Upon walking into St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican with a close friend in January, our jaws simultaneously dropped. He had never seen anything like it before. As he gazed up at the infinitely mathematical marble and gold ceiling, he said, “I think this could be the only structure like this to exist outside of a dream.”
But I had seen something like it before—in a videogame, and one that I remember today only through dreams.
There are certain types of physical and geographical structures which, until just a few decades ago, could rarely be experienced within the realm of the senses. They could only permeate the realm of the unconscious: stacks of impossible geometries, neverending landscapes populated with unnoticed details ripped from the conscious world.
Paintings like Escher’s Relativity (1953) or Convex and Concave (1955) inevitably captured the alienated, conflicted lived space of a looming modernism, while Inception (2010) tried to depict a dream of a cold, corporate neoliberalism.
Through visual art, then, we have long been able to represent the world we inhabit when we are no longer conscious. These dreamworlds may only be experienced within our heads, but remain a common psychic space in the sense that we inhabit the world that inspires them.
Until the dawn of videogames, these representations remained just that—fragmented images, recollections, memories of a half-forgotten other space. The birth of the first-person game, however, meant that we were able to build and experience these spaces in the waking world—and in our own dreams—for the very first time. As if we lived in them. As if they were part of our own lived experiences.
Back in 2004, Valve were about to release Half-Life 2 after years of delays, setbacks, leaks, and unprecedented hype—the scale of which the world had never before seen for a videogame. However, as celebrated as Half-Life 2 was, it arguably did not have as much of an impact on videogames as we know them today as its engine did.
The Source engine was significant in a number of ways. It was the first game engine to truly place an emphasis on physics. It was also extremely customizable and easy for programmers to use—thus spawning one of the longest-standing and most creative modding communities in history (which survives to this day).
In order to show off their shiny new toy to the world, Valve tried to pack in as many opportunities for players to enjoy its unique features when the time finally came to releasing Half-Life 2. This primarily came in the form of two multiplayer counterparts to Half-Life 2’s single-player: Counter-Strike: Source and Half-Life 2: Deathmatch, both also arriving in 2004. Counter-Strike: Source, a total overhaul of fan favourite Counter-Strike 1.6 (1999), was hugely popular, and continues to be played competitively to this day.
Half-Life 2: Deathmatch, on the other hand, was the uglier, less popular brother. Focused less on tactical shooting than on physics-based hijinks, its servers were often lonely, empty places, filled with strange people and odd, abandoned game modes. Yet it was these small gatherings of player-led modding communities that have kept these games alive, even a decade after their initial release dates.
For all its various iterations over the years, the Source engine has managed to retain a remarkably unique—and uniform—aesthetic and spatial style. Maps are, for the most part, flat, blocky and square. Due to the way the engine is structured, a lot of elements and objects are recycled across different game universes. You’ll find the same barrel and crate models in Counter-Strike: Source as you will in Half-Life 2, for example. The same textures and NPCs are recycled over and over, the same sound effects are used again and again, and, of course, the same rules of physics are generally applied.
Play enough Source games, and you start to feel a strange sense of déjà-vu, as elements from other game worlds begin to crop up in totally unrelated, unexpected contexts. This is perhaps best crystallized in Garry’s Mod (2004), which allows players to use different objects from the engine to build new spaces, contraptions, and minigames. Source maps cherry-pick the same details over and over again in order to reuse them in a new and different way.
If you ever stop for a minute to look at the space around you in a dream, you’ll notice that your unconscious does exactly the same thing. People you haven’t seen in years appear alongside a colleague you had lunch with the other day. Your bedroom is re-decorated to look like your office. Your childhood bookcase appears in the wall of the citadel you’re lost in. Unless you’re lucid dreaming, you won’t notice how inappropriately placed these details are. That’s because your unconscious mind wants to give you a world populated with things that will not freak you out or cause you to question the (un)reality around you.
It was roughly during the summer of 2010 that my insomnia hit a peak. I would be up until 6 or 7 a.m. most nights streaming movies, reading weird creepypasta on 4Chan, or—you guessed it—playing Source games and sleeping until late afternoon afterwards. I had been playing Counter-Strike since about 2006, and by this stage I had moved onto what can be deemed the weirder user-made game modes.
