23 January 2016

Pokemon glitch and Built to Spill videos of the week: Foundational Importance

There are three types of people in the world. The first type are people who, by either generational difference or  general lack of interest, know nothing about Pokemon at all. The second are familiar with Pokemon. The third are "Pokemon people". Pokemon people are like above average drivers: there are many more claimants than actual members of the group. Unlike being an above average driver, being a Pokemon person is not, in truth, a really a desirable social status. You can recognize a Pokemon person when they enter a conversation wherein type two people are referencing Pokemon in some superficial or nostalgic way. A Pokemon person will derail the conversation with details of the glorious couple months when they were an operator in a Pokemon-related IRC channel. Pokemon people necessarily know the controversy surrounding Blizzard's freeze rate. The second type of people can probably parse the aforementioned sentence, but are baffled by the implications. The first type of people have skipped to the Built to Spill video or more likely stopped reading all together.

All this is relevant because the following glitch video touches on something so iconic that it's likely, in my mind, that a type two person would recognize it entirely.

Pokemon Blue - Missingno. and 255 Mewtwo! (video by TheCheatMaster) HORRIBLE TECHNO WARNING: MUTE RECOMMENDED
This is the item duplication/over level 100 Pokemon/MissingNo. glitch. I think it's sort of unusual for a game to have a well known glitch. Maybe I'm overstating the well knownedness, but this is the type of thing that I'd expect anyone who played classic Pokemon to be aware of.  It has a a Wikipedia page. This glitch is so well known that it's hard to find a good Youtube treatment of it. It's just that ordinary. There are more videos of people sitting near the backs of buses and recording the engine sound.*

I'm sort of fascinated by the epidemiology of this glitch. I remember being a young kid in my parents' basement watching my friends playing Pokemon. I was reluctant to play it; it seemed like a really popular fad and I avoided such things with pathological zeal. But on this day I was testing the waters a little bit and asked my friend what Pokemon he was using as he slew his opponent's Pokemon with what appeared to a garbled collection of pixels. He said it wasn't really a Pokemon, but a glitch.

This sorta blew my mind. How did this glitch exist so stably within the game?  What was it meant to be? Was this cheating? How'd he figure out how to get it? This was in the days where the internet was something used primarily by academics and accessed via modems. This thing spread kid to kid, the old fashioned way.

A couple months later I started playing Pokemon, deciding that it was actually quite a compelling game, and got pretty deep into it. I was reluctant to perform this glitch; I had decided that it was cheating and I would not do such things. Nonetheless, I was fascinated with it. There seemed be an aesthetic rightness to it, almost a sense of intentionality. Yeah, you were performing a set of seemingly arbitrary actions but there was a sense of balance to it. You might encounter MissingNo. and get a huge number of your sixth item, but you could also encounter some extremely high level Pokemon and get mauled by it. There was reward, but it was coupled with risk.

I theorized about this glitch. Based off of the experiences of my friends it seemed as though you would encounter either MissingNo., a nearly identical glitch in which the only decipherable characters were 'M, either an Electrode or Magnemite at some level over 100 depending on whether you had Pokemon red or blue, and an arbitrary Pokemon over level 100 that seemed locked to the specific cartridge. My friends didn't really share my interest in this speculation, but were more keen on duplicating Masterballs to catch Pokemon and Rare Candies to level them up.

My interest in Pokemon waned over time, but the changes in the times conspired to reverse that. When my parents upgraded from dialup to cable, I found myself exposed to an abundance of information about all facets of Pokemon and my interest in it was rekindled. I found my theories, as logical as they seemed, to be invalidated. Those over level 100 Pokemon, and MissingNo., and 'M were determined solely by the trainer name. Namely, the second and third, fourth and fifth, and sixth and seventh characters formed pairs that got interpreted as a level and Pokemon, respectively. My friends, named Brian, Jon, Allan, and Jason, all had Ns at one of those critical locations. Only Allan had the blue vesion, and coincidently happened to use lowercase characters to spell his name. Of course, the uppercase N corresponded to the identifier for Electrode and lowercase N corresponded to Magnemite. The other characters corresponded to the other Pokemon and MissingNo.s. The character signaling the end of the name created 'Ms.

That sated my curiosity, but only partially. Why one would encounter MissingNo. was no longer mysterious, but the nature of it continued to be strange. Why did just encountering it duplicate the 6th item? Why were its stats and moves so weird? Those mysteries were not resolved until much later. They're fairly interesting, but in the Pokemon glitch narrative, where each glitch builds upon an earlier glitch to enable future game manipulation, the whys of MissingNo are not actually not that important. It turns out the most important element of the glitch is the fact that MissingNo. increases the amount of the 6th item by 128. While my childhood friends had their Masterballs and Rare Candies, future glitches depend on its ability to create arbitrary amounts of any item. But why that's important is a topic for another week.

