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I made a horror game about liminal spaces that nobody will ever play

I made a horror game about liminal spaces that nobody will ever play


Estimated reading time — 14 minutes

I’m sure there isn’t a single person reading this that doesn’t know what liminal spaces are by now. But, just in case:

The concept of liminal spaces relates to physical locations that are typically transitional in nature. Hallways, waiting rooms and parking lots are classic examples. The liminal aesthetic can be defined by the unique feeling of “eerie nostalgia” people experience when presented with such places outside of their designated context. For instance, an abandoned hospital corridor might seem ominous and uncanny due to the prevalence of human activity usually associated with medical facilities.

While the specific aesthetic has always existed, it was recently popularized and further defined by The Backrooms—a, by now, infamous creepypasta about what happens when you “no-clip” out of reality. At least, that’s how I first became familiar with the term.

Like many other fans of the original work, I was eager to contribute to the ever-expanding sub-genre of horror games inspired by liminal spaces. The project itself wasn’t anything revolutionary. Basically, it began as a glorified first-person walking simulator without any particular purpose or goal, where you can explore various unique 3D liminal environments. The only thing about it that was somewhat novel was that I didn’t intend on implementing any actual “scares” into the game; instead relying entirely on the atmosphere to instill a sense of constant suspense in the player. Pretentious, I know, but I’ve always liked the idea of a horror game that leaves you in a perpetual state of questioning whether you’re truly alone or not. There are very few games that scratch that particular itch for me, so I decided to just make it myself.

The first level I created was an abandoned multistorey car park. I based it on the one across the street. Each floor was near identical to the last, and with the outside being just an endless expanse of fog, you couldn’t really tell whether you were making progress or were just stuck in a loop.

Again, I know that what I’m describing doesn’t sound all that impressive, but keep in mind that I was a sixteen-year-old kid learning how to use a gaming engine for the first time.

I must’ve replayed that level over fifty times, making sure that everything, from the camera’s movements to the ambience, was exactly the way I wanted it. I remember spending days just toying with the shaders alone. I didn’t want the location to feel too artificial, but I also didn’t want to detract from the liminality by adding extra clutter. I was looking for that sweet spot between minimalist and dingy.

Once I was finally done, or at least as close as “done” as I was going to get, I asked my best friend Alex if he could play it for me and tell me what he thought. He is a bit of a wimp when it comes to any kind of horror media, thus making him the perfect test subject. I made a point of deliberately not telling him that there were no ghosts or spooky monsters haunting the level. I was looking for a genuine impression, after all, and… well, I thought it would’ve been funny.

He called me a few hours later. I could tell from his nervous laughter that he was still playing:

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“Alright, bruv. I give up. What’s behind the door? How do you open it?”

I was confused. I didn’t remember implementing any doors or anything that could be described as one. My initial assumption was that he had caught on to the joke and was now trying to mess with me in return, so I just played along:

“Oh, that! Yeah, so you gotta collect the seventy-seven pages and then a hyper-realistic animatronic Slenderman will come out of there and start chasing you.”

I could practically hear him rolling his eyes:

“Hilarious, mate… No, but seriously, how do I open it? I’ve looked everywhere for like a pressure pad or a key or something. At least give me a hint.”

I persisted, snarkily dismissing his nagging, but after a while it became apparent that his frustration was genuine. We moved the call to Discord and he shared his screen, showing me what he was talking about. Turns out that he was being very much for real.

Plastered across one of the walls was the flat texture of a door. It was red, resembling a fire exit, which made it all the more jarring against the color palette of grays and faded browns that otherwise dominated the environment.

I blinked in confusion and leaned forward in my chair. I certainly hadn’t put that there.

With Alex still on the call, I booted up my level editor and clipped up to the seventh floor—the same floor that he was on. Sure enough, the bright red door was on my version of the project as well. It appeared to be part of the texture pack that I was using. Not sure how, but I guessed I’d somehow missed it during my numerous playthroughs. It was a fun little WTF moment, but obviously nothing we were about to lose sleep over. I even briefly considered keeping it there as an inside joke, but ended up replacing the door with a more fitting surface.

I began work on the second level just a few days later. It was inspired by a reoccurring dream I’ve had—a looping, white, sterile corridor with rows of yellow lockers on each side. The player would’ve been dropped at the end of it and given no further directive. There were no puzzles to be solved, no hidden switch that would reveal some secret passageway. That was sort of the point.

