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Gaming Weirdness: Thoughts On Glitches

By Whole Milk, 12/07/2011 - 3:30pm
I've been confronted recently with a lot of great games. Coming hand in hand with these, however, have been what people in the gaming community insist on referring to as "glitches." If you were to head over to IGN right now, you would see two front page articles about these "glitches," one about Skyrim and one about Skyward Sword, both of which have abnormalities that are potentially game breaking. I'm feeling like playing devil's advocate today, so I'm going to take some time to deconstruct (in the most basic way) what is wrong with referring to these things as "glitches," and how looking at them differently can actually (hopefully) start an interesting conversation about that nature of gaming. First things first: the word glitch is just an easy excuse for what amounts to a mistake on the game studios part, though even that definition is somewhat reductive. The thing is, these "glitches" are only perceived by the user as they relate to some sort of imagined game experience that does not in fact exist. There is no such thing as a PS3 Skryim in which framerate is consistent once the save file surpasses 6MB.
That is not a glitch, it is simply the way that Skyrim plays. That is Skyrim. It is what we payed $60 for and what was consciously presented to us by Bethesda. So, instead of excusing it away, let's look at it at face value. This particular anomaly drastically affects the ludonarrative of the game (meaning the experience that the player controls. A game like Skyrim or GTA is almost entirely ludonarrative, whereas say Uncharted is all narrative). The story does not on its surface change, but your hand is bizarrely forced in the way you play it. Here are the facts: when your character has been played for roughly 60 hours, the game begins to slow down rapidly, with skipping animations, texture pop, and severely restrictive framerate issues. This dissonance is particularly jarring because of how fully developed the province of Skyrim is, as it gives the impression of not just a game but indeed an entire world slowing down, falling apart, coming undone at its seams. By 60 hours into the game, your character will most likely be heavily embroiled in the main plot of the game, having transformed from a backstory-free (but presumably mundane) prisoner into the apparent savior of the world. You will also have done a lot of stuff, the most minor of which contribute to the size of your save file (the agreed upon culprit). Things such as leaving doors open, moving things around on tables, killing animals, etc. The combined effect of these two things (that being the hero-story and the stuff) is a large shift in the actual playable story and "message" of Skyrim. The game becomes not about saving the world, but it becomes about a character who has experienced so much so quickly, had so much responsibility thrust upon him, that he loses his (or her) ability to perform simple tasks and even comprehend their own world around them. From this perspective, a texture popping in is not a mistake in the code, but rather your character's mental and physical exhaustion altering their perception. Notice that the game has a defined calendar and time system that is strictly adhered to. Day will always become night, etc. Consider how much stuff your avatar is able to accomplish in a single day (travelling across the map multiple times, raiding several dungeons, killing a hundred people, stealing thousands of dollars, meeting kings) and how "unrealistic" that is. Now consider that all of those things have actually happened to your character, and in that timeframe. Do not make excuses for the game, because that is the situation that is openly presented to you. People lauded games like Metal Gear Solid and Eternal Darkness when they meta-ized their gameplay by either imitating your console crashing or, say, forcing you to switch controller ports to defeat a boss. Hit the jump for much more!
What if these "glitches" in Skyrim are in fact a meta-commentary on the inherent implausibility of your avatar's situation? Psychologically, the story actually becomes instantly more fascinating. Continuing to play the game, especially, transforms from a heroic triumph to an exercise in punishing the psyche of a character the depth of whom's cheekbones you spent hours obsessing over. There is also the example of Skyward Sword, which contains a "glitch" which disrupts the written narrative of the game. Because it's not a ludonarrative issue, I find it less interesting, but worth looking at nonetheless. There is apparently a way in which, by completing an aspect of a dungeon before another, you can effectively lock Link out of a room that is necessary to continue the game. The only option is to restart, to begin again. After my discussion of Skyrim, I'm sure you see where I'm going with this. It helps, actually, that this comes very late in the game, after you've put tens of hours into it. It viciously subverts the established narrative of Zelda titles, and indeed most games, by making it about an insurmountable futility in the face of evil. No matter what Link does, his chances of saving Zelda in that particular instantiation are zero. He has failed, irrevocably, and consequently so have you as a player. The entire nature of gaming is, of course, to present the player a situation in which they can both win or lose, the outcome presumably determined by the "skill" of their actions. Considering this, and considering the glitch, suddenly Skyward Sword is the most unique AAA title ever created. Infinitely more interesting than in its "glitch free" form. Especially if you choose to continuing playing the game, though with the established goal of the game removed the question of whether you are even still "playing" comes into question. Go back to Skyloft, to any town you've already visited. Life still continues there, you can still buy heart potions, repair your shield, and deliver gratitude crystals for powerups. But to what end? Whereas before those shopkeeps seemed to be in on the not-so-hidden secret that they needed to help you in your quest because you were the player-controlled agent in this world, they now take on an almost sinister air of obsessives who expect something from you that is frustratingly impossible. Their utility in the world has been taken away, and yet their actions don't modify. What do they know that you don't? Why isn't anyone providing you with a means to continue? What the hell is going on here?! It is in these "glitches" that the incredibly complex differences between video games and any other art form is exposed, for better or for worse. So enjoy them, and think about them. Don't worry, they'll be fixed, and taken away forever by a patch at some point. But for now, they're here. That particular world is here.
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