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?
The unintended horror
You’re familiar with it, I’m sure: weird sounds coming from a badly light room, a street lamp fizzing as you pass by it while all others remain lit up, a road suddenly invaded by fog as the radio goes haywire and distorted voices come out of the airwaves. Are these things scary? Maybe you’ve heard too many urban myths around campfires to be impressed. Or maybe there’s some manner of fear that leaves you wondering if the reality you know is being distorted.
What is fear, though? The gaming industry, eager to slap genres in boxes and conquer more market space, has made “horror” titles grounded in phobias such as giant spiders and global viruses, or reduced the macabre to postcards of entertainment with typical jaunts into sewers, haunted houses and mine shafts. The main problem with most of these games is that they work by mimesis of other mediums, treating fear as a fairground attraction you forget once the ride is over. Bleeding walls, the door knob that turns, an abomination chasing you down a corridor – these usually fail because they are detached from the context that makes them scary.
The zombie that slowly turns its head toward players in the first Resident Evil has been chosen by many as one of gaming’s scariest moments. A zombie is a reinvestigation of primal fear – from Capcom’s slower creatures to 28 Days Later‘s agile brain munchers, the core concept is that of something that mocks life both in a religious (no peace upon death) and social (our daily existence reduced to mindless routine) context. When the concept works, it does so because we feel repulsed by the very thought of existing like that. When it doesn’t, it’s because we’re not being engaged to think about it. The shock and awe provoked by RE’s zombie wasn’t caused by it being a zombie but, arguably, because it was the first time a videogame tried to recreate one with a higher visual fidelity. Even if it was someone’s first glimpse of the creature, the rest of the game is spent hacking, shooting, burning and decapitating the hordes: the unknown suddenly grew too familiar, too comfortable to become memorable or terrifying.
Meanwhile the Pyramid Head, the faceless and relentless executioner that gives chase to protagonist James Sunderland in Silent Hill 2, is often regarded as one of gaming’s best villains. Here lies the problem: the real villain of Konami’s horror title was James. Returning to the town of Silent Hill, chasing a MacGuffin in the form of a letter written by his deceased wife Mary, James is chased by remorse, insecurity and guilt. Players are lead to believe his wife died of an illness but near the end of our journey, we realize that the character we’ve been controlling for hours was responsible for her death. Silent Hill 2 explores its predecessor’s theme of a town that serves as a biblical limbo of sorts, trapping people in it and forcing them to confront their fears. But it’s not until that moment in the hotel by the lake, watching a videotape of his wife dying, that we realize James was her killer.
Unlike the zombie that never engages the player to think of it as anything other than a mere vessel for violence, the revelation of James’ actions is profoundly unsettling. Why? Because we bought into James’ suffering, or because we took the character as our own? Maybe because we spent hours convinced of playing the victim rather than the aggressor? Here’s what I think:
Horror needs intimacy to work.
Videogames create boundaries and require players to know them, to become intimate with them. What Silent Hill 2 did was create a boundary then deteriorated what you knew of it right in front of our eyes, forcing you to reevaluate the entire experience, and this effect on a virtual space’s rules was discomforting and a powerful agent of fear. But beyond plot twists, visual effects or the typical jump scare, there is another way videogames can provoke this feeling in players: with the glitch.
Error or intention?
Other mediums have done their best to portray a sense of fear and panic, of course. In film, this is achieved through various effects, chief among them having the camera suggest it’s showing the perspective of a manifestation of danger – a victim seen by the eyes of the serial killer, the supernatural force that works in the shadow and manipulates things, the scenery that oppresses someone on metaphorical and visual levels. While these and other techniques work, not all mediums successfully take audiences away their comfort zone; movies like The Prestige and Inception spend much time explaining to the audience what they are seeing, thus limiting their expectations and disconfort (that both movies were directed by Christopher Nolan may or may not be related).
When they do work, you have things like Twin Peaks. In the first episode, agent Cooper asks a doctor to leave him so he can inspect Laura Palmer’s body. The actor misheard the line and instead of leaving said his name, “Jim”. An awkward pause and the same request asked again, the actor apologizes and leaves. Director David Lynch thought it was so surreal that he decided to leave it unedited. This was subtle and fantastic: it left the audience wondering what had just happened. Here we had what seemed to be a traditional story, a traditional setting, a traditional scene and dialogue. Suddenly, a small twist on those expectations caused people to rethink what they were witnessing. In a way, it was very much like a glitch: the system didn’t execute its function properly but corrected itself, continuing to work as expected.
