Fun is Infinite

The Tax Collector Man
26 min readFeb 22


When I was a kid, I didn’t really think about what video games actually were or where they came from. I knew that Nintendo made Mario games, and I knew that a GameCube was a Nintendo GameCube and that a Wii was a Nintendo Wii, but I’m not really sure if I knew what a Nintendo even was — for all I knew it was some kind of stork or supreme deity, willing Super Mario into the world as a public service to children like me. What naturally followed was a total inability to understand technology, which was a kind of magical glowing box with a whirring hole that I sometimes fed a payment of shiny circles to see the red, green, or pink guy running around on my TV.

I was content in my ignorance, and naturally settled into certain assumptions about the games I played which, read aloud, are obviously quite silly, but which made perfect sense to a six year old. I don’t think I was ever under the impression that video games were real, but I seem to remember thinking of them as hyperreal. To me, controlling Link in a Zelda game was a bit like controlling a rover on Mars; I figured that what I was doing was real somewhere, even if “somewhere” was so far away that I’d never actually see it. I knew that games had rules, but those rules were patchwork and only seemed to exist off the visual connections I’d made — Mario jumps on a spike, he dies, got it. Knowing nothing about technology or its limits, I had no idea where games could begin or end, causing my rules to distort themselves. At that age, I began to view video games as theoretically boundless extensions of reality.

There’s this great article by Edward Smith on Unwinnable called Gouranga that touches on a lot of the same types of childhood memories I’ll be touching on here. For me, reading it brought back the memory of playing games at an age when I was going to elementary school and learning that there were all these different people and countries and cultures all over the world, which combined to give the impression of size. The world I lived in seemed to be huge! Only at that age, I believed that the games on my DS and Wii were just different worlds I could inhabit sometimes, and so I figured that those worlds probably had the same kind of scale to them.

every official screenshot nintendo has of this game looks a tiny bit darker than i remember it actually looking and it’s really fucking with me

The problem, of course, is that they didn’t. A game I tried to apply this logic to quite frequently was Super Mario 64 DS, which was a quasi-port of the original Mario 64 with a bunch of extra stuff in it. In either of these forms, Super Mario 64 is not that big of a game; you can’t just decide to jump away from Bob-Omb Battlefield and explore some kind of nearby Bob-Omb Village, much less walk all the way to Whomp’s Fortress. You can’t find out where the sunken ship in Jolly Roger Bay came from or where it was going. You can’t travel to those impossibly large buildings in the skybox of Wet Dry World, and just because there’s a small village under the stage doesn’t mean you can find anyone living there. The game reinforced these internal realities consistently with endless pits and impassable hills; since you entered each area through a magical painting, it wasn’t entirely clear if they were even meant to be “real” places in the fiction of the game.

Absolutely none of this mattered to me. At the age of six or seven, I had no means of understanding that “level designers” existed or only designed the bits of the level you needed to see, nor did I grok the idea that my Nintendo DS was not capable of rendering the kinds of spacious vistas I kept expecting to find. Every indication that these levels lacked context or spatial logic merely renewed my search for the hidden exit that would set me free from their boxy confines.

I did everything I could think to try in order to break out of these enclosures: I tried to leave the courtyard of Peach’s Castle dozens of times, and threw myself off Cool, Cool Mountain just as many trying to reach what I must have believed was the snowy landscape below. You will be unsurprised to learn that all of my attempts to play Elden Ring in a Nintendo DS version of a Nintendo 64 game did not bear fruit. Those impossibly steep hills, invisible walls, and kill barriers defeated me at every turn, sometimes with simple failure and just as often with death, as if giving Mario a heart attack before he could see the outside world. Because my imagination was working overtime to imagine what lied beyond the game, the game itself began to feel as small as it actually was. Bob-Omb Battlefield had once felt like a large field encircling a mountain; now it felt about as big as the small hill I would climb on the school playground.

