5 Hidden Tricks That Make Your Video Games Actually Work
It takes a long time, a lot of people, and a small country's GDP to make a AAA video game today. Much of that effort is spent making the game both look and feel realistic -- from the sweat on a character's brow to the AI behavior of a zombie to the heaving, impossible bosoms of the women. But it turns out that in order to make those games as believable as possible, developers sometimes employ bizarre, unexpected, or downright stupid tricks. For example ...
Trains Run On Secret Tracks That Never End
There are programmers who spent weeks of their brief, precious lives perfecting the bounce of tires in Project: Cars 2 . There are real, breathing human beings who dedicated serious mental energy to realistically depicting the way horse testicles adapt to cold in Red Dead Redemption 2. And then there are trains:
Video game trains have two kinds of rails to ride: the literal kind and the annoying game kind. Take the iconic train level in Uncharted 2. In this sequence, Nathan Drake has to fight atop a train, advancing from car to car to get to the front. So what happens if he doesn't make it in time? Don't worry! This train, like any video game train, isn't actually going anywhere.
When playing Uncharted 2, eagle-eyed YouTuber Freako noticed something: When they sped up the footage, Nathan Drake's shadow would shift an entire 360 degrees. That means that either Nate is the center of his own tiny universe (he does have the ego for it), or the train he's standing on is doing a perfect circle. In order to give players all the time they need to advance, the train remains on its looped track, surrounded by nondescript landscapes, until the player reaches a scripted checkpoint, at which point it teleports to the next part of the level. So in a way, that does make them more reliable than your average real-world train system.
But that's not the only way video games have scammed you out of all the thrills of a legit train ride. In World Of Warcraft, one of their biggest dungeons is a runaway train the players are tasked with stopping before it's too late, which is pretty cool, and made even better when you realize the train isn't moving at all.
What's really moving is the entire animation field around the train, tricking players' brains into believing there's locomotion. It's a sweet illusion ... unless you look at the area from afar and realize how goofy everything looks to make this magic happen.
NPCs Are Constantly Used (And Abused) As Hidden Slave Labor
In many games, programmers secretly make existing NPCs do things that would otherwise require them to write entirely new scripts. This is an especially popular technique with MMOs, which are constantly adding new content (and hence new tasks that need doing). Need some mystic gem to blink every ten seconds? Have an invisible NPC do it. Need a laser turret to shoot fireballs at players? Have an invisible NPC do it. Need that laser turret to also be killable? Have an invisible NPC- oh.
That's right, every time you take out a tower or destroy a gem in an MMO, odds are you were targeting an innocent NPC who was crammed into a hellscape of stone and code to experience endless death. To make it even worse, in World Of Warcraft, that entire slave workforce doomed to die forever is comprised entirely of bunnies -- the smallest and squishiest of NPCs.
The developers have stated that with more advanced programming tools, they've massively scaled back their virtual chain gangs. But there are still over a thousand innocent, invisible fluffballs slaving away inside the machine, dying and being reborn, only to die again. If there is such a thing as karma, this is how Hitler was reincarnated.
Crashes Can Be Disguised As Special Achievement Screens
Before the era of early access and day one patches, video games had to actually be complete and as bug-free as possible right from the get-go. Crazy, right? At SEGA, that meant every game had to go through weeks of stress tests designed to see if the games would crash. If they did, they couldn't get the "Seal of Quality," and had to be sent back to the developers. But for Sonic 3D, director Jon Burton found a loophole: He turned his game-breaking bugs into a feature.
Whenever the game suffered a crash, Burton had it pop up a "Secret Level Select" screen instead of an error report, pretending to reward players with a shortcut, while in truth it was all a distraction so the game could reset itself. More importantly, this level select screen wasn't picked up on by SEGA quality control testing, meaning Sonic 3D passed with flying colors. Now, it was never the intention that players themselves would encounter this secret shortcut, but of course savvy cheats soon found a way. By jiggling and then punching the cartridge, the game would briefly disconnect, causing it to crash and bring players to the level select screen. Yes, you could beat the game by literally beating it.