The term “emergent gameplay” has come to describe games where, by exploring rules systems and their possibilities, it’s possible to do things that the designers and programmers never imagined possible. Glitches are cut out of the same cloth and can manifest in any game, but usually behave in different ways. An example of emergent gameplay would be Super Metroid, where learning the timing of bombs set off while in Morph Ball form would allow players to “bomb jump” and reaching places usually seen as impossible, or beyond the full reach of their current abilities (example: reaching a platform with bomb blasts instead of coming back later with the Hi-Jump Boots). An example of a glitch would be Street Fighter II, where it was possible to interrupt animations by executing other attacks, therefore generating attack combinations – Capcom later revised this problem and made combos valid options in the rules. Incidentally, this was how the fighting “genre” was born: understanding the potential of the glitch in the system.
Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem had a sanity meter which would reflect a character’s grip on reality. Bleeding walls, finding oneself in a room’s ceiling instead of the floor or sound effects such as children screaming would test a character’s nerve, and could reduce him or her to a helpless state. While ingenious they grew less impressive over time – most of them were aimed at the character, who would react independently of the players’ wishes, and many were reversible. It was when the game acted as if controllers had been unplugged or how it simulated someone using a TV remote to lower the sound that players felt genuinely disturbed, because it was suggesting it was the player’s own experience which was being manipulated. It’s not simply a question of losing progress stored in a saved game but how one understands progress being made while playing. Still, they were built into the game in a manner that simulated a glitch but were entirely intentional.
What if a videogame made glitches an integral part of the experience – constantly introducing quirks to its boundaries and growing into something unexpected, but never letting players in on the secret? Built to glitch, so to speak?
We already have detailed guides and lists of glitches, carefully examining their specifics, suggesting how to best break games by using them. We’re already comfortable enough with glitches to use them beyond gaming, such as the case of glitch art: turning digital errors into a new kind of aesthetic, transforming data miscommunication into a new form of communication. Is it viable to reinterpret the glitch as a new (unintend) form of communication in games themselves? Here are some interesting examples:
*Play Fallout 3 long enough and you will inevitably confront Super Mutants and Pitt Raiders. When killed, a kink in the pyshics system might see them frozen or twitching in the air with their limbs horribly stretched or distorted.
What if a game presented enemies whose behaviour routines were meant to be this way? Here are similar glitches in F.E.A.R. 2: Project Origin and Left 4 Dead:
In a game like Fallout 3 the twisting models can be seen as a simple glitch. Yet, in titles like F.E.A.R. 2 and L4D, with horror elements at work, what constitutes terror and a system fault? In literature and film we learn of posessed objects moving in similar ways, of the dead that won’t remain quite dead, of the pure, undilluted notion of the unexpected. Could these events, otherwise laughed at, be considered serious enough to be a part of a more profound experience – in a horror game or otherwise? What happens when the glitch, such as in the above cases, is more powerful than the intention?
*If you load a saved game for Heroes of Might and Magic V with the 1.1 patch applied, you may be on the receiving end of garbled text.
This means that the entire game runs the risk of becoming impenetrable, its entire body of text now inscrutable. What if this wasn’t a glitch at all? Let’s look at Legacy of Kain‘s Blood Script (a fictional language), White Knight Chronicles‘ japanese version (a real language) and Heroes V’s technical issue (a garbled language), respectively.
All of these languages – real, fictional, garbled – have a consistent inner logic but in practical terms they all present a challenge to the player: a system which may or may not be suited to a player’s knowledge, a barrier waiting to be broken. “Cracking” the Japanese language is basically learning its patterns and symbols until you translate it into something you can understand. The same is applied to Nosgoth’s fictional language. Is it any different with the garbled text? In practical terms, there isn’t a difference.
If the idea of the glitch hadn’t been implanted on us, what would we believe them to be? Would we dismiss these as errors or valid expressions of the system?
*Other documented glitches – and the ways they’re filtered by gamers – include:
1) A damaged cartridge of The Legend of Zelda might result in graphics broken down into their most basic levels, almost simulating the aesthetics of Atari 2600 games.
Meanwhile, there is a trick in Super Mario RPG that lets players momentarily change Mario into his 8-bit version.
Only the second is well received, yet both situations are a throwback to the older days of gaming.
2) A Wii can produce graphical glitches in Resident Evil 4.
Meanwhile, the last stage in Castlevania Bloodlines has a visual distortion effect created to confuse players (I suggest you skip to 0:32).
Only the second is well received, yet both situations directly affect the way a player perceives the game.
3) Compare Soldner‘s pathfinding that sees tank drivers make no effort to avoid gas tanks versus Gloria, a character in Where Time Stood Still, not leaving her husband’s corpse after he was killed by a pterodactyl.
Both are examples of pathfinding that provoke an unintended reaction in the audience. Soldner’s core as a “serious”, militaristic shooter is undone by its string of comedic and surreal events. In John Walker’s words, “it’s a terrible game whose redeeming features are its bugs – it’s performance art, improvised comedy, terrible coding. It will always hold a place in my heart and a space on my hard drive”. Unintentionally, it’s comedic value alone is greater than many games attempting to be humourous. On the other hand, Where Time Stood Still’s pathfinding accidentally gives players a different reading about its characters – emotion, once expressed through speech, could now be infered through the character’s unwillingness to move. As Kieron Gillen notes, “Now, as an adult, I’m aware it could just be the ghost in the machine. Its pathfinding was never great at the best of times, and it could have just got a little confused. But that doesn’t matter – that pang that ran through me, that minor-key recognition of unexpected humanity in a sprite’s behaviour is the sort of thing which helped cement my belief in the potential of games”.
