Embrace the Minus World

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A 40-year-old Mario glitch is all I’ve been thinking about lately. That’s because there’s a cartridge in my brain labelled “Artistic Practice” and I want to blow the dust out of it.

I have a Google Doc of game ideas, but many of the ideas have languished on that list for years now. They’re trapped in an idea box, like a power-up in a Question Block, with no Mario coming around to set them free anytime soon.

Generally speaking, when I don’t put a game idea from the list into production, it’s usually because I mentally rubber stamped the words “TOO WEIRD” onto it. The idea has no commercial potential, as I see it. I can imagine myself developing the game, releasing it into the world, and… cricket noise, cricket noise, cricket noise.

Over the years, I’ve come to think of the vast majority of my ideas – game projects I’m excited to make – as TOO WEIRD. Deep down, I want to make new games for forgotten hardware. I want to make games controlled by voice or by a vintage toy. I want to make games that bridge the gap between tabletop and video games. I want to make games that explore the perverse depths of retro culture. I want to make games with full motion video instead of CG, because that’s what we thought the future of gaming was going to look like in 1995, damn it!

I want to make games that are immersive, story-driven, and utterly bizarre. In other words, games people won’t buy. Or stream. Or review. And then, what’s the point? I’m a professional game designer. I’m supposed to build successful games. After all, if I spend time and money to make a game, I’d better be earning commiserate rewards, or else I’ve failed. Money. Shares. Accolades. What if my parents find out I’m wasting my time making failed projects? Maybe they’ll say I’m wasting my life. Unlike Mario, I don’t have a couple to spare.

This kind of thinking is exactly why I’m trying to get to Minus World.

I remember reading about the Minus World in Nintendo Power magazine. It’s a glitch level in the original Super Mario Bros. for the NES. In the underground World 1-2, if you break just the right bricks and jump just the right way into a wall, you’ll get to a warp pipe that takes you to “World -1.” In the American version of SMB, it’s an endless water world, where you swim a bit, enter a pipe, and go back to the beginning of the level. In the Japanese version, it’s a crazy level where you swim through the sky and princesses float in mid-air around you. Trippy shit!

And they say “don’t be so negative.”

In Mario games, you leap over pits and jump on giant angry bullets with faces to collect coins, earn points, and eventually save Princess Peach from Bowser. That’s the point of Mario. But none of that matters in Minus World. You “win” Minus World by figuring out how to get there and then explore it. That’s all there is to do. There are no achievements to unlock. There’s no Minus Princess to save1. That’s the point. It’s fun just to find and experience Minus World. The reward is intrinsic.

How do I find the Minus World of game development? Where is the warp pipe to the level with no goal? No sales goal to reach or profile in Kotaku to achieve? Where I’m only making games for games sake? Where the creation of the work is creatively fulfilling in-and-of-itself, because I’m building exactly the thing I want to make and every other consideration is an afterthought? A nice-to-have, not a must-to-have?

Honestly, I don’t know how to get to Minus World. For as long as I can remember, I’ve been creating art with external expectations. In my 30s, I started Adventure Snack, hoping it would lead to more game industry jobs and a book deal. In my 20s, I wrote a Parks & Recreation spec script to try and get TV writing jobs. In my teens, I sung parody songs on a website called MP3.com to try and be the next Weird Al. In elementary school, I submitted my colored pencil comic strips to United Features Syndicate with hopes of being a cartoonist. I was, like, eight? In all those cases, I was creating art to advance my station in life. To reach a goal.

I’m in my 40s now. When do I get to make art for myself? If not now, when?

This newsletter is my attempt to learn how to find my inner Minus World, whatever that ultimately looks like. To hold myself accountable. To keep myself focused. To create a level map, like in Nintendo Power, to learn how to play this game in a whole new way, and show others how I did it.

Here I go. Down the warp pipe and to the other side. There’s a free controller. Hint, hint.

