An Ode to Video Game Bugs
How glitches can sometimes be glorious
By Reece ‘Druif’ Druiven
Bugs. Every video game has them. Some worse than others. We often expect a buggy game to be an unenjoyable one, and who could blame us? When AAA video games can cost as much as $100 (USD$70) in humble Australian Down-Under, gamers expect a decent amount of polish and care for their investment in an increasingly expensive hobby. Yet publishers and developers don’t always afford their consumers this care.
Warner Bros.’ action-adventure title Batman: Arkham Knight caused a stink last year, launching with an embarrassing amount of bugs. While console gamers could smirk and smugly lean back in their chairs for the first (and only) time in gaming history, PC gamers were busy dealing with a myriad of problems with their game version. These problems included poor shading, optimisation, and a host of crashes, effectively making PC’s Arkham Knight seem buggier than a kindergarten run by Anti-Vaxxers.
Developer Rocksteady was unable to address the bugs, and offered refunds. But ultimately, the game was pulled from (re)development. If the Arkham Knight debacle illustrates anything, it’s that a) bugs are a symptom of laziness and negligence on the part of developers (or in this case, production companies); and b) they negatively impact gamers’ enjoyment of games.
Now, bugs have irking both consumers and programmers for a long time — dare we say, as long as computing itself. An early example is 1980’s Pacman infamous level 256 bug. A problem related to the game’s internal level counter and a subroutine for the fruit displayed at the screen’s bottom resulted in an integer overflow, causing symbols and characters on the lower- and right-hand sides of the screen to appear, erasing the next set of power-pellets. As the (now erased) power pellets are required to finish the stage, this effectively made level 256 (and therefore, the game) unbeatable. Players have dubbed the level the ‘Kill Screen’. Considering that Namco designed Pacman to effectively be infinite, the bug is a huge problem. And without players addressing the issue with ROM hacking, it still is.
But while sometimes game-breaking, bugs are more commonly irksome, tiring and immersion breaking. Individually, they might be they might seem insignificant, but too many, too often destroy a player’s experience of a game-world.
Before there was Rocksteady’s Arkham Fart, the cooly received Assassins Creed Unity caused stink in the gaming community. As it was rushed (and developed by Ubisoft), Unity was plagued by bugs — the most memorable being the nightmare inducing faceless glitch, where NPCs in cutscenes would spawn without faces, simply lidless eyeballs, gums and teeth hovering in midair. Barring those who love Freddy Kruger, no gamer likes nightmares, so, understandably, gamers were pretty annoyed with Ubisoft. Considering that the French Revolution is a damn sweet setting for a game, Unity’s potential was squandered by its bugs. A damn shame.
It must seem ridiculous, then, for me to even suggest that bugs could improve games. As we’ve seen, they’re often unintended, harmful, and system-breaking. Yet, some of my fondest early memories of gaming involve games not behaving how the developer intended.
I’m (still) playing the re-release of Pokémon — Pokémon Red, specifically. It was a great game when I first played it at the ripe old age of seven, probably in 1999. And it’s still great today. The mechanics still hold up, even if I do miss SPECIAL being divided into -ATK and -DEF in later games. And there’s just the right amount of Pokémon that remembering the type match-ups, or ‘catching them all’, is still, 15 years later, within my (now-wrinkling) fingers’ grasp.
If there’s one thing that first-generation Pokémon games aren’t, though, is coded well. The games are poorly coded, with several RAM-related quirks and bugs within it’s programming Poké-Tron depths. The most infamous of these is the Missingno glitch, which gave me plenty of nightmares as a young child.
For those not familiar, the Missingno glitch, despite the legends surrounding the ‘Pokémon’, is really just the result of the game temporarily storing the player’s name in the RAM as a ‘data buffer’ after the caffeine-addicted Old Man in Viridian City tutors the player. Likely due to oversight, Pokémon’s developers also assigned no encounter value to the eastern seaboard of Cinnabar Island. This means that, if the player swims there after being tutored by the Old Man, the game draws the water tiles’ battle information from name data previously stored in the RAM. And if this value is greater than 151, the value has no Pokémon assigned to it (i.e., ‘MissingNo.’) and Missingno appears — haunting children’s memories to this day.
Contrary to Arkham Knight or Assassin’s Creed: Unity, Pokémon Red & Blue’s Missingno actually enhanced players’ experiences of the game. Apart from the nightmares, Missingno quickly developed into a cult fascination, with players developing its canon (including fan-art and homage), exploiting its appearance’s quirks (including the ever-popular ‘Rare Candy Glitch’), and sociologists studying its effect on player-immersion.
