Feb 6, 2012

Glitch Reading, Glitched Reading: Bethesda's "Broken" Worlds

Glitches enrich Bethesda's work. The Elder Scrolls and Fallout would not reach the same heights without that anything-can-happen, chaotic feel that their excessive errors lend them—the feeling that at any moment the world itself can collapse or that everything will cease to be as you drop through the world. 


Fallout 3 contains many eerie scenes of post-nuclear devastation, but the tensest moment in my experience with it came from a glitch. Here I am, wandering a desert, scavenging what I can, when the danger music plays. Spinning about, I find nothing. The music plays. A car-sized scorpion lunges at me, hissing, from inside a sand dune to my right.
I kill it while frantically running backwards, right in time for two more to pop out of the desert floor itself, their black bodies blending with the sand textures in such a way that only their tails poked out - like Jaws in his ocean. Not at all natural, they broke the uncanny valley, broke the safety net of rules I expected as a player. 

[From fallout.wikia.com]

Another time, a settlement I returned to in hopes of finishing a quest contained only dead NPCs and a living Deathclaw that had somehow broken the game's area barrier. He killed me too, and easily. 

A Deathclaw [from fallout.wikia.com]
During a jaunt through Skyrim's upper arctic wastes, I discovered some icy islets during a snow storm. The encounter music ramped up, and I found myself in a war between wolves, elk, and spiders. They skittered across the ice at me. I am at least semi-arachnophobic, same as half the population of the world, so they gave me pause. After a few seconds, they died to some fire and I continued on my way, excited from the combat, to a “Mysterious Shack” nearby. 
Checking the door only to find it locked, I heard a loud groan. A horker slammed down straight out of the sky at my feet, splattering blood everywhere. Hyped from the battle, I definitely jumped before hoofing out of there. 

Horkers in Skyrim [from elderscrolls.wikia.com].
What these instances lend to Bethesda titles is real life unpredictably. Everyone who plays their work regards the glitches comically, as an expected inevitability due to the size of the world and sheer amount of coding done, but they serve also as key parts of the text, inseparable from the readings that might be done there.

We game players, we expect a certain level of perfection. We want our worlds to be without flaw. But a perfect world is a double-edged sword, creating artificiality instead of solving it. What Bethesda reveals to us is a world in chaos, a more realistic environ. After all, the greatest virtue of Morrowind laid in its "broken" nature: want to kill everyone on the continent with a spell you bought (and crash your computer in the process)? Go ahead. Want to levitate out of a fight? Go ahead. In seeking to fix these "flaws," Bethesda created the less-successful Oblivion, a game of PR "safe calls" attempting to mask that same chaos of glitches, broken game systems, and disturbingly stiff monster movements of Morrowind.

Perhaps we should not long for a perfect world: perhaps the world where monsters emerge from the environment itself and we frantically tap save every ten minutes keeps us on edge in ways difficulty cannot. 
The glitches frustrate, but they intrigue us, urge us onward. They are joined in intimate function with our experience of the game. Stories spring out of them, told on online forums, in articles, at playground recess, and in bars. I have told you stories and been told stories in return. With Bethesda's games, more than any other yet not exclusive to them, glitches unite people. Ben “Yahtzee” Croshaw just about reaches the same conclusion in his video review of Skyrim, a moment of truth in a parody.

Humorously disturbing, or just disturbing? Fallout 3. [Screenshot via http://defaultprime.com].

But beyond all these things, glitches are human. This denies Ebert and co.'s simplistic view of game making and game playing as “push button, done.” More, glitches are an area of inadvertent artistic expression unavailable to other mediums. 
On page, one can create intentional typos to disorient the reader. Celluloid can be distorted for the same reasons. Neither of these reach the same heights that altering, subtly or explicitly, a game's entire world and a player's entire existence can. They are a form of technological existentialism, more powerful for occurring without "intention" and yet still present thanks to human input.  


Anonymous said...

Very true! I love finding odd little glitches in games, as long as they don't destroy the game completely. I've seen that floating eyeball-brain-mouth monster before, in Fallout, and something similar in Oblivion. Absolutely horrifying, in every case.

I'm looking forward to reading more!


Andrew Lavigne said...

Thanks, GW, I look forward to writing more.

Anonymous said...

Cool article. I think the games that distort reality while still being immersive are some of the most fun. I love when they take me on a headtrip.

I think that floating head monster is from Fallout 3, not Obsidian's New Vegas. Green GUI, elevated highway, Raiders (not Fiends), the type of their armor, and the amount of trees all indicate FO3.

Andrew Lavigne said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Andrew Lavigne said...

Anonymous: Thanks for the correction. In my hunt for good screenshots, I overlooked that, as it's been some time since I've played Fallout 3 and New Vegas.

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