All of these efforts, aimless as they were, certainly would’ve stopped before long. But while all of this was happening, my brain was centering on something that seemed a bit more doable. All of the previous excursions had lacked any kind of quantifiable goal, but I was quickly becoming convinced that there was a secret in this hypothetical outside world: a secret that went by the name of Waluigi.

i remember this specific render playing a part in convincing me that there was some kind of vast shitty field surrounding Peach’s Castle that i could break into

Super Mario 64 DS included more playable characters than the original game, which is to say more than one. In a remarkably experimental turn for a Mario game, you started off as Yoshi and had to play for a little bit to even unlock the title character. From there, you could find Luigi and Wario all hiding in different areas of the game. None of this was surprising — all of these characters are pictured on the box and seen in the game’s intro. Still, I was convinced there was something more to all of this. Mario had Luigi, Yoshi was Yoshi, and Wario had… nothing. But I knew Wario had his own partner! Where was Waluigi? Without him, Wario’s thematic set felt incomplete, which is a deeply alarming reality to come to terms with if you’re seven years old.

This was an injustice I simply couldn’t stand, so I stopped thinking of it as one. Instead, I began to wonder if he was absent at all. I’d had to find Mario, Luigi, and Wario already. Maybe I just had to find Waluigi?

pictured on the far right: the Scary Door

To this day, I’ll attest that Nintendo was slightly teasing players here. The character selection room had doors for the three other playable characters, with the ability to switch to Yoshi by walking through the door of whatever character you currently were. There was also a fourth door, with a white outline and nothing to indicate who or what was inside. Interacting with the other doors before they were unlocked would indicate the noises coming from inside: Luigi shrieking, Wario growling, etc. But the white door would simply report that everything was “quiet on the other side.”

Even now, this seems like an important secret. Instead, the game plays an almost mean trick; when you eventually discover the door’s respective key and enter the room, your character emerges with a single collectible star. Attempting to enter the room again has your character leaving empty-handed, with the ghostly laugh of a single Boo taunting you. It’s still easy to see how I misinterpreted this as an obvious nudge towards a deeper mystery. I even remember beginning my search for Waluigi in Big Boo’s Haunt, interpreting the Boo noise as a hint.

never going to forget a few years back when Luigi’s official Mario 64 model was leaked and then slowly reassembled like Frankenstein’s monster

If this sounds familiar, it’s because I basically recreated the hunt for Luigi in Super Mario 64 on its handheld successor. Though my initial search began unassisted, things only got more intense when I started searching online. My internet access as a kid was really inconsistent, and when I got it, it was through an incredibly slow computer. This, combined with the fact that I was seven years old, meant that my brain had zero hope of discerning fact from fiction. To this day you can still google “Waluigi Mario 64 DS” and get a bunch of the same results I would’ve gotten, one of which led to the discovery of an image I probably stared at dozens of times.

while tracking this down i discovered an article by the guy who made it where he talks about his process & the aftermath. thank you for ruining my life Andrew

Though the original Luigi rumors came about when the internet was very much a thing (a site that was later incorporated into IGN once posted a $100 bounty for his discovery), the Waluigi rumors touched down to a slightly more robust online ecosystem that more kids had access to. What was once alleged with a grainy, meticulously edited polaroid sent into a gaming magazine could now be alleged with video, software modding, and even 3D modeling software. One particularly smart hoax involved a recording of a minigame from Mario Party DS (where Waluigi is a playable character) that looked just convincing enough as a sequence from an entirely different game. I still remember a YouTube video titled something like “WALUIGI FOUND IN SUPER MARIO 64 DS” that consisted of grainy camera footage of a DS screen where, after walking around for a few seconds, a Waluigi plush was slowly raised into frame. I’m pretty sure I called that kid a mean word.

I probably came across a video or two outlining why all of this was silly and impossible, but I was too young and too invested in the possibility of Solving The Mystery to care. Certain realities, like verifying the existence of files using external software or the simple logic that Nintendo wouldn’t put that much effort into designing a playable character that required solving the Da Vinci Code to find, don’t really exist when you still believe that video games just kinda pop out of thin air without human intervention — I don’t even think I realized that the game I was playing was already several years old and had probably been bought for a clearance price, because I had zero context for anything. Everything was new and exciting, even if it was old or fake.

the most convincing “finds” were almost certainly made by people who were as invested in discovering Waluigi as i was. looking back at this stuff is so fun

But the rumor that tortured me to no end, that I still remember with perfect clarity, was that fucking hole in Peach’s Castle.

