Should games be messing with file registries?
Before you read this, there are game-behavior spoilers for games from 2017 and back.
Games like being creative. They especially like doing interesting things to punish you for making poor choices or mistakes, although how the game defines ‘punishment’ is completely up to the developers. For example – sometimes, punishment for taking on an enemy you weren’t prepared for is simply dying a frustrating death, but you still get to keep your stuff and levels (like the Halo games). Sometimes, punishment means losing some levels, some of your stuff, and any consumables you used in the fight, because dying to the boss doesn’t mean going back to a checkpoint, it means going back to a spawn point (like Dark Souls).
Some games go even a step further than that – they write your failures or poor choices somewhere besides the game, so you can’t escape your failures unless you find those files.
It’s not a new phenomenon, although it has gotten a little more popular as of late. An old RPG by the name of Zork! would curse you if you tampered with a corpse, and you’d never be able to pick up treasure again. It would keep the curse stored in the Windows Registry, so not even reinstalling could help you. Fun!
The Famous Undertale “Genocide Route”
Undertale is a cute game with many twists, the first one being that you don’t actually have to kill any of the enemies – you can, and you’ll still beat the game, but you don’t have to. You may not realize this upon first playthrough, though, so when you beat the game, look up discussions or lore, and realize oh man I killed some guys you can go back through and play it pacifistically to get the ‘true’ ending. No penalties, you made an uninformed mistake and can fix it now that you know better.
However, this doesn’t apply if you decided to start maliciously slaying everything in and out of your way (the way other RPGs expect you to grind for experience points)! It really doesn’t feel good, not just because the characters are cute, but because the game is designed for random encounters, so actually finding every killable enemy in an area takes much longer than playing the game normally – even as your damage increases. At that point, you get a different final boss fight that’s even harder than the original Flowey fight (which isn’t spoilers), and you carry the mark of what you just did with you forever (intentionally vague). And the game really does mean forever. Even if you complete the total pacifist run afterwards, at the very last second, the game shows that it still knows what you did. Even at reinstall.
The game’s check that you killed everyone is in a folder that is separate from the game’s main ones. While it isn’t hard to find if you know it’s there, it was unsettling to the people who’d played the genocide route, uninstalled, reinstalled, and then discovered the game still remembered their crimes.
In-game DRM, most popular in games from the late nineties up to the mid-2000s, prevents the game from functioning as intended. Some prevent the game from starting at all, others actively shame you for downloading an illegitimate copy, but most sit somewhere in between. In the Spiro games, for example, you can still play… but you’ll never get to finish the game if it thinks you have an illegally made copy. The game becomes increasingly difficult to play, and when you get to the end, the game crashes and wipes your save. In Alan Wake, the game just slaps an eye patch on your character and guilts you without actually touching any playable aspect of the game. Restarting doesn’t make either of these things go away, but reinstalling might… if the legit copy was just faulty, or if you actually did replace your… faulty… copy with a legitimate copy of the game.
The DRM is part of the game, so it’s not technically a permanent mark on the computer, but a permanent mark on the game itself. Don’t pirate indie games!
Doki Doki Literature Club
If you’ve been online in the game-sphere in the past 7 or so years, you’ve probably seen the Japanese-Dating-Sim-inspired DDLC (or Doki Doki Literature Club) mentioned at least once. If you haven’t, this section will contain some vague spoilers. DDLC is infamous in the indie game scene for jerking very hard to the left, and executing that turn so well that it permanently shaped the way that flavor of indie game was made. The game actually pulls from the Windows or Mac directory to get your real name, but that’s not all. It actually invites you into the game’s files at the finale, and it organizes itself so neatly that removing a character is as simple as removing a folder with her name on it. It’s not quite that simple if you were to actually look inside the files (the game is actually doing a check to see if you’ve removed that file, and if you have, it removes the relevant character, because actually sorting character information like that is practically begging for bugs) but it is a very interesting way to handle the last scenes of the game.
Games That Uninstall Themselves
Some games actually refuse to leave any trace at all, insisting that you don’t replay them without at least a little bit of introspection in between runs.
Or, they realize they’re already on track to be uninstalled, and simply do it themselves. Meme games, meme horror games, and art games sometimes fit this description, but it’s honestly pretty rare. It makes it tough to get back into the game, because reinstalling games is annoying, so the games that do this either understand they’re special or understand they’re annoying. DDLC did this too, and so do a handful of Japanese games. One of the big ones is Nier Automata – if you don’t let characters delete themselves, you don’t get the ‘true’ ending.
If you like spoilers, or you just like seeing how games handle the concept, TVTropes actually has a whole page of games that self destruct, delete your data, or otherwise tamper with themselves as a game mechanism: https://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/DeletionAsPunishment
Games That Install Things That Aren’t Really Part of the Game
The My Little Pony fangame Luna Game was sort of famous for this, if famous is the right word – within the incredibly niche community of MLP Horror fans, there existed this platformer that pretty much only played for long enough to serve up some jumpscares and then leave, granting you one final jumpscare with an edited creepypasta-style .jpeg that opened right after the game quit itself out. Later editions would open up the notepad and tell you something ominous.
Eventually, horror games realized this was associated with the sort of games that were easy to make and scariest for 12-year-olds who weren’t allowed to play scary games yet, but were afraid of breaking the family computer by downloading ‘a virus’ and getting caught. As such, notepad txt files and simple jpegs aren’t really used this way anymore. When games want to show off their monsters, they put a gallery with still images of it in the game itself!
And, once again, DDLC did something higher with this concept – after the game deletes itself, it leaves a note for you, one that’s actually sincerely tied into the game and not a jumpscare or warning. While there’s a lot of room for creativity, there’s also a lot of room for things to go wrong. Some antiviruses, for instance, don’t take kindly to the ‘wrong’ kind of file opening while a game is playing. Other computers just don’t let the game put the files in the way it wants them to, meaning it can’t pull them back out the way it will need to at the end of the game.
Overall, there are many ways to add to a game within a game, so maybe twists and turns from fiddling with source files isn’t the only way to add scares or intrigue to the game!