How You Got Videogames Wrong #2: The Vanity Glitch

Pissing you off in installments, the monthly series “How You Got Videogames Wrong” delves beyond appearances into the slimy interior of The God’s Truth (about videogames).  This month we’ll be looking at videogame culture’s heavy, though not altogether unhealthy, reliance on sin: in this case, vanity.


After two dozen hours of killing, cussing, and Old West-mythesizing, Rockstar’s Red Dead Redemption risks it all on a last-act twist:

Family life.

Oh it’s riveting stuff. You’ll scare off crows…You’ll herd cattle alongside your whiskey-addled “uncle”…You’ll even deliver empty sacks. But as the game’s final missions pile on–and boy will they pile on–you’ll come to realize the following about the player/character relationship between yourself and protagonist John Marston: how you feel about things doesn’t matter anymore. John Marston the object is gone. He’s his own John Marston now.

And if you don’t like it, well, friend, you can get the hell on…

…This is a common dilemma in storytelling, not just in videogames, but in all mediums whose narrative potency is predicated upon interaction (oh let’s not get into that again): how to make things happen that readers, players, and listeners intuitively don’t want to happen. Games, it seems to me, feel the brunt of this dilemma more so than any other medium. Nevertheless, from the slow-burn, family-oriented opening of Heavy Rain, to the slow-die, mushroom-cloud-oriented mid-section of Modern Warfare, videogames keep at it, determined to educate us into getting over ourselves.

Here’s my line of thinking: in 1992, at the age of twelve, I went to see Alien 3, a particularly goofy entry in a series that’s already about a woman battling a walking penis. Brimming with 90s faux-“edge,” the end of the film sees our protagonist diving into a pit of molten lava, in order to…well, it doesn’t really matter. Despite whatever intentions there may have been, film-goers were not happy about this decision, and the box-office reflected their unhappiness. On the one hand, I get it: the ending does seem a little last-ditch (“How do we make people care? Oh I know…we’ll sink her in freaking LAVA!“) But I never heard people complain for that reason…No, people were simply upset that a main character was killed off. That confused me: while Alien 3 had a butt-load of problems, the death of a character at the end was not one of them. Even to my 12-year-old brain it seemed that one’s shock at the death of a character was a proof that one had, at least on some level, connected with said character. The opposite reason is why no one cries foul when a bad guy takes a steam-pipe through the throat: we’ve been trained throughout the course of the movie to not only anticipate his gruesome end, but to desire it.

The older me realizes that there is something even deeper to this: the human brain, geared towards energy efficiency, does not like waste, or what it considers to be waste anyway. What do I mean by “waste” ? I mean that feeling you get when you’ve gone out of your way to be kind to someone who doesn’t even notice, or when hard work doesn’t pay off, though you just knew that it would. When we make predictions that fail, when we invest energy into patterns that go awry, we feel a pain of waste. And that, 2012-Eric realizes, is what happened to Alien 3.

So a prediction goes sour and we call it waste. But what about the opposite, when a pattern goes awry in a positive way? Let’s call it anti-waste, that feeling you get when the fumbling waiter gets your food order totally right, or when a bad date ends in–let’s say–awesome coffee. For me, videogames are at their best when producing narrative anti-waste. Why? It’s hard to say. Maybe it’s because most of our interaction in games is grounded in physicality–a (more) literal expenditure of energy, which makes the anti-waste feeling all the more potent. A good writer can make a reader feel breathless, but any mad-scientist developer can toss a hundred enemies onto the screen and exhaust players outright. But perhaps there’s more to it…When we play videogames, though the characters have names and occupations and families that we don’t have; though they appear and talk and die differently; we tend to often, well, take shit personally. Though we’re technically only visiting these virtual worlds, we sometimes, in small ways, slip deeper than we realize.

I mean, it’s not as if your average narrative-based game forces us to take things personally. I mean, pissed-off personally. Nonetheless, we feel a kind of pain when a character becomes something other than us; when he or she goes a direction we don’t want them to…and it’s not (necessarily) a fault of the game. No, it’s a different kind of glitch–one that’s located in us.

