Bugs and Features: On Video Game Glitches and Interpretation

March 27, 2021   •   By Nathan Wainstein

THE GLITCH-RIDDEN RELEASE of Cyberpunk 2077 in December 2020 was a particularly meme-able kind of slow-motion car crash — one in which the doomed driver also levitates awkwardly above the wreckage before bursting into flames. Cars, indeed, turned out to be a sore point for the game’s simulated city, with many of the glitches that made the internet rounds upon release involving problems with vehicle rendering and AI. Witness a tank falling from the sky, a procession of braindead drivers crashing into the same barrier, and a character model riding pantsless atop a motorcycle in a T-pose. For those already turned off by the game’s abrasive marketing and the exhausted tropes of its open-world genre, such glitches provided no small amount of schadenfreude: a host of immersion-breaking failures in a work that was supposed to represent the apex of modern graphical prowess and environmental depth. But they also raise an interesting question about video game glitches themselves, and their curious kinship with failures of realism in other art forms.


For the funny thing about Cyberpunk’s glitches is that such momentary failures — fleeting contradictions of the work’s reality-principle — have often been interpretive magnets for more theoretically inclined critics of art. Modernist and postmodern theory, after all, have trained us to value the uncanny, the defamiliarizing, and the surreal. This is why today even the most egregious breakdowns of realism can seem, from a certain perspective, like emblems of artistic richness. When a literary critic says they’re going to discuss “violations of space and time” in Madame Bovary or Middlemarch, you can rest assured that those violations will turn out to be good things; for what looks to one reader like incoherent narration can always be refigured as a subtle deconstruction of realism or a surrealist embrace of dreamlike time. And what could be more surreal, indeed more suggestive of an entire literary and philosophical tradition of anti-realism, than falling through a hole in the world? As often happens in Cyberpunk, one moment you’re cruising through Night City, the next you’re falling through a white void peering up at the flimsy undersides of streets and buildings, floating textures arrayed — as in William Gibson’s description of cyberspace itself — like a “transparent 3-D chessboard extending to infinity.” Such violations of a game’s projected reality, Sam Barsanti has written, are akin to “going backstage at a Chuck E. Cheese, but instead of seeing empty mouse costumes and machinery, you’ll find vast wastelands of darkness, mysterious black cubes that serve some unknown function, and creepy close-up eyeballs.” The texture of Barsanti’s analogy — cosmic horror crossed with modernist minimalism — underscores the easy assimilability of such disturbances to quite conventional standards of good art.


Despite this, however, the critical reception of Cyberpunk’s reality-breaking glitches (I’ll leave aside the genuinely game-breaking ones for now) has been uniformly negative. In the gaming world, glitches are flaws, plain and simple. Certainly, they can be celebrated for their comedic value or exploited for gameplay advantages, and there also exists a thriving field of “glitch art,” including one artist who has used Cyberpunk to produce images — some quite beautiful — that further highlight glitches’ essentially modernist or postmodernist visual potential. But I have yet to encounter anyone who has seriously argued — as critics have often done about nearly every other kind of surface deviation in art, from continuity errors in films to spelling mistakes in poems — that a glitch in Cyberpunk genuinely improves the game artistically. [1] Of course, one could say that this merely exposes the mimetic naïveté of games as a medium, the all-consuming pursuit of realism — better physics, better character models, better light — that dooms them to a kind of artistic immaturity. But I’m not so sure. Speaking now as a literary critic myself, I have a hard time imagining what a positive interpretation of a glitch would even look like. It’s as if the glitch, for all its surreal and defamiliarizing power, were unusually resistant to being made meaningful in a traditional sense, unusually resistant to being conceived of as anything other than a simple fault of code.