Built To Spill - The First Song - Philadelphia, PA - 11/2/2013 (video by noochnooch)
MissingNo. is well known, this song probably not so much. MissingNo. is the first of a series of Pokemon glitches, in a way, and this is the first song off the first Built to Spill album, and it's called The First Song. The connection is tenuous, but I absolutely love this song. I think I was looking for a decent quality full Built to Spill live show to have in the background while working and came across this show in Philadelphia. This was the first song of the set and I was utterly transfixed by the introduction. It took me awhile to place it, and I definitely listen to The First Song, and its containing album Ultimate Alternatives Waivers as a whole much more often now. All I can say is "Aw thanks".

Part of what I like about this performance is that the band takes a song that on the album seems like a bunch of guitar parts spliced together, sometimes rather roughly, and performs it lives with what seems like effortless coordination between the performers. I also like that the song is about difficulty about being able to express ideas through language, and by reading this, you are painfully aware of how strongly this resonates with me.

https://youtu.be/d2ZVDzq-iPw is a reasonable starting point

09 January 2016

Pokemon glitch and Built to Spill videos of the week

I posted this on thefacebook.com the other day:

when people tell me they'd be bored if they didn't have a job to do, i don't really get what they're saying because i think could fill a whole lifetime using youtube to watch old built to spill concerts and pokemon glitch videos

And I don't think it's totally untrue. It's an exaggeration, sure; I'd probably need a little more than Built to Spill concerts and Pokemon glitch videos for whatever a well-lived life is, but there's a lot of material there! So in my ongoing quest for complete self-destruction I'm about to take some things I enjoy, and turn them into an obligation. This has had decidedly mixed results in the past, as I recline with an abundance of comforts bourn of employment in a booming field, while simultaneously not looking forward to an upcoming week at work where I'll have to wake up in the middle of the night if some dumb computer shit* breaks.

So why not post weekly Pokemon glitch and Built to Spill videos on this very website?

Pokemon Blue: Memory/ASM hack - The game is memory hacking itself! (posted by TheZZAZZGlitch)
I don't think this is what people think of when they hear "Pokemon glitch". First of all, there's no setup. In this video you're diving right into a world that's falling apart before your eyes. There's also no reward. Mew is not walking through that door. You don't talk to the Old Man, surf up and down the coast of Cinnabar Island, and encounter a MissingNo because it's represents a neat confluence of programming mishaps; you do it because you want 128 more Master Balls. Right?

That's not entirely true in my mind. What's neat about a glitch can be that it rips away the abstraction that the game is some world unto itself, and exposes it is a fallible creation where everything you see and do is just data getting interpreted and changed. From that perspective, a truly pure glitch doesn't get you stacks of Master Balls or lets you catch Mew, it reminds you that Master Balls are fake and Mew is dumb computer shit.

This glitch video is basically as pure as it gets.  A small program is injected into the game and hooked into a timer so randomly generated byte in memory is changed. What's neat about this is that the effects can be subtle or huge. A single pixel could shift, a name could get corrupted, the mechanics of a battle could be completely destroyed, or the game could just crash. Greater is that the effects can compound. Perhaps the changed byte just results in changing the color of a single tile. That won't have a great deal of impact. But if that byte falls in executable code or changes the interpretation of some data, further unanticipated effects could occur from that single modification. This cycle could continue and continue. The smallest perturbation can spiral out of control in totally unpredictable ways. Also these perturbations are occurring every 50 milliseconds.

What's even more neat about this is that while the video shows the game being run in an emulator on a computer, it's conceivable that this could be done using just a game, a Gameboy, and an abundance of time. Through the dedicated work of people stacking small glitch upon small glitch, it has been found that Pokemon basically allows arbitrary code to be executed. You can create an entirely new game. How's that for ripping away the abstraction?

For the record, my favorite part of the video starts around 11:06. Things seem to be going pretty well, with a couple of minor graphical glitches until the music ominously slows down. Then a battle ensures. As Safari Zone battle decorum goes totally out the window, the music seems to tear itself apart and the screens fills with layers and layers of misplaced tiles. Horror movie stuff.

Built To Spill - Conventional Wisdom (Live in Sydney) | Moshcam (posted by Moshcam)
If you're expecting the same level of detail of explanation as the previous video, you're out of luck. It's weird, but I've been fascinated by Pokemon glitches for far longer than I've even actively sought to listen to music, much less came to appreciate Built to Spill, much less watched a shit ton of Built to Spill concert videos on Youtube. So the response here is less developed, more visceral.

I don't even know how I ended up watching this video; I think it was in a playlist. I think Conventional Wisdom is a pretty blah Built to Spill song. It's totally listenable, but not something I'd seek out a concert video of. But, I was listening anyway and during the instrumental part at the end something sounded really, really familiar. It took me awhile to place it and I had my doubts at first, but then I realized the instrumental there interpolates parts of Shit Brown Eyes from the Built to Spill Caustic Resin EP. Pretty obscure stuff, thrown out there where you least expect to find it, a one-off ad-lib in a performance of a song written some 11 years later. Sometimes life surprises, indeed. 

*It's really useful to some people! But anything technological that wakes you up in the middle of night is totally dumb computer shit then and there.