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Remember Piranesi: Exploring Video Games' Infinite Halls

With its 2017 sci-fi game ECHO, developer Ultra Ultra, now nonexistent, are responsible for one of gaming’s greatest openings. Enigmatic characters and situations are one thing — you play as “En”, a genetically designed “Resourceful” in search of a mythical Palace, with only a dead man trapped in a cube and an AI that hates her for company — but ECHO also introduces us to a fascinating setting.

Freshly woken from cryostasis, En leaves her AI/ship “London” — which looks more like a gigantic hunk of rock than any conventional spacecraft — and travels down to a planet covered in white ice… “It’s not ice… It’s all one big structure, planetwide,” London remarks. As the Lander skirts the planet’s surface, En is met with an undifferentiated pattern of white honeycombed slabs. After landing on one of these cells, you realise they’re gigantic pillars, rising up thousands of metres from the ground. The top of the slabs are roughly 25×25 metres. They’re unending, stretching out as far as the foggy horizon.

The Palace interior is just as intriguing. The inside resembles an infinitely vast Palace of Versailles. A baroque labyrinth of ornately designed halls and corridors, all gold, marble and crystal, ECHO’s Palace is a megastructure in the vein of Tsutomu Nihei’s manga Blame! or puzzle-platformer NaissanceE. One of the Palace’s recurring rooms features a long row of gilded chairs. In the center, atop an altar, rests a tuning fork which En can strike and let ring out across the infinite space.


The City, the House, and the Wardrobe

In this moment, ECHO mirrors an older story. In C. S. Lewis’ children’s fantasy novel The Magician’s Nephew, there’s a sequence where the two young protagonists portal through to a ruined world where a cold, dying sun dominates the sky. They find themselves in a grand but crumbling palace where everything is inhumanly proportioned. Like Dark Souls’ Anor Londo, it’s a city built for giants. On this apocalyptic planet, in a city named “Charn,” the children travel through a ceaseless series of courtyards, up massive flights of stairs and through a maze of vast rooms and halls until they’re “dizzy with the mere size of the place.” Everytime the characters feel as though they might be close to an exit, or catch a glimpse of an outside, they simply enter into another, identical-looking courtyard — a perpetual in-between space like in one of Italo Calvino’s “Continuous Cities.”

Eventually the children pass through a set of golden doors and enter into the long “Hall of Images,” where rows of chairs line up on either side. In the centre of the room is a square table with a little bell, which when rung, echoes continuously, rising in pitch until finally the entire palace begins to collapse and the infamous Queen from The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is awoken.

There are echoes of Charn’s palace in one of this year’s most anticipated novels too. In Susanna Clarke’s Piranesi, the protagonist, whom the book is named after, lives in a House that is an entire world, perhaps even a universe. Trapped in this labyrinth — an endless network of ornate, marbled halls that stretch out in a grid-like fashion — Piranesi attempts to map the maze, travelling out from his little nest in excursions, in every possible direction. He never discovers an end or exit, or any significant variance (Piranesi is said to have travelled as far as the 960th Western Hall, and almost as far in the three other directions).

What variety Piranesi does find are in the statues that line the great walls. With minotaurs and fauns, it’s clear that Clarke’s novel is inspired by both The Magician’s Nephew and C.S. Lewis’ wider Chronicles of Narnia series. Piranesi begins with an epigram from Lewis’ novel, and dabbles in a kind of fantastical many-worlds theory (the so-called “Wood between the Worlds”). It also has much to do with magic and magicians. The principal similarity however, is the infinite House itself, and how it both reflects and deepens the great halls of Charn.

The House of Piranesi is so large that it has developed its own ecosystem. There are three layers of halls. The Lower Halls contain an entire ocean, which churns within the basement segments according to the will of the Tides, and which you can fish from. The Upper Halls, like our own atmosphere, is filled with clouds, rain and birds. Each hall, which opens onto one another via a series of vestibules accommodating grand staircases, is gigantic.

The rooms in the House are described as being 200 by 120 meters, with thousands of marble statues set in niches on the wall, rising, tier upon tier, “into distant heights”. The staircases are similarly vast and inhuman, and there are windows too, which open out onto huge stone courtyards — although on the other side there is always just more House, infinite and eternal.


The House That Piranesi Built

The primary inspiration behind Susanna Clarke’s novel is of course the Venetian architect Giovanni Battista Piranesi, whose scaled-up imagination is echoed in every way by the House. Piranesi’s detailed 17th century architectural etchings depicted moments from across antiquity, of Rome at the height of its power — grand colosseums, great arches, pyramids, vast churches.

One of my favourite etchings of his is of St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican, which still stands today. It is the largest Christian church to ever exist, and houses the world’s tallest dome. Its open interior reaches 136 metres in height. It is, in sheer scale at least, comparable to Clarke’s eternal House. It is also, as one of our world’s largest interior spaces, an excellent jumping off point when thinking about things such as megastructures and the infinite.

