If you’re at all familiar with the 90s, then you probably know enough about The X-Files to get what I mean when I say I want to believe. It was the copy on a poster hung in FBI Special Agent Fox Mulder’s office that simply showed a funny little flying saucer hovering over some trees with those words below it. It eventually came to be a catchphrase spouted out by fans and derisive critics alike.
To this day, though, it’s a saying that sticks around. It represents a deep, innate desire within people to cling to some fantasy notion despite all evidence pointing to the contrary. (Insert catalyst for raging Internet debate about religion.) Among the litany of biases psychologists have confirmed that humans are prone to, many of them tend to involve us lying to ourselves either A) about ourselves or B) about something we own. Of course, philosophically speaking, those two things aren’t that far apart since there’s nothing more true to ownership than your own thoughts.
Video games tend to actually provoke this phenomenon more than you’d think. How many times in your childhood (or even adulthood) did a friend of yours tell you that there was this secret in your favorite video game that he heard someone tried at a cousin’s house and it totally worked? Probably too often to count.
I wanted to believe so much that you could bring Aeris back in Final Fantasy VII that I skipped school a few times just to test out some new theory. I was so convinced that a cow level existed in Diablo that I spent fourteen hours straight one weekend trying to make it happen. I knew—not think—that I could get into the Temple of Light in The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time to get the Triforce.
Now, of course, we know all of that is complete and utter bullshit. If not straight from the mouth of the programmers and developers and designers, then we eventually dug through the code and figured out all of it was just one lie after another. The progenitor of each of them often went unidentified, but the damage had already been done. Hearts had been broken and the sane people had been sifted out from the crazies as those who figured out the facade moved on and the others, well, didn’t.
Moving on, though, can mean many things. For some people, that simply meant swapping one conspiracy theory for another, and that means that games journalists will cover it. Not because we’re so hard up for stories but because they’re so vastly interesting. We, as outside observers of a fascination we don’t know or understand, see people fooling themselves into seeing something that’s not there. But our empathetic humanity also wants them to be right.
We know it’s too far gone to dilute faith into knowledge as these folks have, but believing in their belief is easy and almost just as powerful. It’s our shared experience in the world. Craig Owens at Eurogamer covered the search for the last big secret in Shadow of the Colossus. Simon Parking just recently wrote about the hunt for Bigfoot in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. These and other pieces approach the subject with appropriate objectivity, but the stories told inherently elicit emotion from us and we end up far from objective as readers.
We strive for a communal sense of validation. We want the earnest and the genuine to keep shining because it’s so rare we see a light in the cynical darkness. And fooling ourselves with modern games is easy: Bigfoot can exist because we can’t account for what every programmer did, so maybe; giant eagles can lift us up to untold lands because we don’t know what every piece of code does, so maybe. These games are so massive that the lack of accountability makes these theories easy to mold into something believable and shuttle them away as the real McCoy.
Yet it’s so incredibly foolhardy to do so. Unlike other debates where morality and faith are not only the primary argument but the only argument, these claims are easily verified. Given the due diligence, code can be properly reverse engineered and scoured for signs of these harebrained theories. Assets can be checked and scripting stepped through. Whole studios and project leads can deny the existence of such shenanigans.
But still we believe. We still embark on unfounded fetch quests at four in the morning. We still debate over the proper launch angle of a glitch collision. We still do all these things because believe. Because without the actual source code with a full source map, we can’t know for certain. Because it’s so much easier to think something exists than to prove it doesn’t. We still believe because we want to.
And for the record, I do think that Bigfoot exists somewhere in San Andreas.