Breaking the Fifth Wall: Video Game Glitches and the Path Beyond
When video games went 3D something interesting happened. The additional, crucial dimension which made games into arena-like imaginative worlds caused a paradigm (polygon?) shift in play.
But it also created real problems for games designers whose knowledge of physics had to be significantly stepped up more or less overnight. Vast planes, multi-roomed castles and gnarled woods suddenly stood before your game character, waiting to be explored. Of course, the developers knew the limitations of their technology and these brave new worlds were (and still are) cordoned, limited spaces with invisible walls preventing you from breaking into the 3D backdrop beyond the gameplay area. Yet there remained the idea that you might escape the predefined boundaries of the virtual world you suddenly inhabited.
For me, as a gamer, the power of this was most acutely felt during the Nintendo 64 era. This, of course, was Nintendo's first foray into 3D and their introductory title for the console - Super Mario 64 - perfectly captures the sense of potential and outlandish possibility that lay ahead. Mario, who was once a mess of pixels given a moustache purely so that his face didn't look like a completely featureless patch of angular skin, could now run, jump, and even fly in three dimensions. The classic 'platformer' took our Italian sink-fixing hero on a journey high among clouds seemingly miles above the earth, or deep underwater. Glorious open space was everywhere and the Super Mario 64 'universe' made good use of it. Like many other games of the era, Super Mario 64 set each level on a kind of pixelated island surrounded either by high blurry walls of green (an abstract representation of trees) or, better, an invisible perimeter which allowed you to look out at endless sea or space beyond. This was particularly prevalent in a later game in the Mario series: Super Mario Sunshine, on the Gamecube.
But standing there, in the sunlight, looking out towards the horizon, or into a bottomless abyss, one felt vitalised by the illusion that the invisible walls and protecting barriers had been arbitrarily put in place. That what you were staring at wasn't just there to give the game level some spatial context, but that it was in fact the landscape of a very real (virtual) universe into which you might, somehow, escape and wander. Even though these no-man's-lands were empty of enemies and useful items to collect, their vastness and the idea that you 'weren't supposed to be there' were at times more tantalising than the game narrative itself. So you tried to get there. You tried to break the fifth wall.
In The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (a contender for the greatest videogame in history and certainly the most lauded of its time) Ganondorf, the hero Link's nemesis, is banished to "the gap between dimensions" upon defeat at the end of the game. As Ganondorf was sent spinning off into an endless white void, my belief that there was a universe behind every game was reinforced. That is, a universe which held the game levels in which you played, but also other spaces. Planes you weren't meant to access but which had been left in during development. Areas which were necessary as the building blocks of the game itself, or which were perhaps used in cut-scenes (which in those days were largely not cinematic CGI).
Searching for, cataloguing, and spreading word of glitches in games is as old a tradition as playing videogames itself. It points to the fact that, as an element in culture, gamers are aware that the games they play are not perfect, but are perforated here and there with bugs and fault-lines. Sometimes these cause characters to do or say funny things, make spells or actions which produce unexpected results, allow for invincibility or simply toy with the natural order of things as the game was originally arranged. However exciting some of these tricks and glitches were, I was always most fascinated by breaking the fifth wall and moving into theoretically cordoned-off spaces.
Citing Ocarina of Time again is appropriate here because, not too long after its release, rumours and faked screenshots appeared which suggested that it was possible to access the Temple of Light and also the Triforce itself (a three-triangled magical relic crucial to the game's story). The Temple of Light was an area which was otherwise only shown in cut-scenes during the game. It was inhabited by the 'sages' whose careful scheming (a la the Jedi in Star Wars and a certain wizard local to Middle Earth) helped Link retrieve control of Hyrule from the evil clutches of Ganondorf.
In those days, it was generally more difficult to fake game screenshots as Photoshop had not been as widely distributed (or, indeed, pirated) as it is now. People were subsequently fascinated with the prospect that the Temple of Light glitch was real, and that accessing it - somehow - was possible.
This list of game glitches is impressive and comprehensive. It includes many 'breaking the fifth wall' examples including, humorously, this one regarding N64 hit Conker's Bad Fur Day:
"SWIM IN INVISIBLE POO. Note: This is VERY difficult to do. I only discovered it through chance, and have not been able to repeat it, even after many attempts. But if you're feeling lucky (punk), then try it out.
"Once you have prevented the cows from being burnt in a big pile by farmers along with some sheep, by getting rid of them via another way, jump down the central hole. When you reappear, falling, you need to press "A" at EXACTLY the right moment while pushing forward on the control stick (You can't repeatedly tap it, as you'll then end up hovering or diving as soon as you appear. Same if you press it too late). If you do manage to time it perfectly (You'll have no signal as to when you do have to press it so it's completely down to luck), you'll jump in midair and you'll be above where the wall in front of you "starts".
"Try to hover over it (This is why it helps to hold forward on the control stick when you appear), and you'll land on the other side, in some invisible poo (Same level as the poo inside). You are now outside of the intended playing area and everything around you is black, except the "proper" part of the level that you're supposed to be in.
"But the weirdest thing is that when you move around, an image of whatever frame motion you were currently in is left behind creating an orange blur in the path of where you have been. Finally, if at any point you want to get back into the proper area then just swim back through the wall."
This is an excellent example because it combines the two key elements of our breaking the fifth wall exercise. Pushing the boundaries of the game both in a poetic (in this case, pungent) sense; and in a technical one. It curiously merges the illusion of a limitless universe beyond the game level walls with the realities of rough-around-the-edges programming. The expansive realm beyond really only existed in people's minds, and that's why it retained its grip on them.
Typically, of course, the fifth wall can be broken only for short periods of time or in a very small way - sometimes causing graphical errors or distortions as above. Behind the fifth wall, then, is not the great beyond, but merely a narrow gap between dimensions. And it's as limited a space as that makes it sound. One is still, just, kept back from the open fields in the distance.
But for all it's worth, it bizarrely helps to keep alive the promise which all of these games, implicitly or not, made to us: that they took place in fully-fledged universes, that they were more than just colourful dots on a TV screen, that along the way we were freely in control and could go wherever we wanted.
- Terrified Together: The Online Cult of Slender Man
- How We Started Calling Visual Metaphors “Skeuomorphs” and Why the Debate over Apple’s Interface Design is a Mess
- "The Wheel of the Devil": On Vine, gifs and the power of the loop
- Facebook, the Projected Self and Narcissism
- Self-Sacrifice in the Age of the Gadget
- The Quality of Offline and Online Friendships
- The Interface and Hyperreality
Interfaces express not that a journey has been eliminated, but that a new one may be created.
Networking, in many senses, gives rise to a new perspective on the London Riots of 2011.
Does abstinence from the web ever last? Is it even a good idea?
Computer viruses are not just computer viruses. They spread in pathological as well as technological ways.