I still remember the code for armor in Grand Theft Auto: Vice City. R1 R2 L1 X Left Down Right Up Left Down Right Up. Health was the exact same thing except with O instead of X. I used those two so many times that it’s a motion I doubt I’ll ever forget even when I’m six feet under. My tombstone might as well be a PS2 controller that reads “too bad those video game cheats didn’t help when he ran out in front of that real life bus.” Or something.
I remember those codes because I used them so much, pretty much to the point of excess. However, I remember the slow motion cheat (Triangle Up Right Down Square R2 R1) for a different reason. You see, I discovered it.
Okay, that’s a bit of a stretch. I didn’t discover it like Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin. It was more like Christopher Columbus discovering the New World; it already existed and people knew about it, but he was the first person in his world to find it. Oh, this nice little taqueria has been just down the block from me for the past year and a half? Who cares. As far as I’m concerned, I discovered it.
But it has that sensation that I’m sure Fleming felt all the way back in 1928. I’m sure it was the same way Alexander Graham Bell felt after he heard his assistant Thomas Watson spit up a garbled “yes” from his comically sized phonautograph. Or the way Alexander the Great felt as he looked down upon his massive empire and realized he could piss anywhere he wanted from the Ionian Sea to the Himalayas.
Man, there sure are a lot of famous Alexanders.
The point is that code to me was a matter of creation. I had created something from nothing. Granted, Rockstar North was the actual creator, but from this tiny little virtual recreation of a fictional, hyper-stylized Miami, I created something new for it that never existed before me. In my particular rendering of Vice City, no one had ever even though the words “slow” and “motion” together until I came along.
And it was thrilling. It was like I had a secret that I had to keep safe no matter what. It was a selfish notion, that so long as I kept it controlled, I could keep that high to myself. Only later would I find that sharing it would be just as great an ecstasy. It continually fed me a great sense of achievement, one that you’ve probably felt as a child finally being able to climb that tree in the forest behind your house or, growing up, proving to yourself that you can make some decent scrambled eggs. Yelling down from the mountaintop that you did these things and discovered this cheat is a breathless euphoria rarely attained.
And it’s a shame that it’s all gone to the wayside. The last time a game had some honest-to-goodness cheat codes was, well, I don’t really know, but you sure won’t find them in a modern triple-A title. They’ve been gutted out and replaced with bonus unlocks and purchasable shenanigans. Though the reward may still remain, the method of earning it has changed. Instead of stringing together a complex string of button presses and stick wiggles, you now actually play the game. A novel concept if I ever heard one.
But for what reason? Why have codes gone the way of everything having an attributable score or the concept of player lives? Have games evolved beyond those things?
Perhaps not. There are still plenty of score-based games (most of them indie downloadable titles) and if you look at any Mario game since ever, you’ll still find 1-ups gainfully employed but you’d still be hard-pressed to find a game that actually uses cheats.
One possible explanation is that they represent a more youthful iteration of the video game industry, one that most would rather remember only on overly long podcasts and nostalgic magazine spreads. Developers want to show that games have grown up, and “cheating” is an abuse best left to children, not makers of art. On the litany of gaming tropes, it is the cancer most easily removed to show signs of progress.
Or maybe it’s the manifestation of progressive gamification. That may sound ridiculous given what we’re talking about after all, but gamification is about more than turning things into, well, games. It taps into the complex interlocking mechanisms of human psychology and finds what makes people tick on the most primal level, which in its current form turns out to be “I did something so give me a reward.”
It’s represented in so many ways today: Foursquare badges, frequent buyer reward cards, exercise apps that apply arbitrary points to various activities. We’ve become an achievement/trophy-infused society, but we’ve gone beyond the point where mere recognition satisfies us. Now those badges earn us discounts and higher Klout scores land us free Starbucks. So why not put what used to be cheats behind unlockable bonuses? If you want to earn extra experience points or cause more damage, you’d better earn it, dammit.
Which is a shame because no matter how many monkeys you put at your typewriters—err, controllers, you’ll never crank out a cheat code that pretty much didn’t exist until you came along with your legion of primates. Now you look at a menu and think, “hmm, just kill another 200 dudes and I get to play in wireframe mode.” Or shoot rockets from a pistol. Or have infinite health. It’s all a clinical system of looking at a to-do list and then doing it, which will of course satisfy your lust for achieving something, but discovering something? Creating something with your hands? Not even close.
Or maybe I’m just crazy. Maybe I’m misremembering things. As opposed to hammering away at a controller for hours on end, why not just pick up one of those code books from the super market or ask the kid with the Nintendo Power subscriptions? That was way easier, but it also lacked both the sense of discovery and achievement either way you go about it.
So maybe they are a relic of a bygone era. Those code books don’t exist anymore. Magazines are on the way out. That local community doesn’t exist anymore, the one where you would hear whispers of being able to bring back Aeris or how you can glitch your way to a hidden city in the sky. When everything is so readily available and verified on the Internet, what is there left to do but gate away your treasures behind frivolous goals and accomplishments? What is there left to do but think fondly of when we had in our hands the power to discover?
What is there left after this matter of creation is taken from us?