It sounds like a myth.
In a certain town, go and speak to an old man, who will demonstrate how to accomplish a certain task. Then, before anything else, fly to an island to the south. On a strip of coast to the west, roam north and south. You will encounter a Lovecraftian monster made of flickering geometry. Run away from it, and when you’ve gotten to safety, look in your bag. You will find what you carry multiplied, like the loaves and fishes of the New Testament.
There are strange creatures lurking at the edges of video games. Players who follow the rules may never encounter these creatures, or the alien landscapes they inhabit. Or, the game might erupt at the seams, giving even obedient players glimpses at bizarre worlds. If met, whether by chance or design, these creatures can work strange energies on the game. They can bend dimensional space, skip through time, or crash the game, leaving even the hardware inert silicon.
Thanks to the twin cultural juggernauts of the Internet and the Pokémon series of video games, my childhood was full of pseudo-urban-legends like the one that opens this essay. The Pokémon series has a familiar conceit: a small child leaves home to capture a collection of fantastical creatures, commands those creatures in battle, and along the way, learns lessons about friendship. I was a child particular in his obsessions and devoted in his tactics, and having exhausted exploring the world of a video game that I cherished, looked for ways to extend my play, to uncover secrets I supposed hidden away by the game designers—or to cheat my way to the top. Elementary school hallways and Internet chatrooms alike buzzed with tactics for discovering new, hidden creatures and special areas in Pokémon Red Version and Blue Version1 through baroque tactics that more often than not, never worked at all.
Except when they did.
Take a look at this creature:
Image by author, from ROM cartridge
By following the step-by-step process of this essay’s opening, with some crucial details added back in, a player of one of the original Pokémon games can encounter a creature called “Missingno.” Missingno.—an abbreviation of Missing Number, referring to the creature’s absence in the standard order of Pokémon—looks and behaves nothing like a typical Pokémon. It is, in fact, not a Pokémon at all—at least, not an intentional one. Missingno. is a glitch, an accidental vomit of code, a developer’s mistake. That sequence (pictured in the video below, with the technical nuts and bolts described at length here) tricks the game into loading, as creature data, information stored in the player’s name. The creatures that emerge from this accidental garbage data fascinated me as a child in their grotesqueness, and enchanted me to the possibility that there were layers of abstraction hidden underneath the image, sound, text, and technologies of my favorite games.
Video by author
While some games, like the original Pokémon, have slips, gaps, and cracks into which enterprising players can burrow, other games (unfortunately!) are too well-constructed to yield their secrets through ordinary play. However, humankind has yet to create a technology that other people have not tried to break down and hack to bits, so there are ways around even the most solid code. Enter the Gameshark.
The Gameshark is one of a range of devices that allows players to inject novel strings of code into games, and thus create and exploit bugs even where there were none. These devices, sold under names like “Codebreaker,” “Game Genie,” or the obtuse but lawsuit-avoiding “Action Replay,” marketed themselves as “cheating” games, and often came pre-loaded with swathes of codes for popular games that helped players avoid damage, maximize items, or skip difficult levels. These devices operate on the principle of active memory editing. The player inserts the device into the console, and then inserts the game’s ROM cartridge into the device itself. (The introduction of optical media to video games slowed these devices’ popularity, but there are workarounds involving writing code to memory sticks.) The device decompiles and recompiles the game’s code during play, inserting, editing, and eliding bytes according to the player’s instructions. Each line of Gameshark code is a hexadecimal order to isolate and alter a specific value in the game’s active memory. For instance, the code:
is an instruction to continuously write the value “2D” to the address “D8CF” in the first (“01”) memory bank2. Later iterations of devices allowed for more complex scripting, and codes that functioned like programs, reading and writing values to the system’s memory with sophistication. Some versions, like the one I owned as a child, had debugging features, through which I could pause mid-play, open a menu, search for specific hexadecimal values, and construct new codes on the fly. In this way, the Gameshark wasn’t just a way to cheat through games, it was my first exposure to computer programming. I could, with a few lines of hexadecimal found on an Angelfire page, disable collision detection to allow me to explore the landscape beyond the game’s walls, uncover dummied out levels, items, and characters, or change the laws of physics that worked on my character. Or, I could crash the game completely, and obliterate the cartridge. That was the risk of these devices, though it was a risk I was willing to take to discover the creatures lurking in the silicon.
These glitchy occurrences and memory-editing devices encourage players, as they encouraged me, to plumb the edges and parallax dimensions of video games. They shake players into seeing the material substrates running underneath games not only as present and manipulable, but as strange, dangerous, and volatile. They are an initiated to formal play, to seeing the otherwise material rules of the game—where you can go, what you can see, how you can create—as open to discussion. Glitches and cheat codes are a violent literacy, a writing an dreading that quite literally destabilizes the text, often to the point of crash and failure. At the same time, they point to a hidden vitality running through each zero and one, and a capacity, if given the right conditions, for the game itself, an agglomeration of software and hardware, to assert a strange life as often as a sudden death. How can we characterize this vitality? What does this vitality reveal about the ways that we can inhabit and interrogate virtual space? What do we discover transgressing the boundaries of design? And how do we live alongside our games after facing down the face that our devices are, despite our best efforts to train them otherwise, more machine than human?
