What are liminal spaces and why do we fear them? We play the game “NaissanceE” to explore the survival of haunting architectures and how “The Backrooms” became such an iconic setting.
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In April 2018, in the Paranormal section of 4chan, an anonymous user uploaded an image and accompanied it with the following warning:
“If you’re not careful and step out of reality in the wrong areas, you’ll end up in the Backrooms, where there’s nothing but the stench of old, damp carpet, the madness of homogeneous yellow, the endless background hum of fluorescent lights on max, and approximately six hundred million square miles of randomly segmented empty rooms to be trapped in.
God save you if you hear something lurking nearby, because it sure heard you.”
Although the concept of liminal spaces predates this post, it soon spread like wildfire to become part of the internet lexicon. Liminal spaces are those places of passage, intermediate, whose purpose is, precisely, the transit between two distinct spaces. They are, in essence, spaces without an entity of their own that makes them comfortable by the mere fact of being inhabited. As long as those liminal spaces are occupied by people passing through, they pose no problem, but when those places become empty… there is something directly hostile in the image they project, the feeling that we shouldn’t be there.
The original post mentions the idea of “getting out of reality”, specifically using the expression “noclip” that we associate with video games. Probably the first game to popularize the term was “Commander Keen: Secret of the Oracle”, which featured that expression as one of the official tricks when pressing the “F10” and “N” keys. “No clipping” implies the ability to pass through floors, walls and other obstacles like a ghost.
The map design of many games lends itself to be a liminal element, where, absent of enemies or furniture or any element that complements it, they are aseptic and unsettling. Many maps hide fragments of previous maps, sustaining, in an esoteric way in the programming, the fragile physical balance of these simulated realities.
Video games have made good use of this idea, and today I wanted to talk about it, but as a central axis, let me first talk about a game that places a lot of importance on traversing liminal spaces: the work we are going to discuss today is called “NaissanceE”, it is free on Steam and lasts less than 4 hours. You can pause the video, play it, and then come back here.
For everyone else, follow along with me. This time we’re going to a place we’re going to have a hard time getting out of.
Mavros Sedeño is a French artist specialized in level design. Among his early works is a 2006 mod for “Half-Life 2” entitled “Perfect Dark: Source” which, as the name suggests, is an attempt to translate the style and aesthetics of the “Perfect Dark” saga to Valve’s engine.
That earned him the interest of Crytek for a modest position within “Crysis 2” and, subsequently, landing in Ubisoft’s sinister “I Am Alive”.
But Sedeño’s big artistic project was yet to come. He decided to leave the industry to work on a solo project that would combine his interests in video games, film, music and architecture. A game where light and space would be a language to break down barriers of understanding.
Although he began by developing a story for his project, he soon decided that it was an obstacle to his goals. In addition, they added a complexity to the simplicity of the puzzles in the different rooms that were not only distracting but also involved a level of resources impossible for a single developer project.
Thus, the solution came in the form of popularizing Design by Subtraction from Fumito Ueda’s games: once a prototype and a clear direction are established, all elements of the game that are not strictly necessary to convey what is being proposed through the mechanics of the game itself are removed.
The more Sedeño subtracted from his prototype, the more universal it became: the brutalist buildings, the monochrome look… everything contributed to creating, above all, the ideal atmosphere for the players themselves to project their imagination.
In an attempt not to limit the player, paradoxically, Sedeño included the possibility of dying. Not only because this, with the threat of a creature chasing us, increases our attention by raising the stakes, but also because the player who wants to explore the spaces will often find himself in places from which he cannot get out and, for this, resurrecting at a previous save point was necessary instead of putting up invisible walls that would break the illusion that these are, indeed, real spaces that we can walk through.
One of the few surviving systems in the game is the breathing mechanic. We can run as much as we want as long as, while doing so, we hold the mouse buttons at the same rhythm as the character’s breathing to avoid running out of breath. This is essential for some of the game’s puzzles that require us to position ourselves with a time limit.
“Naisancee” is born in a world after “Portal”, so the influence is inevitable, as are comparisons with other games like “Antichamber” or “Superliminal”. The aseptic and isolated space that looks like a mousetrap. However, where “Naisancee” stands out is in making this environment much more alien: we can find elements reminiscent of real spaces, but the feeling is that of being inside a reality that folds in on itself, generating fractals that intersect. We are not in our reality, we are an intruder, and, as such, we must flee as soon as possible.
