Hacking Motivations

Why hack a videogame?

If it wasn’t painfully obvious by now, this question is central to my research. Although I never sought to find an all-encompassing answer, I am tempted to reflect on my research-in-progress in order to formulate some loose trends. As I play videogame hacks, speak with hackers, and look through vast amounts of archived media on the web, some vague themes have begun to emerge. I thought it would a good exercise to try to work through a few of these ideas through writing – with the hopes of revisiting them later on, once I have gathered more data and my research has matured.

Videogame Hack as Unofficial Sequel

Many videogame hackers use their skills to pursue a simple idea: the creation of a prequel, interquel, or sequel to one of their favourite games. This desire to create is not strictly tied to videogames – many fans want to contribute to their favourite franchise through the development of original works. This is perhaps most evident in fan practices such as fan-films and fan-fiction, and takes on an interesting twist when fans work their way into the industry and gain the opportunity to actually work on the TV shows, movies, and videogames in which their fandom is rooted. In videogame hacking, this often takes form through the repurposing of an existing game to create a new installment in a series.

Take Chrono Trigger: Crimson Echoes, for example. Created by members of the Chrono Compendium, Crimson Echoes was conceived as an unofficial installment in the Chrono series, set between the events of Chrono Trigger and its sequel Chrono Cross. Using the Super Nintendo game Chrono Trigger as its basis, hackers inserted a completely new narrative in the game ROM while reusing many of the title’s characters, sprites, and mechanics. Although the game was never fully completed (a cease-and-desist order halted production when the game was about 98% done) leaked copies of the game reveal a sprawling story that spans the gap between the two existing installments in the series. In a way, Crimson Echoes aims to satiate the fanbase’s desire for more Chrono content – taking the old characters and mechanics out for another ride around the block.

Videogame Hack as Improvement

Although many videogame hackers may be drawn to a particular title through their fandom, that does not mean that their view of the game is entirely rosy. Some express that certain gameplay elements or plot points simply didn’t line up with their expectations, blaming the issues on things such as mass appeal (the developers made the game too easy in order to attract a younger audience) or localization (the translators didn’t think a North American audience could handle certain mature themes). Instead of simply griping, some hackers have decided to take matters into their own hands by manipulating code in order to “fix” a game to better match their expectations.

The Super Smash Bros Brawl mod Project M seems to epitomize this approach nicely. Disappointed with the release of Brawl (the long awaited sequel to the GameCube game, Super Smash Bros Melee), a group of competitive-minded hackers tweaked the game’s mechanics in order to make it better resemble its predecessor. The general consensus among these hacker-players was that Brawl had been drastically reworked by Nintendo to better appeal to casual gamers – mainly by making the attacks and movement of the game slower while also adding a greater degree of randomness, luck, and unpredictability. Project M undid many these changes, added several new features, and presented itself as a fan-developed alternative to Brawl. Despite the scope and success of this undertaking, however, the mod was abandoned in 2015 due to the fear of legal action from Nintendo.

Videogame Hack as Technical Demonstration

As I touched on a bit in my previous post, experimental videogame hackers sometimes are inspired to exploit the technical capabilities of a given videogame. They treat their hacking as a combination of technical demonstration and archival practice – scouring the contents of a game to determine what elements could be re-arranged to enable new experiences, all the while pushing against the barriers posed by outdated formats and technical protection measures. This sort of practice often results in micro-hacks that show off a single trick, tweak, or design element (usually in a playful or entertaining manner).

A simple example of this type of hack is First Person Mario 64. By reworking the camera system found in Super Mario 64, a hacker made it possible to play through the entire game using a first person perspective (the original game uses an adjustable, third-person camera). Not intended to be an objective improvement to gameplay, such as the aforementioned Project M, First Person Mario 64 instead allows players to play through a classic title through a different lens. The hack also demonstrates a certain level of mastery over the game, changing one of the title’s core systems in an unintended way. It’s easy to see how learning more about the game’s camera could enable further hacking projects

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By Michael