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Let’s say you’re out for a leisurely cruise along the coast of an island, just off the mainland. The sun is bright and warm, the sea breeze is crisp, and everything seems perfect in the world. Then, you notice a strange mirage over the shore and maneuver your boat over to investigate. As you approach it, the distortion grows worse and worse, until it seems that the very fabric of reality itself has been ripped asunder, and the particles of the universe are laid bare in a tangled, congealed mass that defies all comprehension. Your mind cannot even think of a way to name such a horror, let along comprehend its true form. Terrified, you turn and flee, leaving the void on the coast, and vow never to return.
But what if you didn’t run? What if you decided that such a creature could bring you limitless wealth and fame? So you capture the abomination, and keep it secluded in a container as you bring it back to the mainland. But as you carry the container around, you slowly begin to perceive that something is not right with the world. Your records and documents online become a garbled mess of bits and dissonant noise, people begin to behave strangely, and the world seems to shift and change into nonsensical forms around you. Slowly, your perceptions of reality break down from the constant presence of the creature you caught and you eventually go insane; your mind permanently damaged by witnessing the laws of the universe itself break down in front of you.
After reading this, you might think that I had just typed out the synopsis to an obscure HP Lovecraft short story. However, this is actually one of the more common interpretations of how the various infamous glitches in the original Pokèmon titles would behave in-universe. I’m using the Pokèmon series as an example of this because it involves so many different glitches, many of which have permanent and unpredictable effects on your game. Merely encountering MissingNo. will scramble your Hall of Fame data for good. Others can generate encounters with glitched trainers or Pokèmon cobbled together from random data sets, distort and garble the background music, transform your other normal pokèmon in PC boxes into clones of itself, and even transport you the infamous Glitch City.
You can check out anytime you like, BUT YOU CAN NEVER LEAVE.
This especially disturbed me as a child playing through the games. I recall spending one summer sitting in our secret fort with my brother and my next-door neighbors (who were the epitome of "cool" in the neighborhood because they had all the Pokèmon captured or hacked into their possession, and a party of level 100 Legendaries), trying to find MissingNo. It felt like we were performing a secret ritual of forbidden magic, trying to summon an ancient demon into the game even though we knew full well the consequences of encountering such an abomination. We were quite willing to destroy the little virtual world that we had built up in order to earn the bragging rights of seeing it, and offered up the bits of information in a Red version cartridge as a sacrifice. This Pokèmon was never meant to exist, and yet we called it forth into Kanto, and faced the consequences of contradicting reality and playing God.
A big part of Lovecraftian-style horror involves the fact that humans perceive the world in a certain way, with certain assumptions based on what we can empirically observe and judge. However, this brand of fear postulates there are immortal beings in existence that contradict these assumptions on such a fundamental level that they cause our perceived reality to break down, and drive humans crazy upon seeing how insignificant we are in the universe. Glitches in games can be seen like this, where something goes wrong with how our universe is supposed to function, and we can temporarily glimpse the unfathomable void beyond the programming.
IA IA MISSINGNO FTAGN. BENEATH CINNIBAR ISLAND HE LIES.
Remember Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem? Some of the best scares from that title came from breaking the fourth wall. The controller would mysteriously disconnect as your defenseless in-game avatar was slaughtered by a group of enemies, your head would blow up when trying to cast a spell, and sometimes the Blue Screen of Death would appear (despite the fact that you were playing on a GameCube). These events all occurred when the character’s sanity was at its lowest, and simulated that character’s perceptions of reality ripping apart at the seams due to the influence of powers beyond all mortal ken.
Despite this example, many “horror” videogames still only utilize methods that can be replicated by movies or TV. Dead Space is a pants-wettingly terrifying game, but it doesn’t use any methods of cinematography or framing that are different from, say, Alien. And even then, the scary images, sounds, and threats to personal well-being only really affect the main character, not the player itself. Even if you’re caught up the atmospheric tension of an area, or are taken aback by an enemy jumping at the screen, you can still turn off the system and walk away, knowing that the monsters can’t reach you in the “real” world. It’s the same way we’ve grown accustomed to glitches in a game. They may be annoying at times, but the occasional encounter with faulty collision detection, graphical hiccups, or freezes are never really scary in other games because we know why they occur, and are secure in our knowledge that such breakdowns in programming can’t affect “reality”.
What I want to see is a game where that comfort zone is forcibly taken away, where the horror elements aren’t just one-shot jump scares that are quickly forgotten. I want to see a character react as the game world around them slowly becomes more and more degraded due to some unknown force. I want the player to be able to question whether they’re really playing a game, or actually having some influence on an unknown universe separated from our own.
And I want the player holding the controller to fear -- even for just a second -- that if they take one wrong step, talk to the wrong person or be in the wrong place at the right time that the same will happen to them.