Glitch of the Eternal Return

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When I was a child, I used to dream about the courtyard of Peach’s castle in Super Mario 64. In the game, you are kept from leaving Peach’s property by steep, slippery hills and invisible walls. But just beyond the barriers was the question “what if?” I had a reoccurring dream of being in Mario’s shoes, but able to fly over the invisible wall, just higher than the programmers had planned someone to jump, and soaring beyond. Each time I’d make it over, I’d find the same thing: an endless opaque ocean stretching infinitely in all directions, the surface only broken occasionally by the stray tentacle or fin of the creatures swimming beneath. More than one of these dreams ended when I, or the occasionally companion, dove too close to the surface, only to be snatched and devoured by the unspeakable horrors existing just beyond the veil of the simulated world I knew from the waking world.

Of course, there was nothing actually beyond those invisible walls, because that is all that the programmers had put in. At least, that was what I assumed. Unlike reality, or my childhood dreams, games were static worlds of objective, logical rules, code and absolute limits. Of course, it turns out that those limits are not always as static as we assume. Super Mario 64 has a whole hidden inner world of alternate timelines, cryptids lurking out of sight, and ways of altering the reality around Mario from outside. In the now famous “A-button trick” video by Scott Buchanan, it was revealed that by gaining enough speed, Mario could break beyond the boundaries of the level and be placed in a parallel dimension, while still tracking his placement on the real level. Broken free of the confines of his original world, the player could then force Mario to keep gaining speed and break further and further out into newly created parallel levels that the game keeps track of even if the player can not see them. The ultimate goal of doing this was to position Mario in those parallel universes until one was created where he could obtain enough height and speed to return to his original world and grab the star, thus letting the player complete the level with the least number of controller button presses. A lot of work for something so unnecessary, but somehow that only made the process more evocative and compelling to hear about.

Even older Mario games have their hidden worlds. In 2014, speedrunners Lord Tom and Tompa discovered a glitch that allows them to jump straight to the end of the game in record time. Technically, what they are doing is performing specific movements that place specific numbers into the game’s memory based on the locations of enemies and Mario’s movement between pipes until the game is inadvertently forced to start dragging random bits of code and fit it into a place it was not intended. This is what results in the garbled mess on the screen and the confused game deciding that where Mario is supposed to be is the last room of the game. But in practice it looks like they somehow allowed Mario to enter a secret, glitched-out hidden world underneath the part of the game we are meant to see, where Princess Peach was secretly waiting all along. In a digital katabasis, Mario descends into the underworld beneath his reality to find that which should not be there. It is almost mythical, like a Sumerian epic.

The fact that these glitches are merely misplaced bits of numbers and confused programs desperately trying to produce something that works doesn’t make them less magical. Years after my dreams of the ocean beyond the bounds of Mario 64, I would discover that it was not just fancy. The ocean is real. Through several different methods, it is possible to deposit Mario in a vast hidden ocean underneath and outside Peach’s castle, identical to what I had dreamed up (minus the monsters). It was startling to perform this glitch for myself and swim about in my own dreams. Now, this is simply a coincidence of course, but can you imagine the feeling of discovering a that a place you invented in your childish imagination and exploring it for real? It felt like somehow the connection between myself and the game got blurred. It felt a bit magical.

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What is it about glitches that is so alluring? The chink in the game’s armor, the tiny moment a player can slip through and perform miracles, the misstep that brings about the end of all things until reset? Performing a glitch is like performing magic. They are forces beyond what is expected, normal and solid that can be dangerous for the players that stumble upon them. For those that intentionally call upon them? The risk of destruction or corruption can also bring great rewards. In Final Fantasy VI, attempting to have Relm, the magical artist, paint an invisible enemy can result in an inventory full of the rarest, most powerful items, or it can erase all of your saved data. A speedrunner can use the death of their character to beat a game faster than keeping them alive ever could. A pokemon trainer can generate the mysterious Missingo, a new pokemon made of bits of broken code, that offers its captor tantalizing rewards and mysteries even as it threatens their data. They are all unnecessary, if one simply wanted to cheat there were far simpler methods. Objectively, they are hardly worth the risk, but they let us do things to the worlds inside those games that actual mastery of the game’s intended mechanics couldn’t.

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Video games take place in simplified simulations or abstractions of the real world. They cannot contain the magnitude of the world’s banality, and so they are ruled by absolute systems. Even if they are made by illogical, biased apes, they still at least follow those rules they are programmed with. In the case of most games, it is considered ideal for every experience within the game to be the same for every player performing the same action. There is a comfort to those limitations, especially in older games that appear even simpler due to technological limitations. But by performing the correct sequence of movements and events, we can break that. We can warp this perfect, simulated reality and create something new. Its the kind of magic we often dream of being able to wield in our own world.

A lack of knowledge makes the real world appear a frighteningly chaotic place, where every shadow hides a demon and god plays dice with fate. A little knowledge makes it seem a lot more ordered, revealing the well oiled machine and delicate organization that keeps the world turning. A lot more knowledge reveals our world to not nearly be as ordered as we hoped. Our bodies are barely held-together meat and synapses that can fail for any reason and natural selection only led to their existence because our ancestors managed to get laid before their bad genes interfered. Our societies are full of needless suffering and starvation, and the natural world gets thrown into chaos over slight chemical changes. The idea of order creating a natural tendency toward perfection rendered more absurd with each passing year. The idealized world people often dream of, whether expressed as a dichotomy between science and superstition or one between the sacred and the profane, is a lie, and that fact is rather terrifying. Thankfully, we are capable of creating our own, simpler worlds.

