The Sonic the Hedgehog games are celebrated for their music, from the giddy chipset ballads of the original 2D instalments to the squalling glam rock tracks of later 3D outings. In the case of 1992's Sonic 2, the music is also something of a magic portal. By selecting certain tracks on the game's Sound Test menu, you can unlock a set of cheat modes, including a bizarre slow-mo feature and, most usefully, a level select screen.
To my nine-year-old self, all this proved transformative: it gave me a fresh perspective on the game's design, and so, transported me further into it. No longer was I constrained by the given cadence of stages and in particular, the difficulty spike imposed by the infamous Chemical Plant level. Now, I could explore and study them in isolation, tackling them in different orders as though composing a playlist. I was particularly fascinated by the game's Debug Mode, which let me conjure up props such as golden rings at whim, and fly through levels in the curious guise of a power-up TV. This feature does not, in fact, exist for the benefit of Sonic players: as the name implies, it was added to help Sega's QA staff stress-test levels before release.
All of which is to say that cheating in video games isn't just about, well, cheating. It's to stray across the gap between player and designer – to put one foot outside the simulation, often in a spirit of cheerful antagonism. DOOM's No Clip Mode lets you glide through walls, for example, turning the tables on claustrophobic Martian mazes that are packed with monster lairs screened by sliding partitions. Mortal Kombat's self-explanatory Blood Code allowed players to reverse the censoring of its home format release, back when moral panic over “video game nasties” was at its peak. The playfulness of cheating goes beyond tapping in codes to broader questions of game design. As an ethos, it's strangely integral to immersive sim games, a genre where players are encouraged to use tools in ways the designers haven't prepared for.
Sadly, cheating gets short shrift in discussions of games today, running contrary as it does to the meritocratic worldview expressed by many developers and gamers, where rewards and self-improvement are held to come about exclusively through exercise of ability on a supposedly level playing field. To cheat a game, in the words of one recent tweet concerning FromSoftware's Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, is to “cheat yourself”, to pass up an opportunity to “grow”. The tweet in question has been widely memed by critics, developers and marketing teams looking to boost their numbers – it has attracted a flood of videos of classic cheats with the text pasted over character dialogue – but the loudness of the reaction against the sentiment betrays its popularity.
The idea of games as meritocracies is reflected in the ubiquity of numerical progression systems, where players start out puny and steadily level up, acquiring beefier traits and better equipment, in a fantasy of predictable gain through no-nonsense application of time and effort. Such daydreaming often goes hand-in-hand with a strain of ableism. The proposed addition of accessibility options for disabled players to Sekiro, for example, has been castigated by some as diluting the game and compromising the creator's artistic vision.
FromSoftware's works are often held up as peak “meritocratic” games, defined as they are by gruelling tussles with adversaries whose attack patterns must be painstakingly memorised and countered, without much instruction. They are presented by fans as more honest, substantial experiences that expect serious commitment and understanding, where other games indulge “lazy” or “casual” behaviour. A beautiful yet brutal fantasy set in Sengoku-era Japan and starring a prosthetic-armed shinobi, Sekiro is especially withering thanks to its Posture System, which forces you to lock blades repeatedly in order to throw your foe off-balance.
To assess FromSoftware's games in these terms, however, is to ignore the fact they aren't difficult for the sake of it. Their frustrations form part of stories about power, corruption, entropy and mortality, which reach for emotions other than the mere satisfaction of beating a foe. More importantly, this reductive reading also ignores the fact that the design of such games isn't really about challenge at all. It's about the illusion of challenge, and the illusion of overcoming it.
As documented by the designer Jennifer Scheurle, games are rife with devious aids and fudges that exist to create a sense of hard-won progress almost regardless of the cunning brought to bear. Much as talk of real-life “meritocracies” serves as camouflage for social inequality, so talk of conquering a game through skill alone overlooks the ways in which games are, in fact, built to be beaten, assisting you in ways you can't quite see. This is as true of top-drawer “gamer's games” like Sekiro as it is games that are openly created for more laidback enjoyment. Among the more common designer's tricks in action games, for example, are enemies easing off when not on screen, like movie extras dropping out of character, or courteously taking turns to attack when present in overwhelming numbers.
In Epic's over-muscled shooter Gears of War, the last bullet in a magazine does extra damage to raise the odds of finishing off an attacker with your very last shot, so that you feel like you're scraping through every encounter. In Sony's Uncharted, certain collapsing surfaces animate faster or slower depending on where you're standing, so that players who aren't as attentive or dextrous can bound to safety with the same, skin-of-your-teeth panache. FromSoftware is as party to all this as any studio. Sekiro's ways of sparing your blushes include invincibility frames, points in an evasive animation when enemy attacks pass harmlessly through you, so fleeting as to be almost unnoticeable.
If games are simply about reaping the rewards of skill, one could argue that all these games cheat their players by helping players along in ways you aren't quite conscious of. And yet, these games are no less enjoyable, or valuable, for their sneakiness. As outlined by Jennifer Scheurle, we treat most games the same way we do a stage magician's conjuring tricks: however hard we might look for the sleight-of-hand, we all secretly want to be fooled. That is, we all secretly want to be cheated.