What are these strange creatures, made of memory and accident, that lurk at the edges of our games?
Let’s take a trip, down into negative numbers.
The instructions are as baroque as they were for Pokémon: jump, with pixel-perfect accuracy, into a wall. You bleed through the wall and discover a warp pipe on the other end. Travel through this pipe to find yourself trapped in a water world that never stops, looping back in on itself, no matter how far you move forward.
Super Mario Bros. for the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) hides a level, called in gaming culture the “Minus World.” It is the spatial equivalent of Missingno.—a collection of junk data accessed by accident that manifests itself as a playable landscape through pure chance. The Minus World, called that because of the “World –1” screen that precedes it, relies on manipulating memory just like Missingno. In this case, the player’s precise jumps trick the game into loading incorrect pointer data—the information that tells each entrance and exit where it is supposed to take the player—onto a series of warp pipes near the end of a level. Instead of taking the player to World 4–13, the pipe takes the player to World 36–1, and an error with the game’s tiles displays the famous World –1. The video above explores a few of the other levels that follow World 36–1, which become progressively more strange and glitchy until finally, they are unplayable and force a system crash.
Like Missingno., part of the Minus World’s thrill is one of transgressive discovery, of finding things beyond the boundaries of normal play. But otherwise, it is a tame glitch, with none of the aesthetic brokenness of Missingno. The level itself is a pixel-for-pixel copy of a later level in the game, World 7–2, and appart from the endless loop, plays normally. But in that endless loop lies a kind of formal play. Games in the Mario series are predicated on moving forward at all costs. The Minus World, in its endless loop, mocks that core principle, punishing forward motion with death rather than a prize. The player will run out of time and die—or the player will turn the system off, in effect, forcing a crash. In the Minus World, Super Mario Bros. has encoded a self-parody, or at least, its fundamental opposite.
Again the glitch presents players with danger. A strange creature or a strange space draws them in with wonder and terror in equal measure. The sensation of encountering a glitch is one of interruption and surprise, even for those searching it. Discovering Missingno. or getting trapped the Minus World are disruptions not only of the player’s understanding of what constitutes the game’s “text,” but also of the ways that the player understands input and character action. Rosa Menkman, in her “Glitch Studies Manifesto,” describes the experience of encountering a software glitch at length:
I experience the glitch as a wonderful interruption that shifts an object away from its ordinary form and discourse, towards the ruins of destroyed meaning. My first encounter comes hand-in-hand with a feeling of shock, or being lost and in awe. But once I find myself within these ruins I also experience a feeling of hope; a triumphal sensation that there is something more than just devastation. A negative feeling makes place for an intimate, personal experience of a machine (or program), a system exhibiting its formations, inner workings and flaws. As a holistic celebration rather than a particular perfection these ruins reveal a new opportunity to me, a spark of creative energy that indicates that something new is about to be created. Questions emerge: What is this utterance, and how was it created? Is it perhaps…a glitch? But once the glitch is named, the momentum – the glitch – is gone…and in front of my eyes suddenly a new form has emerged.4
Menkman characterizes the glitch as a formal and aesthetic breakage that, by pointing to the “inner working and flaws” of a machine, exposes a dialectical tension between the text’s “ordinary form and discourse” and its structural negative, what Menkman describes as the text’s “ruin.” In a way, “ruin” is a useful first metaphorical answer to the question of what these alien creatures and topographies might be. It’s a metaphor that artist Cory Arcangel takes up in his mash-up re-edit of the original Super Mario Bros.” game, Super Mario Movie. In a fifteen-minute animation, hacked into a Mario cartridge, Arcangel imagines the titular character trapped in a decaying game cartridge, the computational landscape becoming digital ruin before the viewer/player’s eyes.
Arcangel’s animation makes use of the aesthetic effects of glitches, although its deliberately programmed nature makes it difficult to read as an example of the kinds of creatures I’m exploring in this essay. And is the Minus World a ruin? Are the kinds of character-based glitches produced in Pokémon ruins? A ruin is present after the force of history has worked on a monumental object. Producing a ruin takes time. Per Walter Benjamin, the ruin is the “allegorical physiognomy of the nature history,” what he characterizes as the both metaphorical and physical fusion of history and object in a way that concretizes decay5. These particular glitches do not seem to take time into the equation. If they are ruins, they are ruins that coexist with, rather than replace, their antecedents. And what of their vitality? Can a ruin have vitality? (And is a ruin’s vitality different from the kinds of lives that make their homes in ruins?)