Next Week: I’ll reveal details about my first Equip Story game project for 2024. Oooh, exciting!

🎲 Your Turn: What creative project would you make if money and time were no object? Reply to this email. Or tell the whole world by hitting the comment button below.

Image Credit: Singing Mountain, a great podcast for game music that’s sadly dormant.

  1. Okay, yeah, Minus Princess sounds pretty rad. ↩︎

Geoffrey Golden is a narrative designer, game creator, and interactive fiction author from Los Angeles. He’s written for Ubisoft, Disney, Gearbox, and indie studios around the world.

17 responses to “Embrace the Minus World”

  1. Chevanne

    If money and time were no consideration, I’d probably create a universe Gene Roddenberry would be proud of. I started with a core sci fi story, but there are so many places to go. Separate from that, I love narrating my own short horror or suspense fiction complete with sound effects.

    1. I’m sure you’ll boldly go where no one has gone before! 🖖

  2. Jesse

    Email worked this week!

    Also, have you ever played The Beginner’s Guide? It’s about an hour and a half long if not. It’s like a narrated tour of someone’s personal level designs. This post made me think of it.

    1. Yay! Glad you got it. Hopefully the delivery issues are fixed. 🤞

      I haven’t, but I just watched the trailer and it looks really interesting. I enjoy interactive narratives that aren’t necessarily “games.” Thanks for the recommendation – I wishlisted it!

  3. Hi Geoff! I’m enjoying your new newsletter. It’s interesting to hear about your journey as a game creator and relate it to my own. You asked, “What creative project would you make if money and time were no object?” Well, here’s my answer.

    I live near one of the most haunted roads in America (Archer Avenue near Chicago, IL). There are many legends associated with this place, and I would love to do an interactive virtual tour of it. I have this incredible CD audio tour that is now long out-of-print, and touring this road has given me so much pleasure, that I want to share that with a new group of people.

    You said, that you feel stuck because you feel compelled to reach a broad audience. I really want to make an Archer Avenue virtual tour, and I probably will, but one thing that really gives me pause is how small the audience is. This isn’t just a niche game concept, it’s ultimately for locals only.

    Games are so global and universal. So it’s sort of interesting to me to create something that might only be understood by people who live in this region. There is something special about that. That being said, I’m pretty confident NO ONE will ever play this virtual tour.

    1. Glad you’re digging it so far, Andi!

      To be clear, I’m working through those feelings of needing to reach a broad audience. My ambition with Equip Story is to make things for myself with no consideration of audience size or profitability. Instead, I want to think about what project will provide me the most fun and fulfilling process.

      I think an interactive virtual walking tour of a local area is a wonderful project! You might be able to get grant money for an educational project like that, and I bet the local paper would write it up.

      For what it’s worth, here’s my take. Let’s say you’re right and literally no one plays the game. Would you still enjoy the process of making it? Would you be proud of the achievement? Would you learn something interesting, like local history, programming skill, or narrative design? If you’re thinking “yes” to questions like those, then I say it’s worth developing. Because you’re not making it for them. You’re making it for you. If others enjoy it, that’s a bonus.

    2. Never heard of the place, but it sounds like an interesting concept… and tying back to my own interest in going super retro and trying to make text adventures, a virtual tour of a real place seems like a good match…

      And now I’m imagining exploring a recreation of Small Town, USA as a text adventure, a little slice of life-type deal where you just explore the place and pick up bits of local gossip as you interact with the virtual townsfolk… Perhaps set in the days before the automobile made day trips to the big city trivial and the likes of Walmart and other corporate chains put the majority of small businesses out of business… Granted, to do it right, you’d want to pour over as much of local records of all kinds as possible, interview as many seniors who grew up there as you can get in contact with, and even if you developed a tool to automatically convert Google Maps and Streetview data into a rough draft of the virtual town, that rough draft would be much too current if you’re going for a timeframe before modernity sucked the life out of small towns… And while recreating one small town would be a challenge, I can’t help imagining some massively collaborative project that does so for as broad a cross section of the US and the world beyond…

