Notes on unintended horror, spook stories, glitches vs. intention
(The following article contains mild and strong spoilers about Silent Hill 2 and Eternal Darkness)
Here’s a spook story if you want to believe one.
The setting is Rebellion’s 1999 Alien vs. Predator, along the halls of the Derelict level as an Alien. This is considered a bonus level, only unlocked after playing through several levels of the main singleplayer game.
After I bought the game I couldn’t put it down, playing it for hours, days, months. I wouldn’t let go until I was clocking levels with the Alien at blinding speeds, learning the optimal pathways and moves for each scenario. 360ing those walls and hallways was a thrill Descent never quite got right and I’d spend entire days playing as a xenomorph, taunting Marines and civilians while also striving to unlock options such as a long range head munch, which is like the equivalent of being an Alien sniper.
The taunting came back with a vengeance, though. I remember one day I had played it continuously for hours and my computer was whizzing like a sputtering Sopwith. But I was having too much fun making playthings out of the humans, lurking in the shadows, blitzkrieging Marines then running away; I could hear their screams echo across the corridors as I ran away to avoid gunfire. At some point, something happened. The Marines were starting to scream and run away more often.
They did this when I was miles away from them.
A juvenile “wtf?” crossed my mind and I decided to investigate, all the while still engaging in scare tactics and the ocasional meal. I distinctively remember seeing something I hadn’t witnessed up until that point: a Marine dropping his pulse rifle and running away. That “wtf?” was now coming on in capital letters. Other soldiers were more valiant, running up at close range and shooting point blank. A quick whirl of my black tail and some feeding frenzies later I chose to pursue the Marine that got away. By now everything was breaking down into chaos, the Marines whelping, screaming, begging for mercy, shooting at everything and nothing. Perched atop some freaky 1990′s geometry, I couldn’t understand any of that. Suddenly, in the distance, I saw the one that got away, his hands over his head like a hostage running for his life in a Ghost Recon game. I chased him all across the map for several minutes, then lost him, then found him again – cowering near a door. I inched up to him, crawling silently. When I got close enough I let go of the crouch button, standing tall in a reenactment of the creatures in the movies. Shivering, breathing heavily, he slowly turned around and screamed.
The game froze but the scream kept going.
And going until I had to do a hard reset.
Nowadays its geometry may be simplistic, the Marines’ facial expressions may be laughable, but that fear when confronted with the unexpected was very powerful. I barely touched the game since then and no one I know who played the game ever experienced this glitch; attempts to replicate it have been met with failure as well. The unintended horror was magnificent and to a degree, a lot scarier than what the game had to offer. And this could only happen in a game – where we’re more likely to believe there are ghosts in the machine. Over at Five Players, Rich McCormick wrote about how spook stories are now emerging from videogames, replacing campfire tales with perversions of childhood memories we have of games, and now they’re being shared online. In some cases they’re glitches, staged in a way that enthrall audiences.
What can the glitch do for videogames, other than bring personal benefit into breaking a game? Considering AvP’s glitch, what if it had been intended to work that way, to show a different kind of cause and effect, of narrative potencial? What if it had been consciously applied to other games? It would take keen storytellers and designers to turn the intention into a glitch. After all, if it’s not spontaneous and unpredictable it’s no longer a glitch – just a predetermined function waiting to be triggered. It’s the side effect, rather than intended use, that make it a glitch. But can game design learn anything with the glitch?