Labyrinths are fascinating. You are alone, lost in this maze. No map or sense of direction, you have to chart your own way out now. As you walk down the empty corridors, you suddenly hear a growl in the distance and you understand suddenly that you are not alone. The maze could be claustrophobically small, or it could have no end, you have no idea. But you know that you have to navigate it with someone, or something else.
From their very mythological origins with the Minotaur, labyrinths have always had a tremendous appeal to me. They are such perfect allegories for the mind and the self, it’s easy to see why they keep coming up in films, books, and of course, games. The very concept of a place designed to get you lost and inhabited by a mortal threat is a simple enough setting to allow the wildest of inventions.
Love at first sight
When I was young, I would often borrow books at the library which simply contained the most elaborate labyrinths. Pages after pages of intricate designs that I would carefully trace and try to solve. The satisfaction of solving one of these mazes was great, but there was even more pleasure in discovering the incredible designs these books always had. At the time, I just loved the pleasure of the visual creativity, and the logic problem solving. Then I went to a real life hedge maze in a park and I got lost.
All the maze solving skills I had learned on paper vanished and I got completely lost. I was probably 10 or younger at the time. I remember getting pretty scared, because I had persuaded myself that, just like Theseus, I was not alone in this labyrinth. I was obviously not, probably surrounded by other visitors trying to find their way through. But in my mind, I was being stalked by a monster, as one is in a maze. This experience stays with me to this day as the first time I genuinely loved being terrified.
Mazes have that amazing ability to scare you while being thoroughly exhilarating. Exploring a maze tickles that part of our brain that thirst for discovery, that wants to fill the unknown with known. It’s incredibly satisfying to start with an empty map and progressively fill it up until you have a full picture of a labyrinth. But at the same time, as soon as you know there is a threat in there with you, you have a growing sense of dread that accompanies every step you take and every inch of the maze you uncover. Because the more you map out, the greater the chances of meeting that threat become.
This balance of anticipated fear and driving excitement to uncover more is what I love most about mazes, and when the concept is applied to video games, it is some of the most satisfying design I have enjoyed. Of course in games, the maze is rarely as blatant as a series of empty corridors (well, apart from the legion of old-school dungeon crawlers that are pretty much just that). But think about it : Doom, Resident Evil, Diablo, Amnesia, Metroid, Dungeon Hack, Castlevania, Dark Souls, … are all built around mazes for you to explore, filled with threats to conquer. The level of danger of the threat, and your ability to fight them off make you want to delve deeper into the maze, or afraid to turn the corner. But you are definitely exploring a labyrinth. Although these don’t delve very deep in the recess of the mind, they do play with our fascination of exploring the unknown. It’s so encoded into our brains and culture, it’s almost too easy, but it sure is satisfying.
But if exploring a maze is satisfying, and being stalked by a foe you cannot overpower is terrifying, where can we take the concept of mazes ? I recently finished the book House of Leaves. One of the most satisfying and confusing read I have had in awhile. The idea is deceptively simple : a photo journalist and his family move into a new house, but the house turns out to be bigger on the inside than on the outside… Or maybe it’s the story of a junky who finds the notes of a blind man writing about a film that does not exist about the house in question… Or maybe it’s about you the reader getting lost trying to puzzle out what is going on in this book seemingly compiled from different sources with large missing pieces.
You probably guessed it, but the book is actually much more complex than it first appears, and as you progress through its narrative, you realize how much of a part of its story you are as the reader. You cannot passively read through House of Leaves and get through it. There is a lot that is demanded of you in order to find your way through. It is a narrative maze and I absolutely loved it for that. Like a game, you need to actively participate to make the story work, and even though there is probably no way it could be adapted into a game, it made me think of so many ways games could take advantage of this layered and multifaceted storytelling. Granted, getting lost in a book is one of my great pleasures, and the confusion is not going to be everybody’s cup of tea. But if what you see in the pages below makes you think : “what is this, I want to check it out”, then I think you should definitely give it a try, you will definitely not regret the trip.
Oh yes, video games!
What could we do with this in a game ? How could we convey the confusion and multiple layers of reading in a videogame without falling in the common trap of overblown narrative, or obtuse systems that kill so many art games that try to go there ? It’s a pretty interesting thought and I am sure I don’t have an answer. But what I do know is that for a good maze to work, you need to be able to ease into it until you realise that you are in way deeper than you thought, and that there is no easy way out.
House of Leaves does this very well by starting with an intriguing premise and framing it as a “found footage” book. It takes some time before the house’s impossible architecture and the depth of its labyrinth becomes clear. But once you delve deeper into it, the book makes you feel just as lost as its characters. In terms of game design, misdirection is a fairly common device. Some games are built entirely around subverting your expectations. Frog Fraction is probably one of the most famous recent examples of games that take you places you definitely did not expect. On a lighter level, Eternal Darkness toyed with its player with the sanity meter and pulled off some really interesting tricks to confuse and surprise them. Antichamber approached the idea by breaking the rules of geometry and continuously adding to the rules of the puzzle.
A game that tries to work with the concept of labyrinths in spirit as well as in form could take us to some incredible places. Different playstyle would shape the experience, just as the different characters of House of Leaves navigate a different “house” based on the way they confront it. The more you explore, the more the maze could become intricate, the faster you try to speedrun it, the harder to reach the platform could become. And of course that’s simply from the spatial perspective. From a narrative standpoint, we could imagine that characters could reflect your play style by opening up story elements based on your previous actions, what you have shown interest in until then, or even how fast you click through dialogues.
Of course, conjuring ideas does not even start to scratch the surface of what could be done, but it is still so satisfying to spiral down the possibilities that labyrinths offer us in video games, both from a spatial and a narrative point of view. I know I will keep on toying with the idea of a game that explores the symbolic meaning of labyrinths as well as their more practical aspect until I find a way to put all that on paper, or until someone pulls it off in a game. Either Way, it will be a fun exploration.