All houses are haunted.
The foundation of the house is an unearthing. A grave. Space is spooky; it can hear you scream. Like teenagers kneeling around a Ouija board, we try to summon into space the deepnesses of intelligence. Is this so weird to hear? Graduating to your own room as a child is a kind of graduating into an actual person: with others, we are less, but with ourselves, alone to our rooms, we are somehow more. The room makes a man out of you. This explains why we worry about those people who leave the walls of their homes blank--hello? anybody home? When we are depressed, the house plants wither beside our withering. We seep into space, space seeps into us. And we are desperate to leave our mark on space, even if it ruins the furniture: think of the white ring a hot mug leaves on wood. Presence stains time, it haunts the wood. Carelessness is also a precondition of our lives, and it causes us to leave ourselves everywhere, our personalities, naturally, which include our fears, our hates, our loves, our dreams, but we also leave the leavings of others and the leavings of...something other. The terror of space is not that it's empty, or that space will outlast us; the terror of space is that it is us, and we are it. Home sweet home.
The terror of space is not that it's empty, or that space will outlast us; the terror of space is that it is us, and we are it. Home sweet home.
There's no such thing as an unhaunted house. From the wobbling spiral staircase of Shirley Jackson's Hill House, to the hissing pipes of Ridley Scott's Nostromo, space is always giving us chase, it's what's lurking around the corner, and it is the corner.
We might think of ourselves as the oldest homes, or as soft architecture, as the poet Lisa Robertson puts it in a strange work called Occasional Work and Seven Walks from the Office for Soft Architecture. "We recommenders of present action have learned to say 'perhaps' our bodies produce space," Robertson writes. "What if there is no 'space,' only a permanent slow-motion mystic takeover, an implausibly careening awning? Nothing is utopian. Everything wants to be. Soft Architects face the reaching middle." That mystic takeover seems right to me; all space is looking for ghosts to take it over, to haunt it.
I wonder about these ghosts, what they're up to when we're not around (well, we are around: we're everywhere we went). Do the country estate's ghosts clank their chains in the off-seasons, when the family has returned to their apartments in the city? They must: the family never really left at all.
THE HAUNTING OF 8800 BLUE LICK ROAD
What do we call this game? 8800 Blue Lick Road? The walking simulator has become a kind of bad word in video games: these are games, some sneer, whose chief interactive mechanic is that you walk around in them. You look. You pick up notes. You listen to conversations. You soak in space, architecture, the immensity of digital infinities.
The walking simulator got a big boost when Gone Home became a hit back in 2013, offering players the chance to wander the main character's childhood home. In Gone Home there are no enemies. No game-over states. Giving up, as ever, is the only way to lose. Walking simulators feel like the ghostliest form of play, as you glide through a series of events that feel emphatically preordained. Walking simulators are entirely fated, as most video games are fated, in that the endings are set in stone, but with walking simulators, your presence feels so after-the-fact, so neither-here-nor-there. You can't change the world, man, so just go with the groove.
Walking simulators are entirely fated, as most video games are fated, in that the endings are set in stone, but with walking simulators, your presence feels so after-the-fact, so neither-here-nor-there. You can't change the world, man, so just go with the groove.
8800 Blue Lick Road is a very good walking simulator, among the best in its subgenre, the 3D home tour. That it wasn't made as a game, at least intentionally, is beside the fact. It is a found game, in this sense. You begin in a living room. There's the cat water bowl, and the neighboring kibble dish, the plum-colored Lay-Z-Boy and the madras plaid sofa. Another room, what looks like a kitchen, is walled off by shelves whose backsides their designers clearly never meant to be visible: the seams are showing like the zippers of a Halloween costume.
The floor is pebbled in styrofoam. The kitchen table, far off in the background, is slammed with Costco bulk packs of energy drinks. In one touching detail, an ivy plant drizzles from a high shelf. Dirty men live here, you think. It has the appearance of a man-cave, that tired idea of what men do with space absent a woman's touch.
(Once, I met up with a woman who wanted to be my roommate. When I showed her pictures of my apartment, she smiled coldly and said, "You know what your place needs?"
"What?" I said.
"A woman's touch," she said.
"Oh," I said. "Like what?"
"Flowers, for one. And I want to spell out the word CREATE on the mantel."
I knew my tastes, and so myself, were better than hers, and so herself, but I had no hard proof until we turned to books.
"I'm a writer," I said.
"I love writers," she said. "Ayn Rand is my favorite."
I chose to burn through my savings that year, to live alone.)
In this man-cave, we see here the utilitarian marriage of form and function in domestic space: the old boxes that the shelving came in are just as deserving as the shelving itself. Energy drinks in bulk don't swallow the kitchen table but, instead, repeat its morphology upward, bringing it closer to heaven.
