Why do we love a glitch? They are everywhere and evermore terrifying in this day and age. Things just seem absurdly weird: Trump’s shock victory and Brexit and general divisions throughout the developed world are just so strange. We live, regardless of our side on these matters, in the middle of a dichotomy, a gap between two tectonic plates, our legs either side of it. If we don’t pick a side we may just fall in.
The liminality of this day and age can be endlessly grating, and it seems to seep into our media more and more with each day. I first took note of this when seeing a recent couple of adverts. Firstly, in south London, I saw a big poster for Sky One, with the logo repeated as if halfway between slides on a film reel. When I first saw this I assumed the poster had been put up incorrectly, and because of that it caught my eye. Having seen it a second time in central London I realised that it aimed to appear like that from the beginning. Another day, on the Strand, I saw a poster at a bus stop for Vodafone, with a fictional conversation between a father and son: “Hey Dad, I’m on the M1 and…” with the poster’s text trailing off the poster itself, as if the son had run out of minutes on his contract. These examples and I’m sure many others, take influence from technology breaking, something which is most clear in games. We can see these things in the use of compression artefacts and glitches in visual art, as well as in meta-narratives and the breaking of the fourth wall. For them to now be seen in adverts adds something of a trendiness to their qualities, and, furthermore, seems to make them all scarier.
I wish to simply put forward examples of important purposeful glitches throughout many games, their artistic use, and their relation to meta-narratives, with references to their use in visual arts. For the sake of clarity and brevity, the use of the word glitch does not refer to an unintended malfunction or fault unless stated. It is also important to note that I do not completely avoid spoilers, but never give a detailed description of important aspects or surprises of the games I talk about.
Firstly, I wish to talk about the game that sparked my interest in the world of glitches that break the fourth wall. Doki Doki Literature Club, released in September of 2017, is a game that appears to be a dating simulator that ends up being a psychological horror. The idea of a characters eternal being within a game is played around with, but not just in terms of permadeath. After a characters death the save file is inaccessible, so you must start again. Not only that, but the absence of a character is noted by the game. In the perfect world of dating simulators, one of your possible partners is not meant to die, and this has the effect of making the game itself struggle with the absence of the character, expressed through pixelation and warping where the characters face is meant to be.
The effect this has on the player is a genuinely moral, philosophical and psychological challenge. On my own play-through, although I avoided spoilers, I was aware something like this would happen, yet when I saw the pre-game warnings, I didn’t think it would be something this affecting. The game itself forces you to spend at least an hour talking and interacting with these characters before revealing its secrets. Even someone like myself — averse to the point-and-click dating simulators et al. — gained a connection that was then powerfully tugged at by the game. Now the question that remains is: why was this glitch so powerful? People are uncomfortable with things being out of place or different to what they expect, this is a given about human nature. I think this uncomfortableness increases into horror when a game glitches that is both of our design and following a trope, just like Doki Doki Literature Club. The perfection of dating simulators broken by the death of one of its characters results in the game talking to you through the screen, breaking the fourth wall. It tells you that you do not have control. It talks to you by not only referencing itself, but also by making you think the girls are talking to you — not your in-game self, but you. That is scary.
There are countless other games that utilise glitches in different ways. The meta-narrative of Undertale; the brilliantly nasty Lose/Lose, which deletes your computer’s files with each alien you shoot; The Stanley Parable, with its misaligned textures and continuous and hilarious breaking of the fourth wall — just to name a few notable highlights. Other than those there are more obvious ones, like the early Assassin’s Creed games, which glitch as you stray from the truth of past events in your re-enactment of your ancestors lives. There’s a detailed but not exhaustive list of games under Ominous Visual Glitch on the TV Tropes website. Other interesting examples include the subliminal frames in Fight Club and the gamification of the glitches in a 2014 Xbox One advert.
Glitch art, a relatively new genre of art, takes interestingly from our technological age, and, in turn, from games. Iman Moradi, a senior Lecturer at the University of Huddersfield, splits glitch art into pure-glitches and glitch-alike. Pure-glitches are the unintentional ones, while the glitch-alike “produce and create the environment that is required to invoke a glitch and anticipate one to happen.”
Here Iman Moradi talks about how glitch art borrows from video games.
“If its just glitches from games captured by gamers, would you call it art or something else? […] there are undoubtedly elements of the glitch aesthetic that borrow heavily from the glitching that some games used to exhibit with dodgy display drivers and such. I’d say Nullpointer’s (Tom Betts) QQQ, was the first example I saw, of using a particular glitch effect in a modded game which I absolutely loved.” — Iman Moradi, from an interview with Digicult
Another glitch artist, Max Capacity, works mainly with old video game consoles like NES, Atari, C64 and ZX Spectrum. Max’s enjoyment of glitches is the opposite of what us gamers like. Max recorded the pure-glitches he experienced, and then also began to make them happen himself. As he says: “I think there’s a certain sort of nihilism and entropy present in glitch art that I think is relevant these days. Decay can be beautiful in its own way.”
Glitch art theory is both scarce and young, so it is difficult to make links between the theory of glitch art and the theory of glitches in games. From scrolling through glitch art personally, I see the intrigue that lies within the stylings, just like the aforementioned adverts and media. There are links between glitch culture and meme culture too. One especially noticeable is the relation between glitches and vaporwave, music with retro synths and video-clips very similar to glitch art. All these aspects of our modern world rely on liminality, and the way in which it both intrigues and disturbs us. Here I think a quote from Plato’s Republic to be surprisingly relevant:
‘Leontius, the son of Aglaion, was going up from the Piraeus along the outside of the North Wall when he saw some corpses lying at the executioners feet. He had an appetite to look at them but at the same time he was disgusted and turned away. For a time he struggled with himself and covered his face, but, finally overpowered by the appetite, he pushed his eyes wide open and rushed towards the corpses, saying, “Look for yourselves, you evil wretches, take your fill of the beautiful sight.”’
—Plato, Republic, bk iv, 439e-440a (ca. 380 BCE)
There is nothing revelatory here, but instead, I think it very important to highlight what the increasing prevalence of intentional glitches means for our modern society. The interesting fact is that the more people may feel like they are living in a glitch in the matrix, the more glitches we see appearing throughout our modern lives. We see them in all media that we consume. It is strange however that the horror of glitches is that they remind us of the artificiality of the medium we are looking at, so when these glitches start to appear in our real world — in non-virtual media — what problems does that expose about our changing perception of the real world?