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Glitch Reading, Glitched Reading: Bethesda's "Broken" Worlds
by Andrew Lavigne on 03/25/13 05:52:00 am   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


Glitches enrich Bethesda's work. The Elder Scrolls and Fallout would not reach the same heights without the anything-can-happen, chaotic feel that their excessive errors lend them—the feeling that at any moment the world itself can collapse or that everything will cease to be as you fall through the world. Nothing sums this feeling up more than the Melt Glitch.

Fallout 3 contains many eerie scenes of post-nuclear devastation, but the tensest moment in my experience with it came from a glitch. Here I am, wandering a desert, scavenging what I can, when the danger music plays. Spinning about, I find nothing. The music plays. A car-sized scorpion lunges at me, hissing, from inside a sand dune to my left.

I kill it while frantically running backwards, right in time for two more to pop out of the desert floor itself, their black bodies blending with the sand textures in such a way that only their tails poked out - like Jaws in his ocean. Not at all natural, they broke the uncanny valley, broke the safety net of rules I expected as a player.




Another time, a settlement I returned to in hopes of finishing a quest contained only dead NPCs and a living Deathclaw that had somehow broken the game's area barrier. He killed me too, and easily. 

A Deathclaw [from]

During a jaunt through Skyrim's northren arctic wastes, I discovered some ice-frozen water with islets during a snow storm. The encounter music ramped up, and I found myself in a war between wolves, elk, and spiders. They skittered across the ice at me. I am at least semi-arachnophobic, same as half the population of the world, so they gave me pause. After a few seconds, they died to some fire and I continued on my way, excited from the combat, to a “Mysterious Shack” nearby. 

Checking the door only to find it locked, I heard a loud groan. A horker slammed down straight out of the sky on me, splattering blood everywhere and taking my health down to danger. Hyped from the battle, it was genuinely scarier than most horror games.

Horkers in Skyrim [from].

What these instances lend to Bethesda titles is real life unpredictably. Everyone who plays their work regards the glitches comically, or perhaps as an expected inevitability due to the size of the world and sheer amount of coding done, but they serve also as key parts of the text, inseparable from the readings that we do on them. 

We game players, we expect a certain level of perfection. We want our worlds to be without flaw. But a perfect world is a double-edged sword, creating artificiality instead of solving it. What Bethesda reveals to us is a world in chaos, uneasy with even itself - a more realistic environ.

After all, the greatest virtue of Morrowind laid in its "broken" nature: want to kill everyone on the continent with a spell you bought (and crash your computer in the process)? Go ahead. Want to levitate out of a fight? Go ahead. In seeking to fix these "flaws," Bethesda created the less-successful Oblivion, a game of PR "safe calls" attempting to mask that same chaos of glitches, broken game systems, and disturbingly stiff monster movements. (Thankfully, the last try failed in Fallout 3: the monsters all lope and skitter around unrealistically - but also inhumanly, weirdly.)

Perhaps we should not long for a perfect world: perhaps the world where monsters emerge from the environment itself and we frantically tap save every ten minutes for fear of a crash keeps us on edge in ways difficulty cannot. 

Glitches frustrate, but they also intrigue us. They are joined in intimate function with our experience of the game. Stories spring out of them, told on forums, in articles, on playgrounds, in bars. I have told you stories and been told stories in return. With Bethesda's games, more than any other yet not exclusive to them, glitches unite people. Ben “Yahtzee” Croshaw just about reaches the same conclusion in his video review of Skyrim, a moment of truth in a parody.



               Humorously disturbing, or just disturbing? Fallout 3. [Screenshot                           via].


But beyond all these things, glitches are human. This denies Ebert and co.'s simplistic view of game making and game playing as “push button, done.” More, glitches are an area of inadvertent artistic expression unavailable to other mediums. 

On page, one can create intentional typos to disorient the reader (stream-of-concious). Celluloid can be distorted for the same reasons (Begotten). Neither of these reach the same heights that altering, subtly or explicitly, a game's entire world and a player's entire existence potentially can. Glitches are a form of technological existentialism, more powerful for occurring without intention and yet still present in games thanks to human input. 

Want more game criticism? Enter Strange Country.

