We’re on our way home from the holidays. My brother is behind the wheel. He’s talking about the time he crashed his car and fell to the center of the earth.
“So I’m driving around one time, and I turn a corner all wrong. I ram up against a building, and keep going. I fall through the wall, and the city, and just kept falling. Forever.” He pauses for a second. “I had to restart. I lost all my guns.”
The game in question is Grand Theft Auto, but the area he describes isn’t one to be found anywhere in the sprawl of Vice City or San Andreas. It’s a space out of space – a minus world.
Minus worlds vary in scope and shape, but at heart they are the same; the term describes any place outside the parameters of a game’s programming. You can find your way there by accident, or through rigorous trial-and-error. Others are accessed by rooting around in a game’s guts through a Game Genie or an edited ROM file. Some are unplayable. Most are unbeatable. They’ve been around since the Atari, and they’re with us still. Taken as a whole, they comprise some of the weirdest spaces in gaming – made all the weirder since they were never supposed to be visited at all.
One of the first and most classic of these levels is in the first Super Mario. Bros.: If you head to the end of the first underground stage, and break a couple blocks above the pipe, you can jump up and slide through the wall just so, and sneak into a warp pipe before the game knows what you’re up to. It whisks Mario off to “World -1,” – the eponymous “Minus World” – a repeating water level that doubles back on itself, stretching on forever. There’s an even stranger “World -1” in the Famicom Disk System version of the game, complete with tree-top levels flooded with water, glitchy Hammer Brothers that fall from the top of the screen, and, oddest of all, the occasional princess just floating in mid-air. All these years, those messages that “our princess is in another castle” have been straight-up lies, though I guess “our princess is just hanging out in some kooky bizarro world” doesn’t have the same ring to it.
There is something delightfully Narnian about the thought of breaking the right block, or pushing on just the right wall tile, and falling through into another level. Most minus worlds require a devoted ritual, like a secret knock, to break on through – consider the secret spot in Link’s Awakening, which has you killing a set number of enemies then walking though a specific roof tile to descend to a vast, underground dungeon that stretches off in all directions. Others can be bent to your advantage, such as a trick in Metroid that lets you cut corners by falling through certain walls, used in sequence breaking or speed runs. Still others, like the minus worlds in Sonic 2, give you access to levels scrapped before the final version, including the colorfully-named “Genocide City Zone.”
And this only scratches the surface. There must be dozens more that we’ve yet to find, just waiting for a compulsive player to get things exactly right and break through. It’s an example of the inestimable variation of play and exploration that some accidental secrets are exposed and become part of gaming’s cult canon, even when other intentional secrets lie dormant for years. Such was the case with the “Chris Houlihan Room,” a rupee-filled cubbyhole snuck into A Link to the Past to honor a winner of a Nintendo Power contest. The room was accessible through a number of elaborate ways – run a certain distance, fall into a certain pit – but it was hidden so well that it remained a secret for years, until it was revealed more than a decade later through an extensive exploration of the game file. The message within reads “My name is Chris Houlihan. This is my top secret room,” which sums things up more aptly than anyone could have guessed. That a hidden room could be so secret as to be completely unknown is either pretty great or pretty terrible, depending on whether you’re Chris Houlihan.
Before the internet, these types of secrets were mere curiosities to be swapped among friends like urban legends. Their very difficulty and unverifiability lent minus worlds a certain cache of gamer cred. Now, with a greater ability to scour our games for anomalies and share this information online, tales of these minus worlds have become common, even ubiquitous – so much so that a new generation of games has winkingly begun to insert their own. Some are modeled after the apparent endlessness of these spaces, such as the purgatorial kingdom of “World -1” in Super Paper Mario, where failed videogame characters ponder their Game Overs for eternity. Others revamp the idea of warping and sequence breaking, such as the “subspace highways” of Scott Pilgrim, appearing as garbled, broken-code versions of classic games, that serve as shortcuts through the game’s levels. And then there is the idea of a minus world offering new and challenging spaces to navigate, as seen in the unlockable “negative levels” of Super Meat Boy, which are accessed when you grab onto a flashing and broken sprite of Bandage Girl – Meat Boy’s own version of “the princess.” At the same time original minus worlds are getting cleaned up and removed from watertight remakes of classic games, we’ve begun to emulate and pay homage to these spaces. The rough corners that simply don’t fit within the game proper, that might otherwise be a part of discarded game design, are now a topic of tribute. Something about them speaks to us. So why are we so interested?
Part of it is our nature – we’ve been reared from the start to scour gaming landscapes for bombable walls and hidden doors, trained towards escapology so completely that occasionally we can even slip between seams of code and escape from the game itself. The very methods we’ve learned to explore the extent of our games also serves to undo them, one glitch at a time. There’s a certain pioneering excitement in entering a space outside of design and intention, or stumbling across a secret so secret it evaded even the developers. In these spots, we can find a different type of play altogether, removed from the usual railroad rambling towards planned objectives in the game’s design. Why else would you want to seek out a level when you run, or swim, or fight until your time runs out or the screen cuts to black? What possibly could be gained in taking a hard left turn from the established course of things, intent not on beating the game but just beating tracks? What these minus worlds may lack in design and polish, they make up for in sheer weirdly wonder. Sometimes the joy we get from our games isn’t from conventional victory and reward, but something more personal – the simple thrill of finding our way to someplace new.
It’s true that minus worlds are “minus” in more ways than one: They’re broken places full of dead ends and scrambled sprites. You run ’til you die. You swim ’til you drown. You fall forever; you lose all your guns. Which is why I expected, in chatting with my brother, that his Grand Theft Auto fall through the world might have been a frustration, a needless punishment for hitting the game from the exact wrong angle. But I was wrong.
He didn’t mind. He said, “You could look up at the city, and see everything from underneath – all the buildings and road. Everything was hollow, like a big, empty shell. You could see how they did everything. It was kind of cool. “
Sometimes, perhaps, that change of perspective does us good. Games, no matter how vast, are finite, material things. We’re reminded of this every time we head off into the pale blue yonder and bump against an invisible barrier, or approach a door, only to realize it’s just a door-painted wall. How wonderful are those moments we can reverse these rules – when we turn walls into doors, and take that first step beyond the known world. There, we can see our games transformed: from the outside, looking in.
Brendan Main hails from the frosty reaches of Canada, which is like America’s minus world, if you think about it. He prefers not to.