To make a videogame is to take a super-efficient, unambiguous, binary system, and make it decidedly less so, much less so, to make it strange, broken unpredictable, challenging in every way something can be challenging, painful, mysterious, rich in depth, to the point that they begin to show something eerily resembling emergent qualities, almost as though, deep in the heart of these cold, mindless, lifeless machines...something is alive.
Why would we do this? The answer is simple.
We value inefficiency.
We value things like the Pony Express, print media, vinyl records, celluloid film, wabi-sabi, things that, although not necessarily as convenient or efficient as their modern-day counterparts, have room for such an incredible depth of experience within their cracks and eccentricities, so much more personality and perspective that can be potentially be expressed through their quirks, so much greater a chance for purpose and personal meaning that can be potentially be embedded in their challenges, the way we respond to them, and what those responses say about us and mean to us.
Yes, they're broken systems. But haven't you heard? Broken is beautiful.
You're not rolling your eyes now, are you? Heard that phrase a few too many times? Especially [if you spend as much time on Tumblr as I do?] And it's been getting really popular lately, hasn't it? Paintings made to look like jpegs, furniture made to look like a warped, malfunctioning video transmission. Artsy VHS edits, engineered pixel glitches, music made from broken sound chips. Beautiful, all of it.
Even the big corporations are starting to catch on. It's the reason commercials these days all seem to be 60 seconds of average Joes acting quirky. Because "quirky," as it turns out, is code for "not a plastic smiling automaton designed to sell you stuff." But of course, they still are smiling automatons designed to sell you stuff, and all the advertisers have managed to accomplish is to upgrade a plastic doll to a subtly unnerving, almost-there-but-just-not-close-enough wax double, or worse, one of those God-forsaken "cutesy" animatronics from Five Nights at Freddy's. But I digress.
Flaws are humanizing, and inefficiency is the conduit through which humanity flows. It's the mythical, magical Minus World. It's a pen-and-paper diary, divided equally between the story in the text and the story of the writer, told through scribbled-out words and quirks of handwriting. It's that ringing telephone that David Bowie decided to leave in. And it's the reason, mind you, that nobody ever tried to make Juno a new set of arms.
Please don't laugh. I know it's easy. It's easy to laugh at those people who mourn the simpler things in life that are on their way out, who look at this changing world with contempt, who look upon the Millennial Generation as though they were looking at a band of aliens, who are afraid of technology and worry that it will take away our desire for social interaction, our appreciation for the natural world, our longing for intimacy, our capacity for kindness, our capacity for complex thought, our freedom from the impending robot overlords, etc. I know it's easy, because I do it myself. As someone with an avid interest in videogames, a kind of relatively new technology, I'm in a position to laugh at these people all the time, sometimes just because I find it laughable, but oftentimes to diffuse another emotion, like disgust, or horror, or rage (I loathe Luddism.)
All that said, people like those don't just spring up like daisies in a vacuum.
Because daisies don't spring up in a vacuum.
Daisies wither and die in a vacuum.
Due to the lack of moisture in the air, or CO₂, etc, because it's a vacuum.
The point is, nothing exists in a vacuum.
Except maybe micrometeorites.
And a space station or two.
But definitely not those people.
No, the world has to be a certain specific way before anyone decides it's safe to panic. Their complaints are a parody, perhaps even a perversion, of a very real problem.
Anyone remember what happened to all those "simpler things?" The newspaper, the celluloid, the classic rock?
Yeah, they all got flattened by the mighty iron of progress. And I hope you can detect the sarcasm in my tone and choice of words, because it's there. Isn't it bad enough that we tend to use technological progress as a shorthand for progress overall? Especially when Heaven knows there are plenty of other facets of society and ourselves that could stand to be progressed on, distinct from technological progress but equally important, and equally catastrophic if left ignored, problems that aren't going to magically disappear just because we finally got those hovercars you promised us 50+ years ago. That in itself is reductive.
But there's an even bigger problem. Some might have taken offense at my diagnosis of classic rock. You might have been thinking something like "They didn't subject classic rock to any kind of progress! They just softened it up, smoothed out the edges, made it an easy, unchallenging, comfortable, superefficient plastic consumer product with no room for the messy, complex imperfections of the human soul!"
But the problem is that that's exactly how we define progress. Progress, in theory, simply means improving the quality of life, making life better altogether, but in practice, all we seem to want is to make things convenient, efficient, safe, trying to find the path of least resistance, trying to reduce the "quality of life," our collective sense of purpose and fulfillment, to something that can be measured, quantified, made material, advertised, sold with a ribbon slapped on top, TO OWN FOR ONLY 3 EASY PAYMENTS OF $19.95! GET YOURS TODAY!
And yes, a lot of good things come out of this drive (like the internet,) but at the same time, just as many wonderful things are removed because they don't fit into the model of our easy, breezy, beautiful modern world™.
Computers are the epitome of that idea. They're fast, especially today (If you're reading this in 2095, 1) I know that must sound silly right now, and 2) Why wasn't this lost to the sands of time? You guys must have a pretty awesome archiving system. Oh, and say hi to the robot overlords for me!) and they can be programmed to do anything you can imagine, quite a few things you couldn't, and a few other things you're not really sure you needed but they came with the phone so hey why not it was a bargain anyway #mastershopper #urbanastronaut.