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Bart Stewart
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It's nice to see someone embrace the crazy. :)

First, let's stipulate that true code bugs (like the Melt Glitch in Oblivion) are undesirable errors that Bethesda would rather fix than see occur in production code. These things are funny, but they break immersion and that is an important component of fun for some people.

Let's also note that code bugs, which really are "bugs" in the usual sense of that word, are different from design effects like being able to leap across an entire island in one mighty bound as in Morrowind. Those can seem odd at a high level, but they're not broken in that the code itself is working as intended. General gamers tend to conflate these two kinds of effects, but they have different causes and need to be addressed (if at all in the latter case) in different ways.

Finally, it's only fair to admit that, given the crazy number of interconnected systems in a Bethesda game, the great surprise is not that there are glitches, but rather how few of them there actually are. And that goes double (at least) for the players who've applied dozens of fan-created mods to the game Bethesda actually shipped.

All those things acknowledged, the weirdness of a Bethesda game that flows from the impossible-to-fully-predict interactions among its many systems is part of its charm. I don't enjoy the stuttering and crashing, but the lesser gremlins do, in a funny way, serve to send the message that you are in a strange new world where the rules can surprise you.

I love a game that's willing to let me be surprised now and then. Surely it's OK for some games like that to exist along with the simpler and slickly produced experiences?

Pablo Simbana
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I'm ok with bugs as long as they are not game breaking like what happened with skyrim in the ps3, i'm told that was a nightmare...

Joel Bennett
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I'm always amazed when things like this turn up. Maybe it's just me, but I look at it as a sign of good game design (or at least of a complex world/simulation). I really enjoy hearing stories of the unorthodox usage of objects. It tells me that there is a really neat set of rules that are interacting with each other, and that players have somehow discovered interactions that the designers hadn't originally planned.

I recall hearing one story that involved lights and moths. In the game/simulation, lights would turn on when it got dark out. Moths were attracted to lights. When it would get dark out, the lights would turn on, and attract moths, but eventually enough moths would crowd around the light that enough light was reflected back to the sensor, so the light would turn off, and the moths would go away. After some time, the light would check again, and it would be dark out, so it would turn back on. I saw something similar to this happening in real life - a light next to a building that was lighting a sidewalk would turn on, and eventually grow bright enough (low-pressure sodium lights take a while to warm up) that it would turn itself off.

Another example I heard was in one of the Jedi Knight games (and I think I read it here on Gamasutra!). A player was low on health and ammo, and there were several enemies around a corner. The player used the 'force' to pull an explosive barrel toward himself, in front of a firing turret. It exploded and blew everything up. It wasn't something that the designers had necessarily planned, but it made for a more interesting game - and a more interesting story.

That's the kind of thing that I'd love to strive for in my own games - just setting up enough rules that cause interactions that I haven't yet discovered.

Alfa Etizado
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They can be nice but have given me more frustration than joy. Quests glitching, companions glitching, losing equipment, etc.

Ideally, a dev should make a game that's less predictable, that has less transparent systems and a world that doesn't revolve around the player. This way you can get the same feel that the glitches provide, without having them.

Maria Jayne
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Interesting thing really, I can tolerate bugs in a truly great game far better than I can tolerate a mediocre game that is bug free. A great game will be patched, you can't patch mediocrity.

Randy Napier
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Skyrim is great for these bugs when they're not game breaking. I was playing once fighting a bear, and the bear had an attack that caused him to dash forward at a terrific speed, but only for a split second (some claw or bite attack). At the exact moment he as moving at this super speed I hit him with a freeze shout and his momentum was preserved. He flew by me, ramped off a lightly inclined rock, and went sailing through the air, never to be seen again (which was handy since there were two bears and I was a bit low on health). Me must have traveled 20 miles at the speed he was going.

On another occasion, however, I had a glitch with a dragon, where it kept flying away but I was still locked in combat with it, and the combat wouldn't break. He would fly off, freak out some in the air, and then fly back after regenerating some health and attack again. I don't remember exactly how I resolved it, but it took about 45 minutes of trial and error running, saving, loading, and trying to fast travel before I finally got out of combat. Not cool.