8800 Blue Lick Road begins in tropes, in the sinking but comfortable familiarity of lazy boys. It is only getting started.
When we turn to the left of the living room, we see the master bedroom. There is more of the occupants' strange division of space inside space with artificial barriers, here the dresser and the storage cabinet creating an enormous alcove, accessed by a diagonal entry point, that seems to only store a slanted dust mop, a package, and what looks like a giant hair clip.
At this point, we are sketching the life of these Blue Lick ghosts. Trying to name them by their space, by them. They lived a cluttered life. They collected and hoarded. They gathered energy in swigs. They tended to their ivy.
Where have they gone? Are they still here? In this house? Among the living? We know, given the genre of 8800 Blue Lick Road, that someone had to go in and photograph the space. Did this photographer arrive to an occupation or a desertion? The unmade bed still bears the bruisings of the body that bruised it. The pillow is soiled dark, almost as if it's been burned. There's an orgy of wires and cables beside the bed. And those two rococo candelabra, an echo of the ivy in the previous room, seem like, if you were to pull them in a Vincent Price movie, would swing open a hidden chamber where Vincent Price goes to do something evil, to touch himself.
We turn around and find a stairwell. Funny how the game didn't begin at the beginning, at the front door. But there it is, announced curiously with one of those public space red EXIT signs. It feels like a joke, of sorts. What kind of house is this? Our ghosts weren't pure moaners. They knew something about less serious matters.
We descend, and stop at that favorite haunted house trapping, the staircase portrait:
Two boys. The same boy? A portrait always seems to open up space like an autopsy, like a mirror. Like a mirror, it plays tricks: it is light captured, trapped in film, but it is not the light, and never the thing. It is an attempt at personality. We look at the portraits of our loved ones who've died and attempt to remember them, attempt to hear how they sounded, to smell how they smelled. Failure is key to the portrait: it isn't enough by a mile and then some. And yet its not-enoughness still brings comfort. The ghost of someone, the light of their light, is enough for now. For now. We descend deeper into the haunt.
There are more bedrooms in the basement. And a bathroom of twins: twin toilets, twin trash cans. Twin portraits.
The house seems to be twinning and doubling when we're not looking, and that's key to any haunting: where we aren't looking is changing. There's no where there—it's already gone, goneing, becoming. Space is so good at exhausting our ability to understand it, to confirm we even experience it. There's a simple exercise you can do to test out space's inexhaustibility. In your mind, walk through the malls of your childhood, or the aisles of the grocery store you visit every week. Can you order the stores perfectly? Does Abercrombie come before Victoria's Secrets? Babbage's after Borders? Can you remember the produce aisles perfectly? Are the plums on the left shelf or the right? Beside the bananas or the oranges? Does the parsley hang out bitterly beside the sweet carrots? We are terrible at holding onto that which holds onto us: space won't quit us even as we never cease to quit it.
And 8800 Blue Lick Road is changing. As we turn out of the bathroom, an open door beckons us toward another room filled with boxes.
A second kitchen, beneath the kitchen. Twinning, doubling, changing. Two doors, a forking path. What in the ever fuck?
8800 Blue Lick Road seems, like the haunted house in Mark Z. Danielewski's House of Leaves, to be bigger on the inside than the outside. The upstairs did not anticipate this downstairs. Space opens in space.
And it keeps going: on and on.
It's a labyrinth without a minotaur. It's a library of Babel but for bullshit. Direct to DVD porn, nature documentaries, car dash cameras, outdated wall calendars, chainsaws. All of it hidden, out of sight, in the cellar.
In his exhilaratingly unreadable book The Poetics of Space, Gaston Bachelard writes about the cellar as "the dark entity of the house, the one that partakes of subterranean forces." He writes that the cellar "becomes buried madness, walled-in tragedy." There is madness in 8800 Blue Lick Road, and the sense of human ingenuity in the face of all this madness stretched to its desperate limits. We have wondered about the ghosts of this house, but now we are thrown far beyond our wonder. The shock of a home becoming something else entirely tells us how much we hate the familiarity of our own homes, and how much we want space to keep us from spacing out, to instead surprise us. The logic of 8800 Blue Lick Road, once you enter the cellar, is baffling: dead-ends everywhere, a second floor that is accessed through the basement, and a passage that doubles as a bathtub.
There is a backstory here, and indeed people have gone sleuthing since the Redfin posting went viral online. Already, the 3D tour has been taken down. The game is gone, the fun is over. The Haunting of 8800 Blue Lick Road's power is enormous, but also enormously short-lived. Its mysteries fade into the explicable. This is because we are dealing with the non-fictional, the "inspired by true events"ness of a found game. And the best games end before you can know them, spiraling out of control in our imagination, doubling, doubling again, seizing upon a mystic unreality that escapes experience.
