This week’s post delves into the world of meta monsters, those devious little suckers that everyone who has ever tried programming has come to fear (while grudgingly accepting their inevitability) — bugs.
Uh, in this case, it’s a mammoth-shaped bug.
Let’s take it back to Skyrim, Bethesda’s fifth Elder Scrolls game released in 2011 and beloved for its expansive sandbox world, dragon-slaying, and bizarre glitches.
That’s right — an awful lot of Skyrim fans, myself included, treat the game’s many bugs in the affectionate kind of way you might talk about your friend’s funny quirks. Sure, some of those glitches were a legitimate pain in the ass, but a lot of them were just funny.
Case in point: the mammoth trampoline.
One of my favorite Skyrim glitches, I’ve encountered this one both in the wild and across Youtube. It would seem that Skyrim‘s mammoth population has some issues with collision detection — a digital object’s ability to figure out when it’s bumped into something else and react appropriately. (Note that I don’t know if this is the only situation that causes the mammoth trampoline phenomenon.)
While playing, I watched one mammoth walk into another one, and then — instead of walking away, or even overlapping in the same space — it flew straight into the air.
FWOOP! Flying mammoth!
Now, I mean, if I’m a melee class character, I’ve got a whole new set of problems.
But, let’s be real. I’m also laughing my ass off.
But! Hold up for sec. Is that really a good thing?
Imagine, you’re wandering around this huge, immersive world, looking for dragons or gathering herbs or something, and then all of a sudden you see this:
Sure, you might argue that a world populated with dragons and magical shouting already strains the bounds of realism. But there are rules to this fantasy world. Dragons fly and breathe fire. Dovahkiin slay dragons and draw power from their souls. The game tells you these things. They are intentional.
The game doesn’t tell you a damn thing about flying mammoths.
Ninety percent of the time, they’re just chilling out in a field somewhere.
This is an unintentional bit of fantasy. It’s not story, it’s mechanical.
And so it breaks the illusion of an otherwise immersive world, the walls that the game designers have worked so hard to build — in other words, the fourth wall.
Other games break the fourth wall to great effect — for one popular example, see Undertale — but they do it intentionally. The mammoth trampoline is not a statement about the world of Skyrim. It pulls you out of the fictional world.
But by how much?
If you’re a weak level one character and you see a mammoth shoot up into the sky, you might laugh for a second. But when that mammoth charges you, you’re still gonna run like hell.
This particular glitch is innocuous. It doesn’t undermine the mammoth’s ability to serve its function in-game — that is, murder the crap out of you.
But what about Skyrim‘s other glitches?
Take, for example, two glitches I encountered in the game:
Once, while stuck in the dialogue screen with a quest-giving NPC, I saw a dragon appear on the horizon. I button-mashed through the dialogue as fast as I could. The dragon grew bigger and bigger.
I wasn’t fast enough.
I watched, frozen helplessly behind the dialogue screen, as the dragon swept down from the sky and killed her.
The absurdity of the situation was funny, in a way, but now I can never fulfill that quest. I can’t tell her I’ve done the job if she’s dead! Awkward.
The other, worse glitch — one which has since been patched — came early in my first run as a thief.
Now, I knew from the start I was going to play as a thief. Stealing delighted me. Skyrim was one of the first games I’d played where they put an interactive option on every item — a “bad” action, no less — and they really meant it!
For context, I was the kid who got super frustrated in Pokemon Red when the game asked if you wanted to join Team Rocket, allowed you to say “Yes,” but then did not allow you to make good on it. Seriously, what’s the point of offering the illusion of free choice when you’re not even going to pretend to go through with the options you’ve presented?
So, leaving aside the moral quandaries presented by my klepto-anarchic crime spree, I was absolutely thrilled by the freedom this game offered.
Now — take a new thief character and drop them in the starting city. What do you suppose is the first thing they’re going to do?
That’s right. I stole everything.
No rhyme. No reason. More than a few deaths. But every little thing I could get my digital hands on.
(Well, paws. I was a Khajiit.)
But amateur theft got old. I wanted to go pro. So I joined the Thieves’ Guild.
Imagine my displeasure when I found this glitch:
There is a farm near the starting city, Whiterun, which the Thieves’ Guild asks you to burgle for a job. If you have already broken into this house before the job, you can never complete the Thieves’ Guild questline.
Now, that’s no mammoth trampoline. That is a real, mammoth-sized roadblock to playing the game as it’s meant to be played.
Out of the folks who later join the Thieves’ Guild, how many do you think broke into the first farmhouse they came across?
Yeah. This isn’t a laugh-it-off glitch. This is a reset-your-file glitch. And — too impatient to wait for the patch — that’s exactly what I did.
If you’re a game designer, you do not want this kind of thing happening. Certainly, if you have the choice, you want your bugs to be mammoth trampolines instead.
The astute reader may have deduced that this week’s monster is not the mammoth, but the trampoline. Er. The glitch.
There’s a spectrum here — on one end, a goofy but harmless crack in the fourth wall. On the other, a roadblock potentially as final as a Game Over.
You never really want glitches as a game designer, but here’s the dirty secret: your players do.
You’re always going to get a subset of players who want to test the boundaries. The kind who go looking for the invisible walls at the end of the universe. The kind who would make great QA testers.
They — alright, we — can be assholes sometimes. When you’re trying to create an immersive experience, these players are the enemy. They are trying to break it. It’s a weird kind of power high, finding and breaking those boundaries. It’s like breaking out of The Matrix. It feels like getting away with something.
So what do you do? As a game designer, or any other kind of person crafting a fictional world, how do you keep your audience from pulling apart the seams?
One step comes straight from the video game industry: QA. You test your premise, your execution, your everything, and you do it relentlessly. You find the most annoying, skeptical jackass you know and unleash them on your baby.
But, remember that you can overdo it.
At the end of the day, there’s not enough time in the world to eradicate every flying mammoth or appease every glitch-hunter. There’s an important lesson there, too: once you create a thing and put it out in the world, people are going to interact with it on their own terms.
Some of them will hate it.
Possibly even more frustrating, though, is when they love it in a way that’s different from what you intended.
Imagine you’ve created a game known for it’s huge world and unprecedented level of interactivity, hailed as a great sandbox — yet, paradoxically, it’s also notorious for the glitches that shatter this illusion.
But that’s the thing about sandboxes. You don’t get to tell everyone there’s a right way to play in them.
So make sure you put your resources in the right place. There are monsters lurking beneath that sand — you best make sure they’re not big ones.