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We are drawn to glitches because they allow us the experience of simulating the sacred and the profane from a world that has neither. Through them we can become sorcerers in a way no one can in the real world. Like the holy men of old, deliberately shattering their bodies and allowing them to be remade by forces outside their world, the game is broken, its code tricked into destruction and delusion, rebuilt as best as it can by the unseen programming, and if it survives it can accomplish the impossible. To the uninitiated, our actions in the game and their outcomes appear miraculous. We summon chaos into these worlds through practiced and ordered evocations, whispered mantras and rituals made of precise button presses and movements. The myriad Marios and other protagonists become our familiars which we use to enter that spirit world and drag secrets back into the game’s reality.

Glitches like this cannot exist in other media. A character in a comic book can never exit the boundaries of the panel unless drawn that way, and even then they will always remain doing so in the exact way the artist intended. A reader cannot “break” a book by reading a specific sequence of pages. Someone viewing a painting in a museum cannot break past the frame and manipulate the “parallel dimensions” beyond. Digital media can “glitch” occasionally, as in record skips, distorted pixels or lines on old vhs tapes, and they can be chaotically beautiful in their unexpected outcomes. But these glitches are different from game glitches in the relationship between them and the audience. The audience doesn’t create the glitch seen when a DVD gets warped or a cord is plugged into the TV incorrectly the same way they evoke the glitch in a game. Even stumbling upon a game glitch accidentally is an interactive process.

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All art involves a conversation or relationship between the audience and the artists, but glitches allow the player to bypass the artist entirely and converse directly with the soul of a game.

What the audience takes with them from a glitch will be different than what they take from their conversation with the artist. Anyone can debate the meaning and merit of a work of art (not everyone can do it WELL, but anyone can), but how can you debate the meaning of a glitch? The glitch itself is an aberration, at best a mistake that the artist was too lazy to remove, it has no bearing on the meaning of the work. Some require such convoluted steps to achieve that the original artist couldn’t even have been aware of it. A glitch can be unholy in that it is a place in the game not within the plan of the creator. It can only be achieved by rejecting the creator and becoming a demiurge, building something new with material created by another. But just like the demiurges of mythology, those creations are hardly as sustainable as that which they steal from to create. The results of the glitch are rarely more than destruction for the pixelated creatures and avatars of the game. Even when they lead to rewards, those rewards are always only one step away from the death of your current play session, or worse your stored data. But the rewards of finding, performing or understanding a glitch may not lie only in the outcome within the game. The act of performing the glitch can have more meaning than the results of the glitch itself.

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Because of their nature, there is something else glitches can create other than cheats and methods of completing exceedingly niche challenges. Glitches can be used to change more than just the code and the solid world within the game. There is space for the glitch to create experiences that last even after their immediate effect or after the game has been shut down. Glitches can allow the audience to break the boundaries between them and that simulated world within the game. The popular Youtube series Monster Factory by the Griffin and Justin McElroy is based around abusing a game’s character generator to create absurd characters. For games that do not have a robust-enough editor to create uncanny enough beings, the hosts utilize glitches and cheats. Sometimes they use both the chosen game’s mechanics and glitches and forces outside the intended experience. The most famous example of this is the breakout character Final Pam from their Fallout 4 episodes. Fallout 4 is a game by Bethesda, whose games often do not even have the veneer of order and logic other games have. It is incredibly easy to break a Bethesda game without even trying, so of course when one is actually trying the results can be far more dramatic than in other, more competently programmed games. The Final Pam series ends with their titular creation growing so powerful, and rendering the game so unplayable, that she breaks past the boundaries of her own game, revealing an endless expanse of empty plains and ocean.

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The McElroys leave her there, drifting further and further away into an ocean that does not exist within the normal game. The space she exists in now is a strange, liminal space. It was created by their breaking of the game, but at the same time it is not their creation. It is part of the game and also does not exist anywhere within it. It is there that their creation, Final Pam, is allowed to become “free” of them, and potentially appear anywhere else. The McElroys warn the audience that she can now emerge in any game, at any time.

Of course, it is a ludicrous idea to accept at face value. Final Pam cannot leave her actual game. Both she and that magic-seeming ocean she has been set adrift in stop existing once the game is turned off. But that is where our own imagination takes over. Just like me and the world beyond Peach’s Castle, audiences create their own spaces for characters like Final Pam to continue on from. In this example, we utilize the magic of the glitches, and the magical spaces and stories they create, not to help us beat the game or gain power for our avatar, but to create a performance and encourage others to join in. A new space for play is created, linking the imagination of each viewer to the broken version of this one game.

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Glitches can be used to challenge a game in a new way, experience things hidden by the developers, engage and master a game on a deeper level, or create new stories and bring them out of the game’s boundaries. But there is another use for glitches that deserves a more in-depth look. Glitches can create more than just magic or stories, they can create visual art. Today, hopefully, I’ve convincingly argued that glitches are where magic happens. Next time, I will argue that glitches are also where art happens as well.

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