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Everyone remembers the moment in Portal when they first noticed that the strings were showing, so to speak, and that the sleek sci-fi test chambers you were being ushered through by the seemingly benevolent voice of GLaDOS were nothing but smoke and mirrors. At some point, everyone notices the cracks in the walls, the scrawled graffiti telling you that “the cake is a lie,” and the discarded trash of someone who went through all of this before you. It’s all stuff that the game says you’re not “supposed” to see, but when you do, it marks the point where Portal stops being a fun puzzle game, and starts being just a little bit unnerving. Reality, as it turns out, is not real. It’s a trick designed to make you complete certain tasks.
It’s also a trick that has been deployed in many other games, from The Stanley Parable to Bioshock, and while it can be cool and unsettling when done right, you’re still only ever seeing the reality that the game developers intended for you to witness. If you ask me, this sort of thing becomes truly terrifying when you find cracks the developers never intended and manage to peek into dark, abandoned worlds that nobody was supposed to see.
If you’ve ever played a 3D video game, especially one with the sort of bugs that are lovingly referring to as “jank” (cough Bethesda cough), you’ve probably seen a glitch where your character falls through an invisible hole in the floor and you can look up to see the thin cardboard structures and endless expanses of “sky” that the world is made of. I’ve always found that sort of thing very creepy, since it breaks the established rules of the reality that a video game presents. If you fall through a floor, for example, there’s no way to know what you’ll see in the bottomless pit that consumes you because the fabric of reality has effectively gone out the window.
YouTube channels like Boundary Break have built successful followings by exploring this sort of thing from an archaeological perspective, using mods or hacks to take over control of a video game’s camera so they can fly it around or point it at whatever they want. The idea is that you can see Easter eggs that developers snuck in just to make themselves laugh, or maybe learn about how a game loads the interior of a building by actually hiding it deep underground and teleporting the player there when they walk through a door. It’s like going backstage at a Chuck E. Cheese, but instead of seeing empty mouse costumes and machinery, you’ll find vast wastelands of darkness, mysterious black cubes that serve some unknown function, and creepy close-up eyeballs.
In 2019, P.T. fans found out that if you hack the camera and pull it out of its usual first-person perspective, you can see that Lisa, the ghost the haunts you throughout the brief game, is actually hovering over your back and just out of sight the whole time. There’s no way to see her there in-game, and she’s probably just there as some kind of trigger for spooky noises (or maybe so the game doesn’t have to load her model in separately and can just move it to where she needs to be), but knowing that she’s there the whole time and you can’t turn around and catch her—no matter how fast you are—makes it all so much creepier.
For me, though, it’s not just scary because P.T. is a horror game. I find all of this stuff immensely frightening, but in a way that I almost don’t want to look away from. I like seeing what’s behind the walls of, say, the school level in Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1+2, because I’m curious to see what the developers would put in a room that the average player would never see. But I still get a sense of creeping dread from it. Maybe it’s because this is something that is unique to video games (or at least virtual worlds)? Spin the camera around in a movie or TV show, and you’re going to see crew members watching everything happen. Look behind a wall in real life and you’re not going to see a bottomless pit into a featureless void; you’ll just see whatever’s behind that wall.
Like the Portal test chambers, video games are all smoke and mirrors (Google “frustum culling” some time for some real banal magic). But the thing about smoke and mirrors is that they usually cover up something mundane. That’s how a developer might think of the empty expanses that surround their game world, but for me that stuff is haunting. Covering it up, then, is less of a trick, and more of a mercy.