With the appearance of VR we can for the first time talk about passing rather than breaking through the Fourth Wall. In this article we explore what made it possible.
The concept of the “the fourth wall” in the theater world refers to an imaginary wall between the actors and the audience. When an actor directly addresses the audience, the fourth wall “breaks”. This technique is used to better connect the audience to the events happening on the stage. A similar approach is used in literature, cinema and video games. But after VR head-mounted displays came on the scene, the idea of the fourth wall got an interesting twist. Now, instead of watching what is going in a game on the screen, one is directly involved in the virtual action. What made it possible?
Space is the crucial element contributing to the elimination of the fourth wall in VR. There is no computer screen in front of our eyes anymore, no distance between the observer and a person being observed. We find ourselves fully immersed in the virtual world.
For example, In Lucky’s Tale for Oculus Rift, the player controls a funny little fox, and is present in the game world as an invisible observer who follows the game’s main character.
The camera is located above Lucky’s head, allowing the player to feel like a giant in a colorful world. At the same time, the headset’s tracking system tracks the user’s head movements in space, which allows a gamer to get closer or farther away from any object in the scene. And if one leans toward Lucky, he immediately notices the player, moves back and stumbles, cutely landing on his bottom and completely surprised that the player is so huge. It is hard to describe the impressions of this moment. When the game character sees the player and the player has a physical impact on the game, the effect of presence in the scene is incredibly powerful.
Eliminating spacial boundaries between the player and the game world is important but not the only part of breaking-the-fourth-wall-quest.
Game concept and plot also greatly contribute to eliminating the fourth wall in virtual reality.
Consider the following conceptual questions: is there still an invisible wall between the player and character he or she controls? How does the player affect the character and the game world? Is the gamer truly playing another role, or is he or she the same gamer from the real world, who just found him or herself inside another space? In other words, if we consider the first person game, does the gamer control a protagonist or is the gamer a character in the story? These are some of the central conceptual issues relating to the game concept and the plot and the answers to them can vary depending on the developer’s vision.
We have already seen how justified presence and the gamer affecting the game world is used in computer games such as Omikron or The Stanley Parable. But today VR developers have more possibilities to break through the fourth wall from a conceptual point of view and to completely remove it, if needed. The gamer can either play a role of some character, or remain him or herself, solving different tasks as if he or she really encountered them.
For example, creating unique «experiences» has already become an established VR trend. They are most frequently represented as a simple demo without any complicated mechanics, and are focused on the idea of immersing one in VR and revealing VR’s potential through a virtual environment’s design and interactivity. Some examples are below:
In many experiences, one preserves his or her identity. The player does not play the part of a character, but is instead “carried” to and immersed in another space, either as an unnoticeable observer or as an active participant. This seemingly natural and obvious application of VR technology can be illustrated more eloquently and profoundly through storytelling.
Instead of letting a player try various roles, developers can create a story directly involving the gamer, justifying their appearance in the game world and turning them into the main character of gameplay thereby erasing any boundaries between the real and the virtual. Just imagine a young student or young manager from the real life “accidentally” finding themselves in the thick of the action, discovering portals to parallel universes or creating a time machine. Even the VR headset itself and the way it is used by the player can be justified by the narrative that unfolds within the set environment.
Both space and concept of the VR experience can contribute to eliminating the fourth wall in VR. However, one does not have to use this trick in every VR project. In many cases we don’t need to break through any walls. Many people enjoy playing different roles or acting as observers controlling game characters. What is more, some ideas in the sphere of storytelling and gameplay can only be implemented provided the gamer impacts the game world directly from the “outside”. That said, VR now gives developers another powerful tool to interact with users, and the power to use it lies in the hands of the developers.
In this article we focus primarily on computer games, but many aspects of this topic are also relevant to 360 videos.
Denis Tambovtsev, Natasha Floksy and Olga Peshé