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Games

Glimpsing the Ghost in the Machine: The Beautiful Instability of ‘Axiom Verge’

The newly released retro-styled adventure turns the glitches of older games into fresh methods of exploration.
April 10, 2015, 5:53pm

When I was very young, glitches and bugs in games were nightmare fuel, a terrifying reminder that my life was unstable and that there was so much that I couldn't control.

I remember once starting Pac-Man on my family's Atari 5200, and for some reason Pac-Man appeared on the screen much larger than normal, jutting through the blue boundaries of the maze. "Mom, what's wrong with Pac-Man?" I asked, horrified. I'd seen Tron a few months before, and thanks to that film and my own hyperactive imagination, video games felt to me like portals to other worlds that were, in their own way, as real as our own. This glitch was like seeing a friend mutate into a monster, and it left my trust in the stability of all things just a little shaken. What if I woke up one morning and found that I had glitched into the geometry of the world? What if I came home from school to find that mom was three times her normal size and made of big, chunky pixels?

It's only been in the last few years, because of speedrunning events like the annual fundraising marathon Awesome Games Done Quick, that I've started to see bugs in games not as unsettling reminders that so much of life is out of my hands, but instead as reassurance that instability can also mean opportunity. The moments when things are falling apart can also be the moments when you have a chance to slip through the cracks, and there is something beautiful about tackling a game through its vulnerabilities. Speedrunner Cosmo Wright's communion with Ocarina of Time when he tackles that game in under 20 minutes is entirely different, and in a way much deeper, than my experience with it when I play through it in about 20 hours. There's an intimacy to it; he's getting under the surface of the game and interacting directly with the ghost in the machine. He's going outside of the game's boundaries and into places he shouldn't be able to go.

Axiom Verge, the new Metroidvania (emphasis squarely on the Metroid) created entirely by Tom Happ, revels in the beauty and the opportunity of instability, and wants all of its players to feel like they're getting underneath its surface. Early in the game, I saw some environmental tiles flickering the way tiles often flickered in NES titles when that console was trying to do a little too much at once, and at first I thought Axiom Verge was just going the extra mile in paying visual homage to the games that inspired it. It was exhilarating to discover that I was wrong, and that the game's early indications that the code holding the world you're exploring together isn't entirely stable speak to the very core of what Axiom Verge is doing.

It's not long before you acquire a device called the Address Disruptor, a tool that seems to rewrite the code governing certain elements of the world around you. One of the pleasures of Axiom Verge then becomes experimenting with the device to see just what effects it has in different situations. It may turn those environmental hazards into floating platforms, or turn that laser-spewing enemy into a laser-spewing friend who lets you access new places. Often, glitched enemies will have just the sort of appearance that freaked me out so much when I encountered it in games as a kid, all flickering tiles jumbled together. But what was terrifying to me then is fascinating to me now. It's in the rough edges that you sometimes see the soul of a thing, or a person.

I love, too, that accessing new areas of Axiom Verge's map isn't usually about finding the type of weapon you need to destroy the obstacle that stands in your way. Instead, more often than not, it's about gaining a new ability that lets you act as if that obstacle isn't even there. You become able to glitch through certain walls and later through ceilings. When you can't destabilize the world to suit your needs, you can destabilize yourself, break yourself down into a million little pieces and then put yourself back together again. You don't obliterate the barriers in your way—you transgress them.

I spent a lot of my time with Axiom Verge being uncomfortable, and I realized that it was because I wasn't sure if I was transgressing its environments in the "right" way. There are no waypoints guiding you toward your next destination. You just push up against the game's boundaries until you find places that you haven't been yet, and you explore, like Link and Samus had to back in 1986. And this is one of Axiom Verge's greatest strengths: It's confident enough in the design of its world to let you feel lost, and it's only because it is willing to risk making you feel lost that you can feel like you're actually discovering its world for yourself. It is a rare pleasure now to feel lost in a game, to not have it telegraph for you exactly where to use your new abilities but for it to let you feel like you are discovering the applications of your abilities on your own.

'Axiom Verge' launch trailer—the game is out now for PS4, with further ports coming soon

Still, in the end, I was left just a little frustrated by Axiom Verge, which concludes with a pretty conventional boss fight. I thought of how each of author William Gibson's trilogies ends on the brink of such a profound change that nothing will ever be the same again. They take you to a point where soul and technology meet, the cusp of transcendence. All along, I felt like Axiom Verge was building up to such a moment, a point where your ability to hack and glitch the world around you might give way to something that felt spiritual and revelatory, that made me feel like I wasn't just getting little glimpses of its soul but actually communing with it. I wanted a moment that would cement Axiom Verge as not just an exceptional Metroidvania with a neat gimmick, but as a paradigm shift, a game that does something we didn't really understand was possible before.

That moment never came. But maybe it is still yet to come. It took me around 15 hours to finish Axiom Verge on my first playthrough, and there are plenty of weapons and secrets I never found. The game has already been completed in less than an hour and a half—from the start, it offers the player a speedrun setting. Maybe someday someone picking this game apart and exploring its every extremity will pass through to a place she isn't supposed to go, meet the ghost in its machine, and figure out how to do things in it I can't even begin to imagine.

Follow Carolyn on Twitter.

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