Thimbleweed Park isn’t shy about letting you know it has achieved self-awareness. It’s a game that knows it’s a game, that revels in its game-ness like a smirking pig flopping around in a smelly, digital pixel-bath, and it wastes few opportunities to rub your nose in that fact. It knows you’re a human, and it guesses (probably correctly) that you’ve played adventure games before, so it takes a perverse delight in anticipating your actions and either commenting on them or subverting their outcome. Want to look at that painting? Sure you do. And Thimbleweed Park knows you want to look at it, and it’s going to make fun of you for doing so. Want to fill your Mary Poppins pockets with every random-but-maybe-critical tchotchke you stumble across in your adventuring? Assuredly. But Thimbleweed Park knows you’re a hoarder—hell, its developers taught you the trade twenty years ago when they burned you for overlooking some sly, crucial pixel tucked away in the corner of the screen—and it would rather let you cram your inventory full of useless garbage just to teach you a lesson. During my playthrough, I grabbed a tellingly regenerating can of Poopsi at least three times, sure that it would come in handy at some important moment when all other options had failed, but not once did I need it. Guess what I did need, though? That weird key-looking-thing that my characters kept sarcastically telling me would probably come in handy at some important moment when all other options had failed. Huh.
Don’t let me give you the wrong impression—I had a great time with Thimbleweed Park, and I deserve every bit of ridicule it threw my way (low self-esteem, probably). And I don’t have any problem with breaking down the fourth wall so that the game and I can look each other square in the face and move past the pretension that I’m doing anything other than clicking around in a carefully developed fantasy simulation intended to fleece me of my money and free time. But Thimbleweed Park did get me thinking more broadly about that fourth wall and about whether breaking it might be a crutch that uninspired games fall back on to generate interest where, for whatever reason, there isn’t any. There are various and sundry ways to break a wall, of course, and genre has a lot to do with the success of the demolition, so let’s analyze in painstaking detail a few choice examples of how it can succeed or fail.
We’ll stick with our original subject for a second. Spoilers ahoy. Eventually, Thimbleweed Park moves past the winking self-referential humor that games like Monkey Island popularized—even Guybrush Threepwood seemed curiously aware of how much his starring vehicle would cost at retail—and incorporates its existence as a game directly into the plot. The characters you’ve been piloting around their necessarily limited world are made aware that the boundaries of that world are due to software constraints, which also explains why, for instance, the sleepy town of Thimbleweed Park has a population of eighty but a local phone book with thousands of entries. Suddenly, your mission shifts from figuring out who killed that German guy—and honestly, I don’t remember if anybody did figure that out—to quite literally shutting down the game itself and letting your characters pass on to whatever void awaits them. The only way the fourth wall could have been broken any more thoroughly would have been to require you, the human player, to physically hit the power button on your own computer (that’s not what happens, but now that I think about it, that would have been really cool, and I bet Psycho Mantis would have done it).
Given that it totally negates whatever story precedes it, that sort of plot twist is a pretty big ask to a player, and it really only works here because Thimbleweed Park is a Lucasarts-style adventure game that, as genre tradition dictates, gives very few fucks. I’m fine with it—the game is pure fan service, it never even pretends to take itself seriously, I chuckled some good chuckles along the way, and the end-game blitz through the wireframe world was inarguably cool. Still, though, this sort of thing can go horribly wrong.
Like how? Oh, right, like in Star Ocean 3, which was just rereleased for no good reason on modern consoles. It’s not as if Star Ocean 3 ever succeeds in getting across the aura of grim seriousness it’s chasing—the hilarious voice acting tanks those aspirations pretty much immediately, and shit, it was 2003—but it sure as hell tries. Star Ocean 3 wants you to think it’s yarning a grand science-fiction space opera, a tale for the ages that you’ll pass on to your grandchildren when they’re old enough to handle the heaviness. But then it happens, the bomb drops, and the world as your characters know it is vaporized: THEY’RE CHARACTERS IN A VIDEOGAME. Sure, that’s the same plot twist as the one in Thimbleweed Park that I just endorsed, but here it utterly fails to stick the landing. Thimbleweed Park keeps the humor high and the stakes low so that when the twist comes, there’s no real loss. The plot never really mattered. Star Ocean 3, on the other hand, wants desperately for you to care, for you to empathize with these characters down to your marrow, so much so that when the game finally kicks over the fourth wall, it lands with a hefty thud and leaves everyone on both sides of it feeling deeply, profoundly stupid.
You could argue that Star Ocean 3 isn’t a prime example of fourth-wall-breaking, and you might have a point. From what I can remember of the plot—not much, I blocked most of it from my memory as fast as I could—there’s some sort of dubious intergalactic explanation for the twist. As in, the characters aren’t starring in a game that you, the player, are playing, they’re starring in a game that higher-intelligence space creatures within the Star Ocean universe are playing. But, come on—seriously? That’s just an additional layer intended to obfuscate the boring, dumb truth: you’re a person playing a videogame, and the characters you’re controlling are aware that they are living in a videogame. That makes Star Ocean 3 perfectly representative of what happens when game writers knock their story off the rails because they’ve lost interest in it—everything from the twist forward is just a big shoulder shrug, a tacit admission of gloomy failure.
It seems, then, that breaking the fourth wall tastefully is a tricky thing to get right—it’s hard to impart any sort of useful commentary by simply peering around the curtain and outing the wizard (mixed wall-based metaphors, but you get it). It’s not a big red ejection seat button that you pound when you’ve rattled off some slapdash sci-fi fable that hits a dead end, but it’s also not exactly a narrative in and of itself, although Thimbleweed Park halfway gets away with it by remaining steadfastly self-referential from the get-go. But do any games ever really make this work?
Well, Undertale does a pretty good job. The difference is that Undertale is subtle about it. It doesn’t obliterate the fourth wall with a bulldozer and throw a big party for itself and yell about how paradigm-shifting and hilarious it is; it leaves the wall standing and just removes a few bricks so that you can catch a glimpse of the other side if you know where to look. Undertale’s success stems directly from its comprehensive understanding of the genre it’s toying with, and your awareness of the cracks in the fourth wall—and your enjoyment of the game—are likewise a factor of your own level of that same understanding.
The Witcher 3 is parked even further down the subtle scale. At no point does the plot eat itself and turn to look you dead in the face like that of Star Ocean 3, nor is it hyper-aware of its own format like Undertale and Thimbleweed Park, but it does nod in your direction with a massive stream of pop culture references that will only trip your alarm if you happen to be familiar with them. If you’re not, they pass by innocuously like so many fluffy clouds over Touissant, no one the wiser, no one the worse for wear. The story is a hermetically sealed medieval fairy tale with a few anachronistic Easter Eggs for those in the know to enjoy, and it’s all the better because of it.
Of course, there are plenty more examples of games that break the fourth wall—some that do so in crazy-inventive ways—and a number of them achieve some measure of success. There’s a game out there in the wild as we speak that requires you to hack into its own code to progress—that’s some Matrix-level shit, and I think it’s pretty cool! And I don’t want to play it even a little bit. But still, I like that it exists. In most cases, though, the safe bet is to leave that wall alone. I’ll be a human on my side of the wall, you’ll be a videogame on yours, I’ll play you, you’ll get played, and that’ll be the end of our interaction. Better stories are told that way.
When he’s not chained to his desk during the workdays, Lewis Beard is a writer, gamer, and musician living in Atlanta, Georgia. You can check out his thoughts on a wide range of random, possibly compelling topics at run4itmarty.com, and you can bask in the filthy goodness of his music on Bandcamp.