Where Boundary Breaks

[Two people on a couch playing video games.]

In Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, the main character crashes their motorbike into a hotel lobby, rides to the back left corner, and continues to accelerate. Once ejected from the bike, the character finds themself outside the hotel lobby looking back into the room. Turning around reveals a half-rendered grey plane, without any of the buildings. The character discovers that they can run or drive freely over the large grey void that is now Vice City, with randomly generated pedestrians continuing to spawn, walk, and converse casually as if nothing has happened.

Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, 2002. [A video game screen of a car seen from the back driving forward into nothing, darkness all around it. Blue script in the bottom right corner spells 'Oceanic' and numbers in the top right corner appear to be keeping some sort of score.]

In Dark Souls III, a gothic fantasy RPG, a character with long red hair wearing white rags stands near a cliff edge. The camera hovers above their head. They hold a flask in their hand as they re-orient themselves closer to the edge of the cliff. The character is surrounded by angular polygonal surfaces covered in smudged gray and green textures and vines, somewhat pixelated and showing bark, sand, and rock. The scene is rough and not well lit.

Dark Souls III, 2016. [A screengrab of the scene described above.]

The character is at the edge of some world space: a normally impassable boundary. A distant fog surrounds them, a fog signifying that the player is entering an un-rendered or un-renderable area. When the character jumps off the cliff, the game menu comes up, and the player must save the game before the “You Died” graphic can play.

Dark Souls III, 2016. [A video game screen showing trees that are seemingly floating in air, stone buildings, and a softly illuminated sky in the background.]

The game is reset, the new save is loaded, and now the character stands on an even lower cliff edge beneath where they started. They’re closer to the edge of the world, closer to the death trigger that happens when the player falls into an abyss. The character holds out the flask and their arm moves slightly through the rocks in front of them. The ground beneath their feet glows, they back off the cliff, sliding down an edge, and fall out of the world map. The character is now just a glowing yellow flame that can move freely under the game world. They can walk past the entire game and go directly to the game’s finale, experiencing the landscape from the other side. There are fragmented buildings, half tree roots, columns only partially invisible, and other incomplete game assets that were never added to the game world above. The character is outside the world geometry and outside the rules that the developer intended for play.

Dark Souls III, 2016. [A screengrab of the view described above, with fragmented buildings and trees, and an upside down landscape. Eerily beautiful.]

In Minecraft, there are multiple game modes: There’s Survival Mode, where you have health and hunger and you can take damage and die. There’s also Creative Mode, where you can freely fly around the world and add and remove blocks at will. And there’s Spectator Mode, where you are no longer limited by block geometry and you can move freely in and out of blocks like a ghost. Spectator Mode becomes a way to analyze the game world from the outside in, to instantly uncover the secret paths and tunnels in the ground below, to look at the gameworld from within a block, or from under the bedrock looking up through pools of lava, hidden diamonds, and glowing skeletons.

Minecraft, 2011-2022, Spectator Mode. [Brown and gold-ish blocks fly through a blue sky, forming abstract configurations.]

These kinds of “world-exiting” experiences can be found in games of all types, but they primarily  occur in open world 3D games in which the sheer density of game assets, terrain, and surface area makes it hard for developers to bug-check the level geometry at every point. Communities of players stream, record, and publish their attempts to find these fractures in game worlds where they can exit the world map and explore the game from a new perspective. Like digital archaeologists, these communities are trying to sift through the layers of the world to see what else might have been left behind at the code level by the developers during the making of the game. Like the newspaper scraps a contractor might paste behind a wall that are discovered 50 years later during renovations, developers sometimes leave messages or forget to remove game assets that might not have made it into the final game build.

NoClip.Website, The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword, Nintendo, 2011. [A white background with a rectangular image in the center. A dark corridor opens up into a brightly colored landscape.]

Noclip.website is an archive of 3D video game levels that can be examined from the outside in. You can zoom into and out of a 3D model of a Mario 64 level, for example, and discover the unseen edges of the game world, hidden textures, and incomplete structures normally obfuscated from the player. These explorable 3D models can be analyzed from outside the game space and show tricks of scale level designers deploy to make more interesting environments and the illusion of deep 3D worlds. Being outside the level in a video game is often referred to as "noclipping," a phrase that comes from the game cheat that prevents the player's camera in a game from being obstructed by game walls or objects, and permits the player to freely move unburdened by the confines of the game designers’ defined world limits. 