Unsurprisingly, this wasn't the only time devs snuck a hack past QA. Burton admitted to using similar strategies with his games Mickey Mania, wherein the warp simply set players back for a bit, and Toy Story, which cleverly triggered a "minigame" while the program quietly got its shit together. It was the game equivalent of jangling your keys in front of a toddler while you chug a glass of "reset wine." Then there's Wing Commander, whose devs couldn't figure out one particular game-crashing bug. But since that bug only popped up when players were exiting, they just turned the on-screen error message into one thanking the players for leaving and hoped nobody would notice.
There was also New Tetris, for the N64, which tricked gamers into ignoring total crashes by awarding them a secret code every time it froze up and needed to be restarted.
Reflections Are Windows Into The Game's Twisted Soul
You could render a gravity-defying colossal squid that destroys the sun, and it would still require less computational power than a somewhat realistic-looking reflection. But since most games have more reflections than apocalypsquid, developers have spent decades figuring out neat tricks to make their puddles, mirrors, and other shiny surfaces look cool without melting your console.
Way back in 2004, Metal Gear Solid: The Twin Snakes had some surprisingly solid mirror effects ... as long as you kept looking straight at Snake, that is. Otherwise, you'd be in for a face-melting surprise.
In order to save some processing power, the game deleted every part of the character that you wouldn't be able to see from Snake's POV, making the mirror work only under the most specific of circumstances.
There were also a series of super realistic glossy whiteboards -- something even today's games have a hard time getting right. But what players are seeing isn't a whiteboard at all, but a slightly opaque window concealing another dark room that's filled with strategically placed lights to emulate a whiteboard reflection. Our thoughts and prayers go out to the designer who had to tweak that sucker.
Then there was Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons Of Liberty, a game that did the impossible (at the time). It featured glistening raindrops that truly splashed onto characters instead or firing right through them like sky lasers. But that's not what's really happening -- designers merely made the "rain effect" part of the character models themselves, and we all fell for it! Like chumps!
But when it comes to rain, even Metal Gear Solid wasn't as ambitious as Conker's Bad Fur Day, which somehow nailed perfect reflection in its rain puddles. How? Oh, just by creating a parallel upside-down dimension of the entire level and showing it through "puddles" (aka holes in the ground).
Making The Inventory A Tiny Pocket Dimension (Featuring Horse-Pants)
Gaming -- a place where you go to teabag strangers' corpses -- doesn't abide by many rules of etiquette. But there is one we all obey: Never, ever question where your character is keeping all of their stuff. It's totally normal when Nathan Drake pulls a bazooka out of his pocket, or that quivers in Skyrim can comfortably hold every single arrow that was, is, or will be. And there's a good reason not to question it. You really don't want to know what happens when you're "equipping" a horse.
Let's backtrack. One of the leading pioneers in MMORPGs, Ultima Online, was all about offering freedoms you couldn't get in single-player games, like killing the lead game dev or destroying the ecology of a fantasy planet. But one of the smaller, less appreciated freedoms was the ability to put your stuff wherever the hell you wanted.
The more mainstream inventory systems in games like Diablo or Resident Evil separate everything in neat slots. But Ultima Online had a huge pile of stuff hastily bundled inside a bag, even featuring overlapping items. The trick was that Ultima's inventory wasn't some system menu, but an actual location -- a tiny map with the coordinates of where all your items lived. And seeing as it all had to travel with your character, the most convenient location was ... you. You were your own backpack, so to speak.
The realistic-looking, hidden-location-based inventory was a hit. That is, until the arrival of horse pants. Ultima's devs wanted to put rideable horses in the game, but having digital people realistically interact with digital animals is a pain in the ass to program, so they came up with another neat trick. When a player clicked on their steed, instead of mounting a horse, they would in fact equip pants that looked just like said horse, and gave them appropriate speed bonuses. Meanwhile, the in-game horse would be put away in their inventory, to be released whenever the player decided to dismount. That's how insane video game development is; this was the easy way.
Ah, but remember when we said the inventory was an actual place? That means any active being inside that place could interact with all of the items there. Active beings like ... horses. Freaked-out players reported items moving on their own, food being eaten, potions disappearing. Suddenly their inventories were full of tiny horse-shaped poltergeists. And when they were done horsing around, those very expensive steeds would wander beyond the bounds of the inventory map, never to be seen again.
Oh, and they would also crash the game in the process. But that's a given.
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