A Video Game That’s Meant To Be Broken

The digital glitches you see here are the whole point: You’re supposed to break this game as beautifully as you can.

For most of us, video game glitches are a nuisance–they’re visual hiccups that rattle the rhythm of the game and disrupt our immersion in the experience. But for Rosa Menkman, they’re the best part. The Dutch artist, currently pursuing a PhD in digital artifacts, revels in all things glitch, from overly compressed video files to unforeseen synthesized sounds. Her latest project, Compress Process, reverses the conventional relationship between game and glitch: It’s a surreal videoscape in which the only object is to mess things up as best and as beautifully as you can.


Things are strange from the get-go. Upon firing up the application, you’ll find an inconstant beige and black orb (weird) in which floats a disembodied Janusian head (very weird). Using your arrow keys, you can move the head to and fro–it sort of glides around on a set of creepy, stilt-like legs–and leave the orb to explore a 3-D landscape of clouds outside it. The experience has the basic trappings of a video game–you can even “jump” by hitting the spacebar–but players will quickly find that that there’s not really anything to do in this game world, and there’s not really all that much to explore, either. Adding to the confusion, each movement you make smears and stretches the game environment, making it hard to lock down any sort of perspective or sense of space. And that’s basically the gist of it: You tool around aimlessly, taking note of how your movements shape the mesmerizingly weird visuals. Menkman supplies the disembodied head, you provide a little motion, and glitches abound.

If you’re having a hard time envisioning the experience, that’s fine–it’s deliberately elusive. Artists have been drawn to glitches because they take images and interactions we’re familiar with and render them incomprehensible and alien. But Compress Process is alien from the start. Players might try to get comfortable, to figure out some sort of logic upon which the game operates, but ultimately all there is to do is to embrace the weird and seek out the glitch. It forces the player not just to reconsider basic video game concepts like incentive and reward but to reconsider the role glitches play in the gaming experience, too.

Menkman outlined the case for the glitch in a “Glitch Studies Manifesto” last year. In the piece, she tracks an encounter with a glitch from the initial surprise–a “feeling of shock, or being lost and in awe”–to the ultimate conclusion that it can, in fact, engender some new sort of understanding or expression: “Once I find myself within these ruins I also experience a feeling of hope; a triumphal sensation that there is something more than just devastation…a spark of creative energy that indicates that something new is about to be created.” In short, Menkman sees glitches as chinks in the armor of new technologies, places where we can interrogate what those technologies mean and how they operate in our lives.

Compress Process, which Menkman created for Aram Bartholl’s DVD Dead Drop installation at the Museum of Moving Art in New York, is a sort of tutorial for tuning into those possibilities. It forces the user to recalibrate his or her sense of what it means for a game or program to be “working,” and it makes plain how something can be compelling and beautiful even when it’s “broken.” Of course, Menkman’s piece is one big glitch by design; finding them in the wild can take a bit more effort. But if you’re thinking about trying to track down digital hiccups of your own, the artist outlined her process in an interview with last fall. “Glitch-wise,” she says, “what works for me is late nights and a glass of wine. And learning not to be afraid to break something. “

You can check out Compress Process in your browser (with the help of a plug-in), or you can download it as a standalone Mac application from Menkman’s site.

[Hat tip: The Creators Project]