Lance McDonald put himself through hell while hacking the modern horror classic, P.T. Lisa — the ghostly maiden who haunts the game’s endless, amniotic corridors — is hard-coded to jumpscare the player whenever they clip out of bounds. So, if you clip through the game map or interact with the geometry in an unintended way, Lisa pounces through the screen and restarts the loop. For McDonald, that means when he was messing with the game code and exploring the underbelly of the universe, he was constantly risking a frightening interruption.
“I had spent months trying to move the camera around arbitrarily in P.T.,” he recalls. “I had to turn my speakers off most of the time to mitigate those constant jump-scare triggers.”
McDonald’s hard work paid off. In his months of exploratory hacking, he managed to position P.T.s camera to show him the entire game map from a distance. It was from that vantage point where he discovered a horrifying truth. Apparently, Lisa stood a few feet behind the protagonist at all times, mirroring his movements, and matching his pace as he gingerly crept down the hallway. There was no way to glean that unsettling knowledge in-game; one of P.T.’s more malicious tricks is how the ethereal adversary on your tail is constantly stowed away in your dim periphery. But from way up high, the whole narrative is recontextualized. Lisa was toying with you the whole time — you just needed to hack a PS4 to find out.
“Over the course of a few weeks after discovering this, I tried to make sense of what I’d seen and actually get the camera in a reliable location so that I could demonstrate it clearly,” says McDonald. “The process of actually getting to that point was genuinely intense.”
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McDonald has made a name for himself by turning up the secrets like these abandoned deep within the Playstation library. Scroll through his Twitter account and witness a proud gallery of exploits. Remember the first boss battle in God of War? That bare-knuckle brawl with Baldur that sets the tone for the rest of the game? McDonald dredged through the assets, and found that Baldur is flipping the double-deuce as he’s tumbling down a cliffside, (off-camera, of course.) A few weeks ago McDonald managed to melt away Jin’s clothing in Ghost of Tsushima and found a tight, perfectly-modeled butt underneath. Here he is, sprinting naked through a torchlit beach. McDonald is not the first hacker to unearth cut content and taciturn easter eggs, but he is one of the few to grind out these vulnerabilities on a console. Cracking into a PC game is relatively simple — the command prompt is only a “~” away. Doing the same on PS4 is much more complicated. According to McDonald, that’s part of the appeal.
“I’ve always really enjoyed the strange limitations and tools that are required to hack games on console hardware, rather than just running games on emulators and relying on PC tools, where possible. The very messy process of finding a way to actually connect to a modern video game console, and researching or making tools to hack a game in the way I want is something I grew up with and have always found extremely rewarding,” says McDonald. “People often take literal offense to the fact that I insist on always working on physical console hardware instead of using emulation but I’m just over here doing things the way that I grew up doing them, and by taking a unique approach I seem to always find something interesting that no one has seen before, so I feel like it’s justified.”
McDonald tells me he first became curious about video game hacking after acquiring an Xplorer Cheat Cartridge — similar to a GameShark — as a teenager. He hooked that cartridge up to his PS1 and connected it to a tiny, extremely late-90s 486 laptop. That apparatus allowed McDonald to see all the RAM on the Playstation, which allowed him to edit game code in real-time. He didn’t have internet access, so he slowly decoded the source code without a digital index to rely on. “I was always interested in working out how the camera worked in games like Silent Hill, and making it so I could see things that would otherwise be impossible,” says McDonald. “Especially with games of that nature. There’s always so many things hidden just off screen or obscured. Being able to see things no one else had before was an incredible prospect.”
Three decades later, that passion hasn’t left McDonald, and today he can call himself one of the few full-time video game hackers in the world. His primary source of income is his Twitch stream, and while he doesn’t decompile games live on air, McDonald says a large portion of his audience discovered his stream because of the amazing ways he can bend a PS4 to his will on his Twitter. “It all comes together,” he says. “I upload YouTube videos showing my discoveries when possible but that’s not really a sustainable income compared to the hundreds of hours that go into each video.” Just more proof that in 2021, anything can be your job.
But does McDonald have any lingering white whales? Does the man who exposed Lisa, Baldur, and Jin feel that he has a few more stones left to be unturned? Of course. You won’t be surprised to know that McDonald dreams big. Someday, he hopes to restore Project Beast, the very early Bloodborne build that is said to resemble a much different video game than the Yharnam we eventually received. “[Project Beast] notably had a double-barreled shotgun with reloading animations among so many other things,” he says. It sounds like a long shot, but as everyone who’s followed McDonald’s career, it’s impossible to count him out.
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