glitches

Glitches

April 3, 2012

Nick:

Egads, even I am too busy to log into Steam these days. I’ve hit a lull with Skyrim, my horse keeps getting cooked by my own errant fireballs, and the sprawling design of it is actually more daunting than I first realized. I thought I was a big fan of the sandbox experience, but I might have to reign that one in and say that I’m only a big fan of the sandbox if I can get behind the wheel of a luxury sedan and leave a trail of crumpled bodies in my wake… and sadly I can do that for hours and hours and hours. So maybe I’m not as busy as I first let on.

That anecdote from WoW was actually something I read and only wished to have experienced first hand. Here’s the wowwiki entry  and, fittingly, an NPR story.

Having said all that, I am interested in ‘the glitch’ (“cracks in the programmable world”), it certainly comes up all the time in WoW, a daily struggle. I’m also really drawn to that memory suggestion you made a few emails back, Eric, and the potential therein to weave our mutual interests into a conversation that pivots around a particular game, genre-of-game, experience-in-game, could be any or all I imagine.. at least as we stumble towards something. I’ll try and flesh out what I’m thinking, as I’m thinking it, as I’m also thinking about sleep.

Since I’ve repeatedly abused the dejour flavour of the anecdotal/memoir-esque in grad school and so far gotten off Scot-free, I’m gonna roll along on that streak and offer this half baked recount from a recent Skyrim adventure -

(Just imagine it exaggerated by more lurid, flowery prose – for humours sake)

I’m struggling uphill off the main mountain road through a blinding snowstorm, I can hardly see, but somehow manage to avoid falling off several precipices, I kill a handful of wolves, and ascend to some sort of ruined altar. I’m beset by skeletons who rise from their graves in the appropriate fashion and dispatch them. I loot their bodies and find a book on one. I take it, and turn to leave, but decide to double check and notice the book’s there again. I loot it again and again it turns up. I loot it ad nauseam until I’m at my weight limit (I have at this point about 180 copies of the book, which promises to sell really well and I’m really broke). So, seeing that this could go on for ever I haul ass back down the mountain to hock them off to unwitting vendors around town. But of course its the middle of the night and everyone’s off sleeping and I can’t find anyone to sell them too…

When I think about these loose ideas of the mistake, the glitch, and memory, I think about my penchant for exaggerated story telling and the trouble it gets me into with the sorts of detail-oriented people who prefer precision over a more generous imagination, and how defensive I get about the distinction between the two. There’s something in the design of a game like Skyrim, between its exacting attention to detail – textural, aural, environmental, physical, and the utter fantasy/absurdity of the story that balances well with my desire to suspend my disbelief and be immersed in it – and then there’s inevitably a glitch, which wasn’t supposed to happen but did and, well, meh, it works well enough with what I’m after so… ok.

So I can have this experience of fighting my way through a blizzard to the top of a gorgeously rendered mountain to endlessly loot identical copies of the same book off a twice dead skeleton – and I know its probably not the best example, its just the first one that came to mind. But it has in it a kernel of something that might be fun (for me, at least) to develop – a sort of meta-fiction/memoirish account of this world that seamlessly absorbs the programming glitches as part of the expanded fantasy, in a way that isn’t meant to chastise developers or laugh at players, but just roll with it as an inevitable and occasionally wonderful element of the story? The way you talk about minecraft, Eric, strikes me the same way – the grandeur of this library you built, it’s inevitable demise at the hands of ambivalent newcomers, and then the absurdity of the sections left floating in the air. So beautifully tragicomic.

It might also be why I’m enjoying Sword and Sworcery so much. It’s self-referential tone and the moments where it cleverly informs you that you’re only-playing-a-game are so well meshed with the tropes of fantasy RPG gaming that you just roll along feeling comfortable with both.

Eric:

Nick, I think you brought up a couple of different and interesting ways that a conversation on glitches could go. One is the sort of large-scale error that incited the WoW plague, which is a fascinating study of complicated unintended consequences and crowd dynamics. I wish I could think of a single-player equivalent example, some built-in problem in a game that had the effect of revealing something about the player’s nature. At the moment I can’t. The other is the far more prevalent existence of the minor glitch in gaming, of which none of us would have trouble thinking of examples in whatever the last game it was we played. In particular, what you said about being willing/eager to ignore these, to suspend disbelief, gets at something at the core of the gaming experience.

When you first told me the WoW anecdote (which I’m heretofore going to refer to as the Soulflayer Plague [incidentally, is it disappointing, considering its monicker, that the disease apparently only affected players' bodies? and what would soul-death look like in a game?]), my mind went to an interview that I must have read more than a decade ago with cartoonist/illustrator Dave McKean. In it he lamented the declining popularity of analogue technologies as digital ones loomed. I think he was mostly talking about signal degradation, and the interesting noise that could be produced by the act of copying. He had spent a lot of his art-making time playing with machines like photo-copiers, trying to produce interesting results by making them do things they weren’t exactly designed to do (and I don’t mean copying body parts). Perhaps he referenced audio or video too, but it’s the photocopiers that I remember because I was doing similar things at the time with my art.

Anyhow, part of what made me happy to hear of the Soulflayer Plague was that it seemed like a rare example of digital technology failing, but still producing interesting results. Whereas I think our more common experience with modern technology is that if it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work, usually not in ways that pleasantly surprise us. [As I type this I'm picturing everyone I've ever known who knows more about computers than I do telling me, in chorus, how wrong this is.]

And speaking of things that fail in interesting ways, the reaction to the Plague—the initial error—had its own set of errors. Some of the reaction was obviously just malicious, with higher-level players intentionally carrying the disease through population centres in a way that the Reuters article describes as sort of proto-terrorist, but which seems to me to be more of a banal example of the very common impulse towards wilful destruction that gaming is such a perfect venue for. But there was another bit of the same article that explained how some benevolent players immediately rushed to the aid of the lower-level harder-suffering players, healing them. There’s a suggestion that that act inadvertently helped to spread the disease by keeping the infected & infectious alive longer, thereby infecting more people. That phenomenon combined with the mass exodus of people from cities to lower-populated rural areas, and I can understand why the WHO took notice.

This might be a nice segue into that other side of glitches you touched on, Nick. Knowing that the plague was a result of a programming error (or did the players not know at that point?), those benevolents decided to buy in to the drama, almost like an improv actor latching onto whatever absurdity a proposed scene foists upon them. When faced with the inexhaustible book supply in Skyrim, you just decide to exploit it. I suppose that in these absurdly fantastical worlds, it’s not hard to integrate the ‘magic’ of a little glitch like that. Infinity-book sounds like just another enchanted artifact. And I think we all know that generally it’s more fun just to play along and work with the game to perpetuate the immersive fantasy experience.

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