Glitches and bugs have become the hallmark of Bethesda Softworks’ renowned 3D RPGs. Their releases are riddled with them: Fallout 3 (2008) regularly sent robots and Deathclaws flying through the air, The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion (2006) had an arrow duplication glitch that led to the greatest YouTube videos in the world, and characters fell through the map in The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (2011), like, all the time. Any upcoming Bethesda game is met with excitement, and then a caveat: you’ll have a great time… if you can make it through without glitching. Some are little, like characters clipping through walls or creatures getting stuck and stretching in hilarious ways, but others are much more annoying: the Unofficial Elder Scrolls Pages’ wiki is riddled with footnotes about quest order, lest you lock yourself out of something important because an NPC accidentally set the wrong stage. Game-breaking bugs are common, and all of them crash, a lot.
Despite all of this, many players quickly found out that some glitches were consistent and reliable—reliable enough to be used as you would any other mechanic in the game. They’re overwhelmingly written off as cheats, used to trick the game into a lesser experience, but they also provide an interesting contradiction: an experience delivered in whole, but functionally different from what was intended by its designers. The exploitation of glitches creates the mimicry of a proper world, laid over what their writers and artists desired to create, looking very similar but not the same. The interactivity of the medium ensures that this is a phenomenon specific to videogames, and that every time the player encounters one, they are presented with a choice: do I take advantage of this?
I was in middle school when I first played The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind (2002). Videogames were, at that impressionable age, huge worlds rich for exploration and wonder, locked behind technology I had yet to reach or own. I’d spend hours watching my older cousins play, the screen a source of never-ending wonder. My earliest memory of Morrowind was of a cousin patiently walking me through the character-creation process, giving me insight on the best class build and star sign to choose, and then saying, “Okay, now pick up that halberd on the wall, trap that guy behind the desk and kill him to get his armor.” A curious way to begin an RPG, though I didn’t know it at the time. I dutifully accepted the character’s fetch quest—before Bethesda introduced essential characters, killing quest-givers like this guy too early would break the game—and stuck a polearm in him. From then on, every new character I made in Morrowind was accompanied by a full set of Imperial Templar armor.
These shortcuts piled up. Drop all your gold to clear your bounty for free. Push an NPC into a corner so you can steal all their stuff. Use a lockpick until it’s almost broken, sell it, buy it back for dirt cheap but with all the uses refreshed. There was even a moving while over-encumbered glitch, one that took Bethesda another two games to realize it should be a legitimate mechanic. Some were passed down to me from cousins and cousin’s brothers and cousin’s brother’s friends, while others were discovered through trial and error: it was the kind of game where, if you pushed at the seams often enough, something would give. It was a world of possibility, to explore the story that was written, and to exploit the glitches that were given to me.
My unfortunate victim. Sorry, dude.
I never found it important that the game wasn’t intended to be played this way. Back then, games didn’t have creators—they were independent worlds that loaded into existence as I arrived in them. I was away from any notion of “purity,” of “author’s intent,” so it was impossible for me to care about taking their route. And, also, why should I? It was pretty obvious that you weren’t supposed to get high-level armor five minutes after the introduction because of bad AI pathing, but hey, it’s in the game, so it’s not against the rules.
I learned later that PC users were able to use console commands to break the game just as thoroughly: tcl to wander around the map at their will, killall to wipe out entire areas, coc testinghall to access, well, everything. It’s not that I didn’t understand the appeal. Someone who wants to walk around in full Daedric armor at level one is committing the same sin against authorial intent that I did every time I killed Sellus Gravius. The difference was that I believed what I still do, to some extent. And that is, if the rules—the software, the world given to you—let you do it, then you can. These commands were exploiting the game from outside; while using glitches, what I was doing, was utilizing what was presented within.
The internet and the wider gaming community often disagreed. They may have come to terms with Bethesda’s bugs long ago but debates still remain: Have you really beaten a game if you exploited a glitch? If you “cheated” within parameters that are accessible inside the game? What about outside, as applies to console commands? How grievous is each level of sin, and how by-the-book do you have to be to bypass that? There are essays upon essays dedicated to what should be allowed in speedrunning and other forms of competitive play, where strict rules are key to a level playing field. A pre-teen alone with Morrowind is different. It didn’t matter if I was playing the game right, because I was playing the game.
In this curious space between the game intended and the game delivered lies the true treasure of Bethesda’s bug-ridden masterworks: an illustration of a story that cracks at the whim of the code, the texture, or the player, revealing the warping mesh beneath. Approached traditionally, this is a flaw to be ignored or covered up. Approached organically, it is just another aspect of an interactive medium, there to be utilized (or exploited) at will.
The conditions presented by working outside or against the systems aren’t always harmonious. Such is the nature of the glitch. This came up recently during a family board game. Near the end of the game, one participant forfeited to me his hand, and along with it control of his house and holdings. Another player did the same to my cousin. We played as before, using the ceded houses’ cards in battle but not moving their pieces due to laziness, but by mutual consent. I then won the game through a move I thought to be very clever and my opponents very treacherous, attacking my wedded house for the land gains that I needed, fully aware that I could play whatever card I liked in order for them to lose.
The other players argued against this, understandably. In their minds, what I had done was no different than if I had looked at my opponent’s hand and put down a card of my choice, extrajudicially and unfairly. Since my tactic was unaddressed in the rulebook, it was forbidden. I contested that. After all, I was given the ability to play the hand outside of the rulebook, too. I played the hand. Why couldn’t I do it?
Like glitches in a videogame, our acceptance of other’s cards created a secondary world beyond the intent of the authors and designers: one where the rules could be followed to the letter, but also one with circumstances that came with no rules. For many, the presence of this gap is a mistake to be remedied. It surely intrudes on the intent of the authors and the strict conditions necessary to make a game work as it should. But its presence in videogames at all should be enough to give people pause.
Why only approach games with this rigidity? Unlike my unfortunate board gaming experience, no one is watching you flaunt authorial intent. A game is sold to you with taglines and a summary, with a trail that you are intended to follow—some easily seen, some buried so deep as to be invisible—but the product given to you is untrue to that just by nature of being a game. Instead of being a wall of words presented to us for $19.99 at Barnes and Noble, games are a reactive environment that gains meaning and power through interaction. Glitches are as much a function of their world as any other. What separates them from mechanic is intent.
And games would be nothing without intent. Absent of the ability to guide the player through the world in some semblance of order, stories in games would be unintelligible, and the player lost. But they also cede power to the player, giving them the choice, as in Bethesda’s RPGs, to follow the path given or wander without direction and create their own. The choice to use glitches—to use the world presented to you, not the one originally designed—is a choice all the same. And for Bethesda, as we know, choice is everything.