In praise of Axiom Verge and game glitches

In keeping with my place in the industry as someone who loves retro and doesn’t keep up well with the times, I’ve just finished Axiom Verge – a Metroidvania that people were absolutely rhapsodic about in 2015, and for jolly good reason. There’s a lot of reasons to praise the game, from it being such a detailed love letter to the likes of Metroid and Bionic Commando and various other NES titles to its genuinely interesting paradoxical plot and world build, but the best thing to me was how happy it was to let you, the player, feel like you were tearing the entire game apart.

Axiom Verge is a celebration of playing games with the cartridge only halfway in – a game where not just the aesthetic but the style of play is based on graphics and enemies becoming corrupted, as if the VRAM’s just gone completely haywire and basically given up. One of your main tools allows you to not just corrupt enemy sprites, but entirely change the way they function, and it’s a touch of genius. It takes you right back to the very first time you experienced such a severe glitch… how shocked were you? How long did it take for you to realise that a swirling mess of sprites might not actually be what the game’s supposed to look like? Did it scare you when a game you were innocently playing suddenly collapsed into a heap of droning notes and flickering binaries? It certainly made me jump.

There’s a certain fun to be had when a game decides it’s no longer going to follow the script in this way. It was perhaps rarer in the simpler times of the nineties than it is now, when games are much more complex and it seems as though every triple-A release has a few vicious high-profile bugs that need stamping on. The bugs of old feel a bit more special perhaps, especially when speedrunners trigger them at will as another way of breaking an old game over their knees. Beyond software just crashing back to the desktop – clearly the most boring glitch of them all – these weird events can sometimes create wonderful memories.

Grand Theft Auto IV, perhaps overly praised on its original 2008 release, is one glorious example. One of the most expensive games of its time, production values out the wazoo, essentially Rockstar North trying to create the epic to end all epics… and one of the best things about it is a bugged swing set that sent vehicles absolutely flying, and is the subject of thousands of YouTube videos. It’s to Rockstar North’s credit that despite the possibility of this wicked little swing compromising the grand experience they were going for, they never made the call to fix the glitch because people were having too much fun using it. Sometimes, on rare but beautiful occasions, a bug can be celebrated. In the words of esteemed painter Bob Ross, “We don’t make mistakes – we have happy accidents”.

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