      Sadly, despite having lived most of my life in this same small town, between there really being no pedestrian access outside of the strip malls and the old down town area and having never learned to drive(could never meet the vision requirement), I really don’t know the place well enough to even map it out at a very high level… Though, if I ever find a way of making text adventures that works for me, perhaps recreating my childhood home or the campus of the school for the blind I attended for most of my K-12 education would be good projects to practice location descriptions and map building without the added overhead of creating places from scratch… helps that I know the alignment of my childhood home to the compass points… and said campus would be good practice for maps that don’t fit a square grid.

  4. Hey Geoffrey, Ben from Meta Mage Studios again (the werewolf guy). I almost didn’t respond to your article but it resounded with me so much that I couldn’t just pass it by.

    Firstly, the whole Minus World thing. I just watched a documentary on that last night. Plus I’m 42? This year, yeah 42 (dear God life goes by quick doesn’t it?). I remember this well and get your reference perfectly.

    Secondly, just my opinion from my own personal experience here. Take it as you will.

    If you’re doing art with the expected result of personal or monetary gain, you’ll never be more successful than you currently are. You should always take the leap make the “TOO WEIRD” thing that makes YOU happy. Not everyone else. Either they like it or they don’t. There’s so secret formula, no glitch, no warp pipe. People are fickle and to be completely honest, its not what you know but whom.

    Third, one thing IS certain though. People can smell authenticity from BS. They can tell when something is Art and comes from the soul, no matter how weird. From something that’s formulaic and forced or processed.

    And strangely they like both. Theres something for everyone. Some people like repetitive and comfortable, others like strange and weird.

    So what it all boils down to? Well, life us too short to worry about everyone else. Do what makes you happy. If makes money, cool. If not, no biggie and contine to do another thing that makes you happy.

    In everything I’ve ever done (music, writing, acting, art, etc) I’ve been surprised to find that each time the thing I put the least effort in, but had the most fun doing and enjoyed, we’re my most successful projects. And the things I spent moths or years agonizing over for perfection- fell flat.

    It taught me to be real, relaxed, and honest with myself. To express myself (the good and bad) with my talents. And weather I was experiencing happiness or even depression. I didn’t over sell it, polish it too much, or sugar coat it. But just captured the real and honest moment in my works.

    Has it brought me fame? Nope. Money? Sure, enough. Happiness and satisfaction? In abundance with is worth more than the fame and money in the long run.

    Hope this helps.

    Thanks for everything again.

  5. I spent a decade doing commissions for below a livable wage. Book covers, tshirt designs, logos and more for individuals, clubs, and companies of all sizes, all ‘for profit’. It took a mental breakdown and 5 years of depression to finally switch to a ‘for me’ mindset. Not exactly an easy road.

    I’ve switched mediums, going with traditional ink and pastels instead of adobe programs and I’ve found there’s enough reward in just sharing. I started posting on instagram as a kind of art journal and I’ve somehow gotten over 200 followers including local businesses and fellow artists. I’ve received invites to art shows, requests to join from galleries, and numerous fans asking for prints to be made available. Sometimes it’s a very ‘make it and they will come’ world.

    So go ahead, make that ‘too weird’ game. Do it as a passion project, a form of self care and play instead of work. Then share it with zero expectations, the world may just surprise you too.

    1. I can relate to your journey a lot, Elly. Thank you for sharing your story and congrats on pivoting to an art practice that sounds very rewarding.

      I’ll go ahead with your “go ahead!”

  6. Dave Goldschmid

    For anyone whose work anchors around projects taking lots of time and money, it is def crucial to find side projects to vent your creativity in more immediate and practical ways. Have you tried acting class? Haha 🙂 You said you’re interested to “bridge the gap between tabletop and video games” and you’ve previously mentioned your fondness for classic VCR games. Have you pursued ideas to cannibalize concepts from the latter for the former? I think that could be superdope

    “What creative project would you make if money and time were no object?”

