Wizards, Glass, and Computer Chips: What ‘The Dark Tower’ Can Teach Us About Gaming’s Fourth Wall

I have recently taken to listening to Stephen King’s The Dark Tower series at work. Audiobooks don’t make the day go any faster, but they at least feel slightly more productive than listening to music or putting Netflix on in the background for a straight eight hours. That, and it feels like the only way that I get any reading done.

Having just closed the last audio file on the second book in the series, The Drawing of the Three, two impressions fill my mind. The first is that I can’t fathom what the objection would be to making a videogame out of this series, as it’s so obviously organized like an adventure RPG, party recruitment and all. The second is that Drawing of the Three provides an excellent analogy for understanding point of view in gaming and gaming’s fourth wall.

He turned the knob. The door opened toward him when he pulled.

Of all the things he might have expected, this was not any of them.

The gunslinger looked, froze, uttered the first scream of terror in his adult life, and slammed the door (Stephen King, The Dark Tower II: The Drawing of the Three, 1987).

What the gunslinger, Roland, has discovered is a door that serves as a portal into not just a nearby parallel reality, but the impossible perspective from inside another person’s head. After coming to grips with seeing through another set of eyes, Roland crosses through the door and enters the other’s mind.

What happens then is peculiar, nothing quite so simple as a Being John Malkovich-style of voyeurism but a persistent give-and-take, as Roland assumes all or partial control of his host Eddie’s body and Eddie in turn is eventually made aware of Roland’s presence in his head. As these things tend to go in narratives, the two men begin to rely on each other to see themselves through the current situation, but the way King describes their symbiosis materially is probably most interesting:

[Eddie] had looked back over his shoulder and there it had been, improbable but indubitably, inarguably real, floating along at a distance of about three feet. He could see the waves rolling steadily in, crashing on the sand; he saw that the day over there was beginning to darken.

The door was like one of those trick pictures with a hidden image in them, it seemed; you couldn’t see that hidden part for the life of you at first, but once you had, you couldn’t unsee it, no matter how hard you tried.

Eddie, whose first-person perspective is inhabited by Roland when the latter passes through the door, is made aware of the point of contact between them in this way. The door acts like a literal gap in the fourth wall, making a character from an inner, virtual world aware of what lies beyond him.

This imagery struck me when Brendan Keogh concurrently began sharing his thoughts on gaming’s fourth wall over Google+. I have him at a bit of an advantage here, as he was writing extemporaneously and primarily for a small audience of fellow game studies colleagues, but I find his observations salient (and very exciting) nevertheless: “it is through the playable character that the player crosses the fourth-wall of the videogame to enter the fictional world of the game. […] the playable character and the player are not one and the same. There is a distance between them even while they are intimately related” (Brendan Keogh, “A Thesis Related Incoherent Ramble: The Player/Character Relationship as a Videogame’s Fourth Wall”, Google+, 14 July 2011).

Keogh relates this to Janet Murray’s example in Hamlet on the Holodeck (1997) and what I would call a tension threshold between the player and playable character. The game she mentions in particular may well be considered obscure but as Keogh notes “the exact same could be said of Sonic the Hedgehog” so I’ll reproduce his modifications in brackets here:

When my son puts down the game controller for a moment, [Sonic] glares out from the screen and begins to tap his foot and wave impatiently. This engaging comic gesture emphasizes the boundary between the puppet controlled by the player and the written character. It is almost as if the programmer within the system is waving at us, but doing so in a manner that deepens rather than disrupts the immersive world. (Janet Murray, Hamlet on the Holodeck, Free Press, 1997, 105)

We get moments similar to this in King’s novel, as Eddie probes beseechingly in his mind for Roland’s guiding presence. Unlike a game character he is not helpless as a puppet without Roland’s input but he grows dependent even so, suspecting that “in time he could love him” just as he’s grown co-dependent on his older brother. Again, it’s the element of tension I find especially thrilling about this dynamic between Eddie and Roland — in which the two develop a feedback system never quite reproduced later in the novel when they interact as separate bodies.

Eddie Dean is not simply an avatar for the player Roland. He is an individual who comes under Roland’s control and later enters a partnership with him, one in which he gives his body up in service to him even while remaining physically in control. The idea of the same scenes in the novel playing out without any of Eddie’s backstory as a drug addict, a dyed-in-the-wool New Yorker, and a clingy younger brother seems inconceivable. Yet we’re inundated with bland, blank slates for protagonists in so many of our modern games, even ones which purport to be about “immersing” the player in a virtual world.

“Immersion” is, of course, a bit of a dead subject in games studies these days — a buzzword if it was ever anything more than that. I still like it but generally with respect to aesthetics moreso than narrative necessarily. I also find Keogh’s current explorations of the subject for the sake of his thesis quite arresting, precisely because they are just that little bit retro (further retro than the exhausting formalism debates of the mid-naughties, in fact). I enjoy where Keogh seems to be heading with this. And if, as he says, player characters are the doorways by which we observe and then enter into virtual worlds — the actual point at which the fourth wall punctures — then giving those characters defined personalities is not resistant at all but just the opposite.

Or in other words, given two integral statements about gaming — that “immersion” of some manner occurs and that the player always holds himself separate from the character — then the trick isn’t to erase the boundary between player and character but highlight this interplay. Not to make characters who are shells for the player to fill but to create creatures and individuals worth caring about.

Contrast Roland’s symbiotic, trusting interaction with Eddie with the sociopathic trail of destruction he causes through the character Jack Mort later in the book (a personality he can’t identify with, who in fact, he openly despises, and thus treats as a means to an end):

But because Mort was a monster — worse, than Detta Walker ever had been or could be — he made no effort to explain or speak at all. He could hear the man’s clamorings — Who are you? What’s happening to me? — but disregarded them. The gunslinger concentrated on his short list of necessities, using the man’s mind with no compunction at all. The clamorings became screams of terror. The gunslinger went right on disregarding them.

The only way he could remain in the worm-pit which was this man’s mind was to regard him as no more than a combination atlas and encyclopedia. Mort had all the information Roland needed.

How familiar this scene is to gamers, this way of seeing the bodies we inhabit as groups of systems and tool sets. That the ensuing action in Mort’s body is more akin to something out of Grand Theft Auto than Eddie Dean’s L.A. Noire-esque interrogation encounter should be no surprise to us. It grows all the more farcical when Roland strips Mort to his underwear, sets him on fire, and hurtles him to his death with just an instant to retreat back to his own world with stolen plunder. Clearly, this is a character the player has no empathy for. Funny (for us) and cathartic (for Roland and Susannah) as it may be, it keeps the world Roland is visiting permanently at arm’s length.

Let’s go back to the Sonic example, or rather what became a Sonic example with Keogh’s modification. Sonic has attitude, a distinct personality which is communicated in part by animations that break the fourth wall. He looks out at the player through the screen, but the way he does so does not shatter suspension of disbelief because players don’t forget that they are in the act of playing, but instead this moment acknowledges a sort of dual reality created by play. It’s not far removed from the door lingering just over Eddie Dean’s shoulder.


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