Breaking the Fourth Wall…

February 10, 2009 § Leave a comment

Imagine you’re in a cinema; the lights go down, and the film starts.  You’re watching the film and you start to lose awareness of what is around you. You start to become enveloped in the story, the characters and the dialogue. Suddenly, one of the characters turns towards the screen, starts to talk to you, and says

“You’re in a cinema, I am an actor, this is a film-set and none of this is real”.

Now imagine this happening every fifteen minutes until the film ends. This is the point we have reached regarding storytelling in video games.

Games which try to tell a story are ultimately faced with a bit of a dilemma: a conflict between functionality and immersion. In order for the player to know what to do, for him to be able to make sense of his surroundings; a certain amount of information must be made obvious to the player i.e. what items can be manipulated, the player avatar’s health status, where to go next etc… If these things are not made obvious then you risk losing the player’s interest as he starts to become confused and ultimately frustrated. At the same time, introducing these gaming conventions breaks the forth wall, while reminding the user that what they are playing is just a game.

A strong narrative requires that the design of a game must have more to it than just the bare minimal. Good dialogue is not merely functional; it should be smart and entertaining. Good level design can’t just be a long, narrow corridor separated by rooms; it has to introduce dead ends, it has to be superfluous. Good stories can’t just be a case of getting from A to B; they must include red-herrings, they must include divergences. This, of course, means that developers need to take risks with the player’s frustration levels.

Mere functionality just isn’t strong enough to allow for a good narrative. If you want to create an immersive, organic world; you must find a way to dissolve the conventions which gamers rely upon heavily. Given the chance, an experienced player will seek to reduce a game’s environment to a straight line. The job of the developer is therefore to disorientate the user so he is forced to re-analyse the situation, re-examine his environment, and take note.

Games are highly structured works of design; the key to holding on to the user’s attention is in hiding this fact from them. It’s like a magic trick: once you know the trick the magic is lost.

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