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?
Isn’t That Spatial? Every video game has certain benefits and constraints in the way it represents space. Interaction fiction, arcade titles, 2D side-scrollers, isometric RPGs, and first person shooters all have advantages and disadvantages to how they deal with space–some technical in nature, some design-based. This month’s topic invites you to explore the ways games have represented the spatial nature of their storyworlds and what this does for the audience experience. Is it possible to ignore the constancy of spatial relationships in a graphical game? What would such a game look like? Are there ways of representing spatial relationships that we haven’t explored? Do you have ideas for games that could intentionally twist the player’s perception of space, or do you want to write about a game that already has?
I had a good intro lined up but Lose/Lose ate it. In lieu of that, I’ll just say that my plan is to follow up on Corvus’ topic for this month’s Blogs of the Round Table and discuss how the choice of perspective has helped certain games’ themes or genres by framing, limiting or exploring spatial awareness and their relationships with players in several ways.
Comments Off Reverse Psychology
This month’s Round Table challenges you to design a game that deals with a social issue that personally troubles you. The recent months have seen controversy sweep through the video game industry. Whether people are objecting to the use of imagery widely considered to evoke racial stereotypes, or to the gameplay based on violent sexual crimes, or to the fact that anyone would complain about either topic–the discussion has been fierce. This month, contributors to the Round Table are invited to design a game that focuses on racism, rape, domestic violence, cruelty to animals, genocide, or any other serious, and potentially hot-button, topic.
In some ways, videogames are unlike any other medium. My favorite aspect, among others, is the way in which they can create an experimental landscape for our fantasies. The result can be seen in most games, from the extensive worlds of Bethesda’s The Elder Scrolls series which appeal to the explorer in us, to the power fantasies of most titles in the role-playing genre. I find this comes with both a blessing and a curse. As much as there are positive examples of the medium’s potential – in the form of collaborative story-telling, for example, and how one can play the roles of characters that were once exclusive to the domains of tabletop RPGs; or to develop friendship networks across social games – there are also games in which the goal, theme or mechanics are conducive to a certain kind of exploratory playground that I find, at best, questionable.
The violence depicted in games like Grand Theft Auto is mostly misinterpreted by the media and non-gamers; to be sure, there is blood and depictions of violence but these are, for the most part, caricatures of a culture of violence that seems ironically pervasive as it seems unnoticed by fervent politicians and concerned parents. How to turn that into a lesson?