Infinite square feet

I’m thinking of examples of the kind of architecture that’s been showing up, primarily in video games of the last couple decades, typified by cyclopean underground facilities of steel and concrete.

The famous “Welcome to Black Mesa” sequence in Half-Life introduces the facility as an endless labyrinth of impossible, windowless spaces, so twisting and massive that no person could understand the whole thing. It’s made of enormous edifices of poured concrete slabs, bottomless pits, vaulted hangars, towering silos traced by catwalks. An interior space of arbitrary size, nearly endless, such that no single feature seems to be the thing it was built to contain.

Even the lab where Freeman works is hinted as only one of many labs of equal or greater importance, just as we’re given to understand that an Ph.D. is Theoretical Physics from MIT is just barely enough qualification to work there. Gordon’s nobody special, and certainly not impressive. What could be impressive in a place like this? The builders of Black Mesa had infinite resources, somehow infinite time as well.

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Who built this place. Where are the blueprints? Who ran the electrical wires; who worked out the ventilation? These aren’t questions worth asking, because the whole architecture is impossible. It’s an engineer’s purgatory dream, with Freeman lost and wandering not through measureless caverns, but a well-ordered madness of unending corridors and enormous rooms with blinking lights, safety placards, janitorial equipment. He travels a mile into the complex, then at least as far to get out, and not by the same route. Not likely are those the only two paths, either, which asks the question of how many other distinct ways there are in and out. How many other nuclear missiles are secreted there, how many other reactors, accelerators, train systems winding through the bedrock?

Infinity is implied through architecture. I’ll give Valve credit for drawing a modern aesthetic out of the same impulse that makes Piranesi’s 200-year old Imaginary Prisons sketches so uncanny. I’m not sure those game developers were the first to do it, but they’re the ones I know about.

As for the humanities, there’s Borges’ Library of Babel, but that place, (though mathematical) is fundamentally unscientific, un-engineered, un-bureaucratic. It’s gnostic. A soul can exist there, whereas the only thing inside Black Mesa’s bones is rebar.

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If Half-Life is the first, Portal and Portal 2 take it even further. The Aperature Science Enrichment Center lacks even the conceit of being designed for human ergonomics: it exists only to test humans (and robots) with puzzles, thus a room may be of any size and configuration. One gets the sense that GlaDOS has occupied her long solitude by designing an entire hell—and hell’s back stage areas—to which she is constantly making additions at a scale which is unimpressive to an electronic mind and inconceivable to a human one.

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I said I was thinking of examples of this idea of an infinite underground facility, so here are the others I’ve got: Hugh Howey’s Silo series taps into the same feeling, with its conceit of living your entire life inside an underground tube of steel and concrete and stairways and bulkheads. So does Playdead’s recent game Inside, which takes place in a cryptic subterranean research complex, as well as a sort of sunken, Atlantean version of same.