In this it represents a striking anomaly. Since antiquity, interpreters of art have sought to read apparent faults of craft as secret sources of meaning and value. The phrase “it’s not a bug, it’s a feature” may be a critical cliché today — one often parodied as the very essence of galaxy-brain thinking — but it also embodies a fundamental trope of criticism. As Theodor Adorno writes in Aesthetic Theory, there is “no single mistake” in a work of art that “the true consciousness of the process would not be able to legitimate as correct.” [2] There is, in other words, nothing paradoxical about transforming a seeming artistic flaw into a hidden moment of value or truth: it’s surprising, in fact, how many interpretations, both ancient and modern, could be reduced to this formula. In the first century AD, the author known as Longinus wrote the following about a grammatical “glitch” in the Iliad:


[Homer] forces and compels into unnatural union prepositions which are not easily joined together when he says “from under death.” He has tortured his line into conformity with the impending disaster, and by the compactness of his language he brilliantly represents the calamity and almost stamps upon the words the very shape of the peril. [3]


Homer’s ungrammatical use of “from under,” in other words, is a feature rather than a bug, one that captures the calamity (an assault by Hector, here compared to a destructive wave) that the characters in the story are experiencing. And yet, although this interpretive formula would seem to find its most literal application in a buggy work like Cyberpunk, the game’s hallucinatory glitches seem to strike critics mute. Where is the Longinus of Cyberpunk 2077?


¤


Let me say right away that I don’t think this critical silence can be entirely explained by some innate artistic deficiency in Cyberpunk that makes it unworthy of this kind of analysis. After all, the surface “badness” of certain artworks — the involuted and at times near-incoherent prose of a text like Herman Melville’s Pierre, for example — has rarely hindered critics from making meaning out of the weird stylistic deviations found therein. [4] Nor do I think that glitches’ resistance to critical redemption stems from a failure of imagination on the part of game critics themselves, many of whom are well versed in academic modes of interpretation. Rather, this resistance seems at least partly to do with a quality innate to the glitch as an artistic phenomenon. Grasping this quality, however, requires a closer look at Longinus’s interpretive method.


Like many critical redemptions, Longinus’s reading hinges on a particular relation between the form or surface of the work — here, language — and its narrative content: he argues that Homer’s bad grammar manifests in the very structure of the words the disaster happening in the story. What first seems like a negative formal feature, even a possible mistake, thus turns out to be a positive, but only because the content is already negative. Now, this interpretive formula, negative form as the representation of negative content, is an old standard of criticism throughout the ages, but it notably attained a special prominence with the advent of modernism, which both enshrined formal deviance as an aesthetic value and often did so on the grounds that such deviance was actually more truthful to the complexities of lived experience. The modernist version of this argument — able to recuperate deviations far more severe than Homer’s slightly loose grammar — has proven especially influential in recent academic criticism. Today critics of many theoretical stripes continue to seize on disturbing breakdowns of form — moments of distortion, incoherence, or fragmentation — while redeeming them as brilliant representations of some deeper negative content. Indeed, we have arrived at a strange situation in which to call such a breakdown a simple failure, that is, to treat it as not subtly representational, would be a kind of interpretive scandal.


Of course, the relative historical novelty of video game criticism makes this style of interpretation rarer in games than in other art forms, but nothing prevents it in the abstract. For proof, consider a recent reading of a weird moment in From Software’s Dark Souls II. Fans of this game have often puzzled over a strange violation of spatial coherence within its 3D fantasy world: upon reaching the top of a giant windmill in a certain level, one then rides an elevator up — already a nonsensical action — before emerging, inexplicably, into the caldera of a volcano. This jarring transition has been explained as the product of a troubled development that saw the designers forced to reshuffle locations in the game’s world map. But in a 2019 episode of Waypoint Radio, Austin Walker — one of the best close readers of video games working today — offers a more ingenious interpretation: “It is not a mistake,” he argues to his cohosts, “they didn’t fuck up.” Rather, the spatial distortion represents the existential confusion that results when “an empire” — Dark Souls II’s fallen kingdom of Drangleic — “loses touch with the people within it.” It is “a decision about the surreality of imperial spaces.” [5]


Walker says all this in an appealingly off-the-cuff way — he’s just shooting the shit on a podcast — but his reading is still instructive in its elegant repurposing of the Longinian method. Walker’s interpretive framework is of course more modern, combining modernist aesthetics (“surreality”) with a version of postcolonial or Marxist theory (whereby a certain political structure makes life incoherent), but it’s still built upon the basic formula whereby artistic form breaks because the experience being represented is itself painful or broken. Indeed, the ease with which Walker combines these interpretive frameworks reveals the fundamental continuity, often obscured, between the Longinian formula and more recent critical trends.


