Friday, February 5, 2016

Son of a Glitch! Why You Should Watch A + Start!

As long as there have been mechanical devices, there have been bugs and glitches to work out of them. Back in the time of World War II, the UK's Royal Air Force popularized the idea of "gremlins" being responsible for the mysterious mechanical woes that would befall their aircraft. English author Roald Dahl helped spread this idea in his writing. Even Looney Tunes aka Merrie Melodies featured a gremlin antagonizing Bugs Bunny and attempting to sabotage aircraft munitions.

Today, in 2016, the idea of a glitch or a bug is more commonly used in respect to computers and electronic software. By no means is this a recent change in connotation though, glitches were rampant in video games from the days of the Atari, arcade cabinets, NES, Famicom, and upwards.

Most gamers probably didn't realize this until the documentary King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters but the arcade classic Donkey Kong has a major programming oversight that effectively makes the game unwinnable after the 22nd stage. Due to a bug, the timer on that stage gives the player less than seven seconds, making the level impossible to win; most players never got skilled enough to make it that far though. The same can be said for the legendary game Pac-Man and a "kill screen" that comes up on the 256th level. The game's 8-bit coding system for the levels only accounts for 255 levels, being that 255 is the highest number programmable in binary using 8 digits.

Again, most players probably weren't going to reach the 256th board anyway, so the effect this had on the game was negligible, it's not like it was going to seriously prevent the general population from playing and enjoying the game. The same could not be said however as technology developed and games grew more and more complex. The more elements a game has to it, the more things that could possibly go wrong, such is the nature of the beast. If you want to tie it back to the mechanical gremlin, just think of it is the more moving parts something has, the more possible it is for something to break and stop the machine from working.

The 1985 classic, Super Mario Bros. is home to the legendary "minus world" glitch. The minus world was a constantly looping water level that a player could access by phasing through a wall at the end of stage 1-2. Because you're not supposed to be able to pass through a solid object to the other side, the warp pipe there hasn't fully loaded yet, and therefore doesn't bring you to the appropriate place if you go down it.

As games have grown increasingly complex, so too have the glitches. If there's any company that knows first hand about this concept, it's Bethesda, the makers of The Elder Scrolls series and Fallout 3 and Fallout 4 amongst others. The Elder Scrolls V: Skyim became infamous immediately after its release for the staggering number of glitches that were left in its code for commercial release.

Of particular note was the game's potential to damage PlayStation 3 consoles. According to various sources, the PS3 has 512 MB of ram that are divided up into 2 blocks of 256MB's each. One block is set aside for system memory, the other for graphics memory. This 512mb is the same as the Xbox 360, but because the PS3's is partitioned off like that, it's not as flexible as the Xbox's. The end result of this was that the longer you played Skyrim, the bigger the size of your save file became until the PS3 system just couldn't handle it anymore, causing the game to lag and then crash. The crash was so hard though that the only way to get the system back to the main menu was by doing a "hard reset" and completely powering off the system. Repeatedly doing this could damage the PS3's hard drive and result in having a system that's unable to boot up properly.

Then there's perhaps the most noteworthy buggy, glitchy game in recent history, the PC version of Batman: Arkham Knight. While the console version for PS4 and Xbox One was handled by developer Rocksteady, the PC version was handled by IronGalaxy Studios and it turned out to be an absolute mess. The framerate of the game would stutter, jump, and get incredibly choppy, audio would drop out, and anything that required precision control would be impossible because of all this.

The game was so bug filled that publisher WB Games ultimately offered refunds to people since not even the patches they released for the game could fix the problems.

That's the present state of gaming at the time of this writing, a time of bugs, patches, and rushing games out to market. Game developers have seemingly taken the stance that quality assurance can be an ongoing process thanks to the internet and releasing downloadable patches. Meanwhile in between updates, consumers are left with games that have bugs and glitches that can cause crashes, graphical problems, frame rate issues, audio bugs, save data corruption, unwinnable quests, online server disruption; the list goes on.

All of this is a far cry from the days of the nigh unattainable kill screen, the minus world, and the so many other little bugs and quirks left in a game's code. It seems like there was a time where glitches could be fun, interesting, non-destructive, and even downright helpful. Oh if only there was some one and some program that could help show us the softer side of glitches.

This is Andy from the YouTube channel, "A + Start."

He founded the channel back in February of 2013 as a Let's Play channel, with his first game being Streets of Rage 2. Looking back at it from the time of this writing, it's funny to see how a channel that has over 300,000 subscribers started off with videos that have views that number under 100. It was a sluggish start until he hit a chord with audiences with his "Son of a Glitch" segment, that has now become the bread and butter of his channel.

