Bugging Out

Words: 2326 Approximate Reading Time: 15-20 minutes

As a final foray into my experience with Cyberpunk 2077, I thought it would be useful to explore the concept of bugs. More specifically, the strange relationship that the gaming community – taken as a whole – has with bugs. Given how riddled Cyberpunk was with bugs and glitches upon initial release, even after some early patches, it seems worthwhile to explore this relationship.

However, I will note that I don’t really have an objective in this essay. I don’t intend to argue that bugs are inherently good or bad, or that people are incorrect in whatever mindset they hold about bugs in games.

Instead, I simply want to point out the problems that bugs pose for how we talk about games in general. If, perhaps, you think that the problem is simply “they exist, and that makes games bad,” then this essay will hopefully be helpful in illuminating how an opposing viewpoint exists on perfectly rational grounds.

Normally, I would begin an essay like this by going through a definition of things like “bugs” and “glitches,” trying to make sure we all start off from the same standpoint. But for this essay I will leave the definition fairly open. Let us instead simply assume that a “bug” is merely any behavior of the game that does not quite match up with the designer’s intentions. That could be the result of an error in coding, or the result of intentional design that wasn’t foreseen, or the result of a combination of intentional designs that weren’t meant to normally occur.

In this essay I want to visit three areas where bugs and glitches have an impact on the gaming community. The first is from the perspective of the everyday player. The second is from the perspective of a more specific subgroup of players: speedruns. And the third will step back and look at the issue of reviewing and criticism.

Playing with Bugs

The best place to start is with how players themselves experience and react to bugs and glitches.

Perhaps when you think about bugs in video games, your initial feeling is one of frustration. Perhaps you recall a case where a bug seriously broke your game, forcing you to reload an old save. Or perhaps the bug corrupted the save file itself, causing you to lose your game. Or maybe it was some issue that snapped you out of your immersion in the game’s world.

This feeling is certainly common, and there’s a fair chance that when most players think of bugs in the abstract, they have the same reaction. And indeed, bugs can provide severe hindrances to a player’s experience. If a core objective of a video game is to give the player some sense of enjoyment – even if that “enjoyment” is understood quite broadly – then bugs which utterly destroy the experience can certainly leave us with a bad taste in our mouths.

But while bugs can often be destructive of the player’s experience, they can also be a building block of the player’s experience. Put another way, bugs can also provide a source of enjoyment for players. You can easily find pictures and videos of players in many different games (and since we’re still in the wake of Cyberpunk’s release, you can find bunches upon bunches of videos of bugs that players have experienced in their own games), and a lot of these bugs are genuinely funny to observe. Even in the moment the idea of your character being launched thousands of feet into the air because of a physics error, or falling through the world, or AI going haywire in any number of ways, can bring a sense of joy to the experience that would be impossible without the error.

Of course, when I say that these bugs add to a player’s enjoyment, we enjoy them in a very specific way. Namely, we enjoy them at the expense of the game and its design. We’re laughing at the game. Which, generally speaking, is something that a game designer doesn’t want. Hence why developers put so much work in preventing bugs from cropping up and releasing patches to get rid of them.

And so we should not think of this enjoyment as something that excuses the underlying issue. We generally don’t want bugs, because with the fun bugs you can also get the frustrating bugs. And the prevalence of bugs in a game will tell us something about the developer (although exactly what it will tell is highly dependent on a number of factors).

But we should still remember that we can look at bugs – and games that are buggy – as not simply annoyances, but as sources of joy. We too can create our own fun out of the broken experience that is handed to us, and share that fun with others.

Manipulating Bugs

Bugs and glitches can not only be enjoyable, but they can even be useful. Obviously, not every player is going to see this utility, and in fact most players will never really think of bugs and glitches as something to be manipulated to the player’s advantage (unless that bug has some very clear application).

But even then, for some players, bugs and glitches are actually important. Not for the everyday player, of course. But accumulating knowledge of what bugs exist, how to trigger them, and how to manipulate them can become an important body of knowledge.

As an example, think of speedrunning. If you’re not familiar with the concept, speedrunning – as its name implies – is about completing a game as quickly as possible. There are a variety of different rules for how to complete games quickly, but in many cases these speedruns require players to learn about the various bugs in a game, which ones can be useful to save time and which ones aren’t, and how to properly trigger those bugs. Not all speedruns require using bugs and glitches, but if you were to look up just about any speedrun of any game, you’d be practically guaranteed to see the runner manipulating the game in various ways.

In this perspective, fixing bugs can actually be annoying, since it can disrupt strategies and force speedrunners (who have to create, learn, and memorize routes to play as quickly as possible) to change what they’re doing.

Which of course doesn’t mean that therefore bugs should never be fixed, any more than the fact that players can derive joy from bugs means that bugs should never be fixed.

But the fact that we can look at bugs as useful or even integral to playing a game should again give us pause in how we perceive bugs in games. Bugs do not have to be purely negative in what they mean for players, as long as they can help rather than hinder a player’s experience.