While Piranesi’s sketches and etchings of buildings from antiquity are much loved, it’s his “Carceri d’invenzione”, or “Imaginary Prisons”, that he’s probably best known for. These endless prison-mazes stretch out illogically in every direction. Piranesi’s work seems to gesture towards the infinite, the edges of structures and the borders of the etchings themselves letting our imagination run on wildly, rather than offering any visible end-point. They are infinite interiors. “The dark mind of Piranesi”, as author Victor Hugo described it, has influenced everyone from the Romantics to the Surrealists, M.C. Escher to Walter Benjamin, and even respected architects like John Soane and Joseph Gandy (who at one point was dubbed the “English Piranesi”).


The Endless Library

Jorge Luis Borges’ short story The Library of Babel is another tale in the spirit of Piranesi. Borges’ Library is indefinitely large, infinite even. As an interior space, the whole is unknowable. Total knowledge, a complete map, is impossible. This realisation leads to a dizzying kind of existential angst. Everyone in this universe is trapped in interior space; in an eternal system with no escape.

Borges’ nightmare-Library is also one of the key inspirations behind Ultra Ultra’s ECHO. Like the Palace-planet’s cellular surface, the Library of Babel is made up of an infinite number of hexagonal galleries (which makes for a fascinating vertical slice). Like the halls of Piranesi’s House, these chambers open onto one another in every direction via a vestibule. Unique to the Library are the bottomless ventilation shafts that puncture each cell, rising infinitely and plummeting endlessly. When someone dies in the Library their body is thrown down the shaft, trapping them in a “tomb of unfathomable air.”

In terms of its construction, Borges’ Library creates an effect not dissimilar to a Piranesi etching. As French essayist Margaret Yourcenar says of his infinite bastilles, they create a “negation of time… incoherence of space,” and an “intoxication of the impossible.” But The Library of Babel isn’t just about spatial dimensions. Much of the story is dedicated to the psychological effects of the infinite on those that call it home — the terror as well as its intoxicating allure. Librarians there obsess over meaning and nonsense both, attempting to convene with divinity, arguing over scripture, dabbling in the occult, and sinking into esoteria. Scholars are driven mad hoping to find complete knowledge of their lives in the books contained there. Fanatics squabble endlessly, strangle one another in corridors, hide away in the vestibule latrines, and even hurl one another over railings and down into the ventilation-void.

For a visualisation of Borges’ Library, there’s no better place to look than to the work of French artist, and probably finest living print-maker, Erik Desmazières. Influenced by the dark etchings of Piranesi, Desmazières sought to capture fragments of the infinite with his fantastical cities, twisted Parisian arcades, and infinite libraries. In the book Imaginary Places, on the life and work of Desmazières, author Alberto Manguel explains that “a library exists always in potentia, not merely as a construction of stone and wood, metal and glass, but as a possibility of knowledge which always extends beyond its own space — every library proves itself too small for its contents.”

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Trapped in the Labyrinth

Just as architects and artists like Piranesi and Desmazières dream on paper, games allow us to explore fantastical spaces without having to worry about whether their existences are physically possible or not. They can visualise the unlikely, the improbable, and the infinite. One of my favourite things in Ultra Ultra’s ECHO is its menu screen. The background is an extreme close-up of En’s eye, staring out at you and blinking as your cursor hovers over the different options. Most curious are the coloured patterns rippling within the iris. The same marbled forms seem to recur no matter how deeply you examine En’s eye — much like the Palace itself. They are fractals.

Like Piranesi’s etchings, fractals contain within them a little piece of infinity. They are a way of conceptualising it, as the same patterns can technically reoccur continuously, no matter the scale. Fractals appear in experimental games like Yedoma Globula. They’re also mirrored by the recurrence showcased in games like Maquette, where the world always contains within it a miniature version of itself at the centre, as well as a much larger world outside, pressing in at the boundaries.

Perhaps the best example of fractals and infinite space in games is to be found in Manifold Garden, which is interested in the same kinds of monumental, limitless space as both ECHO and Piranesi. In Manifold Garden, the world repeats endlessly in every direction, allowing you to manipulate gravity in order to fall down into the void and land back where you began — or on the other side of an obstacle. No matter how far you travel in one direction, you’ll never find an end-point or an outside. It’s bewildering, and slightly unnerving, just like Borges’ Library.

What all of these structures have in common is that they make us feel small through immeasurable scale. There’s an element of being trapped in a labyrinth — one of humanity’s earliest metaphorical nightmares — but also a hint of the sublime. A feeling that we can reach out, if only for a second, and capture some small sense of the infinite. In his lifetime, Piranesi the architect only built a single building, and this was more of a restoration than the creation of something altogether new. Despite this, his imagination has had an enduring legacy. We’ve been obsessed with the infinite and intoxicated by the impossible ever since.

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