Yet Walker’s reading also helps show why this formula has generally failed to find traction with glitches in particular. For the spatial distortion in Dark Souls II is categorically different from a glitch in that it represents the game working as intended. Like a chapter break in a novel, it is a consciously implemented aspect of the game’s architecture: there’s simply no way a designer could have missed it. It thus has a certain baseline of intentionality. Whether or not one agrees that the spatial rupture is “about” imperial existence, it clearly represents “a decision.” Of course, I’m not sure that Walker really believes the developers deliberately incorporated this bit of postcolonial theory into their map of Drangleic, but in the world of academic criticism such points are usually moot. Intentions, as Freud taught us, need not be conscious — an idea that has long enabled critics to imbue subtle deviations with artistic necessity while maintaining plausible deniability about what the artist actually meant. [6] I’d argue, in fact, that Walker’s refreshingly straightforward claim that the distortion represents a “decision” simply lays bare an assumption shared by many modern interpretive methods. Whether located in the artist, the artist’s unconscious, or a kind of collective “political” unconscious, intention still grounds the dominant ways of turning bugs into features.


Intention, however, is precisely what glitches lack. For a glitch is by definition unintended: as an accidental fault of code, it represents not an enigma about intention — like the Dark Souls II distortion — but a negation of it. [7] Likely deriving from German and Yiddish words meaning “to slide” or “to slip,” the word glitch was first popularized in the American space program of the 1950s and ’60s, where it denoted a mysterious technical malfunction, “something [that’s] gone wrong and you can’t figure out what it is.” [8] Writing about game glitches in particular, Alex Pieschel also highlights the glitch’s inherent mystery: the term suggests something “mysterious and unknowable,” an agentless disruption akin to “divine visitation or natural disaster.” [9] Yet it’s crucial to note that the glitch’s mystery is nothing like the interpretive mystery of Dark Souls II’s surreal elevator ride — an enigmatic choice whose basic intentionality is never in doubt. Rather, the glitch’s unknowability troubles the author or custodian of the system first and foremost, precisely because the malfunction can’t be traced to an individual’s will but instead arises accidentally from unforeseen interactions within the system. As an artistic phenomenon, glitches relate to intention only indirectly: they may be accepted by a work’s creators after the fact (often, in the games industry, because they’re too time-consuming to fix), [10] but in the moment of creative production they can only arise as the side effect of an intention, and an undesired one at that. Granted, other art forms have the same capacity for unintended effects — who’s to say that continuity error or grammatical violation wasn’t completely accidental? — but the glitch names this accidentalness and makes it essential.


As such, the term glitch is fundamentally distinct from more neutral categories of formal deviance in art — distortion, incoherence, formlessness — in that it has a concept of authorial failure built into it. Whereas identifying a lapse of spatial consistency in a novel, for instance, leaves undecided whether it represents an authorial slip-up or a subversive experiment, to call something a glitch is already to call it a failure to some degree, since it is explicitly to state that the game is not working as intended. This leaves little room for a redemptive critic to maneuver. One can still claim that a glitch improves a work, but only by explicitly overruling the work’s actual intentions in one’s evaluation, since otherwise you’d have a contradiction in terms. The moment you claim that a glitch has some intentionality behind it, even an unconscious intention (such as a secret self-subverting artistic impulse, or a repressed awareness of something deeply fucked up about one’s collective historical experience, à la Marxist interpretation), then the glitch is no longer, strictly speaking, a glitch. It becomes something made, and glitches, as a category of accident, can’t be made — they can only happen. [11]