Reviewing Bugs

One thing we often don’t think much about when it comes to bugs is the issue of reviewing games with bugs. I mean “reviewing” both in the professional sense – reviews done by those who work for a publication of some sort or attempt to provide reviews of their own accord – as well as in the casual sense of simply talking with other people about your experience with a game.

It’s easy enough to say “this game is filled with bugs” or “this game is broken” and leave things at that. And in a world where games were purely static media that were incapable of change, we’d be able to take that initial impression and be done with everything.

But games are obviously possible of change. Many developers release patches to their games, sometimes even on the same day the game is released, in order to try to address bugs. Some games can be in a sort of post-release development of continual patching for months after the game comes out. Which means as a result that our initial impression is always going to be only partial if the game is, in a sense, still in the middle of its development.

But that leaves us with a problem. What are we supposed to do with that impression of the game as we played it compared to how the game might end up once the bugs are (mostly) fixed, or how it does end up if we play it again later on?

For the more casual conversation, this is less of a problem. Insofar as we talk about our personal impressions of games – which may well include our aggravation (or enjoyment) of the bugs we encountered in our playthroughs – our impression doesn’t necessarily have to carry too far. Chatting with a friend may impact that friend’s perception of the game, but the effect is so small, and the conversation likely detailed enough, that there is little concern about disrupting anything.

That isn’t to say there isn’t any problem. Even in these casual conversations, we can often end up giving a basic approval or disapproval of the game: should your friend play it or not? But to what extent is your impression of the game the product of the underlying elements versus the bugs themselves? Imagine that you hated a buggy game, but if the game didn’t have any bugs, you would have enjoyed it. But of course, all you have is your experience with the buggy game. So what do you communicate to others? Do you only give your initial impression? Do you try to separate out your bugged experience with your imagined experience of what might have been (which is certainly a tough task)? Do you reserve judgment entirely and wait for the bugs to be fixed, and then replay it to establish a final impression?

As soon as we start thinking in these broader terms of what we’re actually talking about, even these small-scale conversations can take on a new complexity.

But this can be an even bigger issue of you’re trying to create an assessment professionally. Because to some extent, the purpose of a review is to inform the reader – especially the reader who exists at the time the review comes out – about the quality of the game and whether they should buy and play it or not.

So now what do you tell such a reader? Especially if, to add some further complications to this hypothetical, you received a copy of the game early, and your review is coming out on release day? And let’s say that the developer is planning on releasing a large patch to fix a number of bugs at the moment the game is made available to players. So your own experience isn’t even necessarily going to reflect that of many other players. And then add, of course, that if a developer is working over a long period of time, say multiple months to a year, to fix ongoing issues, then what do you say about the game now?

There are certainly ways around this problem. You could abstain from reviewing a game at all until it is “finished,” although figuring out exactly when that point is reached is only the smallest problem. Usually readers want to have an answer to “should I buy it or not” immediately, and aren’t going to wait for reviewers. So there’s a significant pressure to get this stuff done sooner rather than later.

You could issue a “first impression” review, and then offer a corrected review later, once you’ve had a chance to replay the game again. Although that’s much easier said than done, because if you’re doing this professionally, you likely have a lot of work you need to do, and most players aren’t going to be reading reviews of a game six or seven months after a game came out, as most of them will have already bought the game by that point. So there’s additional pressure to get these reviews done early, and very little pressure to “fix” reviews afterwards.

Which is going to lead to a significant problem: as a reviewer, you’d be left with a strange form of guesswork. How do you assess a game with which you’ve had a buggy experience, but pretend that the bugs weren’t there at all, and then use that imagined experience as the basis for your review?

Of course, those who’ve had a lot of experience with reviewing will likely have started to build up an analytical skillset that can make this endeavor possible. But possibility is not the same thing as ease. So it is still going to be quite the difficult task to properly pull off.

Which is all to say that in just talking about a game with bugs, we’re left with a strange conundrum: what does it mean to properly assess a game that is filled with bugs and glitches, especially when the developer is working to fix those bugs and glitches?

Concluding Remarks

To a large extent, bugs and glitches are simply a fact of games that we will have to deal with, very possibly forever. Especially so when we’re dealing with games as big as something like Cyberpunk 2077. That doesn’t have to mean we enjoy the bugs or are happy they exist. It doesn’t mean we must simply suffer the bugs that we encounter without complaint. Nor does it mean that a developer that releases a buggy game is entirely free from blame (though what the blame is may be dependent on various circumstances).

But nevertheless, acknowledging the inevitability of bugs is a useful starting point.

And it is also useful to step back and think about what bugs mean to us as players. Both in the individual sense (what does experiencing a bug mean to you as a specific player), and in the communal sense (what do bugs mean for players as a whole). Because the different experiences that players can have when it comes to bugs and glitches, from finding them annoying to enjoying them to even relying on them, means that a single perspective is essentially insufficient.

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