The common saying “Curiosity killed the cat” is actually a little misleading. The full phrase is “Curiosity killed the cat, but satisfaction brought it back.” We are an inherently curious bunch, and that extends from our day-to-day lives to the more fiddly parts of existence too.
The mechanics of any given thing are usually incredibly interesting. The human mind has an intrinsic fascination with how things function, and it’s for this reason that so many people are intrigued by physics and psychology. It’s not enough to know that something works; it’s far more satisfying to understand why it works, to really dig into every little aspect of how something does what it does, even if all you gain from it is that knowledge.
If you want proof, just look at how many people do things like build moving objects out of Lego, or play around with engines for fun. Better still, just look at the love games like Divinity: Original Sin II get, or any other game with physics and mechanics built-in. Hell, Breath of the Wild players are still discovering new secrets over two years after its original release, and that’s because people keep finding new ways to interact with the world and the mechanics it lays out for you.
It’s the same impulse that drives Lance McDonald, the Australian gaming enthusiast who’s made a name on YouTube by busting open and digging around in some of the biggest games.
McDonald—who “get[s] excited by the dumb technical aspects of video games,” according to his YouTube description—has made a hobby of tracking down cut content, messing with in-game cameras, and even playing around with mods, allowing him to control bosses and enemies in some of the hardest games around. It’s fair to say that while his work has always been interesting, the last few months have been particularly good for him thanks to his work on the demo for the canceled, Hideo Kojima–directed Silent Hills, P.T. McDonald’s the one who discovered that Lisa, P.T.’s ghost, is effectively stuck to the back of your head. If you’ve had any nightmares because of that, it’s his fault.
And because finding out how everything works in interesting, I thought it would be fun to find out more about how Lance McDonald works.
McDonald told me started cracking games open two decades ago, all because he wanted to get a closer look at the posters in Silent Hill’s Midwich Elementary. To do so, he used a debugger that allowed him to connect his PlayStation with a computer running DOS.
“I look for features and content in games that were disabled or removed by the developers before the game was shipped to retail, and try my best to restore them at least to a state where I can show them off in an interesting way,” he said. “This can often be something like in-world content, like unused characters or storyline elements. Other times it’s debugging tools the developers used to make their job easier, but weren’t meant to be accessible to the end user, such as free cameras or debugging menus full of cheats and shortcuts.” From his early experience with Silent Hill, he “learned lots about how that kind of thing works.”
McDonald might have cracked his first game 20 years ago, but his YouTube channel is only a couple of years old. Though he started out with a standard Let’s Play channel, McDonald saw a major uptick in his views once he brought his hobby in front of the public. While his basic gameplay videos only netted him views in the hundreds, his first Silent Hill “hacking” video received almost 5,000 views, a benchmark would soon be eclipsed by the first video in which he restored content cut from Bloodborne. That video earned 356,000 views, thanks in part to attention from the media.
“Once I’m done with a game and mysteries still remain, I like to explore those things,” McDonald said. “Games like Silent Hill and Bloodborne are built entirely around the idea that huge mysteries are kept just outside the player’s view, so it’s compelling to go looking for those things.”
Since his original Bloodborne cut content video, McDonald has posted dozens more videos like it, mostly featuring other FromSoftware games. One of the benefits from the somewhat recent rise in the popularity of his videos—and with working on From games in general—is the enthusiastic community that comes with it.
“My work with Bloodborne and Dark Souls 3 has been helped massively by the awesome community online dedicated to reverse engineering the file formats the games use,” McDonald said. “As they go, they’ll often point out little oddities to me which they find along the way. So more than anything else, just the overall knowledge of the games I work on is always expanding, and there’s always awesome people who help behind the scenes in making everything possible.”
While most fans of the games that McDonald hacks are probably interested in the enemies and boss fights that never made it into the final game, McDonald’s interests are much more specific and granular.
“The most interesting things to me are always some technical minutiae,” McDonald said. “Like the method used to remove the debug menu renderer from Bloodborne ended up being incredibly intriguing to drill down and restore to life. But with regard to the more pulpy discoveries, seeing that the character Maria was so close to completion before being cut from Bloodborne (although her boss form made it into the final game) was by far the most interesting to me.”
You’d think that McDonald would have received some pushback from the publishers or developers for hacking apart their games, but so far he’s been lucky—mostly because he’s been respectful of the original works, and if the developer asks him not to post anything, he doesn’t. McDonald’s respect for the games he works on and the developers who made them is evident in the fact that Kojima himself shared the P.T. video.
“I try to tag game developers as I start to work on a new game to check for any friction,” he said. “Mostly I see support and curiosity, more than apprehension. Respect for the creator’s vision is important when you’re dissecting their work, and I think the fans also appreciate that.”
Taking apart games and seeing how they work isn’t easy, and there are certain titles that McDonald says he’s still yet to fully crack, including FromSoftware’s most recent game, Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice. McDonald has posted a few videos featuring Sekiro, but nothing on the level of his Bloodborne or Dark Souls 3 discoveries. This mostly has to do with age, as newer titles make some of the methods for breaking open their older counterparts outdated.
“Older titles get easier over time to access,” McDonald said, “and I honestly enjoy working with older games more than anything, as they’ve typically come to the end of their life and people are eager to see more from them. With newer games, it can be harder to work with them, and people are still enjoying the games as-is regardless, so there’s less interest for me to explore them.”
Whether McDonald wants to turn his hobby into a full career depends on the kind of work that he would be doing. Right now, he’s happy with where he’s at.
“I’m a stay-at-home father, so I don’t want to actually work a job that makes me lose family time,” he said. “But I’d love to collaborate with a company like Night Dive Studios where reverse engineering and patching older games are a huge part of what they do, remastering and rereleasing older titles for newer platforms.”
Besides, there are still games that McDonald wants to work on in his spare time.
“I want to spend more time with Platinum Games’ engine, spanning Bayonetta, Nier: Automata, and Astral Chain” he said. “I have looked at it a little and I can see how they’ve sadly removed the debug menu from Bayonetta on every system, even on the awful PlayStation 3 port that Sega released (I was hoping Sega, in their laziness, would have failed to properly remove it, but I was not so lucky). However, Platinum Games accidentally released a debug version of NieR: Automata to the public a while ago, so I’d love to work on studying how the debug menu works in that, and restore it in their other games.”
There’s a lot of secrecy in the games industry, sometimes to a frustrating degree. It’s useful to have people like McDonald who are willing to show off how to unlock some of those secrets, to talk about the things that are fascinating but rarely discussed. It’s also incredibly cool to see a game that you loved opened up, to see exactly what makes it tick and find out the secrets behind every trick. Video game design is still kind of magical for many of us, and understanding just how the smoke and mirrors work does nothing but improve the experience.
“The most rewarding aspect,” McDonald said, “is getting to see the excitement from others who share my curiosity, and discussing further mysteries with the communities around these games.”
Header image from Bloodborne, credit: Sony Interactive Entertainment