As long as there have been video games, there have been developers adding moments to break the fourth wall. These are the moments when the game and characters show that they are aware of the player and they are in a fictional world. From easter eggs & throwaway commentaries to sequences that change the way we play, they all come in all shapes and sizes. Whether it makes us laugh, cry, or get angry, these moments of self-awareness usually have an effect. I look back and pick these 10 best video game moments.
The 10 games are in no particular order and are my personal favourite. And there’s a spoiler warning for the games listed. I hope you agree with me (at least partially) or if you think I missed it, please comment below.
And to anyone reading this, yes I’m speaking to you, I know you’re probably going to skim the good part which is fine. But before you commit or head to IGN or one of the “cooler” sites, Gareth writes about the Star Wars video game in need of a remaster that’s well worth a read.
Sonic the Hedgehog
My earliest memory of the video game breaking the fourth wall was Sonic the Hedgehog on Sega Mega Drive/Genesis. Even in 2D Sonic has a bit of patience to stand around, he’ll immediately give you an impatient look and tap his feet while idle during levels.
Living with spells has to be quick, Sonic is just as impatient, maybe more so in the next game. In Sonic 2 he would mimic looking at his watch and in Sonic 3 he would signal to the player and then level up. Seeing our favorite blue hedgehog wanting to race is one of the more subtle occasions the fourth is broken but still a classic.
Doki Doki Literature Club
Doki Doki take the concept of breaking down the fourth wall and make it the core of the game. I remember the first time I played the game and it not only broke the fourth wall but it shattered it as well. The game is a colorful Japanese visual novel set in the titular high school club with fellow members & main NPCs Sayori, Natsuki, Yuri & Monika. The gameplay stems from writing poetry and winning the affection of one of the other club members.
The game takes a very dark turn when a twist comes that Monika becomes self-conscious and she is a video character and never a romantic choice for players. The apparent suicide of other girls and various distractions is Monika rewriting the game code. Monika speaks to the player directly at this point explaining her motives and the other girls have been removed and the code broken to get what she wants. And the only way to end the game is to manually delete Monika’s character files. Doki Doki is the fourth most impactful wall breaking game I’ve ever played so it more than earns its place on this list.
Solid iron gear
The Metal Gear franchise is known for its moments of self-awareness, but the biggest one takes place in Solid iron gear. It’s one of those game moments I’ve never experienced in person, but the encounter with Psycho Mantis is notable 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 as the player. Put their money when their mouth, the controller vibrates in time with the movement of their hands. Then during the meeting have to switch controller to the 2nd port, the game kindly asks you if you die. Not only that, Mantis is programmed to comment based on memory card data if you have played certain games such as Castlevania: Symphony of the Night.
I really enjoy my time together Undertale and really miss these moments of self-awareness and destroy the fourth wall. I included them because they not only acknowledge the real world but also hold players on to the decisions that are made along the way.
Knowledge of monsters mentions how they turn to dust but humans survive and return after death, referring to the enemy’s death and respawn mechanism. In conversations with Sans and Flowey, they mentioned the player’s ability to save and rearrange as well as choices made in other games. NPCs will comment on this reflecting their personality e.g. as part of the genocide ending, Flowey calls people to watch this ending rather than experience it for themselves. In the same vein, if you are done with a genocidal ending then a good ending is literally impossible anymore.
Silent Hill 3
I put this moment in Silent Hill 3 as a rare break from the fourth wall and provides a nod to the previous installment in the game series. And a bit like Metal Gear Solid, the sequence only occurs if the save file from Silent Hill 2 is present.
Heather saw something in the toilet bowl but stopped herself before reaching for it. In a very funny & restrained moment, he asks himself “Who would do something so disgusting?”. Heather does this by looking directly at the player which implies she knows she is in the video game. This is a reference to the Silent Hill 2 moment where James fishes a wallet out of a toilet bowl.
Like Doki Doki, Stanley’s Parable use breaking the fourth wall as the main part of the gameplay. The game starts with Stanley in an empty office building and he is free to choose where to go and what to do. Interactive story and voice acting feels like Gate & Portal 2 makes this game very entertaining for games about hanging around the office.
Our mute protagonist is accompanied by an AI narrator who gives advice on what to do. Pretty much from the start, the fourth wall was demolished or maybe it wasn’t here in the first place. Ignoring the narrator or deviating from what he is saying causes him to become frustrated with Stanley and almost become the voice of the developer. More than that, it becomes clear that the narrator knows that they are in a video game and acts as a guide for the story and many endings. The game also handles topics like choice/free will, game development and so on in a very relaxed manner. The Ultra Deluxe expansion builds on this with the narrator experiencing an existential crisis in response to Steam reviews as well as a callback to original content from 2013.
I’m included Eternal Darkness sign up here because psychological horror games have a fourth wall shattering element that messes with your head. And it’s rare for Nintendo to publish a horror game so it’s important to pay attention to it.
Breaking the fourth wall occurs when the game’s sanity gauge reaches a certain red point. A considerable loss of sanity means the game goes from subtle changes like unusual noises to a massive mess with you. Finally, the game will make it look as if it’s gone, you’ll delete saved data even to get messages and follow-up ads for the sequel. I enjoy the mechanics of this game (at least in hindsight) and it makes the game a much more stressful experience.
Marvel vs Capcom 3
Marvel vs Capcom 3 in the top 10 here for one simple reason, Deadpool. In keeping with his form as in other media such as recent films we see a lot of him breaking through the fourth wall. And of course, with humor and style.
Deadpool isn’t shy about taking all the glory but doesn’t accept blame depending on how the fight goes. After winning, Deadpool will call the player and call them lazy while he does all the work but if tapped he will accuse the player of pressing the wrong button. Not only that, Deadpool has dialogue about being the star of the next Street Fighter game if he beats Ryu or one of the others and greets Capcom in person. Perhaps the funniest of all his moments of breaking the fourth wall, Deadpool’s final scene sees a city crumble and the APB out for him and the cast as his accomplice.
I put Max Payne in as the fourth wall-breaking sequence comes as a moment of levity for our lucky detective between the bullets and pills popping up during mourning the loss of his family.
There was a time when Max ended up in a very rough state and started hallucinating. As he does so, Max finds a note telling him he’s in a graphic novel that directly relates to the design style of the cut scenes. Subsequent notes actually tell him that he is a character in a video game and triggers some kind of mental crisis. A rare moment of levity in Max Payne comes when in an elevator with music playing, shooting at the speakers will make it stop and Max thanks the cast in person for doing so.
Batman: Arkham Asylum
Last but certainly not least is the entry involving our favorite cloaked crusader. Part of Arkham . Mental Hospital where you are hit by the Scarecrow’s fright gas causing one of the most realistic moments of the broken fourth wall. We play through some of the Dark Knight’s deepest fears but also fears a player might have.
Suddenly, while navigating the Scarecrow’s nightmare area, static appeared on the screen and there was a shrill sound. I know when I first played it my mind turned to technical issues. Shortly after the game appears to restart only this time the Joker brings Batman to Arkham. I’ve never had a video game moment that left me confused and shocked in equal measure. It’s a well executed moment and makes me wonder what might happen next.
It’s hard to pick just 10 but I hope you enjoy my list of ten games that break the fourth wall. If you do, you can find my most recent post here where I review Trolley Problem, Inc.