Geoffroy Gravel, Mathieu Klein, Ian Swift, Dawson Melo-Geldart, Michael Palumbo
Professor Carolyn Jong
ENGL 398D: Games and/as Literature
Although narratives in video games are reliant on a degree of authorial control, the narrative experience itself is unique to the player by virtue of their being an involved participant of a game. When a player exploits glitches, they are afforded additional means of expression, and granted additional control over the player-created narrative. Exploits offer players opportunities to explore emergent narrative elements that subvert developers’ intentions. In this essay, we will develop this concept of exploitation related to player narrative by first defining specific terms necessary for the remainder of the paper. We will then shift to our main focus of exploits and cite examples such as speedrunning, and juxtapose this with how glitches and exploits affect other players. We will end with a detailed examination toward how exploits affect the narrative.
This paper includes terms which are subjects of much debate and/or are used in varying contexts, and will thusly begin by defining the following terms: game mechanics, rules, glitches, exploits, contextual mechanics, and ludonarrative dissonance.
Game mechanics are a formal subsystem of a game, comprising actions (Järvinen. 263) available to — and commanded by — human and/or artificial agents. (Sicart. 4) Rules afford and constrain the behaviour of mechanics in gameplay. (Sicart. 5)
A glitch “… is an error, flaw, failure, or fault, in a computer program … that causes it to produce an incorrect or unexpected result, or to behave in unintended ways.” (“Software_bug”)
An exploit is an emergent game mechanic which a player employs to modify the game’s state in a way not intended by the game’s developer. (Consalvo. 114) Although there is much debate as to whether using an exploit is a form of cheating, it is distinguished from a ‘mod’ and a ‘cheat code’, as the former requires a player to formally modify the software, and the latter exists because the developer implemented it within the game’s programming, awaiting activation from the player through varying means.
Sicart coined the term ‘Contextual Mechanics’, (Sicart. 6) and states that they “…. are mechanics that are triggered depending on the context of the player presence in the game world…” (ibid) Might exploits be considered an emergent contextual mechanic? Contextual mechanics, although only ever described as intentional on the part of the developer, nevertheless describe the formal permutation(s) of agency, contingent on context, and therefore include exploits.
For the purpose of this paper, we have conceived the two oppositional terms ‘pro-exploit players’ and ‘anti-exploit players’, where the former describes gamers who adopt exploits into their strategies, and the latter describes players who eschew exploits in favor of one that negotiates game mechanics as intended only by the developer.
Finally, ludonarrative dissonance (Hocking) refers to conflicts between a video game’s narrative and its gameplay. (“Ludonarrative”)
The possibility to perform exploits empowers the gamer with the ability to tamper with the intended narrative experience that was designed by the developers. As exploits are an interaction with a game’s mechanics unintended by the designers, it is in this unpredictable nature of exploits that allows gamers to alter the spatial and narrative continuity of games to various degrees.
Exploits range from simple and common actions to rather complex utilization of game mechanics. Some of the most common examples of exploits are the use of safe zones or the spamming of a specific action. Safe zones are an area within the game space in which the player’s character can become impervious to enemy attacks or environmental damage. In certain cases, a player may even be able to harm enemies while remaining entirely protected from their attacks. Spamming is a very common exploit used by players who realize that the continual repetition of the same action in a given situation can give them an edge over the system. An otherwise challenging enemy may be vulnerable to one specific attack that the gamer can take advantage of. (“MKT: Sub-Zero vs Shao Kahn – Spamming Method“) Both the use of safe zones and spamming slightly alter the experience and narrative that the designers devised for the players. Gamers who perform exploits use the system to their advantage rather than to subject themselves to the suggested rules of games.