I remember thinking I was being so clever, so abstract; as though I was on the verge of creating the pièce de résistance of all walking sims that would be dissected and theorized on for years to come. In reality, all I did was make a tech demo using a bunch of premade assets. The Stanley Parable it most definitely was not.

After playtesting it for a bit, I sent the finished version to Alex. It didn’t even take a full hour for him to call me back. This time around, he sounded more agitated than nervous.

“I’ve been walking for like thirty-fucking-minutes. Where am I meant to be going?”

I laughed, but internally I was actually quite annoyed with him for not appreciating my vision for what it was. I chalked it up to my friend being a meathead without a single creative bone in his body. There was surely no other reason as to why somebody wouldn’t be positively enthralled at the mere prospect of walking through the same hallway over and over again…

“Don’t know. Try hugging the left wall?”

“Fuck off. It all looks the same. Am I supposed to, like, do something with the lockers? There’s the door, but that doesn’t seem to do anything, so I’m assuming—”

I perked up.

“Door? What door?”

Alex laughed sarcastically:

“Don’t start again. It wasn’t even that funny the first time.”

I scooted closer to my desk and adjusted my headset, adopting what I considered to be a more serious tone while launching the editor once more.

“Where is it?”

Alex’s microphone crackled as he exhaled into it. He was still convinced that I was trying to mess with him, which, given our usual dynamic, I guess I couldn’t blame him for.

“I don’t know, man… close to where you spawn?”

I found it almost immediately. Snugly nestled between two neighboring lockers was the red door. Unlike its previous iteration, it was no longer just a flat texture, but rather a fully rendered 3D asset. I couldn’t believe it, yet there it was; its clean, metallic surface gleaming beneath the harsh lighting.

Just to reiterate once more: I’m absolutely, positively CERTAIN that I hadn’t put that there.

I could no longer attribute it to negligence either. It’s one thing to accidentally misplace a texture, but there was no way that I had somehow added an entirely new object to the game without realizing it. Of course, there was nothing actually behind the door, nor a way to open it as far as I could tell, but that didn’t make the whole situation any less weird.

The only other person that would’ve had access to my computer was mum, but she doesn’t even know how to work a browser, much less do something like this. Could a hacker be responsible? But why would somebody take the time to remotely edit my game and leave everything else on my PC untouched? Just to freak me out? They were succeeding, if that was the case.

Once I managed to persuade Alex that this wasn’t my idea of an elaborate prank, he was even more freaked out than I was. He went full creepypasta protagonist on me, saying that the game must’ve been “haunted” or something. Now, I like my BEN Drowned and Sonic.EXE as much as the next kid that grew up in the 2010s, but it would’ve taken a lot more than that for me to consider the possibility of a spooky cyber ghost that gets off on putting random doors in people’s games.

We spent the rest of the evening talking in circles. In the end, we settled on the tried and true method of…doing nothing. I vaguely remember mentioning something about having my OS reinstalled, but I never got around to it.

I already had a lot of things that I was dealing with at the time. I suppose you could say that this project was my means of escapism. It made me feel productive—like I was actually working towards something, however inconsequential. In short, I needed it, and I wasn’t about to let a few bizarre coincidences take it away from me.

The third and last level that I ever worked on was my most ambitious yet. The way I envisioned it is kind of difficult to describe. I think it was inspired by an image I saw on Reddit. Imagine a large field, complete with rolling hills and broad valleys, but instead of grass it’s all covered by a green carpet. Pinned against the painted-on sky was a very obvious spotlight, which would’ve followed the player around, always shining directly at them whenever they would look up.

The goal was to make it feel like you were stranded in this uncanny, poorly put together mock reality that didn’t even try to hide the fact that it was a set.

It (as in whatever was messing with my game) didn’t even wait for me to fully finish the level this time. I was still in the process of making sure that the camera didn’t clip through the more uneven parts of the terrain. As I turned my point of view around, I saw it: the by now all too familiar red door, suspended in the middle of an untextured plain. It stood vertically on its own; there was nothing behind or around it.

I would’ve probably been more unnerved had a part of me not subconsciously expected for it to eventually show up. In fact, I wasn’t scared at all for some reason. Worse—I felt inexplicably drawn to it. My player character inched forth without my input. It was like I was in a cut-scene. Soon enough, I was standing directly in front of that door, looking up at its imposingly tall frame. I had neither the option to step back nor approach any further. As I looked down at the fully-rendered handle, a prompt appeared in semi-transparent white letters:

“Press E to open.”

I swallowed hard and, desperate to sate this newfound sense of morbid curiosity, did as instructed. My screen went completely black, and then transitioned to solid red. Another prompt floated into view.

