Breaking Ground
PC Gamer US Edition|March 2021
Meet the developers making bugs and glitches on purpose
By Edwin Evans-Thirlwell

In early 2015, Daniel Mullins was working on a PC version of Grandia 2 at Skybox Labs in British Columbia. Mullins was a pretty seasoned programmer at the time, but porting a Dreamcast title from 2002 felt like starting from scratch. “I was looking at this ancient code written by a Japanese team,” he says. “It was so hard to parse—it was like nothing I’d ever done. Just getting basic things to appear on the screen was a huge accomplishment.” When the porting team did manage to output graphics they were awash with bugs, including improperly rigged meshes leading to “knees moving as if they were elbows, creating grotesque walking Frankensteins”. Mullins only spent a few months on the project, but the ordeal stayed with him. It would prove foundational to his 2016 gamejam creation Pony Island, which traps you inside a glitchy arcade machine that is actually the work of the devil.

Loosely modelled on the pixel fonts, boot-up noises, and curving low-res monitors of older PCs, Pony Island is a wicked celebration of videogame bugs. The graphics fluctuate wildly between a sugar-pink pastoral backdrop and a glaring bone-white wasteland. Menu options corrupt under your cursor. Swirling artifacts unlock a desktop behind the main menu, where you’ll trade messages with other imprisoned souls. To restore certain broken features, you must guide a key around a maze of command line text dotted with English words—a representation of how it felt to wade through Grandia 2’s innards, deciphering the odd line here and there.

CRASH COURSE

Pony Island is part of a curious tradition of games that build stories, levels, and features around simulated technical problems. These games come in all shapes and sizes. As you’d expect, many are indie experiments—take Metroid homage Axiom Verge, where you can ‘glitch through’ corrupted terrain, or The Cursed Pickle of Shireton, a raucous faux-MMO that runs in text-based debug mode thanks to a ‘malfunctioning’ graphics engine. But there are also big-budget titles such as Metal Gear Solid: Ground Zeroes, which may be ‘infected’ by the fictitious FOXDIE virus, and Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem, where stressing your character out might see the game pretending to delete your save data. These projects give you a glimpse of the artistic potential in the disruption of form and function; they don’t just ‘turn bugs into features’ but suggest that imperfections can be a source of drama.

But what counts as a bug or glitch? These concepts are meaningless in themselves: They are defined with reference to specific technologies and expectations. There are plenty of graphical errors, such as texture-wobbling in 3D PS1 games, that are embraced as hallmarks of a platform rather than slammed as failings. Similarly, lighting issues that are overlooked in lo-fiproductions might be perceived as shortcomings in blockbuster shooters with slick aesthetics. Simulating a glitch is thus a kind of silent, inverted commentary on a game’s production and design. It reveals the assumptions that surround these games by breaking them.

CRASH COURSE

Some of the best ‘glitch games’ can be found on itch.io

FJORDS

By Kyle Reimergartin

Purely and simply a game about delivering pizza.

DEIOS

By BARCHboi

A ‘glitchventure’ inspired by lost bulletin boards.

GLITCH DUNGEON

By jakeonaut

Pixel dungeon crawler in which magic breaks the game.

PROBLEM ATTIC

By Liz Ryerson

“A game about prisons, both real and imaginary.”

LABYRINTHOS

By dataerase

Highly WIP glitch RPG comparable to Phantasy Star.

There’s obviously the risk that a pretend error might be interpreted as the real deal. One common way of avoiding this is to frame them as problems with a technology inside the game’s world. The most famous example is Assassin’s Creed, in which modern-day protagonists relive the lives of their ancestors care of the Animus, a piece of holographic genetic memory tech.

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