All of these rumors were inherently built on blind spots — steps to unlock Waluigi that were either too vague to ever be completed or too tedious for a child to bother finishing them. But one thing these hoaxes loved to invoke was the Secret Hole in Peach’s Castle. According to sleuths, you could enter through a hidden hole to reach a secret area that would unlock Waluigi. It was simple, and critically, easy to check. The hole was either there, or it wasn’t, a fact you could verify in a matter of seconds after starting the game. So you could just check and, bam, no hole! I could just write this off… right?

There was just one small problem.

This is what appeared on the top screen when you went to select a file, making it one of the first images you’d ever see upon starting the game. Take special notice of what appears on the right, where a small piece of the castle juts out. Do you see it? Because even all these years later I still see it fine. You’ll notice there’s a hole right fucking there.

You could deny the existence of an extra hidden star, or a secret rabbit king boss, or whatever the hell else you wanted, but you could not deny that there was a hole in Peach’s Castle. It had the same perfectly physical quality as that white door that played Boo laughter. If I recall, the nearby cannon — the one you typically use to get on the roof — was able to aim right around that spot, giving the impression that you might be able to break a hidden block and access a secret area. It was even the same cannon you unlocked by collecting all 150 of the game’s stars! It was all too perfect, and the results were disastrous. I probably fired myself into that wall a hundred times, each attempt met with that stupid UMPH noise Mario makes whenever he shatters every bone in his body.

you can just manage to see the hole in this ancient prerelease footage

Given the tone of this article so far, you will be shocked and horrified to learn that there’s no actual hole there and consequently no secret. You can see the hole in an early demo for the multiplayer mode, which explains how it got into that render in the first place. Far from able to acknowledge video games as a product of human creation, I was equally unable to imagine that video games could have “cut content” that didn’t end up in the final product.

I don’t think I ever gave up looking for Waluigi so much as I got distracted by a pair of jangling keys in the other room and forgot I was looking for him. Though I’ve described myself as a dogged explorer, make no mistake that I was still seven years old. Still, hole or no hole, all of this ignited a fire in my adolescent brain. This was a fluke, but I owned other Mario games. My efforts to escape their confines and find hidden treasures continued long after Waluigi was left unfound.

I’ve used Mario games as the predominant example because they’re the biggest games I had access to as a kid, but also because they were particularly lousy with these kinds of suggestive but unremarkable secrets. In Super Mario Sunshine, there’s this book you can just manage to glimpse by clipping the camera through a door that Mario can’t open. The book could be a simple easter egg or something left over from an unfinished mission, but you know the drill— it had to be an incredible secret with massive ramifications, though even back then nobody seemed to be obsessed with Sunshine enough to claim that Luigi was in there (I guess Luigi’s Mansion satisfied the Luigi Fever). A small toy train hidden under a ramp in Super Mario Galaxy? It may as well have been the lost Ark of the Covenant, only instead of giving you some kind of heavenly divination or melting your skin, it would just unlock Bowser as a playable character. If a single developer left a coin out of bounds, someone online could probably convince me that it was digitized lost gold from the ancient city of Babylon.

the edited polaroid that convinced a magazine that there was a hidden character in Mortal Kombat. i’d love to write more about these kinds of urban legends, but it’d be in a more scholarly tone since i have no real childhood connection to stuff like this

I imagine most who grew up playing games can relate to pursuing these kinds of urban legends, whether it was hunting Bigfoot in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas or trying to unlock Ermac in the original Mortal Kombat. It’s worth mentioning that all of these have come in a particular flavor so far, being Fun Rumors with intrinsic rewards and a kind of unspoken glory in their discovery — perhaps less exciting than finding Luigi in Mario 64 was being the first person to find him. But I would eventually discover rumors that played with my imagination in a different way.

It would turn out that there were some secrets that I hoped would remain hidden forever.

