The internet and technology fight to control our every waking moment. Too often have I felt this pull: At times when I would otherwise daydream, I now reach for my phone. There’s always some new notification, some new tidbit from the constant feed, and there’s enough “content” to fill a millennium should I ever feel the need.
The problem is that time has never been this commodified before. Mere seconds of our freedom can now be spent on a reel or a short video, and so all the interstitial moments of our days just beg to be filled—and they can be. I believe this has led to a reduction in our ability to focus. I’m sure we’ve all felt a bit of a decrease in our attention spans, especially when we’re waiting for that new comment on one of our most recent posts. And so it seems a new hyper-specific sensation has arisen and wants to be explored. But just what is this new feeling of mental restlessness, and how can we consider it in full?
The internet has already gotten us started. In my view, this growing sensation has naturally progressed into an online obsession with the concept of “liminality” and “liminal spaces.” “Liminality” describes the essence of being in-between, or in transit, and so “liminal spaces” are environments deemed to be wholly, and so uncannily, transitional. Think of an endless hallway with drab wallpaper and no end in sight. That’s a “liminal space,” and it may certainly be seen as a symptom of the itching unrest that we now feel when we’re left to kill time. Our surroundings seem too monotonous—uncomfortable as we are with embracing our boredom—and so a new form of dread starts to creep in even if no threat is ostensibly present.
And as if it were a new artistic movement, this trend of “liminality” has spawned many subgroups. There is music that claims to incorporate this feeling and photo edits that attempt to instill the raw sensation through altered visuals, but there is one specific spin-off to which I would like to aim our attention: the narrative of “The Backrooms,” a recent “creepypasta,” or online horror story, about a poor explorer who gets trapped in an endless world of these “liminal spaces.”
In “The Backrooms,” the protagonist faces an endless office space full of identical rooms. There is an eerie absence of most furniture and an encroaching sense of introspective dread. This dread may not always be completely internal, as in some versions of the story a monster shares the space. In this setting, an initially indecipherable sensation—spawned by technology’s impression on our lives—has been distilled into an evocative piece of art by the technology that contributed to the sensation in the first place. What I find truly exciting is that the rabbit hole does not end there. There’s more nuance to explore, and now it’s up to us to do the exploring.
The story of “The Backrooms” has further spawned an entire movement of indie games that put you in the shoes of this unfortunate explorer. And so as you, the player, find yourself in these vast liminal dungeons of monotonous spaces, you are blessed with an experience tailored to each developer’s unique appreciation of this variety of mental dread. You are now viscerally stuck within someone’s particular discomfort, and so you can perhaps better understand yours by contrast. In one version, for example, there may be a flashlight if you should be allowed to light up the darker corners in this particular developer’s “Backrooms.”
As you play, and as developers create, everyone involved is analyzing, perhaps unwittingly, a greater cultural theme. And so the games are each a walkthrough, each an immersive interactive guide, each fit to aid you in your own processing of our very specific contemporary emotions.
As we continue to adapt to the newest innovations of our day, we have always found that we must embrace the art that comes along with it. With the invention of the printing press, we faced propaganda, and so literature taught us to remain skeptical of our narrators. With film and television, we destroyed art’s aura, and so along came Hollywood and the Oscars, new artistic institutions to help us cope with a loss of authenticity.
Now, growing alongside technology, we have interactive media. “The Backrooms” and its own interactive offspring have already allowed us to combat a very specific fear of undistracted transition. But who knows what other particular sensations tech has and will continue to inspire. The answer may come to reveal itself naturally. The answer may lie in just how many more games we will have to explore.