The fulcrum between ruin and vitality is history. Put another way, and in a familiar computing metaphor: memory. “Memory,” as Wendy Hui Kyong Chun observes, is a loaded term when it comes to computing. She writes:
Computers have conflated memory with storage, the ephemeral with the enduring. Rather than storing memories, we now put things “into memory,” both consciously and unconsciously…. [T]o read information is to write it elsewhere. At the same time, however, the enduring is also the ephemeral. Not only because even if data storage devices can be read forensically after they fail they still eventually fail, but also because—and more crucially—what is not constantly upgraded or “migrated” or both becomes unreadable. As well, our interactions with computers cannot be reduced to the traces we leave behind. The experiences of using—the exact paths of execution—are ephemeral. Information is “undead”: neither alive nor dead, neither quite present nor absent.6
Chun presents a series of paradoxes: current discourses around hardware and software collapse the ideas of “memory,” an active process of unfolding and experience, with “storage,” the technologies to and through which computers read and write information; that the apparently separate processes of reading and writing are in fact one and the same; and that the traces of our interactions with software and hardware are always present, yet ephemeral. Discussing memory and history in computing runs up against the problem of life and death, of legibility and illegibility, of preservation and degradation. Information, the only currency of computing, is always undead, flicking in its absence. Perhaps the ruin is too architectural a metaphor. Perhaps the proper metaphor, one that more adequately articulates the strange lives these glitches lead, the strange tensions they have with their doppelgänger “main” texts (does that distinction hold?), is the ghost.
What is a glitch the ghost of? Each of the glitches in this essay is an accidental of inscription, an error reading information written to the wrong place at the wrong time. Missingno. and the Minus World are then ghosts of the machine as much as they are ghosts in the machine. They are physical slippages of electrical charge held in circuits as well as ephemeral slippages of programmed logic. What is the data that Chun describes as “undead?” “Our interactions with computers [which] cannot be reduced to the traces we leave behind.” These glitches are not just the machine’s ghosts, they are ours as well. They are ghosts of nonstandard play, traces of those baroque tactics we followed to produce bizarre effects. We inhabit virtual space by instructing computers to create virtual space. We produce things through our play, engaging strange creatures by modeling strange behaviors. There were are, computer and human, training ourselves together to see things neither of us were ever supposed to see.
In early 2015, a player going by the name Werster set a new record for the fastest completion of Pokémon Blue Version. In twenty-one minutes of active play, no Gamesharks allowed, Werster manipulates the game’s gaps, cracks, slips, and glitches to reach the ending screen without a moment of what looks like “standard” play.
Werster’s play is the apotheosis of what one might call “glitchplay.” Rather than playing by the game’s defined rules, he uses glitches to create a new kind of play, one that focuses on associative exploration rather than linear progression. It’s also a play that attempts to break the game down into its constituent parts in order to build it back up into something new: hence how, near the end of the video, Werster explains how he essentially terraforms Pokémon Blue Version into a rudimentary computer, through which he can read and write the appropriate values to reach the ending screen. That ending screen is still the goal, though. This is glitchplay of means, but perhaps not of ends. What does it mean to let the glitch play with us, as much as we play with the glitch?
Asking these questions demands an empathetic experience with the object, an attempt at understanding its position, experiences, and internal life. It is the practice, as Ian Bogost puts it, of “alien phenomenology,” the philosophical practice of “amplify[ing] the black noise of objects to make the resonant frequencies of the stuffs inside them hum in credibly satisfying ways”7. The goal of such a practice is to come to a better understanding of our relationships, as humans, to the things surrounding us, and in doing so, understand the relationships of those things to each other, webbed out in interconnectivity and intersubjectivity. In a way, considering and exploring the glitch is one small way to come to terms with the lives of one particular set of the things surrounding us humans. Encountering, exploring, and surfacing the glitch is an admission, to ourselves and to the objects surrounding us, that accidents are only accidents from a particular point of view. We know nothing of the game’s relationship to its own glitches. The “speculative realist” turn of Bogost’s philosophical tactic demands that we acknowledge this unknowing. It’s what he means when he writes that “the true alien recedes interminably even as it surrounds us completely”8.
We know nothing, except what we find, grasping in the dark, trying byte after byte, roaming up and down coasts, looking for monsters. The search for glitches is half Magellan and half Lovecraft: the experience both of searching for monsters and imagining the monsters in being. Perhaps that’s the key to glitchplay. Less glitch, more play. More of what we felt as children, stumbling upon something strange and wondrous, tempered with a healthy bit of fear: that “spark of creative energy” that Menkman lauds. After all, these are our ghosts as much as the game’s. In coming to know them, or at least to see them, we see ourselves as much as the machines that surround us.
1 Pokémon Red Version and Blue Version. Kyoto: Nintendo, 1996. Gameboy. Video game. Developed by Gamefreak.
3 Levels in Super Mario Bros. are organized into eight “Worlds,” each of which have four levels. Thus World 1–1, 1-2, etc.
4 Rosa Menkman, “Glitch Studies Manifesto,” Video Vortex Reader II: Moving Images Beyond YouTube. eds. Geert Lovink and Rachel Somers Miles. (Amsterdam: Institute of Network Cultures, 2011), 340-1.
5 Walter Benjamin, The Origin of German Tragic Drama. Trans. John Osborne. (London: Verson, 1998), 177.
6 Wendy Hui Kyong Chun, Programmed Visions: Software and Memory. (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2011), 133.
7 Ian Bogost, Alien Phenomenology: or What It’s Like to Be a Thing. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2012), 36.