Glitches thus throw a wrench into criticism’s customary ways of interpreting negative form. Even as they produce reality-warping effects that dazzle and intrigue a certain critical sensibility, they also mark out a conceptual limit for that sensibility, a pure accidentalness that even the most intention-agnostic criticism still finds uncomfortable. As a result, they’re assimilable to the Longinian method only as an interpretive option rather than an end, as a threat of pure accident against which some deeper intentionality must always be conceivable. A glitch, in other words, may be interesting from this perspective only when its very status as a glitch is uncertain. (In another gaming podcast, Jason Schreier has gleefully praised a potential glitch in Red Dead Redemption 2 — an NPC giving a speech to nobody — for its ability to represent that character’s madness: “I wasn’t sure if it was a bug […] or if he was just fucking crazy, and I love that I wasn’t sure about it and that the game just did this weird thing.”) [12] Of course, this is essentially to say that glitches are only interesting when they produce the enigma of negative form, the ambiguity between bug and feature, that I earlier suggested lies at the heart of criticism. Indeed, for those who define glitches as literally a species of bug (opinions differ on this distinction), it’s almost a tautology: if the bug/feature schema depends on the bug not being a bug, then naturally a glitch can’t fit into this schema while remaining a glitch. But the reasons for the glitch’s uninterpretability go well beyond the unique tensions it places on this specific verbal formula, which after all is usually just a metaphor. Rather, glitches resist recuperation because they block the normal ways of making negative form positive, because their anti-intentionality forces critics to confront a meaninglessness in deviation to which the act of interpretation is fundamentally hostile. They are a kind of interpretive death. [13]


¤


That isn’t to say, however, that glitches have nothing to teach us. But their lesson concerns a fact of art that academic criticism, obsessed with turning bugs into features, has grown increasingly reluctant to acknowledge: the reality of failure.


Cyberpunk 2077’s glitches wear this failure on their sleeve. Rather than posing a pleasurable mystery of negative form, like Homer’s bad grammar or Dark Souls II’s spacetime-warping elevator, they instead attest, baldly and often hilariously, to the simulation’s anarchic disregard for the creators’ will. This baldness persists, moreover, despite the fact that glitches actually play a large role in the game’s fiction. Cyberpunk imagines a future in which most people sport cybernetic eyes that can be “hacked,” thus theoretically allowing one to attribute the game’s surreal sights to the malicious intrusions of so many netrunners. Further, after a certain point in the story the protagonist’s vision periodically glitches out during gameplay — a symptom of the rogue chip that’s taking over your brain. Cyberpunk is a game about perceptual distortions. Yet it’s usually clear when those distortions are intentional and when they’re not, and so far the thematic motivation of the latter variety remains strictly the stuff of critical parody.


The baldness of Cyberpunk’s glitches, however, is ultimately what makes them instructive. For they’re actually bald in two distinct ways: in their transparently unintended nature, certainly, but also in their surreal puncturing of reality itself. Consider again the example of falling through a hole in the world. Earlier I emphasized the resemblance between this experience and other more traditionally valorized breakdowns of realism in experimental modern works. Yet one could also argue that such breakdowns have never been so goofily literal. When distortions of space and time happen in a novel or a film, it often takes some close reading to reveal the “glitch,” or at the very least some dogged reconstructing of timelines or comparing of shots. Indeed, this is another reason why such effects have often been the finest grist for the critical mill: they necessitate microscopic analysis. But Cyberpunk’s distortions are rarely so subtle. Here one doesn’t suffer the haunting impression that there’s something warped or broken in reality itself, the creeping sense that the rules governing normative physical existence no longer apply. Instead, one literally glitches into the void: game over.


Cyberpunk thus offers to modern critics the surreal or anti-real effects they often fetishize with an explicitness that borders on caricature. At the same time, it also caricatures (though without laughing) one of critics’ favored ways of redeeming those effects: the Marxist method that would view them as formal representations of some negative historical experience. Cyberpunk’s well-publicized use of “crunch” during development — a brutal industry practice in which management pressures developers into working extreme hours for months at time — obviates this interpretive route. For what’s the point of reading formal deviations as subtle, implicit representations of “how capitalism feels” (to use academic criticism’s somewhat modish expression), when Cyberpunk’s glitches are arguably already the scars of an exploitative labor practice, the product of exhausted coders forced to release the game before it was ready? In this case, one doesn’t need Longinus’s subtle method — let alone an Adorno’s — to reveal a necessary link between deviant form and damaged life.


