A few weeks ago, I ran across this post on Kotaku, about how a new Super Mario Bros. glitch has been found after almost thirty years, and it sparked something in me. Something I didn’t know how to put into words – until I revisited this “Let’s Break” of Final Fantasy VI. Specifically, that last page I linked to, and its last couple of paragraphs.

You can only play FF6 so many different ways (read: 1), but you can glitch it endlessly. It’s a shame, really, that this type of glitch exploration is going away. With the evolution of non-sprite based, highly structured and non-exploitable coding dealing a significant blow towards the crazy things you can do with video games, these types of world-exploring, horrible messes have essentially gone away. And now in the current generation, where glitches are typically small scripting bugs or your game freezing up alongside constantly patched video games, the final blow to glitch exploration has been dealt.

Here, Elephantgun captured something that I’ve often thought but never been able to articulate: that glitching, Game Genie-ing, and generally breaking games has become less interesting with each generation after the NES era, with the NES and its agemates producing the best glitches, the SNES and co. producing some pretty good ones, and everything after that feeling… well, pretty lacklustre. And – here’s the crucial point – that the same idiosyncracies that made NES and SNES-era games so interestingly breakable were also what made them feel so alive, like worlds of their own.

I’ll back up here, and explain what I mean by “interesting”. I feel like I’ve said this before, but I think that of all the games out there, the one that glitches most interestingly is actually, yes, Super Mario Bros. If you’ve never seen any SMB glitch videos, I’d implore you to do so: Brad Corrupts has some particularly good ones.

The thing that makes SMB glitches interesting is that they can affect any part of the game, and often do so in ways that render the game still playable, while being very different from the original. Most games can have their graphics glitched; sound glitches are plentiful, though the results are usually ugly; plenty of games let you glitch through walls, or warp to other areas. Some games allow you to make enemies friendly, or to turn previously helpful items into deadly ones. SMB glitches can do all this – but they can also rewrite the very laws of physics. A glitch can let you float in the air after jumping (Princess Toadstool-style), run at unholy speeds (take that, Blast Processing), make the title or intro screens a playable part of the level. A glitch can turn the music into actually-pretty-nifty remixes of itself, allow you to swim through the air, or, as in the famous Minus World glitch, even create whole new areas that actually seem (semi-)coherent. And these are all pretty easily findable by throwing in random Game Genie codes – they don’t require peeking into the game data and precisely manipulating values. Just about anything you can do to SMB, up to and including “pulling the cartridge out during play, inserting a different one, then swapping back”, will fail interestingly.

I’m not a coder and have no true idea how or why this works (though if someone can, please let me know! I eat that stuff up with a spoon), but I’m going to guess that it’s because SMB’s physics, music, enemy behaviours – just about everything that makes up the game – are pretty simple, primitive blocks of code. The game doesn’t use millions of fine-tuned instructions to define how the character moves through a complicated 3D terrain; it doesn’t have countless little scripts that trigger and push things back on track whenever they go out of bounds. The game isn’t constantly trying to bring itself back into line with the creator’s incredibly detailed, incredibly specific vision. It just says a handful of things along the lines of “here, have a playfield; you can run left and right and jump within this space; if you touch a particular sprite you clear the level”.

In short, SMB is a set of rules more than a precisely-crafted experience; more like chess or D&D than the “interactive movies” a lot of gamers complain of today. It has a few blocks of code designed to handle your actions, and a few blocks of code defining playfields that allow you to explore what those actions can do, which can be put together in just about any combination and still make something interesting. (I think the word I’m looking for is modular. It feels modular.) And because it’s so simple and so flexible – because you can complete the levels however you want rather than being railroaded down a narrow path, because the limited number of actions you can perform encourages you to push the limits of those actions, and yes, because it’s bare-bones enough to sometimes break – it feels like a world.

It’s ironic, really: for decades game developers have been yearning for technology to improve so that they can create the lush, realistic worlds and intricate narratives they’ve always dreamed of, worlds that you can lose yourself in. We gamers have too. Yet it seems the more intricate games get, the more constraining the rails must become, like a tabletop GM who won’t let the players get creative because it would ruin their carefully-constructed plot. Games can’t make up new plot points on the fly, so they have to either code in an absurd amount of options or force you to hit all of their plot triggers, keeping you moving down the singular path the developers had in mind all along.

And it’s not just plot points. Many early RPGs are basically elongated quests to Find The Next Plot Trigger, but their minimalistic approach to feeding you chunks of the story, letting you wander hither and thither in between even if blowing all their gil on chocobo gambling isn’t technically what the saviours of the world should be doing with their time, makes the world feel vast and free. By contrast, when you paint in every little detail of a vast world, force the camera to linger on that impressive structure rather than letting the players find and gaze at it themselves, it stops feeling so vast. You’re not exploring the land, breaking new ground with every step. You’re on a tour bus, having the sights of interest pointed out to you. (Apologies for plucking the low-hanging fruit here, but who else wanted FFXIII‘s Nautilus to be the Gold Saucer II? Who else was disappointed?)

The most enjoyable games, to me, are simple games, games that don’t have the life coded out of them, that don’t need to anticipate your every possible move because the structure is versatile enough that you can figure it out yourself.

Because they aren’t programmed to handle every situation… they break.

And because the actions you can perform are few, simple and applicable to just about every situation… they break interestingly.

Games don’t break like that any more, and as a result, they feel less like wild places open to possibility. When you’ve found everything the programmer put in the world, you’ve seen the entire game. But when we discover a new Super Mario Bros. glitch after several decades, it’s a potent reminder that these older worlds – for all that we’ve loved them, for all that it can feel like we’ve loved them to exhaustion – still hide some secrets. It gives us hope that perhaps they’ll always hide secrets, that we’ll never fully map their limits or boundaries. That, perhaps, they don’t have boundaries at all.

Here be dragons. Here be wonder. Long live the glitch.

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6 thoughts on “Why Games Break Interestingly, And Why It’s Good When They Do

  1. Ironically, I suspect it’s the increased modularity of code these days that makes current games less breakable. Not the kind of modularity you used the word for, in which an event is an event and can be interesting if placed elsewhere, but the kind of modularity on a code level that makes the system unable to just handle a miscall, produce a bizarre behaviour, and then go on as if it hadn’t.

    But yes, I have some similar thoughts about old games feeling more like endless worlds because they are easier to escape. I’ll write them up sometime.

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  2. >You’re not exploring the land, breaking new ground with every step. You’re on a tour bus, having the sights of interest pointed out to you.

    Explanation is perfect. This is also a really good summary of why I stopped being able to watch television, after having not watched it for a couple of years, and still mostly avoid movies.

    (I’d leave more of a comment if I felt up to it. Liking your site, but people-ing is hard right now. This is aquila_black from DW.)

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      1. Exactly, it me. Your blog is yay. ❤ (Not getting notifs that you'd responded, less yay, but you know. Computers being glitchy, etc.)

        BTW, I sent you an e-mail in May with some links on social violence, and I'm not sure if you got it. Lately I've been having a really hard time writing anything that isn't [certain predetermined paths]. On the upside, art is happening? IDEK. And browsing your writings is making me really happy.

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    1. (For some reason comments can’t get more than three deep on here? Meh.)

      I hadn’t actually seen it, because somewhere along the line I got really sloppy at checking that email, but it turns out I do have it. Whoops.

      But I’m really glad that my writings are connecting with you, even if you’re having trouble writing yourself. And art is good yesssssss.

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