Creative players who really dedicate the time to familiarize themselves with the mechanics of specific games can find clever and intricate ways to make use of their system. Specific exploits can be so attractive for gamers that the knowledge of them becomes widespread, such as the famous infinite 1-up trick in Super Mario Bros. (“Super Mario Bros: Infinite 1-up Trick“) and the recently discovered wrong warp glitch in The Legend of Zelda: The Ocarina of Time (“Zelda: Ocarina of Time – Warp To Ganon’s Castle From Deku Tree – Wrong Warp Glitch“). Complex exploits can sometimes drastically alter the gameplay, narrative and spatial organisation of games. The physical architecture of games may contain imperfections that can allow players to reach areas that were intended to be inaccessible or to reveal unexpected shortcuts. This breaks the continuity of the narrative that was constructed by developers as it places the player in an unexpected position within the space and the story. For example, it is impossible for gamers to unlock a character named ‘Mew’ through the normal course of the game Pokemon Red on the Gameboy. However, players became aware that the pokemon was actually included in the game’s code and could be unlocked by performing a complex exploit which made use of various game mechanics. The procedure to accomplish this exploit was described in an episode of the web series Pop Fiction. (“Pop Fiction: Season 1: Episode 7: I See Mew”) Overall, exploits allow players to break the mould of game mechanics set by the game designers and to transcend the intended structure of games. Performing exploits can give way to an entirely different mode of interacting with games and provide an empowering experience for players who manage, through their use, to bypass otherwise incontestable rules.
One of the most prevalent and emerging areas for pro-glitch players are speedruns. Not only are they gaining popularity, but the potential for narrative and spatial transformations are massive. Before explaining this potential, we must first define what a speedrun is. Rainforest Scully-Blaker’s paper on speedruns presents a concise and solid definition that will be used for the rest of the paper. He states that a speedrun is “the practice of players or ‘runners’ attempting to ‘travel’ from a game’s opening state at its first necessary button input to the game’s conclusion at its last necessary button input in the smallest amount of time possible.” (Blaker) As to how a speedrunner achieves this, there are two main options. One entails going through the game the fastest, while acting within the games rules and mechanics, and the other involves bending the game to the runners wishes, in the form of exploits. In both cases the speedrunner is rewriting the narrative through spatial changes to reach the ending as quickly as possible.
The two most common speedrun variants are described in Blaker’s paper as finesse runs and deconstructive runs. (Blaker) According to him, this distinction between runs is spatial and narrative. Finesse runs are:
… runs in which the player interacts with the game as an extreme extension of what a game designer may consider an ‘ideal’ player. Such a run uses no game-breaking glitches. In de Certeau’s terms, a finesse run represents the most efficient tour of the gamespace. It also largely respects the game’s ‘narrative boundaries’ while navigating them with an extreme level of efficiency. (Blaker)
In comparison, deconstructive runs are the more spatial and narrative altering speedruns:
Deconstructive runs, on the other hand, are runs in which the player exploits glitches within the game to break scripted sequences and potentially skip several hours of gameplay altogether. To again use de Certeau’s terms, I believe that a deconstructive run dismantles narrative boundaries by transgressing both the literal narrative and the narrative implied by the design of the gamespace (the implicit rules). (Blaker)
Two of the best examples —  and  — of a deconstructive run comes from Pokemon Red/Green (“Pokemon Red/Blue”) and (“AGDQ 2015 Pokemon Green Speed Run in 0:04:39“).
Especially for deconstructive runs, there are specific types of exploits used that have strong narrative and spatial transformations. The most common are sequence breaks. These breaks entail playing the game out of order or skipping parts of the game entirely. The Metroid series holds countless examples of sequence breaks, usually jumping into places that the player should not be able to access right away or gaining power ups before they should be able to. (“Super Metroid Speed Run and Sequence Break Guide”) Less extreme examples of exploits are bunny hopping (continuous jumping to move your character faster than expected) and online specific exploits using disconnections and lag to gain an advantage or even avoid losing (such as wallhacking and maphacking). All these exploits make it so that the player is changing the narrative put forth. The big question now is how do the general public and developers deal with this narrative and spatial transformation.
To answer the question of how glitches and exploits affect the player community themselves, one has to look at both multiplayer and singleplayer games or game modes. From the developer’s point of view, their end goal is (usually) to create the most enjoyable experience for their target audience. Therefore, in multiplayer games developers strive to create a gaming environment that is the most fun for the most amount of players. Conversely, in single-player games, much more freedom is given to the player to interact with the game in the ways they want; in other words, much more is tolerated. Both types of game modes will be looked at below to provide a more complete picture of how players are affected by exploits and glitches. However, the fundamental difference between these two types of games is summarized in a quote from Feross Aboukhadijeh, “… offline cheating does not affect the game experience of other players. Online cheating, on the other hand, affects real people who have invested their time, money, and emotional energy into developing their online avatars. This difference is very important.” (Aboukhadijeh) Indeed, this difference is the basis for most decisions made by developers concerning exploits and glitches.
