Welcome to Gameological Q&A, where we throw out a question for discussion among the staff and readers. If you have a brilliant question that would make a fun Q&A, send it to brilliantquestions at gameological dot com.
This week’s question comes from Gameological contributor Matt Kodner:
It happens to everyone. You come across something in a game that’s not quite right—some unintended consequence of faulty code. Some glitches are only cosmetic nuisances while others can be game-breakers. What is your most memorable encounter with a glitch?
I like this question because I’ve believed for a while that if you treat glitches like they are part of a game’s reality, they can be a lot of fun. And while there are a number of wacky bugs in Fallout: New Vegas that come to mind, I think my favorite of all time was a glitch I encountered while playing the 2010 espionage game Alpha Protocol. As with many of the games developed by Obsidian Entertainment, Protocol had the telltale signs of a project pushed out the door before it was ready. My character, an ersatz Jason Bourne, was always running into clipping errors—where the tangible boundaries of the environment are not quite right—and random neon flashes of color. The most memorable moment came as I was working my way through a drug lord’s estate. An entire wing of the mansion disappeared from beneath my feet. A lot of the stuff in the mansion was still there; it’s just that the house was gone, and I was floating in a netherworld of misbegotten programming code. When I attempted to move, I fell through the environment, plummeting down and down forever, until the entire stage became a shrinking island in a monochrome sky. I watched it float away from me until it vanished, leaving me with nothing but a sense of my own fragile existence. And Obsidian thought they were making a shooter! Indie kids, eat your heart out.
I’ve had a number of “falling through concrete” and “enemy throws totally invisible projectiles” glitches, but the only error I’ve run into that killed a game for me was in Karaoke Revolution Presents: American Idol Encore 2. We were singing Hall & Oates’ “Maneater,” one of the more likable and sing-worthy songs on the disc, and just before the first chorus, the pitch bar froze in place for about seven seconds before picking up again. The music kept playing, and the onscreen characters kept moving. Seems like a fairly minor issue, except that the game kept scoring according to the pitch bar, which was now out of sync with the music. Imagine singing along with the radio on a seven-second delay. It was disorienting and unpleasant for both the singers and listeners in the room. We wound up muting the television and singing along with the words on screen, trying to keep time with our memory of the song. As you may have noticed in any sitcom where the characters sing along with a pop song that couldn’t be played on set, that never really works out. Even virtual Paula Abdul shook her head and gestured disapprovingly, but with the sound still muted, we resigned ourselves to simply joking, “Watch out, boy! She’ll chew you up!” and turning the game off forever.
I’ll never forget my most spectacular glitch, because it was the one thing that redeemed the terrible Driv3r. One of the game’s lumpen pedestrians was sitting on a bench looking out to sea when I shot him in the back of the head. I don’t know why I was compelled to do this—I’ll assume it was frustration with one of the many horrible missions in the game—but what happened next more than justified my act of random violence. The man flew about 50 feet straight up into the air, fell back to earth, rolled forward, flew back into the air, landed, rolled forward, and so on until he’d vanished into the ocean like some weird meatbag salmon returning to his spawning grounds. Invigorated by this unusually entertaining bug, I tried it again on another seated pedestrian. To my lasting delight, the same thing happened—except this poor guy rolled backward every time he landed. This meant he was heading into the city, rather than out to sea, and I spent a long time tracking his surreal progress as his corpse skyrocketed and backward-rolled its way across the urban landscape, leaping tall buildings with less grace than Superman, but no less inspiring in its own way. I lost him eventually, but the precious minutes I spent on this ghoulish obsession were more fun than anything else in that legendary turkey of a game. Part of me hopes he’s still out there, somewhere in the digital ether, leaping and rolling his way into eternity.
Anthony John Agnello
My surviving 1985 NES throws some spectacular images on a television when you turn it on with a cartridge pressed all the way in. Games will only run properly if the tray is pushed down with a pen and depressed halfway. Otherwise, it looks like the opening screen of Bayou Billy was drowned in instant oatmeal. My all-time favorite glitch is a modern incarnation of those warped visuals. While messing around in the Forge level creator in Halo 3, you can pause the game at the exact moment Master Chief is caught in an explosion, and his body will appear on the screen as a stretched-out Dali-style version of his regular self. Creating the best “exploded Master Chief” freeze-frame became a little game in itself for a few weeks back in 2007.
I’ve encountered a lot of memorable glitches over the years, from my horse fusing with a rock wall in Skyrim to an armed guard in Hitman: Blood Money suddenly dropping to the ground and flailing like a spastic break dancer. My favorite glitch happened while I was playing the original Mafia for the PC. I’m not sure if it was my graphics card, a random error, or some techno-gremlin screwing with the code, but the game removed all of the characters’ eyelids during cut scenes. As a result, characters would wax poetic about whacking people while their eyes bulged out of their heads like some kind of demented sideshow attraction. It was both hilarious and a little disturbing. It’s a testament to Mafia that I completed the entire game despite facing a bunch of 1930s gangsters turned bug-eyed freaks. Sometimes you just have to look glitches in the eyes and say “fuggedaboutit.”