Of all things, a glitch helped contribute to the original Pokémon games’ lasting popularity. As a ’Pokémon’ rather than a bug, players created the mythos of Missingno as a way to rationalise game’s flaws. No doubt, this helped create and contribute to the Kanto- and greater Poké-verse. If Missingno contributed to the lasting popularity of the initial Pokémon games, it contributed to the series’ popularity as a whole. Hell, yesterday I remembered that, due to a similar glitch, I could get myself Mew just past Cerulean City. And I think that sort of malleability really works in the game’s favour. But Missingno isn’t the only example of a glitch gone mainstream.
The Street Fighter that we know today, at least in the sense of being a heavily combo-driven fighter, had its origins in a glitch. Street Fighter II (1991) producer Noritaka Funamizu noticed in bug-testing that players were exploiting the timing of attacks (i.e., performing combos) to immobilise opposing players, providing a means to inflict huge amounts of damage on opponents. As the act required very specific timing, Funamizu believed players would find it difficult to exploit the bug, and decided to leave it in the game’s code.
From this, combos would grow to become a staple in basically all following fighting games since then — frustrating many-a player, including myself. And while video game combos existed in earlier games (e.g., Renegade (1986); Double Dragon (1987)), it was Street Fighter 2’s unintended bug that enriched the game and led to a revolution across the fighting-game genre. The genre exists as it is today due to a bug.
Anecdotally, I can think of a bunch of example from my youth (before online, day-one patches) of bugs actually making games more fun.
Take Nintendo 64’s Goldeneye: 007’s ‘Facility’ multiplayer level, for instance. In it, the developer seems to have intended players to be unable to access the vents above the toilets unless they spawned there upon death. However, with some awkward manoeuvring (and crouching, for some reason), players are actually able to glitch up into the vents. If the opposing players didn’t know how to also perform the glitch, they were unable to kill the vent dweller in multiplayer — that is, unless they committed suicide until they spawned up there.
Unsurprisingly, this, combined with the use of remote mines, made for some hilarious shenanigans as a young’un. Eventually, everyone would know the glitch, and truces would have to be made not to go up there. But invariably, there would always be one coward who took advantage of it when losing, and everyone would enter a makeshift alliance to punish them for breaking the loosely defined code of honour. Eat shit, Hayden.
Or take The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. The jarring dialogue, combined with some of the worst physics glitches I’ve ever seen, made the game one of my most memorable (and enjoyable) gaming experiences. From NPCs walking through — not up — staircases, never to be seen again; to main-quest markers leading to the corpses of (purportedly, non-killable) NPCS, creating dead quest-lines; to tales of NPCs floating into the air and becoming liquid, amoebous blob.
My favourite buggy quirk of that game was the introduction of the Radiant artificial intelligence that power NPCs decisions and actions. A testament to their skill as a developer, Bethesda programmed a realistic AI engine that accounted for NPCs desires, whether from passions such as anger, greed, to personal beliefs — even basic human needs such as food and sleep. These desires underpinned all actions of the NPCs, unless otherwise overwritten by the game’s code (such as during quests).
Oblivion’s AI was unprecedented before its release. NPCs in its predecessor, The Elder Scroll III: Morrowind, stood indefinitely on the spot, whether day or night, unless provoked by enemies or the player character, ever whispering, ‘please, kill me.’ Oblivions NPCs, on the other hand, were far too animated. In two (fatal) developmental oversights, NPCs would resort to crime and violence to quell their needs. These desires, except in the case of an NPC’s death, are infinite. Beds and food, however? A limited resource — Bethesda’s second oversight.
Residents of the proud Imperial City, once hungry, would search for food. In the cases where they couldn’t legally find any, they would resort to theft, resulting in brawls in citizens houses and blood in the streets. There isn’t anything like entering a city in your 200+ hour Oblivion save file and finding corpses through the street — the ominous remnants of what made the games NPCs distinctly ‘human’: their will to survive, by any means necessary.
Skyrim lacked this chaos. After initially playing it, part of my original criticism was that its world felt too polished and carefully crafted, which destroyed my sense of immersion. Sure, it had bugs — for instance, the infamous skyrocket glitch: players would hilariously fly heavenward after a giant clubbed them to death. This glitch, as funny as it was, was later patched out, just as many of Skyrim’s other niggling (but hilarious) glitches. On the other hand, Oblivion remains a mess. But it’s my mess.
Bugginess introduces chaos into systems. In a world where video games are increasingly being treated as products to smoothen and make palatable, (inadvertent) zaniness and exploits can liven up a game. Goldeneye or Oblivion show us that bugs can indeed make a game loveable and memorable. To compare a buggy game alongside the likes of Arkham Knight or Assassin’s Creed unity — solely on the basis of ‘bugginess’ — does disservice to all the diamonds in the rough that bring a little quirk to our sterile industry. Sure, they can be annoying. But at a perfect balance, Oblivion happens.
And that’s definitely okay in my book.
Reece ‘Druif’ Druiven is a writer, musician, gamer and aspiring academic. You can find him complaining on Twitter at @druifordare. He also runs a fortnightly gaming podcast, The Button Mashup, listenable here.