In any sort of media, the fourth wall exists to keep our world and the work’s separate. Basically, think of it as the glass in a television. On this side, there is the boring human world full of taxes and regular work. On the other, there is the awesome world filled with enchanted robot unicorns who spend their time dancing and earning money through per-piece writing.
It exists for all media from writing through movies, but let’s focus on just games for now. When playing, you want to escape your current existence and replace it with whatever the game provides. You want to imagine that you are the protagonist, that your decisions and abilities progress the story. Gaming canon defines that as “immersion,” and it might be the most important factor for any media. What good does the story do if it’s run by entities not connected to the player in any way; how would you build tension, challenge, or even inflict fear into your player? Imagine how BioShock would have been if you hadn’t thought every decision to be your personal own. How would you have felt playing Amnesia if you had always kept in mind that the monsters are completely harmless piles of pixels?*
Immersion done wrong
There are many ways to break immersion, but none are so horrible and avoidable as breaking the fourth wall. Think about the many references to other games Duke Nukem Forever makes, the post-Cataclysm Hillsbrad** or even just a game set in the modern day, in a place you know. Granted, there are lighter and harder ways to break the fourth wall – as shown by the previous examples – and it can done well. Just look at P- I mean, Deadpool. The game knows exactly how to break the fourth wall, so it embraces that and uses it for profit. However, all games short of maybe those cheaply made simulators and exceptions like Deadpool use immersion in one way or another. Humans come to treat tools as extensions of their own bodies. If there is no perceived boundary between you and the action, it will have a much greater effect on you, even if it’s a storyless action game. (Yes, it is a bit weird that breaking the fourth wall results in building a wall between the player and the game.)
Try playing through some games with that knowledge. Do you see the protagonists in Valve games speak or make individual decisions? Does an Elder Scrolls game ever have your character acting on her own? Is there ever background music with actual lyrics or even a song which existed before the game? (Note that this excludes catchy credits songs – it is usually their purpose to ease you back into your own body by breaking up immersion). Of course not. It seems plain illogical, then, that a well-made game that has none of the usual immersion breakers – bugs, imbalanced difficulty, messy UI – going against it should force you to realise that you do live in the real world, not its game version. It can serve for some forced laughs, but that’s in no way worth the effect lost by destroying immersion. And yes, that is true even for DNF.
Looking for details which make or break immersion or the fourth wall, you may also notice that few games address you as the player after maybe a short tutorial sequence. Rather, information is conveyed through matter-of-fact description of items and skills, using in-world terms, if it is explained at all. Remember how GlaDOS explains elements of the game to you, or how Skyrim describes a Raise Dead spell. It’s not “Revives a weak dead body to serve as your Companion for 2 minutes”, it’s “Raises a weak dead body to fight for the caster” with the duration in a separate field. It looks similar, but from an immersion standpoint, there’s a world of difference.
Immersion done right
Also, did you notice that more modern games hide more and more of their UI, making everything but the most vital information available only on demand, or that they make the UI blend in with the game’s visual style? By its nature, any UI displays will break immersion as they convey information exclusive to the player, thus reminding you of who you are. There is one game that avoids this beautifully, though. The, in my opinion, heavily underrated Remember Me. Now, the game does have its faults, more than just the title. The story is kinda bad, the characters are twats extraordinaire, the gameplay is “eh,” it doesn’t really use its theme, and from an immersion standpoint also that it’s in third person and that Nilin speaks.
Still, it does one thing so well that all other faults are alleviated and it actually becomes a fairly immersive title. Two things, actually. For one, visual design. Right from the start, there is little to no UI taking up space, and when there are displays, they blend in perfectly with the actual game world, because they’re rendered in the same style as the many aesthetic holograms and displays. “Shoot this to open door” displays look as though they weren’t designed with the player in mind at all. We even see other people interacting with them at times. After all, why should they be made just for you? It’s another piece of information put up by one game character for another. It just so happens that you are that character.
The other thing that Remember Me does so well is control scheme. Yes, there are some camera issues, but when it matters, combat is just a pleasure to watch. Nilin accurately and instantly responds to all inputs, allowing you to teach all of your enemies about the mistake of upsetting a woman in fluid, quick, yet controllable combat. If you can, you should definitely give the game a try, and look out for how it works to build immersion.
*The first few Penumbra games are good examples of how an immersion break can go horribly wrong for a game; The monsters are either killable without sustaining damage yourself or they move so slowly that you can literally just go past them. Every player figures that out sooner or later, causing the horror curve to be an exponential decline. You should watch a let’s play of them sometime if you haven’t done so already.
**By the way, that questline is awesome. Though it’s Horde only, you should check it out even if you’re purely Alliance.