Do you remember this recent video game meme? For a few days, the fastest way to an online laugh was to combine some innocuous game with overwrought text about how “You cheated not only the game but also yourself” should the player try and do anything to make their experience a little easier. Like any meme, this joke didn’t come out of anywhere. It’s making fun of a hyperbolic but sadly sincere tweet harassing a journalist for playing Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice while using cheat codes.
We‘re entitled to our own opinions about Sekiro’s difficulty (I think it’s needlessly tedious and makes the game worse). Still, the game kicked off a discussion about the difficulty in video games that not even FromSoftware’s previous Dark Souls series managed to sustain.
On the one hand, you have people who believe lower difficulty levels subtract from the feelings of accomplishment they get from these games. On the other hand, you have correct people. The latter group realizes that someone else having an easier experience doesn’t take away from their more difficult experience. They can separate winning a fake video game cheats from actual, real-world growth. They know different forms of accessibility are more important than “gitting gud” or whatever another gamer gatekeeping garbage the other side is spewing.
Beyond the dumb difficulty debate, the original post that inspired this meme also irked me by suggesting cheat codes or speedrunners are some kinds of malicious perversion of video games. That couldn’t be further from the truth. Cheat codes are video game history.
Games are games because they are interactive. Developers give you the toys, the tools, the sandbox, and whatever guidance they feel appropriate. But from there, it’s you, the player, poking and prodding at the game to make the magic happen. Cheat codes are absolutely a valid way of changing how you interact with space. No rules are being broken. There’s no morality being ignored. Anything you’re allowed to do in a game—from infinite ammo to big heads, through codes, mods, or external (single-player, not-pirated) hacks—is okay if it’s in the game.
Cheat codes also form a vital part of video game culture. Rumors of secret codes in arcade games not only bonded crowds but helped seed the mysterious forbidden playground knowledge of the early internet. Right now, some kid is spreading a myth about RoboCop’s secret acid vat Fatality in Mortal Kombat 11: Aftermath. Activate any Blizzard fan by saying, “There is no cow level!” There are whole cottage industries surrounding cheat codes, from calling Nintendo for help to buying strategy guides. Big video game websites still get tons of traffic from walkthroughs. If you don’t think cheating is a part of video games, you don’t know video games.
One of the most retro parts of today’s retro-inspired games is how they embrace cheating. I love getting better at Streets of Rage 4, but I also love giving myself way more lives and power-ups than I need to beat up goons. Everyone’s loving Final Fantasy VII Remake on PlayStation 4, but I’m loving the re-release of the original on Nintendo Switch, which lets you blaze through the whole story with an overpowered party thanks to cheats. The Panzer Dragoon Remake makes you beat the whole game first before unlocking cheats, but it’s satisfying to go back with a new arsenal and annihilate bosses that previously troubled you. Celeste can be a platformer that’s tough as nails or a painless narrative about climbing a mountain while the hero sorts out her mental health issues. Both are great.
These days it is, unfortunately, easier than ever to convince yourself that cheat codes in video games aren’t a thing, and not just because the games industry is still so abysmal about preserving its history. With so many online multiplayer games, a fair, competitive balance for pro-paid esports players is understandably more important than goofing around locally with friends and giving yourself unbalanced perks with a Game Genie.
More cynically, game publishers have also realized that they can make much more money selling different bonuses and cosmetics to you through paid microtransactions rather than by including them as cheat codes. Anthem, Destiny, and other live games as a service can’t control you as effectively if you could break them. Why do I have to spend $10 for an XP boost in a single-player game such as Assassin’s Creed Odyssey rather than press some hidden combination of buttons for God Mode? Likewise, free-to-play pay-to-win mobile games are cheat codes where the only winners are shareholders. Don’t blame cheat codes themselves for this shift in mindset. Blame increasingly predatory capitalism.
There’s no wrong way to play a video game if you want to play on easy difficulties; that’s cool. Hard mode? That’s cool, too. Just want to pet dogs? Even better. Don’t let any hardcore gamer tell you otherwise. Hopefully, players and publishers alike are starting to get it. Bethesda quickly removed pointless anti-cheat software from Doom Eternal after fan outcry. A company could make a killing by crowdfunding a GameShark successor for PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X. By continuing to slander and deny the value of cheat codes in video game history, we’re not only creating games, but we’re also cheating ourselves.