes and sizes. Whether making us laugh, cry or ragequit these moments of self-awareness usually have an effect. I took a look back and chose 10 of the best of these video game moments.
The 10 games are in no particular order and are my personal favourites. And there is a spoiler warning for the games listed. I hope you agree with me (at least partially) or if you feel I missed any, please comment below.
And to anyone reading this, yes I’m speaking to you, I know you’ll probably skim over to the good part which is fine. But before you do or head over to IGN or one of the “cooler” sites, Gareth wrote about Star Wars video games that need a remaster which is worth a read.
Sonic the Hedgehog
My earliest memory of a video game breaking the fourth wall was Sonic the Hedgehog on Sega Mega Drive/Genesis. Even in 2D Sonic has little patience for standing around, he will soon give you an impatient look and tap his foot when idle during a level.
Living by the mantra of gotta go fast, Sonic is just as impatient, perhaps more so in later games. In Sonic 2 he would mime looking at a watch and in Sonic 3 gestures to the player and then to further in the level. Seeing our favourite blue hedgehog keen to race on is one of the more subtle occasions the fourth is broken but still a classic.
Doki Doki Literature Club
Doki Doki takes the concept of breaking the fourth wall and makes it the core of the game. I remember first playing the game and it didn’t just break the fourth wall but demolished it. The game is a colourful Japanese visual novel in the titular high school club with fellow members & major NPCs Sayori, Natsuki, Yuri & Monika. The gameplay comes from writing poems and winning the affection of one of the other club members.
The game takes a very dark turn as the twist comes that Monika became self-aware and she was a video character and never was a romantic option for the player. The apparent suicide of the other girls and various glitches were Monika rewriting the game’s code. Monika addresses the player directly at this point explaining her motives and the other girls were deleted and the code corrupted to get her way. And the only way to end the game is to manually delete Monika’s character file. Doki Doki is the most impactful game to break the fourth wall I’ve ever played so it more than earned its place on this list.
Metal Gear Solid
The Metal Gear franchise is known for its moments of self-awareness but the biggest happens in Metal Gear Solid. This is one gaming moment I haven’t experienced first-hand but the encounter with Psycho Mantis is infamous for breaking the fourth wall.
I can only imagine the shock and awe of an NPC claiming to have the ability to influence your PS1 controller as well as you the player. Putting their money when their mouth is, the controller vibrates in time with their hand gestures. Then during the encounter having to switch the controller to the 2nd port, the game kindly prompts you if you die. Not only that, Mantis is programmed to comment based on memory card data if you have played certain games e.g. Castlevania: Symphony of the Night.
I really enjoyed my time with Undertale and actually missed these moments of self-awareness and breaking the fourth wall. I included them as they not only acknowledge the real world but hold the player to the decisions made along the way.
The lore of the monsters mentions how they turn to dust but humans persist and return after death, referring to enemy death and respawn mechanics. In conversations with Sans and Flowey, they mention the player’s ability to save and reset as well as choices made in other playthroughs. The NPCs will comment on this reflecting their personality e.g. as part of the genocide ending, Flowey calls out people for watching this ending rather than experiencing it themselves. In a similar vein, if you finished with the genocide ending then the good ending literally isn’t possible anymore.
Silent Hill 3
I included this moment in Silent Hill 3 as a rare breaking of the fourth wall and gives a nod to a previous instalment in a game series. And a little like Metal Gear Solid, the sequence only happens if a save file from Silent Hill 2 exists.
Heather spots something in a toilet bowl but stops herself before reaching for it. In a very funny & tongue in check moment she asks herself “Who would do something so disgusting?”. Heather does so by looking directly toward the player implying she knows she is within a video game. This is a reference to the Silent Hill 2 moment where James fishes for a wallet from a toilet bowl.
The Stanley Parable
Like Doki Doki, The Stanley Parable uses breaking the fourth wall as a major part of the gameplay. The game begins with Stanley in an empty office building and he is free to choose where to go and what to do. The interactive story and voice acting felt a bit like Portal & Portal 2 making the game very entertaining for a game about wandering through an office.
Our silent protagonist is accompanied by the AI narrator who makes suggestions on what to do. Pretty much from the get-go, the fourth wall is demolished or maybe here never existed in the first place. Ignoring the narrator or deviating from what he says causes him to become frustrated with Stanley and is almost the voice of the developer. More than that, it becomes clear the narrator knows they are in a video game and acting as a guide for the story and the numerous endings. The game also tackles topics such as choice/free will, development of the game and so on in a very tongue in cheek way. The Ultra Deluxe expansion builds on this with the narrator having an existential crisis in response to Steam reviews as well as callbacks to the original content from 2013.
I included Eternal Darkness on the list here because the psychological horror game has elements of breaking the fourth wall which messes with your head. And it isn’t often Nintendo publishes a horror game so is especially noteworthy.
Breaking the fourth wall comes when the game’s sanity meter gets to a certain point in the red. Losing enough sanity means the game goes from subtle changes e.g. unusual noises to full-blown messing with you. Eventually, the game will make it seems like the display is gone, you’re about to delete saved data to even getting to be continued messages and ads for a sequel. I enjoyed these gameplay mechanics (in hindsight at least) and made the game a much more tense experience.
Marvel v.s. Capcom 3
Marvel v.s. Capcom 3 makes the top 10 here for one simple reason, Deadpool. True to form just like in other media like the recent movies we see a lot of him breaking the fourth wall. And of course, does with humour and style.
Deadpool isn’t shy about accepting all of the glory but accepting none of the blame depending on how the fights go. After winning, Deadpool will address the player and call them lazy while he does all the work but if knocked he’ll accuse the player of pressing the wrong buttons. Not only that, Deadpool has a dialogue about being the star of the next Street Fighter game if beating Ryu or one of the others and addresses Capcom directly. Perhaps the most amusing of all his moments of breaking the fourth wall, Deadpool’s ending scene sees a city destroyed and an APB out for him and the player as his accomplice.
I included Max Payne as the sequence of breaking the fourth wall comes as a moment of levity to our down on his luck detective in between bullet time and popping pills while mourning the loss of his family.
There is a moment when Max ends up in very rough shape and begins to hallucinate. As he does so, Max finds a note telling him that he is inside a graphic novel which directly relates to the design style of cut scenes. A later note actually tells him he is a character in a video game and triggers a sort of mental crisis. A rare moment in levity in Max Payne comes when in an elevator with music playing, shooting the speaker will make it stop and Max says thanks to the player directly for doing so.
Batman: Arkham Asylum
Last but certainly not least is an entry involving our favourite caped crusader. The part of Arkham Asylum where you are hit with Scarecrow’s fear gas led to one of the most realistic moments of the fourth wall being broken. We play through some of the Dark Knight’s innermost fears but also a fear the player may have.
Out of the blue, while navigating the Scarecrow nightmare area, static appears on screen and there is a screeching sound. I know when I first played it my mind went to a technical issue. Shortly after the game appears to restart only this time it is the Joker taking Batman to Arkham. I’ve never had a video game moment leaving me confused and pleasantly surprised in equal measure. It is such a well-executed moment and left me wondering what could possibly happen next.
It was tough to choose only 10 but I hope you enjoyed my list of ten games which break the fourth wall. If you did you can find my latest post here where I reviewed Trolley Problem, Inc.