Glitch City

by Jens Alfke ⟿ January 9, 2011

No again, I will not show you what’s under the bandage on my arm. I won’t even look myself, anymore; it’s gotten too disturbing. I mean, the wound hasn’t changed, but every time I look at it it bothers me more, takes me longer to stop shivering. I keep wanting to touch it.

Listen: Did you ever play Shock City? I’m not trying to change the subject; hear me out. I played the hell out of that game when I was twelve, and I always wondered what was inside all those buildings you couldn’t get into. There were only eight buildings with working doors in the whole game, with all kinds of things to explore and enemies to stalk in each one; so if you could somehow get into the other hundred or so buildings, what would be inside them? Could you play them too?

I know, I was pretty dumb back then. I didn’t understand the way the world works.

Finally someone told me about a hack to get into any building. It exploited a bug in the hit detection: you had to run at a corner and jump right at it. If you got the position and angle just right, you’d slip through the join between the two walls and be inside. People were using this as a cheat to get into the higher levels early, but all I could think about was the “secret” buildings. By then I had already covered my bedroom walls with hand-drawn maps of what I thought their insides might be like. I booted up the game and ran straight for the Library — I knew it was full of maze-like miles of dimly-lit dusty stacks and cavernous reading rooms, through which I could pursue my quarry of mutant beasts.

Instead I hit the corner and bounced off, of course. The instructions said to be patient, so I backed up and tried again. All the good skills took practice. I got into my best gamer trance state of endless repetition and fine-tuning of reflexes. Finally after an hour I made it: instead of the bounce I got a split second of mangled polygons warping across the screen, and then … nothing. The inside of the building didn’t exist, and neither did the insides of its walls, so it was as though there were nothing there. I could see the streets and buildings on the other side. But the building’s floor didn’t exist either, and there was no ground under it, just a yawning abyss of pure electric video blue that I fell into like a rock. I had about ten seconds to turn and look up: the universe was a void with nothing in it but a few square blocks of street-plan dotted with empty building-shaped holes. It receded into the distance, and then I reached the outer boundary of the world and snapped into the death screen.

Yes, I do have a point. The real world is like this too. The things we think are solid are fakes; there’s nothing inside them. The things we can’t open up are hollow, infinitely-thin shells around nauseating blue.

I know what you’re about to do. Everyone does this when I explain things. “I refute it thus!” as you hit a wall with a rock. You’ve got a hammer in that backpack? Even better.

Yeah, that support pillar looks pretty solid right there were you decided to hit it. With realistic bits of fractured concrete inside it, right there. Or over there, yes. Don’t you get it? You were meant to break through there. Just like I was meant to go into those dozen buildings but no others. You’re playing the game the way you were meant to, and it’s a very good game so the limitations are fewer, the glitches are harder to exploit.

But with the right skills, the right mind-set, I can find the places that weren’t meant to open up and make them open up anyway. And now that I’ve learned, I can’t un-learn it. Everything I do is wrong.

I can’t find my way back to the right doors. I don’t want to live out here in the cold underneath a fucking highway overpass with brain-damaged junkies. Present company excepted. I had a job and a place to live and friends. But I can’t get back to them: they’re part of the painted-on scenery now. They’re not real objects, they’re texture-maps. The street level doors open onto blue abysses. So do the windows. I’ve tried them all; then I gave up. I almost fell into them, any number of times, had to grab hold of texture that looked just like brick or paint or wood on one side and didn’t exist on the other. Vertigo made me sick and I threw up into that upside-down sky and watched it fall out of sight and vanish.

The former friends just repeat the same list of canned lines in random order, like any good NPC. Mostly “You look pretty bad, man” and “You really need to get some help”. It’s pathetic.

The last time I tried to get inside, I ran into a corner. Yeah, you’d think I would have tried that trick earlier, but you try ramming into the corner of a building in “real life”. Explain to your hindbrain about cheat codes when it sees a wedge of brick looming up. Even after psyching myself up I’d always swerve aside at the last second.

But I finally managed it. What do you think happened? I fucking knocked myself out on the bricks, that’s what. I came to a while later — this was in a back alley so no one had seen me. My face was covered in drying blood from this big gouge on my scalp, and I’d knocked this tooth out, but no serious head injury.

So I lay there a minute, feeling like shit, gathering up strength to move. Then I looked at how I was lying, and saw that my right arm went right into the wall and disappeared at the elbow. A clipping error. I could still feel my hand, but it wasn’t touching anything. I sat up slowly, the arm came loose with no resistance, but it just … ended there, in a smooth flat cut at the elbow. And I pulled it toward me and looked at it and there wasn’t anything inside me! Just an oval hole into a blue void.

I was too afraid to touch it with my fingers. Still am. I found a curl of rusty wire, unrolled it and stuck the end of it in. It just went straight into my arm without resistance, no matter how I wiggled it around inside. On the other side of that hole I didn’t exist. I got all four feet of wire into there, then lost my grip on the other end and it fell all the way in and disappeared … I didn’t feel it hit anything on the way down.

Of course you don’t believe me. Ha! No, whatever I’m full of, it isn’t shit. Alright, I’ll take the bandage off the stump and show you. It’s not paint. Sure, try sticking your fingers in and wiggling them. Fun, huh? Not so fun, huh?

You know about phantom limbs? I can still feel my forearm and hand. They say it’s because the brain centers that controlled them are still there, and want something to do, so they make up sensations. But like I said, I couldn’t feel them touching anything, just touch the fingers together and to the palm, make a fist and feel that. … Only now, just this morning, I can feel something else.

It feels like hard plastic. In my mind’s eye it’s shiny black. Its contours fit my grip perfectly. It’s got buttons on it, and a joystick. I’m going to try moving it now.

This is a sequel to my story Ozone. I’d wanted to write one for years, but didn’t have any inspiration about what happened next. Then last week the ideas in here came to me, and I realized that they fit neatly into that story-world. But the ending only came to me today, after I’d started writing the story down.

I got these ideas while watching my son explore glitches in the notoriously buggy game Pokémon Blue. I would love to have him read this story, but I know it would give him nightmares for weeks…