Because I was born in the early 2000s, I was perfectly aligned to experience Minecraft fever. A game which, in a strange turn of events, I was mortified of actually playing.

i wish i could bust out a folder of decade-old minecraft screenshots for this article but promotional stuff from the beta 1.8 period will have to do

I had barely gotten the chance to play Minecraft, my one opportunity coming at a friend’s house where I found myself too scared to survive past the first night. When I was eventually guided into building a shelter, I still found myself petrified when the sun rose. My friend had begun describing how I could walk forward in any direction forever without hitting any kind of wall. I had imagined that games contained this much space before, but Minecraft was the first game to actually be that big. I remember walking off in a random direction for three or four minutes, not sure how to “play” in such an open space. By the time the sun began to set on all of my zigzagging, I realized in a Hansel and Gretel kind of horror that I had no idea where I was or how to get back to my house. For the rest of that visit I sat myself out, preferring to watch my friend brave whatever was groaning in the dark.

The realization that you could get that lost in a video game was horrifying to me in an ironic sort of way. Watching people play Minecraft was (as it was and is to most kids) like crack to me, but actually playing it? I was deeply uncomfortable with the thought of inhabiting that kind of uncompromisingly large space. The Monkey’s Paw had curled and given me exactly what I’d always wanted: a game where you could break out of the boundaries and go wherever you wanted. Suddenly I missed those tenable barriers that kept me inside the levels of Mario games, forcing my perceptions down a linear, predictable path. I had always wanted Mario to be more like real life, never realizing how scary I still found the actual scale of real life.

By now, I had advanced to obsessing over Super Mario Galaxy on my Wii, where I mostly continued the same kind of shenanigans I’ve already talked about. Where DS games had implied a kind of rudimentary scale, games like Galaxy practically revolved around scale. Disconnected as they were, stages felt incredibly huge, with Mario crossing entire gulfs of space with a single shake of the controller. Instead of growing out of the belief that games were these magical gateways to infinite worlds, my imagination just had more to work with.

In Galaxy, you’d have these skyboxes that suggested the planets you were traversing on were barely planets at all, but instead pieces of insignificant rock orbiting around the actual planet. These skybox planets were often seen from low orbit, with oceans and continents and clouds to give the impression that these were real places seen from an incredible height. Much like 64 DS, I was always trying to find a way to get down there and start exploring. But my experience with Minecraft had stuck in my brain. More often, looking down would make me a particular kind of uneasy, a feeling I can still replicate in real life by looking up at the sky for too long. It was and is the plain, simple fear of being somewhere bigger than yourself.

I would imagine that I could go to every planet in the sky if I wanted to, but there was something about the implied distance and scale of it all that suggested it would take a very, very long time — so long that I would forget how to even backtrack to where I was standing. “What then?” I must have wondered. If games truly were infinite, what happened if you wandered off? What happened if you strolled off the beaten path and never found it again? Could you just get lost forever?

I was getting online a bit more by now, supplementing the games I was playing with aimless, nonsensical internet searches in an effort to discover as much as I could about these inaccessible worlds. Who knows what I found, or what I could even make of it. When I did eventually find something I could understand, I began to fear it.

Things began to change when I saw this.

I would’ve been about nine when I first stumbled across a video game creepypasta. It was the classic Herobrine greentext, chronicling an unnerving encounter with an intelligent and watchful presence in an otherwise empty Minecraft world, along with a much less effective explanation for why any of that was actually happening. Like many creepypastas, the story gets by more on its imagery than anything else. But in this case, the image of a strange, empty-eyed figure shrouded in fog was more than enough.

The age of the traditional creepypasta is a fun one to look back, having created a kind of homebrew slasher/creature feature phenomenon that persists in various forms today. The 2000s version of kids getting into Freddy Kreuger or Jason Voorhes was kids getting into Jeff the Killer or Slenderman or even entirely digital entities like Herobrine. The video game creepypasta offered a bespoke kind of subgenre, bringing the horror format of a campfire story to a situation as relatable as a child playing a video game in the dark.

The rise of the video game creepypasta was, in retrospect, really perfectly positioned to catch me right before I started maturing enough to recognize that video games had limitations and did not contain a near-infinite amount of possibilities, especially on devices that had less than a hundred megabytes of RAM. I knew that Minecraft was big, and I believed that a lot of other games were secretly as big as Minecraft. Until then, I hadn’t considered that all of that infinite space was hiding something you’d rather not find.

i still love what a sad and eerie vignette the actual Lavender Town is and i think it’s wild that people needed to invent a story about mass suicides to try and make it creepier. more weird and upsetting pit stops in otherwise friendly games please

Other video game creepypastas followed, notably the original Pokémon’s Lavender Town story and Sonic.EXE. A few, like the infamous Ben Drowned, used remarkably great multimedia content to appear even more real. But even as a young, extremely imaginative kid, I was beginning to get a little skeptical about how real these were. Most of them simply extended themselves too far, taking their intimate conceits and going way past the line with them. I could buy that there was creepy shit going on in Lavender Town, but when the tales launched into rumors about thousands of Japanese children committing suicide because of it, I had to start questioning things.