But Sedeño has more direct quotes. The first one that jumps out is the work of Tsutomu Nihei, the architect turned mangaka, author of works such as “Blame!”, “Biomega” or “Knights of Sydonia”, known for his interest in delirious macrostructures that dwarf the human being to the point of placing him helpless in a cold and hostile universe. Also the impossible engravings of Escher, the recursive fictions of Borges or films such as “Cube” by Vincenzo Natali, “The Process” by Orson Welles or “Haze” by Shinya Tsukamoto. The designs of Frank Lloyd Wright, Antonio Sant’Elia, Nicolas Moulin or Piranesi. Even more different games, such as the stillness present in “Journey” or “Dear Esther”.
- Lucy Is Lost
Lucy is fleeing down a long corridor, running out of breath. A vaporous creature is chasing her and the only way to elude it is to drop down a hole.
To prevent the progress from becoming monotonous, the game establishes different areas of difference in its various chapters.
In her first few walks, Lucy chases a sphere of light through the monochrome, cubic structure that changes as the light hits it. The direction seems unclear, though the light offers some clues by revealing passages in the gloom that did not seem to be there before. Temporarily blinded by the increased light in a long corridor, and after a brief section of platforms, we arrive at our first proper puzzle: using the light to knock down barriers and create bridges, trying to find the right route of ascent.
2. Going Down
It turns out that when we reach the top, we discover the true dimensions of the prison in which we find ourselves, and the only route seems to be descending. Taking advantage of as many ledges and stairs as possible, we gradually descend to what could well be the inner courtyard of a large block of buildings. Smoke that does not come from chimneys or air conditioners and lights and doors that have not been walked through by humans are our only company. In the interiors, we find closed doors, rooms or perhaps cells, never used. The effect is increasingly disorienting, as if we do not remember that we have already been here. Our descent leads us to moving platforms, revealing the mechanical nature of the macrostructure we navigate.
The structures are degrading, like our perception of reality: what once looked like solid blocks are now a jumble of cubes almost in a gaseous state that serve as improvised elevators. Perhaps they move like creatures, like caterpillars, and have a life of their own or something similar, a process we do not understand in symbiosis with this strange landscape.
The descent takes us to narrow walkways where great intermittent winds blow. At the end a huge city awaits us… or rather, as if several cities had collapsed on top of each other on different axes. Following the light is our only guide, but the light also seems to generate aversion to some of the structures.
For some reason, without even getting to see the bottom of this descent, we find an elevator that allows us to rise above the huge stage. As if the world had turned upside down.
3. Breath Compression
We enter an area of tubular corridors, fans and electrical mechanisms. With just enough time to pass, we must be very precise in coordinating our breathing and running along the axis of the fans. Our visibility will be affected little by little, increasingly suffocating in front of the seemingly open long space of the previous area.
A room with a puzzle stops us. It’s about moving the pieces on the floor so that their corresponding platforms above our heads move and, with their concentrated light beams, hit walls and stairs so that we can make use of them. The game has a limited amount of time and the need to breathe properly in order to complete it.
A gigantic fan awaits us at the end, with all kinds of obstacles and the need to be a perfectionist or perish. The intense wind it generates catapults us into a new room… that seems to form around us.
4. Deeper Into the Madness
We are greeted by a long, dark and increasingly narrow corridor. We float to what seems to be the starting point of this section, but it is not: further on, a door leads us to a world with a light so intense that we can’t even see the floor itself. To orient ourselves we will have to make use this time of the intermittent shadows, trying to elucidate the extremes of the environment. Fortunately, it is not a very long section.
The following is even stranger: we float in the dark while a spiral of cubes rotates on itself. The walls melt around us and the ever-closer presence of our pursuer makes itself felt in the atmosphere. We don’t know where we’ve gone.
What was once a chaos of structures spinning in the void is now a coordinated ballet of platforms to ascend. It was just a matter of perspective.
At the mercy of our prison, we fall through several doors. We return to a somewhat more familiar space, long corridors with high ceilings leading to bridges in large rooms from which lightning strikes, a stormy night in a lifeless city. Like an abandoned temple that descends into darkness by stairs that support themselves. Endless. Until suddenly…
6. Endless Dive
The exterior. Or so it seems. The greatest of labyrinths, Borges said, is a desert because it doesn’t even need walls to confine you. The strange color of the sky is less distressing than the other macro structures hanging upside down, reminding us that no, we are not “outside.” There is no “outside.” Just the desert that seems completely empty except for one thing. In the distance, a group of totem poles and smaller structures, almost as if they were trying to indicate something with their regular positions, is the only thing that catches our attention.
We stand in their center and the structures… move. They dance joyfully for us and offer us a prodigious spectacle for the only spectator who can contemplate it. Whatever dwells here seems to welcome us with open arms. We are the mascot of a great entity that has us for a toy.