But this explicitness is also Cyberpunk’s lesson. For in the face of criticism’s tendency to read the anti-real moment, the moment of negative form, as an emblem of value and meaning, Cyberpunk reminds us that such moments are often nothing more than simple failures of craft, and that such failures are a universal risk, if not an inherent fact, of any ambitious work. Momentary breakdowns of realism may be critically fashionable, but creating a rich, immersive, convincing fictional reality is also extremely hard, a path fraught with accidents and mishaps that are neither desired nor intended. Granted, this is a reminder that video game critics — who immediately grasped Cyberpunk’s glitches for what they are — don’t seem to require, but it’s one that academic critics interpreting other art forms might do well to heed. The lack of critical redemption I began by noting is therefore less a bug than a feature of games criticism, a frank acknowledgment of the disappointment, even the pain, of artistic failure that academic criticism, for all its investment in negative experiences, has often repressed. Games like Cyberpunk 2077 show how artworks can fail even when they’re also about a kind of failure that mirrors their own. When interpreting any artwork, one would thus do well — as Cyberpunk’s Viktor Vector cautions us early on — to expect the occasional glitch.


¤


Nathan Wainstein studies modernist narrative and the history of literary interpretation. His current project examines the status of artistic failure in formalist literary criticism.


¤


[1] For a meditation on the critical redemption of continuity errors in film, see D. A Miller’s Hidden Hitchcock (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2016). On literary scholars’ insistence on reading mistakes in poems ­­as artistically valuable, see Erica McAlpine’s The Poet’s Mistake (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2020). On critics’ analogous approach to the larger category of “failure” in the novel, see Gavin Jones’s Failure and the American Writer: A Literary History (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014). Each of these works highlights an aspect of what I believe to be a broader critical impulse: an overdetermined attraction to moments that look like mistakes combined with a resistance to treating them as such. I examine and historicize this interpretive trend in my dissertation, “Unformed Art: Bad Writing in the Modernist Novel” (Stanford, 2020).


[2] Theodor Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, trans. Robert Hullot-Kentor (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997), 189.


[3] Longinus, On Great Writing (On the Sublime), trans. G. M. A. Grube (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1991), 19.


[4] On critical redemptions of Pierre, see Jones’s chapter on Melville’s novel in Failure and the American Writer, 35–59; especially 36–37.


[5] Austin Walker, Ricardo Contreras, Patrick Klepek, and Rob Zacny, “Our Favorite Dark Souls of the Decade,” Waypoint Radio, podcast audio, December 27, 2019 (19:25–20:38).


[6] McAlpine gives a rich account of how the Freudian idea of unconscious intention has influenced literary critics’ approach to mistakes in The Poet’s Mistake. See especially 20–21.


[7] I would like to thank Matthew Garrett for making this point especially clear to me.


[8] This definition of the then-new term was offered by John Daily on a July 4, 1965, episode of the TV game show What’s My Line? (3:50–4:10).


[9] Pieschel’s essay also highlights (though without naming it as such) the specifically modernist resonance of the glitch as an aesthetic phenomenon. Constructing a prehistory of what he calls the “glitch aesthetic,” Pieschel starts at “the turn of the twentieth century, when expressionism began to establish itself as both a reaction against realistic representation and ongoing experiment in form,” before also citing Cubism, futurism, and Dada as movements that similarly establish the glitch’s “aesthetic foundation of instability and fragmentation.”


[10] See Jason Schreier, Blood, Sweat, and Pixels: The Triumphant, Turbulent Stories Behind How Video Games Are Made (New York: HarperCollins, 2017), 58.


[11] For more on this distinction between making and happening, see McAlpine, The Poet’s Mistake, 17–18.


[12] Jason Schreier and Kirk Hamilton, “Fallout 76, Red Dead 2 Spoilercast,” Kotaku Splitscreen, podcast audio, November 21, 2018 (54:48–55:11).


[13] See Miller, Hidden Hitchcock, 85–89. Though Miller is writing about a different kind of glitch — a mechanical accident in post-production that mars a shot in Hitchcock’s Rope — the analogy he draws between this glitch’s pure contingency and the close reader’s figurative death seems equally relevant to the interpretation of video game glitches more broadly.