However hard games try to create worlds, they remain artifice. They are stage sets. Painted boxes. And when you step outside them, you get to see how unreal that game world actually is. This, from time to time, can be a wonderful thing. Let's raise a glass to the strange lands that lie outside the game you were meant to see, that glitchy empire of the game outside the game.
I'm pretty sure that my first experience of "glitching through the floor" or other space-breaking transgression, must have been during my time with the Amiga, and the early 3D games I played on it. I vaguely recollect flying underneath the world of (I think) ancient Carrier Command clone, Armageddon, and marvelling and the blank plane of nothing that lay beyond. Why didn't they build out here, my tiny young brain wondered. They had so much space…
Nor were the leaps into the unknown always down to game errors. They can arise from intentional features, too. The demo version of four-player Dungeon Master-with-guns, Hired Guns, contained a teleport device which allows you to get to parts of the level that you could not have reached via normal means. This allowed for a game of exploration far beyond that which the designers had intentionally prescribed. The device did not appear in the full game, presumably because the developers realised it would be used for only one thing: breaking the walls of the game and stepping outside the experience that had been defined for the player. A tricky sort of feature to design for.
This breaking down of walls, or floors, has occurred routinely over the years, occasionally improving the experience. For example, the mediocre Monster Truck Madness title on the original Playstation was a game that held little interest for me and my friends, until we realised you could leap outside of the bounds of the first level. Over a textured cliff and into the sky beyond. Out there lay a vast landscape of abstract valleys and vertiginous cliffs. Suddenly the game proper was abandoned, and a surreal adventure in leaping from vast polygonal precipices became our preoccupation.
In the years that followed I continued to fall through the floors of dozens of different games. With the explosion of user-made content for the online FPS games I found a wealthy of glitchy otherworlds on map servers for different games. Several Quake III maps I discovered had large, weird, leftover landscapes filled with chopped up polygons, like some outsized cheeseboard. All it took was one big rocket jump into the skybox, and I was strolling about in some discarded thought-process, left there by untidy amateur level designers. A gallery of accident.
Even games which have near limitless game space can end up getting weird at the edge of their world. Although apparently dealt with now, earlier versions of Minecraft generated a place called The Far Lands. This was a final edge-world where the normal generations of landscape would break down and cause a terrain of weirdness to appear. The Far Lands was a location where normal Minecraft laws did not apply, and the formations it produced were startling. There's an extraordinary beauty to this: the unintentional collapse of laws that generated a world: something that reveals that is simple mathematics running on silicon. Flawed mathematics that do not exactly add up to a world. It's like the scene at the end of The Truman Show where… well, if you've seen that film you know how that goes. Stepping outside the reality you thought you knew is a powerful metaphor, and an even more potent reality.
And I will never grow tired of seeing these strange realms rise up beyond the game. I couldn't help hacking my way out into the desolate, bald landscape of the rest of Tamriel that lay beyond Skyrim, the most recent Elder Scrolls game. It wasn't a part of the game I was meant to see. And you know what that meant…
So here's to the limitations of games, and their thin, crackly walls and floors, often too frail a boundary to hold back the gamer. Let's cheer the netherworld borders that these processes create. May they always play host to explorers who want to get beyond those painted corridors. We should not – cannot – be contained.
Republished with permission.