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What makes a cheat code magical?

Completing a game with the aid of infinite lives—even if the means of achieving those lives were made available by the original programmers—is, by definition, cheating. -Why Do We Cheat?

When I registered this domain a little over a year ago, the idea of “infinite lives” as a euphemism for cheating had already occurred to me. Maybe I’m in love with the notion of having unlimited chances to get something right, to pursue the best possible outcome. In real life, you have one chance. Entering a code for infinite lives is like time travel—it’s breaking the rules of time and space. It is, essentially, the ultimate cheat.

I’d been trolling 61 Frames Per Second, a rather young games blog, for posts by my friend Nadia Oxford. And via this post, I arrived at her recent article, Why Do We Cheat? It isn’t only a history of cheating-in-games; it is a rumination on cheating’s wherefores. After all, everybody cheats.

From the article’s introduction:

Every game has rules and a means of breaking those rules. Videogames, which are among the most complex games on the planet, feature suitably complex means of cheating. There are in-game codes, hacks, mods, code-altering devices, algorithms, walkthroughs, and many other means of breaking down a game in order to do what you’re not supposed to do.

To cheat in a game without a code or walkthrough requires real talent. I once witnessed Jeremy Parish and Jane Pinckard’s lengthy, animated discussion of Scott Sharkey’s admirable game-breaking genius. There is always a way to force a sprite outside of the boundaries of a screen or into actions that, according to the laws of the game, aren’t really permitted (or even possible). The trick is finding it.

We agreed that Sharkey had a real talent, itself fueled by some innate and unstoppable curiosity. I’m convinced, now, that creative play and destructive play are alike. Really living in a virtual world to its fullest requires, to some extent, breaking it. (Sharkey once inadvertently discovered a problem that, if exploited, would have ruined an entire virtual world’s in-game economy; he rushed to inform the game’s developers.)

Easter eggs, exploitable game errors, patches of code that can turn clothed avatars into a nudie beach: these are all magical, somehow. I remember, in my childhood, attempting to outguess the Game Genie. There was already the requisite book of codes I’d refer to—the book itself was a source of awe, an 8-bit spellbook. And I’d locate an invincibility code, then enter it into a similar game, just to see whether it would work. My memory might be playing tricks on me, but I feel like sometimes it did work. Maybe it didn’t.

I like game modifications—those bits of code that users have added later, usually without permission—because they are like those cheats we employ in everyday life. Who doesn’t reappropriate his POM Tea glasses? Who doesn’t know how to jostle the keys in the lock of the front door just so? Or how to clean the apartment windows with newspaper and vinegar? There are people who resolder old toys or use programs on Game Boys to make strange, new music. By cheating ordinary objects of their original purposes, people can give them new purposes.

But back to videogames.

Are cheats as interesting as they used to be? Even with the Game Genie, the codes were long, and they were difficult to enter, and they seemed a little mystical and arbitrary and accidental. Ten years ago, cheating in a PC game often meant slipping into the developer’s debug console to enter new commands. And all these lines of code that were meant to be hidden would rise to the surface, trilling down the monitor. Perhaps the real magic of a cheat or ruined boundary is seeing the insides of a game all splayed out.

So much of the magic is gone: for maximum firepower, I might enter the secret passcode “Rambo,” for instance. The codes aren’t accidental anymore, because a game developer has already prepared the cheat codes for me. Cheats are magical only when a legitimate secret is uncovered. What I call a “cheat” no longer necessarily denotes a broken rule. What happened?

Have we become too impatient for game cheats? Maybe we’ve become neurologically rewired; we’ve become too impatient to deconstruct games the way we once did. Even when I owned hint books for Sierra adventure games, I could stop myself from peeking into them—each book was a big red button, the last-ditch walkthrough. Now, when faced with a problem, I tire early in. “Someone’s already figured this one out,” I think to myself a little sadly. “Someone’s already beaten this puzzle.”

Why do we cheat, anyway? I have resolved that there are two kinds of cheats. (This may well be a cop-out.)