Each "Son of a Glitch" episode takes a look at a single game and scours it for glitches that range from the quirky graphical, all the way to game breaking. Many of the titles featured are from the retro days of gaming, but not all of them; Fallout 4 for example was showcased not long after its release, though because of the nature of companies patching releases after launch, Andy had to stipulate that not all of these glitches may be present in the days that follow the episode.

The two things that make "Son of a Glitch" so entertaining are Andy himself, and how he presents the glitches to his audience. There's no getting around the fact that Andy is one gleeful "son of a glitch." If you watch the old episodes, his tone isn't quite as cheerful, but as the series goes along, you can hear him find a groove and the tone of his voice is one of child like joy at presenting these games and their bugs.

This happiness extends to the bugs themselves given that Andy has a good deal of reverence for them. Whereas glitches today can be annoying, frustrating, and destructive, Andy focuses on ones that are interesting, entertaining, and more often than not, helpful. In one of his Questions & Answers videos, he states that what drew him into game glitches was the idea of, and watching speedrunners.

For those who aren't familiar with the term, "Speedrunners" are a very talented group of gamers that aim to complete games as fast as possible, often by any means necessary. Glitches can be a huge part of a successful speedrun as the runners view them as exploits that can help them complete games faster. Sometimes these glitches are mild things like preventing a text box from popping up and saving a few seconds on a time, to game devastating breaks that can help someone get to the end credits of a game within mere minutes of starting it.

"Son of a Glitch" isn't necessarily a speedrunning strategy channel, even though Andy does feature tricks that can help you complete things much faster, like the course skipping tips on his Mario Kart videos The show is actually a kind of celebration of mistakes in a wholly unique way. Glitches can be like hidden treasures deep within a game's code; they aren't always obvious and sometimes can take a ridiculous amount of setup to uncover; but therein lays the fun and challenge of them. Finding a glitch often forces you to think of things the programmers never anticipated and then watching what results when or if the game notices what you've done.

I had the opportunity to ask Andy a few questions about Son of a Glitch and his interest in these wonderful little errors of programming. Now, Andy's done a wonderful series of Q&A's on his channel that you can watch, all three of which give a lot more background as to his talents, interests, and the video making process. I strongly recommend you watch those when you get the chance. I tried to avoid retreating the same ground and here's what we had the chance to discuss:

CRITICAL ANDROID: You've said that watching speed runners is what got you into studying glitches. What game did you see speed run that REALLY drew you into the art of it, so to say?

ANDY: Ocarina of Time was the first speed run I ever saw, in about 2009. It was very different then but eventually the (speed)run would become as broken as it is now.

CA: Have glitches turned any bad games you’ve played into enjoyable ones that you like to revisit? If so, what comes to mind?

ANDY: In my opinion, as a general rule, glitches only enhance a games longevity and replay value if they help speed run a game faster. An example of a fun speed game but terrible casual game is Sonic Boom: Rise of Lyric.

CA: What game have you broken the hardest through glitches?

ANDY: That would probably be Uncharted: Drakes fortune.
(Editors Note: I've included one of Andy's videos on Uncharted below)

CA: As much as you love glitches, have you ever encountered one in casual play that ruined a game for you?

ANDY: Honestly, not really, none that I can think of, but I've performed somewhere in the region of 400 glitches in the past 2 years, it's hard to remember what was on purpose and what 'just happened' in a play through.

CA:  Do you think the current trend of releasing buggy games only to be patched later is a good thing for the interesting glitches it creates; or dangerous territory for developers and publishers to be wading into?

ANDY: For me it's awesome, a "triple a" game riddled with glitches is funnier than an indie game full of them. You expect quality from say, Bethesda or Konami, and when that isn't the case, it cracks me up more so. But for the consumer, we expect better in the industry, people pay a lot of money for an experience, and glitches kinda take you out of the experience. In the same vein, games are much more complicated, especially in a sand box, open world game. So many variables, it's impossible to cover every detail in the programming, so mistakes will be inevitable. ____________________________________________________________________________

That attitude is what makes Son of a Glitch so refreshingly entertaining. In almost any other creative medium, like music, film, theater, etc. mistakes can get creators raked over the coals; not so on A + Start. Andy shows how mistakes can be a form of art unto themselves and that there is a joyful beauty tucked away inside of imperfection. "Glitch" doesn't have to be a dirty word, even in today's gaming landscape. Glitches will always exist as a representation of the fact that we are not perfect ourselves. How dull would life be if everything ran without a hitch? How dull would gaming be if everything ran without a glitch?

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