Commentary

Breaking The Fourth Wall

No matter what storytelling medium you're in, it will always be risky to break the fourth wall in an attempt to sell something.

Take the example of Microsoft Game Studios' "Dungeon Siege II" for the Playstation 2, wherein a character offers a special treasure if the user enters a code obtainable only through playing the PSP installment of the "Dungeon Siege" franchise. Each of the games are referred to by their real-world names, with all the appropriate trademark symbols looking so very dissonant in a fantasy character's dialogue box.

That dialogue was featured this week in the games blog on Ars Technica, drawing a range of comments from its readers, ranging from offended, to defensive, to aggressively apathetic. And, in the game's defense, it's not breaking new ground in hawking the portable game in its console version--games like "Legend of Zelda: The Windwaker," "Splinter Cell: Pandora Tomorrow," and "Metroid" all have similar promotions, allowing players to get some sort of game feature or unlockable content using the portable version of the game.

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But Ars Technica's Ben Kuchera--surely an influencer in the video game space--declared that "Dungeon Siege II" is in his "do not buy or play folder." What's the difference between what "DSII" did and what the other, abovementioned games did?

Well, games break the fourth wall for a variety of reasons, and in a variety of ways. Most often, it's to instruct the player how to make the character do something. In most games, the instruction is delivered in a detached way, so that the player's immersion in the game is left intact. Other games play with this convention--in "Windwaker," a helpful fairy floats around your character, occasionally instructing him on what buttons to press to perform which actions. So when the same fairy tells the player he can plug in his Gameboy Advance for a little bit of help on a certain game sequence, it's not a problem for the player's immersion; it's already been established that the game will talk about out-of-game controls.

Once the fourth wall is already broken to help the player out a little bit, other elements can be slipped in--even product plugs. But in a game like "DSII," which for the most part plays it pretty straight, a pitch like this one is totally out of place. Marketing in games, just like marketing everywhere else, is all a matter of execution. Do it right, and your players won't mind; do it wrong, and get put in the "do not play" folder.

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