There’s the kind of cheating that is, essentially, giving in to the game. When I turn to a walkthrough, I am succumbing. I have been beaten. There is a secret to the game, and I don’t trust myself to find it. I cannot outguess the game’s design. The internet has facilitated this brand of premature hopelessness, so although this type of cheat has always existed, I nonetheless think of it as the Modern Cheat.

Then there is this cheat’s polar opposite; for the purposes of this blog, I’ve called it the Magical Cheat. This rule-breaking involves genuine play, and it recasts the videogame as a different kind of playground. Cheating isn’t “giving in” at all; it is defiant! There must be a secret to the game, a wizard behind the curtain! With ‘magical cheating’, a childlike pioneer learns the thrill of discovery. A third of the discovery is trial-and-error. A third of it is genius, or patience. And a third is happenstance—that’s the word pragmatists use for “magic.” This kind of cheat is as much about seizing control of the game, I think, as it is about chance. It is, in every way, off-the-rails.

8 responses to “What makes a cheat code magical?” »

  1. kentdoggydog says:

    For the most part, when I play a game for the first time, I attempt to experience it the way the designer intended. I don’t really understand why some choose to immediately activate a cheat code or reference a FAQ right off the bat. At least give the game a chance to entertain you on its own merits. In the context of a single-player game, it doesn’t really affect me. Cheat if you want to, it’s your game. However, I often bump up against these ideals when playing multi-player games online (usually RPGs). When starting out in something like Diablo or Shadows of Yserbius, I’ll constantly run into players (usually higher level) attempting to give me a bunch of gold and/or equipment that I haven’t “earned”. While I wouldn’t call these people (or those that accept such “gifts”) cheaters, I personally decline to take them. For me, the enjoyment of discovering a spectacular weapon or item outweighs the actual wielding or application of it. I think I would say the same of any puzzle or achievement within a game (even the discovery of a cheat, itself). Perhaps it’s a reflection of my “gaming personality” (or real one?). Which do you enjoy more, the “acquisition”, or the “application” (or something else, entirely)?

    I don’t think you’ve copped-out, and for me, personally, those are the two circumstances in which I do cheat. Out of frustration at being stuck, or sucking badly (Modern Cheat), or for the fun of pushing the boundaries of the system that the game designer(s) have created (Magical Cheat). I will admit that, in the past, after Modern Cheating, I’ve felt pangs of guilt and even given up on games rather than continue on with the “ruined” experience. Once I’ve opened up Pandora’s Cheat Box, why even try to go back. That might be a reason (along with the lost free time of youth) I play games almost exclusively on Easy, nowadays. Also, maybe there is a third “Competitive Cheat” that covers multi-player games?

    The “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” article makes a compelling case for our brains getting rewired in some way, and it actually had me worried. Upon first viewing it, I did the exact type of skimming that it was describing before realizing that and then forcing myself to go back read through the whole thing. Are we beginning to skim through games by cheating?

  2. ViolentMike says:

    Way too smart for me. I’ll stick to talking about shooters.

  3. librarian says:

    Missed opportunity—I neglected to mention, not just cheating in multiplayer, but the idea of ‘emergent gameplay’ – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Emergent_gameplay

    A shame, too. It’s incredible, how much mileage you can get out of an exploitable glitch. It changes the game completely.

    When I watch a video of a speed run of an old game, I am frequently struck by the idea that I’ve been looking at the game wrong, playing it wrong, my entire life. Oh my god, I just realized I’ve written about speed runs before:

    I feel like speedruns force you into looking at an old, familiar platformer in a new way—“I never even thought to do that,” or “I had no idea you could warp like that!” In one remarkable moment in this particular speedrun, for instance, every airborne foe is appropriated as, in effect, a floating stair step. It’s a revelatory, mysterious, even magical feeling, to see this old thing in such a new way.

