Where does Minecraft end?

This article is part of a collaboration with iQ by Intel.

The YouTuber Kurt J. Mac is currently on a mission that is impossible: he is trying to reach the end of Minecraft. To clarify, he is not trying to get to “the End,” the final level where you do battle with a big dragon and win the game—plenty of people have done that. Rather, he has vowed to walk to the outer perimeter of Minecraft’s cubic wild, a strange and transcendental place once dubbed “the Far Lands,” now mostly known as “the world boundary,” or “the edge of the world.” In some ways, it is not dissimilar from the center of a black hole, or the once lawless frontier town of Deadwood, South Dakota. It is a place where the rules that govern the rest of the world break down.

Minecraft, perhaps the most important and successful game of this century, is endless. Unlike the real world, where you will eventually loop back around to the same spot if you travel long enough and stay the course, Minecraft is programmed to go on forever and ever. At least, that was the initial plan, but the system it is built upon has trouble keeping up with the demands of eternity. If you wander far enough from your starting point, the source code will eventually malfunction, and the game ceases to run correctly. It becomes “buggier and buggier the further you are out,” the game’s designer Markus Persson, a.k.a. Notch, wrote in a Tumblr post. These mysteries have attracted at least one rubberneck on a digital pilgrimage.

more than exploration for exploration’s sake 

One reason that walking to Minecraft’s outer rim is so interesting is simple. The distance is absurd. So far, Mac has been walking for over three and a half years, and if he keeps up his pace of playing on average for an hour and 15 minutes a week, his estimated date of arrival will be sometime in the year 2036. Between now and then, he will cross over interminable miles of mountain ranges, rectangular oceans, tree lines, and lakes. There is a pastoral charm to Minecraft’s scenery, complete with bleating goats, but this unprecedented act of virtual tourism is more than exploration for exploration’s sake. In a roundabout way, it is also an exploration of technology itself.

According to Nick Montfort, an Associate Professor of Digital Media at MIT, who coauthored Racing the Beam: The Atari Video Computer System, players like Mac “are exploring a game’s accidental architecture, and they are definitely exploring the platform upon which the game has been developed.” Exploration in games is nothing new, of course. From late 70’s text adventure games like Zork, to modern bike trips through virtual reality, go ye forth and discover stuff is one of the medium’s founding tenets. But if players travel off the beaten path and discover things that the developer never intended, as Mac is attempting to, well, then they are unearthing fundamental truths about the hardware and software itself.

“Glitches usually reveal something about the platform upon which the game is based, or of something underlying. For instance, a texture glitch shows how the rendering of a 3D world is done. Not every glitch is deeply interesting, but some reveal fascinating things,” says Montfort. The edge of Minecraft falls squarely (no pun intended) in the fascinating category.

The Far Lands are constantly in flux, changing with each new version of the game since beta, so it’s hard to say anything about them that’s absolute. Generally speaking, though, things will go haywire with the game’s physics long before you arrive there. The mountainsides grow strangely distorted, as if Minecraft was reimagined by surrealist artist Giorgio de Chirico. At one time there was an invisible wall erected to keep players out, but it has since been taken down. Beyond that we find a mysterious void, which looks like an arctic ocean with ice floes, and becomes sparser the further you go.

By the time Mac reaches the coordinates where the end of the world begins, he will have traveled nearly the equivalent of 8000 miles, and his trek will have taken him through innumerable arrangements of the game’s various biomes. If he stays on schedule, he will be forty-seven years old, though he has already gotten lost a number of times. For much of the trip, he has been accompanied by his canine companion Wolfie, a wolf he tamed in the game. Once, he and Wolfie were separated, due to a glitch, but later they were reunited, miraculously, because of another glitch.

Like the journey itself, glitches have the prospect of being serendipitous or going horribly wrong. As he arrives at his destination, many years from now, the game will have already begun to lag, and it will be like walking in quicksand. Chances are decent the game will crash before he enters the promised land, where infinity laps against the limits of computer architecture like waves against a sea wall. Maybe he will make it, though.

Main image from Delyth Angharad via flickr.