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“Use WASD keys to move”

I would’ve never realized that I could control my character again had the game not expressly told me. Upon retreating a few steps, I realized that I had been standing up-close to a wall, and in actuality I was in some kind of enclosed space. Every inch of it was painted in that same shade of solid, uniform red. Unless viewed from a specific angle, you couldn’t really tell where one surface ended and another began. It was nausea-inducing.

I tried pulling up the console menu. Nothing happened. I could neither exit nor minimize the game. Regardless of what combination of keys I attempted, it became increasingly clear that I was no longer in control.

And yet, I couldn’t quite bring myself to press the power button on my PC. I had this inexplicable urge to uncover the secrets of this place. It was like some sort of primal impulse that was hardwired into my brain. This seemingly endless network of empty spaces was divided by walls and narrow passageways. Distinguishing one room from another was close to impossible. I felt like I was walking in circles, and that most likely was the case for a good while, until I stumbled into a room that actually had something in it.

Placed on an equally red table was a can of silver spray paint. Immediately upon picking it up, I was prompted to press “F” on my keyboard to use it. A crudely-drawn check mark materialized on the surface I was facing. I now had the ability to mark off places that I’ve already explored, which, needless to say, proved immensely valuable.

Armed with my new way of navigation, I now felt like I was making actual progress. The more I explored, the more I began to pick up on certain patterns. I realized that each section was comprised of a set number of cyclical layouts. For example, every fifth room was L-shaped, and every tenth room was H-shaped and connected to multiple corridors, two of which always looped back to the start of the sequence. It practically turned into a rhythm game.

One, two—go left; Three, four—go right.

If the levels that I’d already created could be looked at as their own self-contained microcosms, then I suppose that this was their version of The Backrooms—a maze of uniformly textured procedural spaces that, ironically, embodied the spirit of liminality even better than anything I could’ve consciously conceived.

And then, finally, after what felt like hours, I entered a room that was quite unlike the previous ones. The oppressive red was replaced by beige wallpaper. It gave me this intense feeling of deja vu, and still does whenever I think about it. Mounted onto the opposite wall was what looked like a flat-screen TV. There were no other exits apart from the one that I came in through. I seemed to have reached the end of the monochromatic labyrinth. Upon approaching the vertically placed monitor, I was promptly presented with two options:

“Press “Y” to meet your host. Press “N” to go back.”

I paused for a moment and looked over at my phone. It was 4:45 AM. I had already gone this far; no way I was backing down now. I briefly considered calling Alex, but thought better of it. Even if I did manage to wake him up, I would’ve then had to spend another hour trying to convince him that this wasn’t my idea of a joke. No. I needed answers and I needed them now.

My finger hovered over the “Y” key. I took a deep, anxious breath and pressed it all the way down.

The virtual TV came to life. White lines raced across its screen. At the center of a blank background appeared the still portrait of a man. The image was so low-res that I could count the individual pixels that comprised it. What it lacked in detail, however, it made up for in expressiveness. The unfamiliar man’s cartoonishly large frown dipped to the corners of his jaw and his eyebrows were scrunched together in a peevish stare. It was like someone had taken the stock photo of a typical suburban dad and used the liquify filter to exaggerate his features. I nearly jumped out of my seat as a grainy and eerily upbeat voice suddenly emanated from my speakers. There had been virtually no audio cues thus far, which made it all the more jarring:

”Hello guest185! This is Henry. Henry is an introvert. Henry doesn’t like having guests. What you see at the bottom of your screen is Henry’s patience meter…”

There was now a green bar occupying the bottom of my POV. It was at 99%.

“You best get going! Henry is not a patient man. Use “Shift” to sprint!”

After delivering its brief tutorial, the TV flickered and slumped down from its perch, crashing against the floor. I glanced down at the rapidly dwindling bar.

90%

The pressure was on. I was no longer questioning the logistics of what I was experiencing. I just knew that I had to find my way back and quick.

The logical part of my brain tried to reason with the rest of my body, assuring me that I was in no real danger. And yet, there was no denying the pounding in my chest, or the cold beads of sweat rolling down my forehead. Using the “Shift” key as per instructed, I backtracked through the red corridors as swiftly as I could, applying the same methods I used before but in reverse. I audibly sighed in relief whenever I came across a previously marked room, as it assured me that I was headed in the right direction.

75%

It took me several hours to initially solve it, and I now had to reach the start of the maze in a fraction of that time. The increase in movement speed certainly helped, but not as much as I would’ve hoped.