When looking at multiplayer games, it appears almost unanimous among developers that cheating or using exploits is unacceptable in any circumstance. This is because cheating or exploiting parts of the game directly affect other players, often in a negative manner. Even if the result of the cheat or exploit is relatively harmless to other players, developers usually met out severe punishments for such actions. For more disruptive exploits, developers frequently ban an online account completely in an attempt to persuade the offending player that cheating is not worth the risk of losing the ability to play the game. One example of this severe punishment comes from the popular game Battlefield 3, where players had discovered an exploit which allowed them gain excessive amounts of experience points (XP) during a match. With surprising speed, the developer responded, explaining,
… we’ve banned hundreds of offending accounts and have stats-wiped additional accounts for exploiting. We’ll continue to be monitoring and taking action against the minority that doesn’t respect the integrity of the game. I should also add that the Battlefield 3 community doesn’t tolerate this type of behavior. Our fans are rejoicing that we are supporting fair play. (Van Nguyen, Qtd. in Fogel)
This is representative of the reaction of most developers who discover cheating or exploiting in their multiplayer games. In many cases the offending player is not allowed to question the decision or make a case for themselves. Finally, Peter Van Nguyen brought up an important point in the last part of the above quotation: the fact that most players also look down on cheaters and want to see them punished. The player community usually looks at actions like this as one player, or a group of players, having fun at the rest of the community’s expense. “Repercussions of this behavior include ruined game experiences for other players, theft of virtual currency, and intimidation of other players. Cheaters are often looked down upon in the gaming community as “spoil sports” and troublemakers”. (Aboukhadijeh) Much like in conventional sports or communal games, cheaters are disliked by all their fellow players for trying to gain an advantage outside of the rules set out by the game’s creators.
To turn now to single-player games, the thinking is very different in regards to this type of game. Exploiting, glitching, or cheating is generally acceptable mainly because no other players are affected, and, after all, the player has paid for the game and should be entitled to play it in whatever way they want. As will be discussed below, exploits, glitches, and cheating can allow players to change the developer’s intended narrative or even create their own to suit their personal play style. As Aboukhadijeh explains, “creative innovation of game action that was not intended by the producers is actually positive for the game experience. These so-called cheaters are actually innovating in new ways, creating an entirely new form of creative expression.” Therefore, many developers are fine with allowing players to use exploits or cheats and generally play the game how they want. They will usually only fix a glitch or exploit if it is deemed to ruin the playability or enjoyment of a game, or if enough players express a desire for a specific glitch or exploit to be fixed. In a 2011 interview with Justin McElroy concerning the discovery and removal of bugs, Skyrim director and executive producer Todd Howard said, “We try to solve most of it, we’re sensitive to a lot of it. There is a subset of that where we say ‘Well, that’s what can happen.’ If there’s entertainment value in that, whatever it is, we’ll leave a lot of it. If it’s gonna break the game, or unbalance the game in some way, we do try to solve it. If the solution is gonna make the game less fun … well, hey, leave it in…” (Howard, Qtd. in McElroy) This demonstrates that developers do in fact take into account that the player created narrative is not solely informed by their experience of playing through the game as dictated by, but also by subverting, the rules and mechanics therein.
Ultimately, with regards to narrative, the player can, through the use of exploits, impose a ludonarrative dissonance on a game where before one did not exist. However, to choose to seek out and exploit a software error in a game requires the player to disregard immersion prior to doing so, thus the entire question of whether or not the narrative is broken by the exploit becomes irrelevant. The pro-exploit player therefore chooses to engage in — and break from — immersion at will. This is not to say they do not remain immersed in the player created narrative, which is capable of accommodating all manner of emergent gameplay elements, spatial discontinuity, or suspension of the developer’s narrative that the player either initiates or consents to.
One can see how in multiplayer games, where every player involved performs an active role in shaping the narrative, this can negatively affect the experience for others. However, while utilizing these exploits in single-player games can alter the experience that the developer has envisioned for the player, there exists the potential to negatively affect no player’s experience but their own. It also creates the potential to positively affect the experience of other pro-exploit players. In the case of deconstructive speedrunning, players may share their experiences with one another, working together to find further exploits, and compete for shorter playtimes. For those players willing to forgo immersion, exploits can provide the possibility of a richer and perhaps more personal gameplay experience; one that not only empowers the player in allowing a player-created narrative to take precedence but also affords one the opportunity to enjoy a game, not in spite of its flaws but in consequence of them.
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