    And—I think this is related—speedruns reveal that a seemingly linear 2D platformer, isn’t really linear at all. After watching this Super Mario Bros 2 speedrun, I feel like, only just now, I realize that this game is full of possibility. There are, in fact, a myriad of different ways to play it and beat it, a myriad of divergent pathways to one end. It takes my perception of the 2D sidescroller—move left-to-right, ever forward toward the end goal—and, literally and metaphorically, gives it depth and moment.

    Except that I’ve abused the word ‘myriad’ there, I’m pleased to say I still agree with myself—that doesn’t actually happen very often, when I look over things from a year ago, or longer—and that I still find it mysterious and magical, to discover that two-dimensional ‘linear’ games aren’t linear at all, because they are so breakable.

    Unrelated to all this: Sharkey remarked that part of the tragedy of game-breaking is, when an old game gets ‘broken’ you’re generally able to play on. The game doesn’t necessarily crash or ‘glitch out’ so much as it transports you to a secret, messy game board, for instance. Most modern technologies crash in lieu of glitching, making the opportunities for game-breaking woefully scant.

  4. kentdoggydog says:

    That Wiki article mentions “sequence breaking”, which reminded me of this:

    Monkey Island 2 on Hard Mode

  5. Kevin Bunch says:

    On “emergent gameplay,” these quirk based strategies are essentially the bread and butter of any fighting game. Wikipedia mentioned combos, but there’s so many more.

    Consider Street Fighter Alpha 3. One of the most difficult matchups in the game for both players is V-ism Akuma vs V-ism Zangief. At first it may look like Akuma has the advantage – he has a fireball, about a million ways to move around the screen, and control space. Gief by himself has a vicious close game and probably the best jumping attack in the game…not enough to really turn the tide. But thanks to a few quirks in the game, Gief can not only fight back, but make it a difficult battle for Akuma. What’s known as the “Kattobi Cancel” for some reason, will send Zangief flying across the screen when he clicks into his custom combo mode, suddenly allowing him to close a ton of space and plaster Akuma with the CC of his choice. Another odder glitch involves his spinning piledriver – someone discovered at some point that by canceling the first couple frames of an attack into the grab will double the range, allowing Zangief to grab Akuma outside of Akuma’s longest normal attack range. And in a game where spacing and mind games are incredibly important, it creates a very difficult fight for both characters that forces the players to outthink each other.

    There’s other examples; Roll Cancels in Capcom vs SNK 2 effectively make any special move invincible, Alternate Guard in King of Fighters 98 makes you ungrabbable, and Marvel vs Capcom 2 is pretty much one giant glitch in itself. It’s fascinating to see how these games are played change over the course of just a few years.

    On a side note, probably my favorite glitch was in Atari 2600 Mountain King, where you could reach a whole new world created essentially out of garbage code.

  6. librarian says:

    Oh my god, you said the magic words, Mountain King. It’s my favorite game—it’s occasionally called the most difficult 2600 game—and my late father was just SO good at it. I had no idea you could break it. How do you glitch into the other world? I’d love to try it.

  7. Kevin Bunch says:

    This page has a guide on how to get there: http://www.digitpress.com/east.....inking.htm

    It’s weird up there. Different controllers will change the layout of the world. I think I’ve even seen maps for the hidden kingdom demarcating what controller you need to get to certain parts of it.

    The game is totally awesome, I agree, but it terrified me as a child. It had the creepiest rendition of “In the Hall of the Mountain King” ever, and there was the spiders, and all you had was the flashlight, and that one part kept bouncing you away if you didn’t have enough diamonds, and oh god, the time limit. Man, that game gave me literal nightmares.

  8. librarian says:

    Mountain King is frightening for me in just the way Sneak ‘n Peek was. Sneak ‘n Peek featured the most discordant version of “Camptown Races” I’ve ever heard. There was the same sense of isolation. The flashlight in Mountain King revealed the hopping flame and the skull ghost; similarly, Sneak ‘n Peek was about discovering that which was hidden. And of course, most horrifyingly, Sneak ‘n Peek had a running timer. I hate games with timers. I even panic when I’m rolling up katamari.

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