30%

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I could’ve sworn the meter was decreasing faster the further I got. It was as if this place didn’t really want me to leave and was just toying with me, making me think that I stood a chance at escaping.

5%

I was panting even though I wasn’t the one actually running. I was so close, but, evidently, not close enough. As I turned a corner and headed down what I presumed to be the penultimate stretch, I saw that there was another asset blocking the claustrophobic passage. It was one of those bulky old TV sets, which projected a static image of the same warped face as before. It was pointed right at me, expecting me.

0%

“Uh Oh!” The disembodied, enthusiastic voice announced “You’ve really gone and done it now! The only thing that Henry hates more than guests are guests who outstay their welcome. But not to worry!”

Suddenly, a loud thump shook the window next to my desk. My blood ran cold. I swallowed the proverbial lump in my throat and slowly turned my head towards it. There was a dark hand pressed against the glass. It was followed by another, and then another—all reaching in from different angles, until all I could see were various-sized palms grasping at the flat pane, applying more and more pressure against it.

“Henry will just have to pay you a visit instead. Henry could always use more red paint!”

I fell out of my chair just in time as the window practically exploded. Glittering shards scattered across my bedroom. Terrified, I rolled onto my hands and knees, propelling myself up to my feet before bolting for the door. A tsunami of hopelessness crashed against me as soon as I emerged onto the other side. I was no longer in my apartment. Stretching before me was a branching crimson corridor…

This wasn’t a game anymore. Or if it was, I was the entertainment.

Something grabbed the back of my sweatshirt. I squirmed away, leaving it in my pursuer’s grasp. I ran, I screamed and I pleaded. I barreled through the identical rooms and interrelated passages, desperate to evade the imminent presence that followed my every step. I glanced back for only a second, which was enough to refuel my panicked frenzy, as what I saw will haunt me until the day I fucking die: a cluster of elongated limbs ending in human-shaped hands. Using them, it crawled forth like a centipede. At the center of the flailing mass was that goddamn face, although it’s deep frown was now an impossibly wide grin. Its eyes had become two circular voids. They trembled with excitement the closer it drew. This was it, I thought; there was no way that I was getting out of this alive. My legs were bound to give out sooner rather than later, and I was in no state to assess where I was going. Whatever that grotesque monstrosity was intending on doing to me, I just hoped that it was quick.

I was on the verge of surrendering to my fate when my salvation appeared before me in the most unlikely and yet ironically fitting form. A red door. It blended so seamlessly with the walls that I saw only its outline, but it was there nonetheless: my way out. I mustered what remaining endurance I had and charged towards it. My lungs were on fire. I couldn’t feel my calves anymore—it was like I was running on stilts.

I shut my eyes and threw myself against the door, spilling onto the wet asphalt beyond it. My shoulder and elbow absorbed the brunt of the impact. Thankfully, it wasn’t my skull. Still high on adrenaline, I snapped my head back. The door was gone. There was only concrete stained with old graffiti.

I rubbed my bleeding elbow and steadily rose back up, then looked around. I was in the abandoned car park across from my apartment complex—the one that I used as inspiration for the first level I ever created. The morning sun shone through the gap in the outer wall. I broke down crying then and there. It was over. Against all odds, I had somehow survived and made it home. It was too good to be true, and… well… as it turns out…

It was.

I stepped out into a world that I quickly realized isn’t my world. The differences are subtle but they are there, chief among them being my own mother not knowing who the hell I am. She’d apparently never had a son. Alex threatened to call the cops on me after I repeatedly showed up at his school to try and talk to him. In his defense, if some random guy walked up to me and told me that they were my best friend from another timeline, I’d probably react the same.

Things haven’t been easy for me, as you can probably guess. I spent two years sleeping on park benches and diving through dumpsters; even turned to drugs to cope with the overwhelming trauma and loneliness. I can’t say that things are all well and good now, but I do have a roof over my head, which is an improvement. I don’t think that I’ll ever be able to live a normal life, but I am trying, hence posting this. I don’t want to be alone anymore, and the internet is the only place where I can talk about this without worrying that I’d be thrown in a padded cell.

You don’t have to believe me. I wouldn’t believe me either, but, hey, thanks for reading anyway.

There’s one thing in particular that I can’t stop thinking about:

That creepy voice called me “guest185”, which implies that there were 184 “guests” before me. Did I escape into the reality of some other version of me that got inadvertently sucked into that place as well?

You know what? Come to think of it, I don’t really want to know.

Credit: Morning Owl

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