Or maybe there are several entities. A white one and a black one that intertwine. Fighting or copulating, or simply playing. By the time they leave us, there is silence.
And we are alone, again, in the desert. Nothing else. Nowhere to go, nothing to do. Ignored by our demiurges.
All that remains is to do the unthinkable: jump into the abyss.
7. Meet The Host
We descend for what could well be an eternity, passing through the nooks and crannies of the macrostructure. As we hit the ground, the luminous cubes twist and turn, absorb matter, and suddenly emerge as a great column, a tower… a worm.
This is The Host. Our persecutor. Our torturer. And here we are, before him, trying to escape. And he is furious.
Good thing by then we’ve mastered running and holding our breath. Not only to gain an advantage and not be captured but also not to fall into the multiple traps he sets before us, trying to make our escape impossible. Twisting corridors, raising steps, destroying walls. This is his creation and he makes and unmakes it as he pleases. We can only hide and flee, like a plague.
And at the end, in the center of the hurricane. A light. A door. A silence.
THE OTHER SPACES
Naturally, the popularity of the Backrooms has led to several video games that are a literal translation of these environments. Not only the original photograph but other images that generate a similar sense of unease, such as “Anemoiapolis”, centered on indoor pools.
But non-Euclidean spaces have been a constant in video games since, well, at least since you could exit one side and enter the opposite in “Pac-Man”.
If games are simulated spaces, by placing an emphasis on their simulation nature, they can also generate a lot of unease. We break through the fantasy to plunge headlong into the nightmare that would be living it. This legacy is shown even in such renowned games as “Myst”, where technical limitations granted what should be a breathtaking landscape in the feeling of being part of the gears of a gigantic clock.
Often incidental, especially in all those games that were still trying to figure out the technology and therefore had to resort to somewhat abandoned locations. “Super Mario 64” wouldn’t have the same reputation as an accidentally terrifying game without that unsettling valley that permeates its aesthetic, much softened in later 3D Mario games.
Do these environments work with dream logic, if “Yume Nikki” wasn’t already something that was on your mind with this theme, or its predecessor: “LSD: Dream Simulator”.
In fact, so notorious is this presence that even the games are structured around the concept of empty games. “No Players Online” presents us with a multiplayer shooter scenario with no other players, no bots, no enemies. The solitude, which seems like it can be broken at any moment, is overwhelming.
Remedy Entertainment has made the best occasional use of this concept in the mainstream, with the famous nightmarish sequence in the first “Max Payne” as a trademark. So much so, that “Control” is a game basically reduced to the concept of an FBI turned into a liminal space in itself, with the famous ashtray corridor turning players’ minds to mush.
There is an argument for seeing liminal spaces as a product of late capitalism: the artifice, the imposture, the sensation of a waste of resources in the service of nothingness, the abandonment of monstrous works. Places of recreation and leisure that are now forbidden to people. As if we were contemplating our life through a museum. Even the presence of flooded but aseptic places seem to invoke images of floods in places that have never suffered: climate change casting its shadow on the abandoned places of the last century, of our own childhood. The familiar is even more dangerous.
I can’t help but compare this feeling to the end of MMO games. What were once colorful escapist fantasies are forced to close due to cost-cutting and, in the final moments, the most devoted players join in to bid farewell to that world. Sometimes, some of those worlds survive on private servers, populated by few, very occasional nostalgic, living ghosts.
Although some games recreate this feeling of fake abandoned MMOs, the truth is that possible to visit even today games of this kind and this state. In 2016, Vinnysauce visited “Active Worlds.” There he encountered what he thought was an NPC only to discover it was a real person. Although a rather terrifying premise the encounter, though awkward, had something beautiful about it: this soul in sorrow, wandering through his favorite game, is visited by this tourist who, in turn, experiences for the first time that environment that enamored the veteran.
“Naisanceé” isolated us to reconcile us with our own loneliness, our way of feeling human in an alien environment. It offered no answers or relief, only a beautiful cell in which to reflect in silence. For no matter how many worlds we may visit, no matter how many landscapes are part of our memory.
Kane Parsons’ webseries on the “Backrooms” is an excellent work that collected the original post that started this trend and that, in turn, has influenced how other games of the same style are recreated. No matter what monsters we invent inside, what really makes our hair stand on end is that dollhouse in which we find ourselves, completely lost and unable to get out. Doubting what is real and what is not. The most terrifying thing is not a presence that haunts us: it is knowing that we are completely alone, accompanied only by our own imagination and fear. It is to be always alert, at every corner, every shadow, every distraction in the corner of our eye… and not finding a way out. And finding no way to stop our fear. We are alone, and there is no one to free us from this uneasiness.