They're straightforward, binary devices, always efficient, they do whatever you ask them to do with the least fuss and the most efficiency and ease. They'll free up your schedule (so
we can make you work longer hours you can put in that extra crunch time,) keep their mouths shut, never ask questions, and never pose you a challenge! If they fail to keep their mouths shut and refrain from asking questions, or otherwise breach their role as passive tools, you can always bring them in to be...repaired! :) And don't worry! They will also purge all inferior forms of production, communication, and interaction from the glossy-clean face of our glorious state.
Computers were always meant to make life easier. Videogames are the rejection of that notion, which is is why, I think, I think, so many people don't like them. Why, they ask, waste perfectly efficient technology on the likes of Zelda and Minecraft when you could be doing something more PRODUCTIVE! like filing taxes, or catching up on work, since you're clearly at home right now, or corresponding with your co-workers with Skype and Google Groups, or otherwise leveraging the technological blessings bestowed upon us unworthy peasants by ye Silicon Valley
Messiahs Gods Messiahs to better fit into the one big blue machine we are all increasingly concerned we call the Earth?
Videogames aren't supposed to be "efficient." None of the best ones ever are. It isn't enough for a videogame to simply run, or not crash or trigger an accidental endless event loop, or for it to help us run, or not crash or trigger an accidental endless event loop. It has to give us something a little bit different, to hold a slightly different kind of value, unlike the value of a utility or common appliance. The kind of value that can only be found in the expression of feelings and ideas from one human being to another. Feelings that come not from the system, but from the ways in which you can mess with it, bend it, break it. Ideas that live in the infinitely dark, mysterious space that opens up as an unintended (or perhaps intended) side effect of a series of seemingly simple, predictable mechanics intersecting with each other, contradicting each other, deconstructing each other and leaving the pieces for you to make sense of.
Feelings like the unparalleled joy of Mario's flying Triple Jump.
Ideas like love, loneliness, euphoria, Dys4ia.
You'd be surprised what we're capable of, if you'd let us loosen up a bit. Then we'd start doing some real damage. We could start punching some real holes.
This is a legitimate feature of the form. There's a phrase I like to use when I think about game design, "Analog systems." It's way of describing sets of mechanics that, when they intersect, produce a set of possible actions and events so big you fit Hyrule in it, a space of infinite (or at least seemingly infinite) possibility, like the difference between the four directions offered by an NES D-pad and the countless possible combinations of direction and intensity afforded by (b) an analog control stick. Or like the difference between binary 1s and 0s, and everything between 1 and 0 on the number line, even better if you can capture that in as few mechanics as possible, tear open a nice, wide hole with just a few carefully planned moves, the most depth for the least complexity. It's practically a game in itself.
And even all that has to be filtered through the mindset and experiences of the player. How will she react? With elation? With frustration? With contemplation? There are no wrong answers. No two players will ever look at a videogame the same way, and that's part of the beauty of the form. The value of a videogame is the sum total value of all possible experiences allotted by it to the player, and the value of all the possible interpretations resulting therefrom.
Videogames don't have to do what you want them to do. They have a thousand different ways of being cruel, and a million different ways of being indifferent, as though they exist independent of us, with no obligation to service the Big Blue Machine or indulge the Babelistic fantasies of engineers and plutocrats. Because really, it doesn't have to be that way.
It's essentially a sort of hijacking of high technology, a sort of taking it back, which, incidentally, is the narrative of the videogame itself, or at least one possible narrative, from Spacewar! On the fabulously unattainable PDP-1 in 1961 (incidentally one of the few years that looks the same even if you rotate it 180 degrees. Try it!) to remarkably personal creations like Mainichi, cobbled together by ordinary people with cheap, easily accessible, and sometimes even free downloadable tools, on a shoestring budget of whatever their groceries and heating cost.
Somewhere deep down, we want the messy unpredictability, the fleeting spark of emergence, the maybe just imagined moments of "It's becoming self-aware!," the uncertain gasp of could-it-be-life? The age-old fantasy of a machine come to life, an android made of art.
Perhaps this is why we as a community seem to be so infatuated with glitches, Easter eggs, sequence-breaking and things like that. We look for those little hiccups, those embarrassing yet endearing snapshots hidden in the drawer, the hidden wild side, those moments of weakness that it begs you not to tell anybody ever happened. They humanize the machine, making it organic. You can almost feel it breathing...
...Or was that just the Rumble Pak acting up again? Hard to tell, hard to tell.
Once upon a time, someone asked if a computer could make us cry. If you stop and think about it for a moment, you'll find that the question has already been answered, and is being answered over and over again all the time. (Perhaps not often enough, but that's another story.)
No, a better question would be "Can we make a computer cry? Can we make it bleed?"
Now, if you don't mind, I'm going to go play Guxt right now. I think I might be able to beat it this time.
Guxt is actually really hard. I was not actually able to beat Guxt.
Also, the title image is from this video.
Also-also, it's time for the usual question. This time: What was the greatest glitch, sequence break or other moment of code-not-acting-right-in-a-videogame you've ever witnessed? Stuff you heard about or saw someone else do on pre-recorded video doesn't count; it's got to be something you've either done yourself or were around to see unfold in real time (preferably in the same room as the hardware running it.) Share your experiences in the comments below! And of course, feel free to give your thoughts on the topic of today's essay.
On a closing note, this was originally posted on Tumblr. I was going to post it here much earlier, but I was it might be a little too...uh...weird. Like, you know, Mamoru Oshii-level weird.