But sometimes, just sometimes…games will purposely agitate it.

An example is needed to get us where we need to go. I’ll use Metal Gear Solid, which was the first time I ever noticed the thing-that-has-yet-to-be-named. Here’s the scoop: in the final act, Solid Snake finds himself pitted against a mechwarrior-thing, piloted by none other than Liquid Snake, the central antagonist of the game. Halfway through this battle, Snake is assisted by the Cyborg Ninja, who proceeds to whoop ass cyborg ninja-style until he is incapacitated. It is at this point that the player is given a choice: opening himself to attack, Liquid informs Snake that if he were to strike now–to insert a rocket right into his stupid face–that the battle can be ended. Just like that. Ah but there’s a catch: doing so will kill the Cyborg Ninja, who Snake recently learned is actually his old friend in disguise. And with this information the player resumes control, rocket launcher at the ready, Liquid egging you on. All the player has to do is aim and fire.

It is at this point that the best of us weigh the options, simple as they are: don’t shoot, and continue fighting giant mech; shoot, and though you’ll kill this stupid ninja-dude, Liquid’s mech will become an anti-Mech and Liquid an anti-Liquid and all will be dandy in candyland. And thus we press fire.

But there’s a problem.No…” Snake exclaims, “I can’t do it. I can’t do it.”

“Well why the hell not, Snake?!” That’s our usual reply. “I–the frickin’ player–have been using a rocket launcher for half the game now…don’t you tell me what you can and cannot do! I point at things, push a button, and those pointed-at things explode! We might even say that this process has been trained into me! Thus you have to…you just gotta…let me shoot dis punk!”

Still Snake refuses; and on the battle goes.

That, of course, was a weak-sauce dramatization. But whatever we say, or think, or feel, it should be immediately evident what has happened here: that the player’s desires have been pitted against the character’s; that a gap has been created between the two, or rather a gap has been re-introduced, one that players had collapsed intuitively: the Vanity Glitch. And though our little pattern-sucking brains are angry at the ruse, we grasp its purpose: to convey Snake’s own feelings–despite the fact that the players themselves couldn’t care less about some wack-ass ninja.

This isn’t a new way to tell a story…incongruity is one of the most important aspects of a tale’s staying power, and can be seen in everything from Hamlet’s delay to Willie Stark’s strange charity to, well, Alien 3. But the way games do it seems different to me: videogames, as they are grounded in layers of processes, have the capacity to change the cause and effect of these processes…to commit what I call Process Shift…and when coupled with a contextual drama, it can be extremely effective…due to our thrownness, or our heightened physicality, or whatever.  You know that last (playable) scene at the end of Shadow of the Colossus? Process shift. How about that feeling (many) players felt in Bioshock when they donned the Big Daddy suit only to be escorted by the very Little Sisters they’d been killing the whole game? Process shift. Or how about that first (unbeatable) battle against Ridley in Super Metroid? the reverse-version of the final chase scene in Braid? the Citadel-storming, absolute ass-kicking final scene of Mass Effect? All examples of process shift–of a developer training players into a mode of thinking, then deliberately altering the rules to accompany a meaningful context.

Is it “fair”? Probably not. It’s also not fair that we learn best from pain…or at least a delicate balance of pain and reward. Nor is it player-generated narrative (well…Damn it I said we wouldn’t get into that!), a path many theorists want games to eventually take. And most certainly it can be abused (just check out the obnoxious process shift of Modern Warfare 3, also known as the “look at us, we’s hurtin’ children!” scene).

But I do believe it can be used correctly, and that the cleverer developers get at using it, the more potent videogame narratives will become. Take Red Dead Redemption, for instance: for all its faults (including the faults of the process shift in question), the final act of the game at least attempts artfulness. By throwing the until-then standard mechanic of kill-to-save-family for a loop, Rockstar suddenly asks its players to reconcile the early-game excitement of outlawry with the late-game banality of, well, the very thing John Marston wants most: a peaceful life. Rockstar invites players to fill in the gap between “rescuing family is exciting” and “having family is boring and tedious” with their own answers. Which is to say: players are asked to be the workhorses of meaning, and moreover, to imitate the question so often posed to John… Can you truly, as many predicted you cannot, make the transition from legendary outlaw to common man?

