With your help, I’m on a mission to answer the biggest question: what’s the best things in video games? With a wholly sensical face-off between two things each week, we’ll surely soon discover the absolute best thing.
Last week, you decided near-unanimously that mechs are better than leaderboards. Mechs, please stomp on through to the next round of the competition. Some people have noted that I’m picking strange pairings. While I disagree, I am willing to placate them this week with a contest between two directly comparable things. What’s better: running along walls, or breaking the fourth wall?
Parkour! A thrilling freestyle sport questioning architecture and repurposing it on the fly. Parkour! A rich source of ‘fail videos’. Parkour! Because to hell with it, crossing a gap by running along a wall is just cool, okay. I like unconventional movement in games enough that I’m willing to break parkour down into component moves for the purposes of this competition. Combined as a single discipline, perhaps it would be too powerful – the sort of force only mechs could rival.
In many platformers with canned movement points, wall-running is basically another animation for jumping – a cooler animation. I’m cool with that. But in free-moving games like Titanfall 2, wall-running is a joyful expansion of how we commonly understand game spaces. Walls which once merely contained us can now help us reach new heights (and new distances). Very parkour vibes. And wall-running chained with other movement abilities and tricks (I swear I’ll get round to rocket-jumping and such eventually), oh what a joy! That’s the spirit of parkour. Plus it looks cool, y’know.
Breaking the fourth wall
‘Breaking the fourth wall’ is an old theatre term coined in honour of the playwright who was thrown through a Soho pub window for being smug. It refers to fiction which recognises it is fiction, perhaps with characters addressing the audience, or realising they’re not real, or commenting on the creation they’re in.
While I do think that lots of supposed wallbusting actually isn’t because many games only break a fake fourth wall they have erected inside their own fiction, I’ll not get bogged down in quibbling or lecturing. So sure, let’s just say we’re talking about the loose definition which exists in pop culture. You broadly know the thing. It can be quite clever, pleasing, and funny.
Comedy adventure games have a long and proud history of jokes about obtuse puzzles and the devs who created them. The Stanley Parable narrates and argues with our decisions, and even houses a museum dedicated to itself. Horror games from Calendula to Pony Island have us play terrible cursed games that wish us ill. Undertale will needle you. Max Payne and many others have winked at players as characters ponder the horrifying possibility that they might be in a video game. Metal Gear Solid makes us switch controls to defeat the telepathic Psycho Mantis. Many of Nathalie Lawhead’s games expose the form as we poke around websites and dive into folders. Sonic the Hedghog will tap his foot impatiently and stare at the screen if you leave him idle. Let’s throw in Kingsway, the RPG played across fake Windows pop-ups. Loading screen tips in Spec Ops: The Line become increasingly horrific as your character’s mental state deteriorates. The Deadpool game, well, has Deadpool. I’ll stop reeling off examples, safe in the knowledge that you, reader dear, will be keen to share ones you like.
But which is better?
Breaking the fourth wall can be great. I’ve enjoyed a lot of wallbusting. But goodness me, too much is unfunny, tedious, or irritating. Contrary to what many games apparently believe, it isn’t inherently genius. But wall-running? I’ve never run along a wall then wished I hadn’t.
Disclosure: Though we’ve not spoken in yonks, yyyeah I’d consider myself pals with one of the Stanley Parable devs.