In media, there is something called “the fourth wall,” and it’s the invisible wall that separates the work and its creator from the audience, the line between fantasy and reality. Every once in a while, though, it is broken. The work becomes conscious of itself as a work of fiction, it becomes aware that there’s an audience paying attention to it.

And this is not anything new. In fact, an ancient example would be a particular scene in the classic Greek play, THE FROGS by Aristophanes. Two characters, Dionysus and Xanthias, are in the underworld when Dionysus says to Xanthias, “But tell me, did you see the parricides / And perjured folk he mentioned?” After Xanthias questions whether Dionysus saw these souls himself, Dionysus replied, “Poseidon, yes. Why look! I see them now!” And during these lines, he points to the audience.

Oh, Dionysus, you ham.

Often times, when a piece of media, or even a series of media, achieves this level of consciousness, we call it “meta”. Meta, when referencing works of fiction, comes from the term meta-reference and has become the word of choice when referencing self-aware fictional characters. It’s the jokester winking at the camera, the villain whispering something to the audience.

Fast forward a bit to Elizabethan England. Shakespeare was a big fan of breaking the fourth wall. He usually implemented this technique with the aside. An aside is when a character speaks to the audience directly, often outside of earshot of other characters. In this instance, there is a sort of understanding between the speaking character and the audience and it often creates tension. The audience knows just a little bit more than some characters but is on the same page with others.

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Take OTHELLO. Throughout the play, Iago, the adversary of the play’s namesake, steps out of the frame and lets the audience in on his scheme to bring about Othello’s demise. The audience is helpless. We watch, knowing full well every trick and sleight of hand and yet, there’s nothing we can do about it. We are the audience. The fourth wall can only be broken one way. Sure, an audience member can climb on stage, grab Othello by the shoulders and tell him the truth but this would be ruining the show for everyone.

In a way, to allow the show to continue, the audience becomes complicit in the tragedy. It gives the audience a sense of urgency while at the same time providing a kind of spoiler for them. We know what’s going to happen, we know who the traitor is. And that makes watching the unfolding events that much more tragic.

Don’t trust him, he can’t even teach Defense Against the Dark Arts

Fast forwarding again to something a bit more contemporary, the TV show SUPERNATURAL is known to, essentially, obliterate the fourth wall and leave it in the dust. In one instance, the show makes references to itself in the form of an Easter egg (hidden treats for audiences who are in the know) in season two, episode eighteen, “Hollywood Babylon”. In this episode, in addition to other gags like visiting the set of GILMORE GIRLS, which SUPERNATURAL actor Jared Padalecki appeared in, there was a poster for Carnivore Carnival which uses a scene from a previous episode, “Everybody Loves a Clown” of the same season.

Another contemporary example would be the most recent installment of the STAR WARS universe, ROGUE ONE. In the days following its release, there was, and in some corners of the internet still is, a trending conspiracy that the film was anti-Trump propaganda.

A previously unreleased shot of Darth Vader from ROGUE ONE.

Disney, the company that owns the rights to STAR WARS, has never confirmed this when it became viral. The idea that the movie was a response to Trump and his campaign was a reaction to a tweet sent out by STAR WARS writer Chris Weitz in which he “gently” reminded his audience of the “subtle” dynamics of the movie: an imperialist regime led by white men being fought against by minorities. The tweet has since been deleted but not before some Good Samaritan screenshotted it for the rest of us.

Thank god for screenshots.

What’s interesting about this man stepping from behind the curtain is that what he stated in his tweet wasn’t exactly new or groundbreaking. STAR WARS has always been a direct condemnation of imperialism and power based on hate and fear. More specifically, the original STAR WARS films based their Bad Guys off the Nazis. From the shape of Darth Vader’s helmet to the gray uniform of various officers, STAR WARS has never shied away from making a statement. And with STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS, they were laying it on pretty thick with the blood red flags sweeping over Empire outposts.

What’s an allegory?

What has changed is the direct access fans now have with writers, directors, and others involved with their chosen media. With social media’s potential to launch even the shortest statement to go viral, fans are going to know what the creators of their favorite things are thinking, should the media creator decide to share it. In a way, it brings about the death of “death of the author”, a theory in which the audience of a work is to assume the author is dead, regardless of their actual pulse. When the author is “dead”, the audience cannot simply ask the author what their interpretation of their own work is. We must make it ourselves based on what is presented and if it’s completely off from what the author intended then, well, it’s too bad, so sad for the author. Maybe they should have done a better job at explaining themselves, so the theory goes.

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The line between creator and consumer doesn’t always have to reflect the actual plot of the work. Sometimes, it’s in the form of the consumer taking on the role of creator. This is apparent in mod creators. A mod is an expansion or, if there are bugs, a correction to a video game, usually created by fans of the game itself. One prominent example is SKYRIM, a game that, while over five years old now, is still getting mods created for it and has even recently gotten an entire makeover done by Bethesda, the company that made SKYRIM, themselves.

Often, it is said that video games and the mod community go hand in hand. Companies may not have the time to release an update to address different bugs for different systems. This is where a mod creator steps in. Different mod creators can create different mods that help different situations.

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One time where the blurring of lines between creator and consumer got too muddled was when Valve tried to start offering SKYRIM mods through their Steam Workshop for a fee. The company expressed their sentiment as wanting to reward the mod creators for their work. The community saw it as a blow to the spirit of creation and sharing. While the idea was nice, even the money the mod would receive would have been minimal. With Valve and Bethesda splitting a whopping 75% of the profit, the leftover 25% would have gone to the creator. It seemed pointless for the creator and a bit of a money grab for the other parties. The idea was shot down pretty hard and didn’t take off. But what it did do was point out the disconnect between the game’s creators and those who actually played the game, something that both Valve and Bethesda had previously thought they had in the bag (and this ignorance of their own ignorance points out the disconnect even further.)

I mean, the fact that this wasn’t added in the remastered version just goes to show how little Bethesda really understands us.

When this barrier between creator and consumer is broken down, it invites the consumer to participate in the art. It allows the consumer to take on part of the responsibilities of the creator and gives them a sense of power, even if it as limited as knowing a few juicy bits of gossip or rearranging some groundwork. It connects the audience to the author or artist not just through the product but through the work as well.

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