The creepypastas that really got me usually kept things intimate, with the best of them involving a kid playing a game alone in their room while Creepy Shit happened. It was even better if the Creepy Shit was vague; I found that nothing scared me more than unexplainable digital monsters, rather than anything meant to be haunted by a regular human ghost. I believed that the games on my Nintendo Wii might contain eldritch abominations, but I was iffy on the existence of ghosts. Childhood is a great time.

i still think about a lot of the spritework in this story

One I remember really working on me was simply called the NES Godzilla Creepypasta. It followed a blog format, written from the perspective of a guy documenting his playthrough of an incredibly bizarre copy of Godzilla: Monster of Monsters for the NES, with dozens of incredibly well-made screenshots to sell his findings. It’s a shockingly prescient internet scary story, nudging towards a lot of the “weird” stuff you see pretty often nowadays in online horror media. As I was reading over a lot of the above stories, I was downright laughing at most of them. But aside from a strange and pretty unconvincing turn towards the end, this one still holds up! I’d actually recommend reading this one if you’re into stories with unconventional horror elements (and are prepared to be a bit disappointed when things take a turn for the conventional).

Aside from being a pretty great read, it’s easy to see how the concepts at play in this worked on me. Godzilla NES isn’t about a haunted or evil copy of an NES game, it’s about a copy of an NES game that’s just fundamentally wrong, exuding malice even when it isn’t really doing anything malicious. The whole thing feels puzzling in a way that’s often scarier than anything actively threatening it manifests. Levels feature strange, occasionally harmless entities, impossible geometry, and otherwise bizarre twists in the game’s rules. One notable series of episodes includes a conversation with an emoting face as it asks an increasingly alien series of questions, ranging from sad (“Will you miss me?”) to strange (“Can it spin in all directions?”).

apparently this guy inspired Flowey in UNDERTALE, which is wonderful

There’s a bit around the halfway point of the story where the protagonist encounters a level that contains a bunch of passive, unthreatening enemies that behave more like animals than anything else. It’s here that he casually offers up an observation that feels critical to understanding how the story served as an encapsulation of my own fears:

It was very surreal watching these creatures interact. I didn’t feel like I was playing a video game, but rather that I was traveling through a forest in some other dimension.

A lot of my childhood experience with games was defined by my own imagination and what it inserted into the spaces I couldn’t see. I had imagined vast worlds that I could never reach, but they had been tinged with a kind of innocence, devoid of edges or chasms or dark corners. As my brain was taking in all of this more unnerving material, these images began to change. I had begun to nurture a growing unease at the idea of finding myself alone in the dark with nothing but a Mario game softly lighting the room. Under those conditions, who knows what I’d begin to find? It’s the classic childhood experience of having to suddenly run out of a room whenever you turn the lights off, unable to articulate exactly what you’re afraid of, but deeply fearing it all the same.

ignoring the below paragraph: there was an urban legend about this one buggy shadow in Luigi’s Mansion which claimed the shadow represented him hanging from a noose, and i remember finding it super creepy as a kid because you would see it right after the mansion’s power went out. no i still don’t know why Luigi would hang himself

All of this was ignorant to the fact that “horror” was an actual genre of game, though I’m not sure if I knew about anything like that at the time. The closest thing I owned to an intentionally scary game was Luigi’s Mansion, and I remember finding it surprisingly enjoyable despite how easily frightened I’d become. I think it was partially because it was meant to be scary; the scary thing was always getting in your face and it never left you with any kind of mystery or lingering terror. Another factor might have been how constrained the game was, with a focus on methodically exploring a single building à la Resident Evil, with almost zero unexplored space implied by any kind of skyboxes or geography. I guess for me it was the difference between watching a horror movie and watching an innocuous video of a car waiting for a jumpscare that may or may not happen.