The first I really got into was probably Zombie Escape. This gamemode was denoted by its map prefix, ze_, in order to distinguish it from the more survival-oriented zm_ (Zombie Mode) maps. In zm_, nearly a hundred players would have to survive being ‘infected’ by a rapidly increasing team of ‘zombie’ players through unlimited ammo, barricades, and ingenuity. It could grow stale fast, especially as many would lose very quickly and then have to spend half an hour walking against bullets in order to try and infect the last survivors. Zombie Escape, as the name suggests, was about escaping from this team of zombies—rather than outlasting them. Ze_ maps were huge, long, sprawling things, often with custom set-pieces and models. As soon as the game started, you had to start running as fast as you could from Point A to Point B while fighting off the growing player horde using weapons and tacky “vehicles” (generally speaking, moving platforms with a “jeep” reskin).
Many ze_ maps were modelled on horror and sci-fi movies. There was one particularly popular Death Star map, where players had to escape the space station before it exploded—while inexplicably being chased by space zombies (?)—complete with a weird mixture of the Star Wars soundtrack and Source sound design. Similar maps abound for Alien, Jurassic Park, and even the original Half-Life (1998).
The problem with these homage ‘escape’ maps was that they didn’t really work—at least, not as accurate recreations of the creators’ beloved sci-fi classics. Again, this was because their creators were trying to build new structures and spaces—or rather, emulate others—using the wrong tools and objects (i.e. those of the Source engine) in utterly inappropriate contexts. These were never meant to be here. This wasn’t zombie Star Wars—it was zombie Half Star Life Wars; a pastiche of three different, separate universes. Half-Life’s multidimensional empire, The Combine, had dreamt a dream of a space station from a parallel world, and so it was.
As the nights drew on and the ze_ servers on Counter-Strike grew emptier and emptier, I went in search of something new, where insomniacs were accepted for who they were. I went through Mario-themed mini-games, surf maps (which deserve an article of their own), and prison roleplay scenarios. Parts of the Source world began to seep into my consciousness. I would close my eyes and see visions of long, gloomy corridors filled with crates and barrels, bathed in a grey, harsh light. The physics of the engine even began to filter into my dreams. I began to feel trapped in this nightmarish, industrial terrorscape, constantly finding small parts of it making its way into places I would least expect. It would not, however, be until one late summer night that I would finally stumble upon Half-Life 2: Deathmatch’s “co-op” mode.
You would expect a Half-Life 2 co-op game mode to be story-driven; perhaps with two players like in Portal 2 (2011). However, this co-op mode is precisely the opposite. Players (usually around 16) had to team up together to fight various monsters and NPCs from Half-Life, all of which would have extremely strong additional firepower and health. What’s more, they were resized or modified to provide more of a challenge. Picture 10 people shooting at the same giant monster for 10 minutes before moving into the next area, and you’ve got the right idea.
Although eventually killing a monster provided a small boost of satisfaction, the action was monotonous, with many of the aliens sitting in formation, stock animations activated, like those in Xen at the end of the original Half-Life.
What really stood out, though, was its architecture. These maps tried, and failed, to emulate the look, feel, and geometry of Half-Life 2—and failed. They were made up of all the right elements, all the right details, but everything was out of place and out of time. Textures were stretched to the absolute limit over miles and miles of digital plateaus. Different classes of NPC who never belonged together—Vortigaunts, Combine, and Headcrabs—lay in wait for a lost soul to wander into their dark, concrete pixel-labyrinth.
The time spent playing these games awake became indistinguishable from the cyberpunk brutalist dreams of my nights. Both worlds became populated with the same hisses and snarls; surrounded by the same misplaced copies of copies of forgotten details utterly devoid of context, all living and breathing in a virtual space much too big to contain the psychic void which lay beneath.
My days and nights became lost in a sensory hall of shattered mirrors, filled with the reflections of these uncannily jumbled-up, glitchy, Stalinist valleys of fire, ash, and monsters. I dreamt within the computer, and the computer dreamt within me.