The Horrible Existential Dread of NPCs and Skyboxes

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about video games as a medium.

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But I’ve also been thinking about this Brian Eno quote I read recently:

 Whatever you now find weird, ugly, uncomfortable and nasty about a new medium will surely become its signature. CD distortion, the jitteriness of digital video, the crap sound of 8-bit – all of these will be cherished and emulated as soon as they can be avoided. It’s the sound of failure: so much modern art is the sound of things going out of control, of a medium pushing to its limits and breaking apart. The distorted guitar sound is the sound of something too loud for the medium supposed to carry it. The blues singer with the cracked voice is the sound of an emotional cry too powerful for the throat that releases it. The excitement of grainy film, of bleached-out black and white, is the excitement of witnessing events too momentous for the medium assigned to record them.

(thanks to wordless-stanza for sharing that quote)

I’ve known for a long time that limitations help to define. The strict rules of the sonnet give shape to the sonnet; the malfunctioning shark in Jaws became more menacing than originally intended when Spielberg was forced to give it less screen time. I was always interested in stories about failure, disastrous and hilarious failures, problems, unforeseen consequences, remnants, leftovers, answers that answer a question I never heard.

And glitches. I’m fascinated by glitches, especially those that cause programs to act in ways that seem to transcend their own boundaries. When you make Microsoft Sam warble glossolalia like a possessed man, or when Google Street View makes giant ghostly figures appear in the sky–that kind of thing. A glitch in Donkey Kong Country has the power not only to ruin your game, but it can also damage the cartridge itself. A glitch in the old NES collection Action 41 will make the music on one specific game get garbled, and if you trigger the glitch, the music will stay like that forever, even after resetting the console.

I’m more interested in these malfunctions than in video games themselves. I will play a game only to cause glitches, and get bored after seeing them. I also tend to see real life in video game terms, when it should be the opposite–the game should mirror real life, to a lesser or greater extent. But the interactive nature of games seems to have retroactively affected reality in certain ways.

In downtown Buenos Aires (as in many other big cities around the globe) there are a few subways stations that were never completed. Due to the nature of underground structures, there’s no real way to get rid of them, so they just closed down all the entrances and left not a trace of working machinery. Right under your feet there is a hollowed out artifact, modern ruins that no one acknowledges–or almost no one. A few years ago, a friend and I decided, one cold and boring night, to sneak into one of these stations. We saw a staircase leading down into pitch-black darkness–it should have been fenced off, but someone had taken a pair of pliers to the fence. I won’t describe what I saw, but suffice it to say, that hollow dark place wasn’t uninhabited.

The closest analogy that comes to mind when I think about that short expedition is, to me, sewer levels in first person shooters, basements in survival horror games, or–more than anything–dungeons in RPGs.

And much like those types of levels, that old subway station was severely limited. There were dead ends, stairs that led nowhere, empty rooms that serve no apparent purpose, long stretches of nothing, pure hallways, dark and dusty, filled with debris and tiny animals. The entire place had an uncanny feeling to it–it failed to achieve its intended purpose. Teeming masses of people should have been there, blinded by the bright white lights and deafened by the roaring engines of subways. In an empty hall that should be comfortably inhabited, echoes of our voices and motions mock our very presence in the hollow space.

Pretty much every video game has doors that aren’t really doors, because there’s nothing on the other side and cannot be opened. This can be horrifying, if the game is immersive enough. Imagine moving into a new apartment and finding a door behind a wardrobe that cannot be opened, a door that if opened doesn’t even lead to a brick wall, but to nothingness. This reminds me of a few lines from Borges’ poem, Cambridge:

Like in a dream,
there is nothing behind the tall doors.

Some old sport games gave you the option to zoom in and out of the stadium. But because of hardware limitations, sometimes if you zoomed too far out, you would notice that the stadium–along with the players and the crowd–are floating in a black void, from which there is no escape. As if the players were forced to run around that court forever, and the crowds were being forced to cheer and stare at this, infinitely glued to their seats.

At one point in Half-Life, you are running away from a marine squad that was sent to hunt you down, and you are forced to escape into an air vent. If you keep crawling around, you will eventually see two soldiers through one of the grates, who are conveniently talking about you (plot exposition doesn’t have to be subtle). Now, if you load up a save during conversations, the NPCs dialogues are not loaded. What this means is that, if you load up a save during their conversation, you will just see them staring at each other in silence. And they never move. You could stay there looking at them for hours and they won’t move a pixel. After a while, their silent presence starts to bother you, and there’s nothing for you to do but just keep going. What’s interesting is that this problem with the game doesn’t really ruin the immersion–it just makes it creepier. That’s the thing about most glitches. You are rarely taken out of the game’s universe, you plunge into the uncomfortable depths of the true reality within the game’s code. Seeing a ghost will not make you stop believing in your everyday reality, it will just make it weirder and more interesting, and scary. There’s no reason to stop playing, just as there is no reason to stop living.

In Half-Life’s sequel Opposing Force, you play as Adrian Shephard, one of the soldiers that are hunting you down in the original game. There’s an odd depressing mood to it, especially when you meet with your fellow squad members, people who now have voices and personalities, as opposed to the original game, where they were just targets for you to kill. Everyone is just as equally confused.

But that’s a given. There’s a bug in the game that triggers sometimes for no reason in one specific area. You have to push a trolley down a platform so you can hop into a train car, which will then activate and take you to the next area. If the bug triggers, the train car doesn’t move at all, and the door won’t open again. You’re trapped inside with no way of getting out. The music doesn’t play during this section. There are no other characters. Not even enemies. Below you there is complete darkness. This is the place where you will stay, forever. You can create a new game and hope the bug doesn’t happen again, but the Shephard from your previous game will still be there if you saved–and the game autosaves.

Something similar happens in some third person shooters: your character can glitch through the floor itself, and fall into the void below the stage, and there will be no way to get back up. You’re trapped under the world and there is nothing you can do.

Overuse of examples aside, I must say I adore all of this. It’s nice to think of mistakes this way. When you create something, you run the risk of leaving one or two parts unfinished, and when you’re done, other people will wander in, and they will look at them, study them, think about them, and in that thinking, those mistakes will not only be reshaped, but they will also reveal a lot about what you were trying to do. It’s the mistake that reveals who you are.

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