As my usage of YouTube grew, the algorithm must have picked up on what I was looking at. Suddenly, I was finding a particular kind of video, with titles usually going like Top Ten Scariest/Creepiest/Eeriest/Most Unnerving Video Game Easter Eggs. These videos were exactly what they promised, rattling off ten campfire stories in quick succession. They served to fill an important knowledge gap for me, since they often talked about games I had no means of playing, having never grown up with an Xbox or PlayStation or even a PC that could run much of anything. Watching these, my brain would be bombarded by some guy talking about Psychonauts or Batman: Arkham Asylum for just long enough to suddenly segue into talking about the area where you could view one character’s repressed memories about a bunch of children burning to death, or the hidden room where a character had been visibly stalking you.

easter eggs ranged from deliberate attempts to unsettle you to internal office pranks gone awry, like this hidden monkey family in Halo 3 which is mildly unsettling until you realize that it’s a Bungie employee’s head photoshopped on a baby gorilla

These got under my skin more than the creepypastas, targeting the same part of my brain which had been prepped years earlier by 64 DS. These were real! With no further information, and little experience with video games outside of the few Nintendo titles available to me, my paranoia only grew. I could only watch a seemingly endless cavalcade of ghosts and monsters and hidden horrors hiding just out of sight in every video game I could imagine (because I could imagine so few) before my fear began to wander. What if this stuff was in Mario and I just hadn’t found it yet?

the infamous “Fun is Infinite” screen from Sonic CD that appeared in so many of those aforementioned videos only got a scary reputation because the music it would play was swapped to something menacing in the American release. a great example of how music tells you what to feel

I had long given up the search for Waluigi in 64 DS, but I hesitate to say that I would’ve been able to continue otherwise. Suddenly, the idea of spelunking into the hidden corners of any game must have seemed ill-advised. What would you find at the end of Waluigi’s hunt, besides Waluigi itself? Maybe some things were buried for a reason. The devil that you knew was better than the devil that you didn’t.

At the very least, my relative lack of access to most games served as a kind of safety barrier. It was better for the hidden ghosts in Dear Esther to occupy my thoughts on their own instead of occupying my thoughts while I actually played it. But there was one bugbear that became the exception I couldn’t get out of my head. As for why, I had seen it with my own two eyes.

even now looking at this gives me a weird chilly feeling, like i’m walking by a forest at night

Watching these videos led me to some rumblings about Super Mario Galaxy 2. Supposedly, in the otherwise unremarkable Shiverburn Galaxy, you could spot three stubby little figures in the skybox just sort of… looking at you. It was uncommon for me to own any of the games these videos discussed, which gave me the rare opportunity to check the evidence myself. It’s an incredibly faded memory now, but I can still imagine how it felt to enter that level, turn to that unreachable place, and finally see something real staring back at me.

They had names, apparently derived from their texture files. It’s widespread information with no kind of documented proof, so I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s inaccurate — these things tend to be so easy to check that nobody checks them. But I thought it was real back then and that’s all that really matters, since the name was what left the greatest impression on me. They were, like a certain hole in Peach’s Castle, unable to be refuted; they, at least according to YouTubers, went by the designation of “HellValleySkyTree.”

if a couple figures on a cliff fucked with me that much as a kid then we’re not even gonna talk about how i responded to this

Here was what I had always feared: that encroaching malignant other watching me just out of reach. It was the coalescence of everything, from long nights spent trapped within the confines of DS games to just as many nights spent wondering what strange creatures might be lurking inside my Wii. I felt vindicated, and wished terribly for some way to investigate the creatures further, either to reach them or at least figure out why they were watching me. I felt that if I could explain them, I could finally stop thinking about them.

The only explanation was the one I would ultimately internalize as I got older. As always, whatever horrifying mysteries I had imagined to lie behind things like this didn’t exist and never would; sometimes developers have a bit of fun by putting a spooky secret in a video game. I didn’t have the knowledge or the life experience to quantify skyboxes as image files projected to give the impression of depth; to me, depth was just depth, and the sky was the sky and if there were three alien figures that you’d never met before on a cliff watching you then it was in your best interest to hope they never tried to get a closer look. If they did, you might find yourself taken somewhere far away from where you’d been, and after that there was no telling what might happen. There was even less telling if you’d find your way back.