And the best games end before you can know them, spiraling out of control in our imagination, doubling, doubling again, seizing upon a mystic unreality that escapes experience.
THE OLDEST HOUSE
Control came out in 2019, developed by Remedy Entertainment, the developers of Alan Wake and Max Payne, among others. Control takes place in the Oldest House, the space the Federal Bureau for Control (FBC) calls its home. The FBC are essentially the X-Files wing of the FBI, responsible for investigating "paranatural" phenomenon, and their home, the Oldest House, is one of the great haunted spaces of video games.
The Oldest House is a brutalist work, that school of architecture that bears my favorite name. Brutalism came about in the post-World War II era, largely as a reaction to and rejection of architecture as an expression of nostalgia. Tudors, Victorians, mission revivals? Trash. Brutalism aimed to reject the old and familiar. Bachelard writes, "When the image is new, the world is new," and I can't help but think of the director Werner Herzog's similar claim that our culture is "starving for images." Brutalism is, true to its name, a style of awesome misery; it destroys our tendency to think of space as shelter from the storm. The brutalist building is the coldest kind of comfort, and it is made of cold, cold material: vast slabs of concrete. A log cabin exudes warmth; if you could toss it into the hearth beneath its own roof, it would burst in the most pleasing flames. The brutalist building smothers the hearth and the flame. The brutalist building understands that awe, which it inspires, is more a state of anxiety, the religious sensation when faced with annihilation. Awe greets the man who attempts to look into the Ark, into the Father of all Faces. Awe is rarely pretty.
Control inspires the player's awe at every turn. And the Oldest House is terrifically haunted. The mailing room in the Oldest House is a cathedral of pneumatic tubes, its pillars upholstered with these same tubes, which begin to resemble the gills of mushrooms, rising in poisonous caps that bloom yellow light.
Control understands that space should repulse the player as it beckons them deeper. And it weds the player to space, and its destructive potential, in the same world-devouring relationship that games like Fortnite and Minecraft occasion. In Control, you have telekinetic powers. You can pick up those banker tubes and fling them; you can yank whole slabs of that brutalist concrete from the walls and fling them. The space buckles beneath you, and, credit to the remarkable programming that runs the whole simulation, the space seems to remember. Early on in my progress through Control, I found myself destroying the rooms I wandered through like the lousiest stereotype of a rock 'n' roll band. I hurled chairs into tables, feeling a religious awe as the tables split in half like communion wafers. I shattered windows, blistered walls. In previous gaming generations, the signs of your destruction were unsustainable: you'd watch as your enemy's bodies dissolved into the afterlife of limited RAM, as the imprint of your boots in snow gessoed over in white.
In previous gaming generations, the signs of your destruction were unsustainable: you'd watch as your enemy's bodies dissolved into the afterlife of limited RAM, as the imprint of your boots in snow gessoed over in white.
Johannes Richter, the Principal VFX Artist at Remedy, explains in a video what he calls the principal of granularity, which guided ideas of destructibility in the Oldest House.
Richter says that "nature isn't quantified. It is a continuum from very big objects down to dust and very very thin veils of smoke." That continuum, from the very big to dust, and then to smoke, feels like a perfect articulation of the life and afterlife cycle. Objects to chunks, debris to dust, smoke to ghost.
Control speaks to a future of games that remember, that do not allow a return. There is something inexorable in this approach. The endgame seems to be, as it were, a controlled simulation of destruction, the sort of paradox that makes me giddy. Richter's presentation is dry and interesting in that way of all experts getting lost in the grains of their expertise, but it leads to slides with absurdly wonderful titles: "Destruction Tool-Chain", "Destruction Hierarchy", and "Monolithic Destruction Tool". It's the slideshow of a bureaucratic world-eater, Cthulhu rage-vaping in his cubicle.
It's the slideshow of a bureaucratic world-eater, Cthulhu rage-vaping in his cubicle.
Games like Control, Fortnite, Minecraft, and, yes, 8800 Blue Lick Road show us that space should be plastic and decayable, just as we are plastic and decayable, and it should carry the capacity to surprise us out of ourselves, back into space. Space remembers, despite of, and mystically powered by, our protestations. This is why ghosts wrestle terribly with space, that almost impossible task the dead are doomed to perform to get the living to notice. After a decade of effort, the doorknob turns cruelly in the ghost's hands, and the door swings open, as if of its own accord. A draft? We, the living, shut it. It will take another decade for the ghost to get us hear it say, You motherfucker.
One day, long after you are gone, someone might wander into a space you have carved out for yourself in this desperate cohesion of reality. They might remember you in pieces, in an imperfect story, in a whiff of what made you sometimes tolerable. They might touch a wall you touched. They might fix the crook in your portrait. A creak behind. This person, whirling around to know you, long gone, might be moved to scream.