Out of the Box, [and into the Fire]

During my reading of Galloway, I found especially interesting the section where he looks at video games that break from his man/machine and diegetic/non-diegetic two-axes model. In particular, his example of Metal Gear Solid, a game whose programming forces players to take actions outside of the game world in order to affect events inside of it. While formally presented as the concept of “metalepsis”, I personally find it much more convenient to think about this in terms of a more familiar phrase: Breaking the 4th wall.

Nowadays commonplace in technological jargon, breaking the fourth wall refers to media reaching out from its normal dimensions of length, width and depth, and interacting with the “outside” world. Originally coined by Diderot for plays that protrude beyond the curtained stage, it now refers to when a work directly acknowledges its audience. However, in the context of video games, it can also be evoked whenever a game has some unique mechanism, usually involving player manipulation of the hardware outside of the actions that constitute usual gaming, that is required to advance. To me, such episodes have been sources of both frustration, and admiration. Frustration, because I was often forced to ask others for help. Admiration, for being so different from other gameplay experiences that I’ve had. As such, I’d like to share one of my more memorable games below, a mini game review, as it were.


Adventures in Singularity

“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic” -Arthur C. Clarke

My first experience with this kind of trickery was the flash game This Is the Only Level. Simple in design, but complex in execution, it befuddled my 10 year old brain. 30 different levels, on the same playing field but each with its own premise. While the goal was always the same, it was often hard for me to parse the clues. In particular, there was one level where the clue was “Time to Refresh”. I distinctly recall spending inordinate amounts of time by the entrance tube, thinking that there was some kind of shower connection. After that didn’t work, I left the game on in the background, thinking that it meant the game itself would refresh and allow progress after a set amount of time. It never crossed my mind that it was literally referring to hitting the refresh button in the browser. Even after I looked up the solution online, I still could not comprehend how it worked. I would not learn about cookies until 5 years later. Even then, it seemed like magic. I cannot enumerate, much less name, the countless flash games that I have played, but This Is the Only Level stands out among them. By having an astonishing degree of immersion for a so-called casual game, it forced me to interact with it differently than I had the others. And good or bad, different is always memorable.

In today’s gaming world, such instances are becoming more and more common. From AAA titles like Batman: Arkham Asylum to countless indie games, breaking the 4th wall is becoming less a surprise for grateful gamers, and more an essential component of interactivity. That before a unified view of interface and platform studies has been established, we are already trying to break out of such a mold speaks volumes of the rate of technological advancement. Is it even possible to study something whose evolution outpaces scholarship and makes old models, and thus old studies obsolete?

0 thoughts on “Out of the Box, [and into the Fire]

  1. I think this is especially relevant when thinking about games using recently developed platforms like Kinect. Ever since the Nintendo gave us the Wii, physical interaction beyond classic hand-eye coordination this process of breaking the fourth wall in the gaming world began. And honestly, I think this is great; I love my WiiFit, I’m not ashamed. But what the Kinect can do is even more powerful, it’s eliminating “the stage” of this metaphor entirely. It’s allowing games to enter the realm of interactivity tangibly and realistically, apart from visual performance. So much so that the Kinect has already travelled from having simply aesthetic/entertainment purposes as a gaming platform to being the software used in scholarly, scientific research studies.

Leave a Reply