November games press (“ “) was ablaze (“ “) with reports and screenshots of the latest Assassin’s Creed game, which kind of yielded some amazing pictures:

I can’t get over how macabre and hilarious and terrifying it all is, (and Zach Budgor over at Killscreen outlines them better than I could) but also: how beautiful it kind of is. I remember once playing an old boxing game with one of my friends and I was Muhammad Ali, and I won, and then the victory camera, which was supposed to spiral around me as I danced or whatever, instead went directly into the crappy-rendition of Ali, inside of his face, and there were the insides of his skin, his eyes, his nose, a great nothingness where skull and blood and muscle and brain should have been.

It was terrifying, but we also hooted and hollered, because it was so exciting: here was this program that, most of the time, operated flawlessly, and who knows what actions we took caused it to do this? Were there any actions, or was it just some pure chance engagement? I’m confident that I’ll never know, and I’m confident in my satisfaction in never knowing.

Ubisoft, the company that made the game, apologized–but I can’t help but imagine a world in which they totally just owned it, offered it up as some extreme commentary on the state of technology or the series itself. (Assassin’s Creed is famously convoluted in its plot: you are some futuristic descendant plugged into a computer-esque thing that lets you re-live and play through the memories of your ancestors.) Wouldn’t it be great if the simulation broke, not in some predictable sense, but in the ways the medium can and does fail? Message and medium together, polygonal skin planes sticking out of void-faces.

The screenshots themselves made the rounds ostensibly because it was another example of a big game which shouldn’t have had bugs in it, but really, audiences are so used to this sort of thing, that in this context–big game, big oops–it’s hardly news at all, even in a world where all of the news is still about video games. (I recognize the irony of talking about them now.) I think what’s maybe so striking about them is that they look damn-near intentional, the glitches underlined by a world where everything else is lovingly crafted and animated. Even as games reach for the newer and newer generations of technology, these weird bugs are still there, lurking somewhere in the unseen code behind them, a kind of unchanging constant. It’s always fascinating to see something break in such an obvious way, yet still continue on as if nothing different had happened.

It brings to mind this old compilation from Skate 3, which is played for laughs (funny stuff compilation strikes me as a likely Kenneth Anger title), but take away the impulse to identify it as sheer physical comedy, and it becomes something more like a performance piece, its relative uniqueness impossible to know. There’s a poetic calmness to the way the skateboarding protagonist slowly slips into the earth and out of the game, only to be launched back into it and painfully contorted as if in punishment for abandoning its digital prison. Just seconds after, the skater flops like a fish into a wall and his head turns, slowly, around, and around, before his entire body disappears: the system rectifying a mistake. At five minutes into the video, a scene is recreated into infinity as though two mirrors were positioned at each other (or the more modern analogue, a camera looking at a screen of what the camera is seeing). The character’s jumping becomes fractal and synchronized over and over again with itself, and he’s reduced to nothing more but weird, fluid colors on an even stranger canvas.

I’m also reminded of Cory Arcangel’s Super Mario Clouds:

It’s not really in comparison, though, so much as it is in contrast: Arcangel’s piece is a meditation on reduction, taking away everything but that single detail of serene background and pixelated cloud blobs. The glitch art of Skate 3 and Assassin’s Creed are obviously not reductive, nor are they intentional. Instead, they appear to be a single piece of broken thing standing out against a mound of excess: in AC’s case, visuals, in Skate 3’s, mechanical. In all three instances, though, it is no longer about the player, or the game, but the singular oddity. Here, it says, unintentionally: look at me. I am a distraction in your distraction.

Paul King

Paul King is a writer living in Austin, Texas. His work has appeared in Bad at Sports and Kill Screen.

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