Lost Levels was originally conceived as a self-contained sort of chaos world spin-off from Inaccessible Worlds main collection. One of the really attractive things about Async Art’s Blueprints system was that it provided a really slick user interface to just stack layer after layer and set individual probabilities for them to occur. Writing a Node JS program to do something similar with custom assets and folders was simply beyond me at the time. My longtime collaborator Tartaria Archivist was well-versed in this kind of thing though, and agreed to work on a whole custom engine for the project. The dream was to launch on Arbitrum through TreasureDAO when their Trove marketplace came into existence. In reality, though, it simply wasn’t a good fit for TreasureDAO: their focus is on creating a kind of meta-network for game-fi projects. This makes sense, but I had already put a lot of time into the project so I couldn’t just let it die as an idea, but I also didn’t want to launch it on Ethereum because that’s where the Async project was and I liked the idea of diversifying.
I grabbed more and more assets for it over time using the process developed for it. While you may see some really talented artists using RTC (Real Time Corruptor) to achieve neat effects – I stumbled upon a totally different process with Vinesauce. What I had tried to do with the original Inaccessible Worlds set was take a set palette and some ideas like featured shapes, accents, offsets etc, and then imagine it as a world. Get excited about that found world, then funnel tons of things through that concept to create possible arrangements and looks for it. This meant that the consistent worlds had a kind of pre-planned look, even if it varied a lot. The more random combination worlds eventually caught my eye more often – but the variation between the two formats was interesting I thought.
When Cantographs took off on alto.build (to my surprise!) I realized this would be a good place to polish and publish the Lost Levels. Polishing turned into proliferating turned into being obsessed with the format all over again. Spending hours capturing and cutting up screenshots and planning new combinations in my head. Trying to build one giant random world with lots of possibilities.
Lost levels as a theme seems a uniquely appropriate one for today. The initial reference is from Super Mario Bros: The Lost Levels – incidentally one of my favorite platformers. When it was released in the US I still remember the excitement of asking “wait – there were more levels? Ones we didn’t even know about!? How did they get lost?” For all the formal structure that video games have to have just to function, it’s fascinating to me how much of a culture of secrets, glitches, shortcuts, and mystery has developed around them.
In just the first Mario games you already had hidden shortcuts to warp through the game. Sonic 2 (Elegy told me about it) had a whole Hidden Palace level that was removed from the game and later added to a remake. I recall being more excited about trying to battle Noob Saibot or Reptile as secret players and fights than I was about trying to master the actual game or play through the main plot. When my friends and I would play Toejam and Earl for Genesis – our entire session of trying to beat the whole game always had an intermission where we would find the hidden island to descend to Level 0 for powerups and health before trying to beat the rest. It was such a surreal experience – to find out that what seemed like endless ocean had an island with a hidden hangout underneath it. When Pokemon came out for Gameboy, after feeling like we had mastered the game more or less, I still remember me and my brother trying to figure out how to trigger the rumored Mew glitch that would allow you to collect #151 – in fact, I found out later that they actually seized upon that code that shouldn’t have even been in the game to spin rumors to promote sales.
For some reason this is what we remembered from these games – more than the entire plot of the game or main events or gameplay, it was the secrets – the lost levels and hidden places and characters. So this theme and this idea began to shape how I was naming the different assets. With Inaccessible Worlds I tried to create new words for things that weren’t meant for people – this time I was trying to capture the feeling of half-finished levels, side-alleys and hidden chambers. Background layers had names like Island or Prison, or Smuggler Data Den – a real mishmash of cyberpunk, fantasy, magic, and lore – all to create a synthetic feeling of mystery in video game wonderlands. I couldn’t help but start dragging in things it made me think of either – layers of worlds like the layers in Dante’s Divine Comedy – hidden woods like the Merry Men roved through, references to Megaman and obscure comic book characters.
As I stacked and compiled more and more names and references – major themes began to come together (at least in my head). Even though I was trying for randomness, I ended up having worlds in my head again like the original Async series had set palettes and shapes and compositions. Emergence theory is the idea that at a certain level of complexity, the thing created is no longer simply comprised of its source material but has a new top-down sort of directing agency. In a sense this started to happen with Lost Levels – once I had so many Robinhood references I had to create an esper – a summons – another video game trope – to have one of these referenced personalities exist in an abstract way. So once I had an “esper” (magical being) that was summoned into being an asset, I had to go back and try to make sure there were enough on-theme elements to make it feel like one of the possible lost levels. The compositions where I could manually make sure I had all on-theme assets and include the esper I decided to call Archetypals: and so, for example, I had one forest and middle ages themed series of layers culminating in the Brother Tuck summon. You had dark scary black and white and some foggy layers that summon Charon to his role navigating the river styx. Some felt more pristine without a central esper – like the vaporwave themed world that ended in just a design called “omnia.” Essentially there are nodes of reference that dissipate into the colorful combined random worlds that end up creating things that feel lost: shadowed crystalline bacteria mines, hidden harrowing prison, lost sad mercenary wasteland. The assets function almost more like adjectives that create chimera hidden worlds.
Not to get too far beyond myself – but I think today we’re in a place culturally that’s very excited about these kinds of secretive things. Conspiracy theories spring up when the ordinary presented facts seem too dull or maybe just not the surest path to more astonishing truths. We expect “hacks” and health practices that “doctors hate” rather than just listen to tried and true and just painfully tedious regular advice. In crypto this is especially true: we’re not here because we think the wages we get and the interest rates and financial options we have with our fiat currency is the best use of our money – certainly not the most fun or fair. I think one of the major themes that postmodernity is going to deliver on increasing complexity this millennium is the story behind the story, the real world that’s stranger and more unpredictable than the mechanistic one, the lost levels that capture our imagination more than the game itself.
Footnote: Lost Levels is planned to be on sale on Canto on Feb 27th, public sale the 28th. Cantographs dropped on alto.build for 125 CANTO, and this is 200 CANTO each. I did not think that Cantographs would sell out in less than an hour at that price. I have no idea if Lost Levels will sell out at this price either – but I don’t think it’s an insane amount to be charging when the floor of Cantographs hovers between 500 and 800 most days. I wanted to make sure to whitelist original series holders and Cantographs holders as a thank you, but generally speaking I don’t like doing free mints for a few reasons: I think that people treat them as disposable because they were free, that people scalp the market immediately and most people end up having to buy one and just paying all the scalpers. It also complicates the economics by having the art not sell for money and makes royalties something more like an income stream rather than a courtesy – and this means people treat the NFTs like a job/project that employs the creator driving volume. To me – that is fundamentally a mistake because it makes the tokens function more like securities, and makes the initial art purchase something meant to guarantee future airdrops and not something purchased for its own sake. I realize that can come across as not giving the community freebies – I’ve tried to do lots of giveaways and bonus things in the past, but usually people only seemed interested when they mostly thought they could flip those things. I don’t really like selling art that people don’t actually want. If this means that people decide they don’t want an Inaccessible Worlds: Lost Levels token, that’s okay – but I would rather they acknowledged the time it took to create this body of work and the team I’m splitting it with (Tartaria & Colin). I’m also setting up Borderless.Money as the benefactor wallet for any royalties from secondary market sales because if people *do* speculate or re-sell at profit, I’ve had some of that with Cantographs and once some of my basic needs were met I wanted to spread that to people doing good things. Pedro Bruder is a co-founder of that project, and I trust him to not only be savvy with Canto bridges and managing the funds, but just degen enough to be involved in a place where we’re all clowning and building together in equal measure.