When I was in middle school, a substitute teacher confiscated a student’s Game Boy after catching him playing it in class. The kid got it back at the end of the day, but he noticed a terrible change: all of his Pokemon had been released. All of them, except for a lowly Magikarp — a Pokemon incapable of attacking in battle. A cruel and unusual punishment, for certain. But believe it or not, that student still could have finished the game. Had the teacher taken a few more steps, though, he could have soft locked the file and made the game completely unwinnable.
A soft lock is a state where a game is playable, but it’s impossible for the player to make progress. It’s a common sign of a game that hasn’t been playtested enough. The extreme example is Super Mario Maker, in which it’s easy to come across user-generated levels where the amateur creators didn’t account for the unintended ways players could get stuck. Typically, retail games go through extensive testing processes to catch these kinds of issues before release. In Pokemon, for instance, the player is prevented from releasing their last monster, so they’re always able to battle and catch more.
But some crafty players see these systems as a challenge, a kind of dare to break the game in a way the developers didn’t account for. They’re similar to speedrunners in their quest to understand a game at the most primal level. But rather than solve a game as quickly as possible, soft lockers set out to render a particular iteration of a game unsolvable by anyone.
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The Magikarp Trap
Pikasprey’s Soft Lock Picking series is one of the most popular examples of deliberate soft locking on YouTube. His goal is twofold: to set up seemingly inescapable scenarios, and then to extricate himself from them. One of these scenarios, the Magikarp Trap in Pokemon Red and Blue, is similar to what my middle school substitute teacher set up but with added stipulations. The most notable restriction is that the player must toss all items and spend all obtainable money, preventing them from being able to catch a single useful Pokemon.
The predicament requires enough conscious effort that no one could ever reasonably encounter it during a normal playthrough, and the solution is unrealistic to the point that it’s safe to say no one has replicated it outside of emulators. As the video demonstrates, you can technically break free of the soft lock, but it could take dozens of hours of tedious grinding and repeatedly getting lucky. If you attempt the Magikarp Challenge after trapping yourself in the Pokemon League, home of the game’s final battles, it’s impossible to defeat any Pokemon using Magikarp’s own strength.
Instead, the player needs to backtrack to Victory Road and encounter a Geodude or Graveler, two Pokemon with access to the attack Self-Destruct. While the move is supposed to have a 100% chance of connecting and defeating Magikarp, a notorious oversight means that there is a 1 in 256 chance that Magikarp survives and gains experience points for defeating the Pokemon. Under Pikasprey’s restrictions, the player will need to undergo this tedious ordeal multiple times in order to evolve Magikarp and make the game winnable.
Playing Against the Grain
These elaborate escape methods are impressive, but I find the setup for these soft locks even more compelling. The mental image of a 10-year-old stranded on an island with a worthless fish that can’t swim makes for an incredible farce. As goofy as it is though, challenges like this also serve as lessons on the limitations of game design. No matter how keen a developer’s foresight may be, players will inevitably find unintended ways to engage with games.
As an interactive medium, most video games allow for multiple approaches or playstyles. In linear games, these differences may be inconsequential, but in games with more moving parts — like RPGs and open world games — players can end up with entirely distinct experiences. Experimenting with these sorts of possibilities can lead players to discover their favorite ways to play, and it’s an important part of speedrunning communities too. Runners collaborate to find the quickest routes for a game, which means using specific tricks and exploits to push the game’s limits.
Oh, Exploitable You
Meanwhile, forcing elaborate soft locks can also be seen as its own form of self expression. Like the 20th Century Dadaist movement’s rejection of artistic authority, intentionally soft locking a video game goes against the notion of how games are meant to be played. The developers of Pokemon want you to complete the games and have a good time. They do not want you to be stuck in Victory Road with an Electrode that can do nothing but blow itself up.
Gamers uncovering exploits often leads to a tug-of-war with developers, with developers understandably wanting to fix their oversights and players wanting to find new fun ways to test a game’s limits. Patches that prevent debilitating glitches are always welcome, but patches that nullify interesting discoveries can be more polarizing. For instance, the release version of Cuphead had a weapon-swapping glitch that made it easy to deal high amounts of damage with little cooldown, but it was removed in a patch just a few months after release. Many speedrunners still deliberately play the original version of the game so they can use that tactic in their playthroughs.
Back to Pokemon, one of the most notable oversights in the early games is that releasing Pokemon who know HM moves necessary for progression can easily lead to soft lock scenarios. In later titles, it’s impossible to release Pokemon if they know a move that is required to make progress on the overworld, making it close to impossible to soft lock modern games. It’s hard to blame the developers for that fix, considering how easily it could lead to frustrating situations and, but it is still a shame to lose out on the hilariously elaborate soft locks as well.
Poetically, productive exploits that let players optimize world record speedruns and destructive exploits that let sadistic teachers ruin the save files of unruly students both spring from the same roots. Regardless of if you want to test a game’s design by mastering it or practically bricking it, you need a detailed understanding of its mechanics and deep knowledge of hypothetical possibilities. From there, the only way to outsmart the developers is to get creative and think outside the box. A player’s capabilities will always lie within the rules game, but those constraints can produce astonishing, amusing, and absurd results that push the boundaries of creative play.