    I’ve had a unique idea for a reality streaming series that would help lots of people (especially young adults). But unless one’s resume features solid reality TV producing experience, it’d take a crazy amount of life energy and luck for someone with my resume to get it born. Much easier to write a brief poem about it 😂

    1. I agree 100% about having a creative vent to a resource heavy project. If you’re cash strapped, be careful about acting class, lol. Some of them have multiple levels and get super pricey!!

      I think about VCR game type projects pretty much every day. They’re on my list for Equip Story!

      I wonder if there’s a version of your idea that’s affordable and easier to produce – designed for YouTube vs. TV – while still satisfying the heart of what you’re trying to do.

  7. Incredibly relatable and inspiring. I never knew about the Mario Minus World, but boy do I love glitch lore.

    I can’t even predict what’s marketable even when I’ve tried my hardest. Dua Lipa? Potsie Malone?

    I want to see you chase that no-$ dragon though if only for my own weirdo fix. But your realistic nature is mature. I guess that’s how subgroups form. People do stuff for not-money in their sparest of time and then other people use their spare time to engage with it. It is exhausting to feel like there’s no return, and I think the hardest thing a creative can face is the realization that the “doing” might be the thing that separates the talkers from the walkers.

    But stuff sucks without $…ish. Still, I run into folks who never answered their own instincts and do not envy that kind of comfort.

    I think maybe life is just hard and the stuff we make finds its value in how difficult the work is to pull it out of the brain.

    I don’t have a good answer for how to crack the economics of making stuff, just respect for those that do – and who stay disciplined about it when all sense says otherwise.

    Beautiful background coloring on the site btw!

    1. Thank you for the kind words on the piece and the site design! ☺️

      I remember back in the Channel 101 subgroup days, I read an article about how people were making comedy videos just for fun and I was skeptical. “They’re just saying that because it sounds cool. They’re doing this for writing job.” But I was projecting. It took me a few decades, and now I’m finally ready to ride the no-$ dragon. I don’t think it’ll be all rainbows and goofdrops. I think the economics of these projects are gonna suck! But I want to give myself the gift of artistic freedom and that costs 💸💸💸, my friend.

  8. Just a head’s up, but I think you flipped the numbers and wrote 2-1 instead of 1-2 when summarizing the Minus World glitch. And two extra bits of cool trivia I recently learned:

    1. There’s a version of the game(I think it’s one of the many Japan-only rereleases, but I forget the exact one) where performing the Minus World Glitch actually unlocks an alternate path that can not only be played to a conclusion, but registers as beating the game… and Allows the game to be completed faster than the legit shorst route of warping from 1-2 to 41, warping from 42 to 8-1, and beating the game via 8-4.

    2. Because of 8-bit quirks and lack of data integrity checks, SMB1 actually has 256 worlds with 256 levels each(the game using 8-bits each to store level and world numbers). Most of them require a cheat device to access and and many are downright bizarre because the way the game is coded, values outside the intended range result in the game loading non-level data as if it were level data. Also, most level numbers won’t display correctly because again, values outside the intended range result in the game loading the number sprites from data that isn’t number sprites(the classic Minus world is actually 36-1, 36 used as the index when trying to display level numbers just happens to correspond to a blank space.