As it turns out, most of could do it: we just didn’t like it very much.

And maybe that’s why–for all his sins–John Marston is still better than us. Or almost anyway.


*Parts are reprinted from an older essay, “Red Dead Recognition: the Marston/Slave Dialectic.”


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  2. Ramunas Jakimavicius

    I mentioned this in Docs when editing, but I thought I’d mention it here as short response to your article.

    My main issue with your argument is that you claim that the discomfort caused by process shift is the fault of the player, but you do this without saying why it is the fault of the player and not the game. I stand on the opposite side (as somewhat expressed in my old SotC piece). My problem is adequately exemplified in AVGN’s Die Hard video: “He won’t climb down with the rope, but he’ll jump out a window and fucking kill himself?!” The issue is precisely that of cognitive dissonance caused by inconsistency. I feel it IS the fault of the game if a precedent for interactivity, control, and unity between character and player is established and then suddenly and brutally ignored when it’s convenient for the developer but not the player. When full control, including the ability to commit suicide by way of falling or nearby explosions, is established by interactivity, it seems fallacious to conclude that the player is wrong for thinking the protagonist is an avatar rather than a separate and distinct character. This problem is avoided in some older games (like some point-and-click adventure games) by explicitly setting boundaries of what the player character will and will not do from the beginning.

    • Fun!

      You said: “I feel it IS the fault of the game if a precedent for interactivity, control, and unity between character and player is established and then suddenly and brutally ignored [the remainder of the quote will be addressed in a separate point]…it seems fallacious to conclude that the player is wrong for thinking the protagonist is an avatar rather than a separate and distinct character.”

      And that’s the vanity glitch: the conclusion that it’s “okay” to appropriate another being (even a fictional one) just because you gave input (and when I say “being” I mean that which is obviously supposed to be a character, not the ball in Pong). The reason the “glitch” is in us and not the game is because the inclination to assume that what we guide is also sorta-kinda us is a part of the human condition, not the “game condition” (i.e. the “guided thing”).

      I’m not saying this inclination is “bad”…I’m saying that it’s unfortunately natural.

      Secondly, who said we have to give a (unconditional) shit about the player? A storyteller, actively storytelling, only gives a shit about the player/reader/listener so long as it serves the character or idea. When the storyteller begins accommodating, the storyteller transforms from teller-of-stories to maker-of-beds, upon which someone else will tell their own story. Now, I am totally fine with that kind of story, as all stories have a degree of accommodation in them (moments that the storyteller says, “you know what would make this philosophical rant bearable? A fight scene!”). Furthermore, this degree of accommodation is often a fundamental constraint that forces the storyteller to think creatively (in order to both serve the character/idea and to accommodate the player/reader/listener while they get served).

      HOWEVER. Let’s not kid ourselves into thinking that narrative control…that act that sees us sit down, shut our mouths, and listen, and which has shaped culture since cave drawings……is somehow KO’ed by Notch making a virtual lego land.

      I know I probably seem staunchly narratologistic. I’m not. I totally dig Minecraft. What I am is staunchly anti-anti-narratologist. I think both methods, storytelling and bed-making, have their place. I also don’t like the assumption that a poorly-made narrative must be the fault of narrative itself…not, ya know, the poorly-made narrative.

      Regarding the part of your quote I omitted, you said, “then [the established unity between player and character is] suddenly and brutally ignored when it’s convenient for the developer but not the player.” Your quote *should* read “brutally ignored when it’s convenient for the developer or important for the character, player be damned.” The first point I obviously agree with (as per my beef with MW3)–process shift, and narrative control in general, can certainly be misused, per it being a control. The part I added, however, is how developers use it the rest of the time: not out of convenience, but out of characterization.

      Thanks for the comment!!!

      • Ramunas Jakimavicius

        Thanks for the clarification, as I definitely understand you better now.

