If there’s one thing games like to do, it’s fuck with the player. They’re built around, it, in fact – what’s a game without enemies, traps, obstacles, conflict? A game’s job is to challenge its player, after all – so it’s a good thing the player always has ways to fight back. Until they don’t.
Welcome to the strange and unsettling world of the interface screw. This particular trope knows no boundaries of genre, platform, or history, and goes for you where it hurts: the controller, or heads-up display, or sometimes even the console itself. At its most basic, the interface screw throws gunk onto the screen a la the Boomers of Left 4 Dead or the Bloopers of Mario Kart; however, getting more extreme, certain enemies or traps can reverse your controls, get rid of certain HUD elements, or worse. At its most insidious, the sky’s the limit. A classic example is the Psycho Mantis boss fight from Metal Gear Solid. This fourth-wall breaking son of a bitch not only freaks you out by reading your game data straight from the memory card, but also forces you to plug your controller into another port, lest he ‘read your mind’ and predict your attacks. In Eternal Darkness, the game’s ‘sanity effects’ result in a host of screwy features such as fake game crashes, or ‘to be continued’ screens for a sequel which doesn’t exist.
That’s the how; now for the why. It’s easy to get complacent with a game’s interface the longer you spend with it. Anyone who’s accustomed to console gaming can tell you that after a while, acutely tweaking analogue sticks becomes a case of muscle memory, and PC gamers know where their hotkeys lie without a moment’s hesitation. The impact of disorienting a player’s relationship with the game itself – their inputs, their screens, their devices – can’t be understated.
Many examples are basic enough to ignore, or at least just wait out. In Fallout 3, addictions and injuries will blur your screen or cause your aim to sway wildly, embellishing the existing difficulties rather than adding whole new dimensions. On the other hand, instances such as suddenly having to navigate unseen through a weaponless hospital in Hotline Miami (a game in which ‘unseen’ and ‘weaponless’ simply aren’t terms that translate) whilst also fighting your own controller will truly throw you off balance. For some games, it can even be a central mechanic. Metafictional indie title Pony Island sees you playing a seemingly ancient arcade cabinet in a featureless empty room – already insidious even before the arcade game starts talking to you, demanding your compliance. Before long, you’re hacking into the code of the titular game-within-a-game, ‘Pony Island’, screwing the interface even as it screws you.
They can be used as a scare tactic in horror games, a gameplay device in puzzle games, a plot device in just about anything, and so on; the possibilities are endless. One thing is always consistent, though: the interface screw is, above all else, a game’s gentle reminder that we play on its terms and not our own.