On Cheats and Cheating

Whatever happened to cheats in videogames? In the good old days, if you wanted a little helping hand while playing a game, it usually involved punching in a staggeringly complex sequence of buttons, and then suddenly you’d have unlimited ammo or red blood. Sometimes cheat codes unlocked hidden easter eggs (the original Mortal Kombat on the Mega Drive was famous for letting you input a cheat code unlocking all the censored fatalities), but more often than not it was like being bestowed with superhuman powers that meant you could carve through enemies without breaking a sweat. Not that anyone sweats whilst playing a game, it’s not that physically rigorous a pastime.

As a youngster inexperienced in playing games, cheats were often a godsend from developers, making games that were otherwise too challenging a little bit more manageable. There were many first person shooters that I simply wouldn’t have been able to finish if I couldn’t slap God mode on and invincibly tear through some of the more troublesome levels. Clip mode was another oft-used lifesaver, and the ability to zoom through walls like a phantom or float miles above the action like Superman got me out of some tight scrapes. The original Starcraft had some humourously-named cheat codes like “show me the money,” which gave you loads of resources, and my personal favourite: “there is no cow level,” which gave you instant victory.

I would have loved to have actually seen a cow level.

As I got older, a sense of videogaming pride kicked in, and I decided I was above cheats, that there was no point in playing a game unless you could complete it on its own terms. So I took a vow of cheat code celibacy, and stoically abstained from giving myself any kind of unfair advantage in a game. I imagined this as a symbolic gesture of nobility, bestowing me with a misplaced sense of gamer integrity, the same way that many vegans look at their refusal to eat meat as some kind of moral victory over life.

It’s a defeat, if anything.

Many cheat codes, however, didn’t really give you any tangible benefit, they just made the game more fun. Anyone who tired of exploring the sandbox playground of San Andreas or Vice City could punch in the Chaos Mode cheat, where all pedestrians in the game would be heavily armed and extremely hostile. This made joyrides through the game world hilariously intense, as grannies would try and smack you in the face with a cheeky rocket-propelled grenade as you drove by. There was a cheat where you could summon a tank from the air, and another where you could turn all civilians into clowns, and trust me, combining these two cheats made for a fun way to while away a Sunday afternoon.

The seminal Bond tie-in shooter GoldenEye took a similarly Pythonesque approach to cheats with things like the Big Head code, which afflicted all the characters and NPCs in the game with a severe case of Elephantiasis. There was something absurdly silly about playing multiplayer deathmatches against opponents with craniums so enormous they looked like weather balloons. It certainly made it easier to score head shot.

A little bit top-heavy there, Brosnan.

Current-generation gaming has all but left cheats and cheat codes behind, especially on consoles. I don’t know whether that’s because games are easier nowadays and cheats aren’t necessary anymore, or if developers are a little more sensitive about having their games messed with. Either way, it seems like cheat codes are slowly being phased out, another leftover from a bygone retro era of gaming. Even though PC gaming remains a last bastion of the cheat code, most cheats for PC games took the form of some sneaky editing of core game files, and in this age of aggressive DRM and copy protection that avenue probably won’t be around all that much longer.

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