    As to the question you asked… As a blind person living on disability, my issue is less that so much of my time and energy has to go into work that others will pay money for and more a struggle to find motivation and lacking the discipline to consistantly put in work on a regular basis to either make progress on the things I can already do or learn how to do the things I don’t yet know how to do… Doesn’t help that being blind makes many tools either unusable, less efficient to use, harder to use, more dangerous to use, etc. that most tutorials online assume the learner can see, or that, where there exists tools designed for the blind, they are usually more expensive than the version for sighted people(e.g. last I heard, the pinnacle of tactile display technology had a resolution of 40*60 pixels for roughly the size of a sheet of US Letter paper, did the equivalent of 5 shades of gray, and had a 5-figure price tag… and to put that in perspective, the original gameboy had a resolution of 160*144 and even a TI-83 graphing calculator had a resolution of 64*96… and speaking of graphing calculators, the TI-84 Plus CE is $116 with a color display versus the Orion TI-84 Plus Talking Graphing Calculator being $700… Top of hte line Braille displays have 40 characters and cost hundreds of dollars… and that’s with prices plummeting in the last 5-10 years, a Braille Embosser is both more expensive and less versatile than a inkjet or laser printer, and that’s not even getting into that high estimates put the Braille literacy rate among the blind at 10%(low estimates put it as low as 1%).

    That said, some dream projects I would like to make include:

    A text adventure in the style of classic Infocom titles like Zork… With the addition of of a fully fleshed out RPG battle system, some kind of crafting system, some kind of virtual companion for the player to take care of, built with more modern design sensibilities(e.g. The player has to go out of their way to put the game in an unwinnable state and most mistakes that would put the game in an unwinnable state should either trigger a game over or a reset to a winnable state, many classic text adventures have situations where a seemingly innocuous action can put the game in an unwinnable state and it can be hours and multiple overwrites of one’s save file before the play realizes they’ve goofed), a parser that can understand natural language instead of requiring the player write in a very exact manner that sometimes violates normal grammar… and a world as expansive as any found in a modern 2-d JRPG. Biggest challenge is writing the underlying engine from scratch in the language I’m most comfortable with is daunting, but since it’s a genre that had its hayday before I was born, there aren’t that many pre-existing engines in active development for the genre, and at least one of those didn’t have a very accessible toolkit last I checked… Plus, I’m looking to fuse genres that, as far as I know, have never been fused before(when text adventures feature combat, it’s usually super simple).

    Get some of the geometric ideas in my head out there as digital art, if not physical items. Sadly, vector drawing and CAD software is very visual, and while it’s possible to code an SVG file, doing so kind of requires doing all of the calculations manually, and while some CAD software have scripting capabilities, there’s no way to really know if the output is what I’m going for short of 3-D printing, and sitting aside the cost of potentially doing many more test prints compared to a sighted designer, 3-d printers fall under the harder and more dangerous to use for a blind person(Can’t see what the printer is doing, and most run too hot for reaching in and touching the piece in progress to be an option. Of course, building stuff in meatspace is an option, but then you get into the cost of materials, tools, and needing the skill to make the shapes in one’s head a reality… and then the limitations of digitizing a physical object… My metaphorical kingdom for a real-life equivalent to the solid holograms from Star Trek and other sci-fi and a program that can interface with a hologram projector and includes a very extensive set of tools for defining shapes geometrically… Among other things, I’d want a virtual compass and straight edge and their 3-d counterparts(e.g. a 3 compass that draws a sphere given its center and a point on its surface, a tool that generates a plane through 3 non-collinear points), a graphing calculator that can do rectangular, polar, and parametric equations in the same plane or cartesian, spherical, and cylindrical coordinates in the same space and allows for defining local origins and axises(e.g., I can define x’ and y’ as y=x and y=-x respectively and graph equations in terms of x’ and y’ or graph cylindrical equations that treat the line through the origiin and 1,1,1 as the z-axis), a tool for defining loci, a vertual spirograph, all of the Platonic, kepler-poinsot, archimedean, uniform star polyhedra, Johnson solids and their duals as primitives along with all the geometric functions used to generate them from the elementary forms among them, and probably other things I can’t think of at the moment… and while they are things that would be purely visual, musings in this area have also lead me to thoughts such as coloring the plane by equations in the form of R= f1(x,y), G=f2(x,y), and B=f3(x,y)… such as making Red the sin of x, Green the cos of x, and blue the tangent of x(of course, in that example, you’d probably want different methods for translating the value of hte function to a color value since sine and cosine have the range -1 to 1 and Tangent from minus infinity to infinity, or of adding a time variable to a graph(such as an animation of a polar rose that increments the parameter that determines the number of petals by 1/60 every frame of a 60fps animation, or animating sin(x + frame#/60)… And it’s surprisingly hard to find if my geometric ideas are new or some lesser known shape that has already been studied by someone.