I could pick several from S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow Of Chernobyl, a work of Eastern European bleakness that is practically built out of bugs. Perhaps the best example of why this is actually a good thing was the bug that ended my experience with S.T.A.L.K.E.R.. At some point midway through the game, a character asked me to follow him. As we were going to wherever he was leading me, we were attacked by mutant dogs. We survived the attack but at great cost—it broke my ally mentally. There was no way to know that he was broken, though, so I continued to follow him as he wandered aimlessly through the wasteland. For about 30 minutes, this violent game had us skipping through the empty woods, just him and me, like a Calvin And Hobbes painted in Cold War gray. Although I felt we could have walked forever, our time together finally ended when he wandered into a hostile fortress, leaving me alone and my save data beyond repair. But I would have followed him to the ends of the earth, mostly so I could see what happened when he got hitched on whatever invisible wall was there. It was the perfect experience to end my time with that game.
When The Legend Of Zelda first came out, I purchased it and played it obsessively for a grand total of about a week before it developed a habit of freezing up during the opening screen. The music would get stuck on this one terrifying note, and pushing buttons had no effect. So, naturally, I’d open up the Nintendo and blow on the cartridge. It never worked. I huffed and puffed anyway until I had as much breath as an emphysemic fish. So I took the game to a specialty store that promised to fix it by pouring some weird chemical inside and letting it set for 48 hours. After the two longest days of my life, I fired the Nintendo back up. Success! I went to the load screen. My game was still there! I pushed start. Freeze. I later bought a second copy, which was no small feat for an elementary schooler on a fixed income, and I had to start all over. Every time I see copies of that gold cartridge, be it at a store or at someone’s house, I’m flooded with sadness.
Like Steve, I’ve had my fair share of problems with Link. At a young age, I was crushed when the penultimate dungeon in The Legend Of Zelda: Link’s Awakening became unbeatable. An orb rested its laurels on a crack between a wall and the hole it needed to fall through, and no boomerang or arrow could force it down. I eventually resigned myself to my fate, bitter but willing to start from scratch. More emotionally scarring than that, though, was my recent experience with the Wii’s insipid adaptation of Beastly, itself a worthless adaptation of Beauty And The Beast. Every aspect of the game unintentionally ramped up my anxiety. It all came to a head toward the end when I walked into an out-of-the-way street light and found myself surrounded by pitch black. Everything was gone aside from the cone of light coming from the offending lamp. I was being punished for spending a spare minute going off the beaten path in this godforsaken game.
Unlike a lot of folks, I was equally excited for Crackdown and for the Halo 3 multiplayer beta that was included on the Crackdown disc. I had plenty of fun running and jumping around Crackdown’s boring city. After working my butt off to maximize my character’s superhuman abilities, though, there wasn’t much to do. Then the powers that be introduced a little piece of downloadable content called “Keys To The City.” It gave the player the power to create all manner of guns, cars, and explosives, whenever and wherever they like. (Why don’t more games do this?) Naturally, my buddy and I wanted to pull off sweet jumps with the fastest car in the game. I took to a long stretch of highway, got up to top speed, and created a ramp truck. Instead of going all Dukes Of Hazzard, some sort of physics catastrophe sent my car rocketing into the sky and across the city. As I flew a thousand feet above the ground, I knew there was only one thing left to do: jump out of my car and free fall while firing rockets at the helpless masses below. Needless to say, we spent hours replicating the trick. Sometimes we took to the skies, and sometimes things went awry, launching us through the game world into a watery hell beneath the city. Either way, it’s probably the most fun I’ve had with a glitch.
I play a lot of MMOs, so I’ve fought plenty of invulnerable monsters who get stuck in the scenery and end up fortified by the terrain that’s trapping them. MMOs have also given me plenty of bugs that were just amusing, like when a dragon took up residence in Stormwind for a few hours after a World Of Warcraft update. Or when the Jedi Council featured empty chairs and super-tiny Jedi masters when Star Wars: The Old Republic launched. My new favorite glitch showed up when I was playing matches against the computer in Starcraft II: Heart Of The Swarm. When I started my fight, I found my base filled with diligently working SCVs, the Terran—read “human”—gathering and building unit. That would have been normal, except that I was playing Protoss, the stately alien race. It turned out that every unit I built looked like an SCV, and my opponent was fielding its own army of SCVs (in a different color, at least). The bug was just cosmetic. The units all acted like what they actually were, but it makes the game really difficult when you can’t quickly assess what you have to work with or even what’s attacking you. The situation got back to normal after a few games, but I’d play that way again as a special “black box” challenge mode.
I was once really into Aela the Huntress in Skyrim. Sure, it was weird to drink her blood for a cult-like ritual to join The Companions, but she was attractive in that rough, Celtic Braveheart way. I got accustomed to the face paint and pointy shoulder armor. We also had plenty in common. We both loved fighting skeletons and had a tendency to turn into eight-foot-tall werewolves at night. So once it seemed like she was totally over her ex-boyfriend Skjor, I was ready to ask her hand in matrimony. Everything went swimmingly for the first few months. Aela was always willing to stay at home or accompany me on my never-ending journeys. One quest took me to an underground cave full of evil sorcerers intent on murdering me. Aela had been by my side the entire time, picking some of them off with her bow, but during a random battle, she simply disappeared. It’s likely that this was one of Skyrim’s many bugs, but I suppose it’s also possible that she was just tired of handing over a share of the gold from our small “business” in Whiterun—given that I was too busy chasing dragons to help out. I still miss her.
(Halo 3 stretch glitch photo by Halo Wikia user ImmortalJoshua.)