For the Love of Glitches

It’s been a while since I saw any glitches in the games I play. A lot of that is to do with my console-centric life these days. Console games are often a bit more hermetically sealed than other games, I guess, and especially don’t suffer so much from the crazy hardware and software variations that can cause PC games to go funny.

Glitches in games are, in theory, bad. Perhaps most centrally, they move the experience away from what was intended by the creators of the game. In a sense, they represent the terrible sin of removing control from the designers, artists, and others who worked so hard to make a game “just so”.

Glitches are also totally awesome a lot of the time. Frankly, games behave exactly the way you expect them to so much of the time that seeing them “misbehave” is exciting and interesting. For all their representation of fantastic worlds and intense situations, it’s rare to feel like you’re entering the unknown during the regular course of play. Glitches change the rules.

There are amazing glitches, in which you can do impossible things – these are the functional glitches, usually spatial in nature. In Fable you could “dig” yourself backwards through solid objects thanks to a flaw in the “digging” animation in that game. That let you get to areas you shouldn’t get to, and go all over the place. My favourite space-oriented glitch is “Blue Hell” in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. In a few locations you can leave the “official reality” of the game and enter a whole “off stage” space, with floating park benches, set-like interiors you see in cut-scenes, and more. It’s a beautiful thing.

I was thinking of glitches because lately while playing Half-Life 2: Episode 2 I’ve been seeing a repeated glitch with the graphics when I drive out of tunnels (and right after the game has loaded a new area). The picture associated with this post shows what happens – the game gets confused about the textures. As you can see, Alyx Vance has had a kind of granite texture put over her head. That’s not what she’s meant to look like. But it looks amazing, right? Likewise, a nearby tree had this amazing “purple light” texture put on its branches, making it look like alien lightning growing from the ground. Beautiful.

Honestly, the moment when I drove out of a tunnel and looked to my right to see Alyx sitting there there in the passenger seat with a granite head was one of the most eerie and magical experiences I’ve had in a game lately. In a game ostensibly about aliens, this was a genuine alien encounter – a being from a truly other place. Sure, it screws with the fiction of the world and, sure, I eventually restarted the game to erase the effect, but glitches like this an others can be the only times we’re shocked into the “reality” of playing a game – like a moment of virtual zen.

In some ways, glitches in games serve a similar purpose to games themselves – they take us away from our ordinary, mundane surroundings, and put us in an unknown world, a place where we’re not sure what will happen, or why.

2 October 2010
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