    1. Thank you for the correction. I made it to the blog post.

      WOW, you know your stuff when it comes to Mario Bros! Though I appreciate how cool that alternate version of Minus World sounds, it completely messes up my metaphor, lol.

      There’s a vocal movement in game development toward making games more accessible, but I haven’t heard a peep about making development tools more accessible. It’s an important point. We need more accessible art tools of all types. How can we have more diverse voices in art and design if they don’t have the proper tools to make rad shit?

      You may know this already, but just in case: there’s a forum of IF designers who may know about lesser known and accessible tools for programming IF. Tool developers also read those forums and may be inclined to add features to their existing engines.

      It sounds like you have an ambitious design in mind for your IF game! If you’re relatively new to game design, I’d consider starting small. Take a single feature you’re planning and build a short game around that. Rinse and repeat. It’s a way to ramp up toward a bigger project. #ForWhatItsWorth

      1. Well, SMB was one of the first three video games I ever played(SMB3 and Duck Hunt being the other two), though it’s only been in the last month or so that I learned of the Alternative Minus World Speedrun and the whole 256 worlds with 256 levels each… Though, now I’m wondering how the All-Stars version of SMB handles world/level numbers and what would happen if you hacked them outside the intended range… Never could pull off the Minus world glitch, but I’ve been obsessed with glitches in games since at least Pokemon Red/Blue(which I would love a text adventure demake of(ditto(not the pokemon) for any of the 2-d Zeldas).

        And yeah, I’d want to start with something comparable in scale to many of your Adventure Snack games, and really don’t have a well defined concept in mind, but as frustrating as some of that 70s game design can be quite frustrating, Text Adventures are one of the few genres I’ve been able to play reliably since going blind, and once you get past the fact many of those old games are full of guide dang it moments and the high chance of being forced to start over unless you’re keeping a few dozen saves, many of them aren’t really that long.

        And yeah, there’s been progress in regards to accessibility, but it’s kind of glacial in the realm of accessibility for the totally blind, and in the case of blind players, there’s the added challenge of striking the right balance between providing enough non-visual information ssand assists that playing the game isn’t frustrating, and not providing so much the game practically plays itself.

        Though, while it’s been a while since I last worked on it, and I think I left it with a broken interface, but if you’re familiar with the Chao that were the focus of a virtual pet mini-game in the Sonic Adventure games and some of Sonic’s handheld titles from the GBA era, I have written a terminal game recreating many of the aspects of Chao and would likely want to build on that and file off the serial numbers for the aforementioned virtual companion…

        Tried inform at one point, but at the time, I had no means of even trying to run their IDE, and while I’m no stranger to compilers throwing cryptic error messages, their command line tools weren’t just cryptic, but downright useless(usually along the line of syntax error on line x without any indication of what’s wrong)… should probably check to see if they’ve improved their command-line tools or see if their IDE will work with my screen reader now that I can actually run GUI applications aside from a web browser. And I should really dig into the code I haven’t touched in a while to see which bits and pieces can be polished up and mixed together into something worth sharing.

        Also doesn’t help that I’m a Linux user and Linux still gets treated like the proverbial red headed stepchild by many corporate developers and that a lot of FOSS projects just don’t have the man power to address accessibility even when the folks in charge of the official version aren’t hostile to those reporting accessibility bugs or offering commits to address said bugs.

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