        However, I still can’t yet wrap my head around one thing: If the player character is not meant to be an avatar, why should we play? Why give the illusion of control via interactivity rather than just opting for a non-interactive book or movie? (Or say, to a lesser extant, maybe just a cutscene. The MGS example you gave probably could’ve been solved by just having Snake throw away the rocket launcher in a cutscene to avoid providing the illusion of choice.) Providing interactivity there doesn’t really lend more emotional weight to what’s going on, because you, the player, are disconnected from the character you control and the events happening on screen.

        As you might have guessed, this sentiment specifically comes from my experiences with SotC, as Wander was one of the few characters ever that I hated, thoroughly and utterly hated, playing as. I’ve played a number of characters that obviously weren’t “me” (Kratos from God of War was an example I mentioned in my article), but I could still have some connection to such characters due to player-character unity through control (e.g. choosing to kill those civilians for health rather than just carrying on) and due to having such protagonists characterized to the point of being sympathetic.

        • Good question. The answer has to do with the developmental benefits of strife (or rather the careful balance of strife and reward). To quote Alfred, “Why do we fall? So that we might learn to pick ourselves up.” By allowing the player-character divide to collapse, players are led into believing they have agency in both our world AND the game world. By having it ripped open again, players, through their frustration, learn.

          Learn what? Well, it depends, to a degree, on the person and their expectations. Some people won’t notice, which means they’ll learn nuffin. Those who *do* notice get frustrated, and will either cry foul or reconcile the fracture with an explanation. This explanation will either be (a) that the developers could only do so much, or (b) that the character is, suddenly, more important than they are. Finally, of these, some will be okay with that, and some will not.

          As I said in the essay, it isn’t “fair,” nor is it supposed to be. The illusion of choice is crucial to the process of recognition–not only of the self (how you differ from an Other), but the process of recognizing the Other (how he/she/it differs from you). Sometimes, *actual* choice (Mass Effect, for instance) is enough to get an idea across. Some ideas require a fracture. And in order to have a fracture, we must have the illusion of choice.

          Secondly (and I take it you haven’t read my first HYGVGW essay…cuz if *this* essay stirs you…well…), I’m not entirely sure there is a such thing as non-interactive medium. There’s a difference, true…but I ain’t sure “interactivity” fully expresses it…

          Thirdly, these fractures work best (and I fully admit that they do not always work…and even the ones that do could work better) when they are rare and quick. The MGS one comes in at around the 15 hour mark..and lasts about 16 seconds.

          Fourthly, if we’re never challenged to be someone else (even via subterfuge) we’ll never be anyone other than who we already were.

          Since SotC’s process shift was also in the last moments, I have to go read your essay to find out what exactly you didn’t like about it, since your issues seemed bigger than that. 🙂

          • Ramunas Jakimavicius

            Thanks again.

            I’m not really stirred, just curious. (Being jaded in some ways means I almost never get angry. Anger is usually not a useful emotion.) I like reading your thoughts on various things, and I was merely trying to understand something that I failed to grasp originally.

            When I say “interactive”, I meant at least more interactive than other mediums. Failure conditions can prevent you from seeing everything in a game, but this is less true for say, a painting. Merely having eyes, free time, and knowledge is enough to interact with a painting, but more (such as dexterity and hand-eye coordination) is often required from games.

            My issue is not with “being someone else” because I concur with you there even if you think I do not, but it is one of having agency whilst being someone else.

            I can summarize my main issues with SotC here. There is enough stuff there to suggest why Wander is performing all the actions that he does, but the game gave me no reason to care about anything going on (except maybe horse Agro) because it contains minimal story and instead focuses on atmosphere. I much preferred ICO because both the player and the protagonist were motivated to save Yorda, whereas in SotC I felt no such motivation to save Mono even though Wander would risk and sacrifice everything. I was far more interested in exploring the environment, but there was pretty much nothing to do outside of a story that I didn’t particularly care for. (Also, the “gamey” additions of a time trial weakened SotC‘s experience IMO.)

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