What is necessary for the glitch to stand head and shoulders with conscious design? Recently two games had me wondering where this could go in different ways.
*Rom Check Fail is a mash-up of games and play mechanics, grounded both in familiarity and weirdness. It’s immediately recognizable thanks to its recreation of Super Mario Bros., The Legend of Zelda and Gauntlet, among others, and completely steeped into the history of the glitch: not only because many gamers experienced their first glitches with NES games, the simplistic visuals suddenly turned into fractured and chaotic landscapes, but because it deconstructs the meaning of the glitch and recontextualizes it as a pure gaming mechanic rather than an incovenience or a problem. One minute you’re playing as 8-bit Link, who can attack and move in four directions, fighting Goombas, who suffer the effects of gravity and bounce off obstacles just like in old Mario games; the next you’re the spaceship of Space Invaders, with movement fixed to a horizontal plane, fending off ghosts from Gauntlet, who can move in all directions. These transitions, born out of small graphical and sound errors, constantly update the game’s own language and redefine its boundaries. One’s experience is being constantly manipulated, even if mechanics have an internal logic.
If we didn’t know this was how the game operated beforehand, would we see it as a glitch or a mechanic?
*Dwarf Fortress is gaming at its finest; that it isn’t played by more people is a testament to how gamers have fallen prey to condescending tutorials, high definition graphics and “me too” play mechanics (though I’m betting some, like me, don’t play it out of fear of never being able to let go). It’s a small big wonder, with hundreds of rules and factors collaborating in unpredictable ways – the world is constantly evolving, soil erosion is simulated, characters can die of hunger if unattended to, gravity and fluids have their own systems. Things like accidental flooding, an abnormal growth of cat population overtaking a fortress, dwarves going insane and killing everyone else are just the tip of the iceberg (you can find some illustrated accounts of some two of game sessions, Bronzemurdered and Oil Furnace, by Tim Denee; yes, all of that can happen in the game).
In this case the language and boundaries of the game are always consistent, but the play mechanics are constantly producing outcomes so unique which, at first contact, are as unexpected and unpredictable as a glitch. To the unsuspecting, any consequence can be seen as a ghost in the machine, as something that’s not right.
If we didn’t know this was how the game operated beforehand, would we see it as a mechanic or a glitch?
Let’s think back to Silent Hill, about some of the common elements between the series in particular: the spasmodic movements of the nurses, the shifts between reality and the Otherworld, the unexplainable sounds in some of the areas. Remarkably, these are analogous to some of the most common glitches in videogames – character animations played out of sequence, area transitions that lead us into wrong places or corrupt textures in an area, and irregular sound playback.
If we didn’t know this was how the games operated beforehand, would we see these as mere glitches or as defining elements of Silent Hill?
Not a New Glitch Manifesto
Glitches are traditionally seen – sometimes rightly so – as impediments to our progress in videogames. Doors that won’t open, characters that won’t talk, garbled text and saved games lost forever are examples of when it goes bad. But the threat of a videogame world breaking down as you explore it, making you vulnerable to its inexorable tide of uncertainty and corruption, is far more mesmerizing than a videogame world always eager to remind you of its safety, its design too afraid to present failure without fail-safes, its virtual space always unwilling to cut the strings of our safety net. While some games and authors are certainly imaginative, is it possible the medium’s potential to challenge us and to stimulate our imaginations is stronger when the ghosts in the machine rebel against their predetermined functions?
Surrealist landscapes, defying the laws of physics, impossible feats of strength and true horror have been promised in marketing campaigns and features printed in the back of a box, but most games of today still shy away from truly achieving that. When a glitch manifests in a way that actually offers these elements, we dismiss it. It comes naturally after years of being exposed to the glitch, of documenting errors and programming oversights. Unfortunately, we’ve come to laugh at their effects or use them as a gateway to personal rewards – a metagaming activity ready to serve us with infinite experience points and virtual currencies, among others – instead of welcoming them as a reminder that the sanitized videogame experiences of today could learn from a time when designers weren’t always there for us; that their creativity and commitment was found in the intention to surprise us rather than necessarily the safety of the code.
In 1975, Brian Eno and painter Peter Schmidt created Oblique Strategies, a set of postcards with over one hundred “worthwhile dilemmas” meant to be taken as random ideas to be used in times of creative indecision. Among all the postcards, now in their fifth edition, was the following suggestion:
“Honour thy error as a hidden intention”.
Is it possible we can look unto the glitch in the same way?