There’s no magic “flash” where all of these feelings disappear. As I got older, games became less and less mystical as I came to realize that, like movies and books and everything else, this stuff is made by people for work or pleasure or both. Glitches weren’t disturbing aberrations and levels weren’t natural landscapes — stuff is made by people, and they usually have a reason for what they choose to make and what they choose to imply.

When you’re a kid, art is magic because you don’t know where it comes from. I remember realizing that the objects in the scene of an animated movie that moved could easily be discerned from the static background elements, and not long after I had my very first realization to the tune of “wow, someone has to draw all that.” It’s good to learn that these things are the result of work that is neither glamorous or magical, but the efforts of a lot of really talented people pooling their skills together to produce an entire work. I remember how it felt watching cartoons after realizing the human effort that went into them; it was like everything was fresh again.

it’s also just never been easier to pull this stuff apart and look at it from any angle you want. as a kid i would’ve lost my mind over an incredible site like noclip

I replayed a handful of the games I’ve mentioned for the first time in years awhile back, and returning to them was a new kind of magic. It’s a bit like reading a book you loved as a kid for the first time as an adult and finding a new kind of profundity in it. Suddenly I could decode how the stages were ordered together and paced out, and how the stages themselves were able to lead me in specific ways or goad me to prod at sections a bit with some well-placed coins or a single goomba. This stuff was always there, and it was always factored into my enjoyment, but I just didn’t have the tools to consciously notice or deconstruct any of it. I gained a deeper appreciation for those games, feeling delighted to find a new kind of reward in playing them. It’s not Waluigi, but it’s about as good.

It’s fun to look at all these memories now, having pulled back the curtain far enough to understand how all of these feelings and fears and misconceptions shaped the way my imagination works. Even today, I can’t help but think of level design as the art of building a wall between a player and the nameless void that surrounds them; environment art as the act of suggesting that void isn’t really there, because there’s a world here containing you and a world out there that always exists even if you can’t get to it. We accept a kind of modified scale, where the idea of a video game “city” is the size of a theme park or a few football fields, and the world beyond that city simply isn’t there. So long as that fantasy is maintained, nobody notices or cares.

But video games, like anything made by human beings, are imperfect. Even in a modern game like The Last of Us Part II, which cost upwards of a hundred million dollars and does everything in its power to emulate the look of reality, I can still occasionally find myself stranded out of bounds by climbing up a dumpster in just the right way. All mediums have empty space that needs to be filled by an artist — the novelist has the empty page and the cinematographer has the scene they haven’t figured out how to frame yet — but video games are unique in that their empty space is displaced but never erased. What I once thought was a boundless landscape is boundless, but it’s not a landscape: it’s grey or black or white and there’s nothing there and nowhere to go. It’s like finding an unexplored dark wilderness in the middle of a Disney theme park.

the “Pale Blue Dot” image: Earth seen from 3.8 billion miles away

Even if HellValleySkyTrees or far-off planets in skyboxes don’t affect me like they used to, I can always be brought to that same state today by glitching out of any kind of video game environment. It’s a subtle reminder that those between-places I was always trying to reach were never meant to be seen, and for good reason. The designer’s world isn’t a cage, but a protective wall. When that designer loses their reins, what’s left is barely human at all — I was right to be afraid of encountering that, at least. When you’re falling and falling, watching the environment become a shrinking pinprick against an endless expanse of nothing, all you can do is reload. It reminds me of what it would feel like to be an astronaut shot into space, alive but condemned to a strange kind of non-death.

I never mentioned the one time my attempts to break away from video game environments bore fruit. I was incredibly young, and I have clue what I did, but my attempt to escape a level in Super Mario Sunshine was finally successful. But what I found on the other side of the hills wasn’t a secret village or an expansive other environment, but nothing. There wasn’t even ground to hold me up, and when I began to fall through that inky blue place I distinctly recall someone having to check on me. Because I’d screamed. I can’t tell you exactly why I screamed, but I just know. When you’re a child, some fantasies are better left alone.



The Tax Collector Man

Writing about video games and what they’ve meant to me, or others, along the way.