NoClip.Website, Super Mario 64 DS. [Rogue game assets — a black ball, pieces of green landscape, a fence, a body of water — float freely in front of a clear blue sky.]

The open-world game Skyrim, for example, has a developer mode console command to enable noclipping much like Minecraft’s Spectator Mode that allows players to move through any block. But often developers intentionally remove these modes from player access, and it’s up to the independent player community to discover how to exit the game world. This is done through hours and hours of colliding into every piece of geometry in the game, an activity referred to as glitch hunting.

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, 2011. [A video game character dives into an upside down landscape, with tree tops and mountain peaks floating upside down against a clear sky.]


Recently the Zelda: Breath of the Wild community celebrated the discovery of a treasure chest placed far below the world geometry and inaccessible through normal gameplay. The chest was left in the game by accident; perhaps it was intended to be placed somewhere in the world but was forgotten. Its discovery was treated as a magical moment of finding something undiscovered, unintended, and outside the official boundary of the game.

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, 2017. [The treasure chest in Zelda floating among trees and other dislodged elements of game architecture. Everything is slightly translucent, giving the scene a dreamy feel.]

In World of Warcraft, in the middle of Ogrimmar village is a natural stone pillar that extends into the sky like a cairne. Players were able to glitch inside to find a plaque with the initials WKM written on it and a single candle burning below it. While developers made no official announcement about what these initials stand for, it’s now known to be a dedication to a game developer’s father who died before World of Warcraft had finished development. In this inaccessible area, this underworld, a candle vigil has continued for the past eleven years.

World of Warcraft, 2004. [A video game character standing in a stone room, before a plaque reading WKM.]

As a player I don’t regularly search for out of bounds glitches, but I do search for the stories of the players who spend hours jumping into every corner geometry in every hotel lobby of an open world game. I become more attached to the myths of these out-of-bounds secrets than the plots created by the narrative team. These unfinished areas attach new meanings to the game. When I’m viewing the game from out of bounds, I’m seeing a vague fog, an outline of an unrenderable castle that suggests some half-truth about the game world and lore that the developers didn’t intend. 

World of Warcraft, 2004. [The same stone room and WKM plaque, but the room is empty save for a single burning candle before the plaque.]

Boundary breaking and wall clipping reminds me of one famous story in Providence, RI, the city where I currently teach and study. In the late 1990s, artist Michael Townsend discovered a cinderblock opening in the newly constructed Providence Place Mall. There was an area in between the two newly constructed buildings that wasn’t being used and that was invisible to those not looking for it. He’d found an interstitial, unfinished space. After the mall was finished, Townsend went back and found there was still an opening that allowed him to access this area. Over the course of the next four years, he constructed a secret apartment in the mall behind the wall, bringing in furniture, televisions, a Playstation, and going so far as installing in the space a commercial white door of the same style used in other utility rooms in the mall as to be less suspicious. When looking for documentation from this hidden room I found numerous pictures of the artist and his friends sitting on a sofa playing video games. The only game case viewable in the picture is Grand Theft Auto.

[Two people in what looks like an average apartment, sitting on the couch in front of a very ’90s looking television, playing video games. Barely visible in the left corner is cinderblock wall.]

This essay is from the Are.na Annual 2022, themed "portal."

Travess Smalley is an artist and educator working with computation to make generative image systems. In the fall of 2021, Smalley was an Ender. Gallery artist-in-residence on a Minecraft Server where he explored emergent modes of play. His practice explores generative art and design, creative software, digital painting, and printmaking. His artwork is represented by Foxy Production in New York and he is an Assistant Professor of Print Media at University of Rhode Island. Smalley has exhibited and lectured on his generative image making practice widely and internationally since 2008, including a lecture at the Bibliothèque Kandinsky - Centre Pompidou in Paris. His work has been shown at institutions including the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit, Kunsthal Rotterdam, and International Center of Photography, New York City.