Interactive Fiction

When Babel fell, its black bituminous Gurge boiled up from the ground, the mouth of hell.

John Milton, Paradise Lost, XII 41-2 (PARAPHRASED)

In Paradise Lost, Milton describes Babel as a tower made of a “black bituminous gurge” that “boiles out from under ground, the mouth of Hell.” The Tower of Babel is a figure not just of human arrogance but of human aspiration, and yet a symbol of the inevitable threat to human existence altogether. But Milton’s “gurge” is an apt descriptor not just for the biblical earth, but for our own climate-devastated lands. An Australian wildfire-stricken rainforest might become a kind of gurge; likewise, the flood-prone streets of the coastal south United States, or the earthquake zones in Indonesia, or Chile, or California. In the myth, the Tower of Babel ultimately signifies the loss of language and human connection. But what about us? What will we lose, in the next ten or 100 or 10,000 years, beneath our own bituminous gurge? How will the story of that loss be told?

The Gurge is a narrative-driven game about our role as consumers in a fictional, climate-changing world.

Climate Change and Gamification

The Gurge: Into the Labyrinth is a first-person interactive puzzle game that tests the limits of non-linear narrative and explores what it might be like to uncover the stories and fragments of human civilization thousands of years after the world’s end.

The Story Premise

Beginning in the lush and sunny “ruins” of an ancient courtyard, the game presents a natural paradise with overgrown vines cascading down the broken walls and a light breeze flowing through the trees. But through interacting with various objects we begin to learn a fantastical story about the previous residents of this courtyard and the legends of how the Gurge, a series of interwoven labyrinths in both space and time, first came into existence.

Unearthing the Past

As the player uses ancient keys to serially unlock the different temporal layers of the courtyard, moving either forward or backward in time at every lock, a larger story about human-caused loss and climate change also begins to emerge. With each iteration, the sun and sky darken, the plants begin to die, the remnants of human industry become more dominating, with gas tanks, tools, broken wood pieces increasingly littering the ground, and the forces of climate change, like smoke, wind, and flooding, begin to take over.

The industrial objects that litter the courtyard and the other worlds of the Gurge each reveal clues about the past as well, as the player gathers the historical research notes of a mysterious archeologist who appears to have explored the Gurge’s worlds before we arrived. As players we must find our way through the post-post-apocalyptic game world, a palimpsest of historical times that holds dark mysteries, all while trying not to get trapped in the Gurge’s physical or temporal labyrinths, and all while uncovering the frightening role we ourselves must play in this labyrinthine world.

Player Choices & Learning

The cyclical nature of human history is a central theme of The Gurge. Considering how the ancient ruins of one civilization often become the cultural and historical sites of celebration of another, the game emphasizes the irony of this cycle: in The Gurge, the ancient ruins are “ruined” by the modern structures and artifacts that, together with the climate changes, begin to blemish the space. But the cycles of human history and civilization are also present in the gameplay, which gives the player access to multiple versions of the courtyard (different spaces set in different times) at any given moment and asks them to constantly make choices to deplete the environment or preserve it as they progress through the levels.

The player must find their way through the spatial, temporal, and psychological labyrinth of the game and game choices, in order to reach one of the game’s multiple endings. The player’s agency in the game, as they unravel the story of human destruction presented all around them, is expanded not just beyond the bounds of a linear progression but also beyond the bounds of the game’s story–the player does with the game space what they want with it, just as humans have done with earth.

Narrative & Level Design

While The Gurge explores the themes of climate change, urban collapse, and historical discovery, it also experiments with the video game medium as a means of storytelling. In the design and development of the game’s levels and story, we explore the question: What can the 3D, immersive, and interactive space of a game world do for narrative building that text, image, and film cannot?

Interactive Game Maps & Gameplay

We wanted The Gurge to capitalize on the immersive, interactive, 3D space of the medium, where:

  • the mise-en-scène of worldbuilding is used as a storytelling tool;
  • visual cues and audio narration react dynamically to the player’s choices;
  • the player’s agency makes the story, by definition, non-linear, a quality we decided to mirror in the theme of temporal labyrinths alongside the spatial labyrinths of the interwoven game maps.

The Player’s Role in the Narrative

One of our biggest storytelling innovations was in finding narratively consistent ways to voice four different narrators in the game, whose unreliability and contradictions create an additional “story labyrinth” that the player must navigate as they seek the “truth” of the game world’s history.

As the player moves through the levels as a first-person character wandering within and exploring the labyrinth, the game asks them to think about who they are. As they move through the labyrinth, their footsteps echo back. But are they truly human? An AI? Some other kind of consciousness? The identity of the player is developed through the voices from the labyrinth itself that speak to the player, becoming in some instances accusatory with invectives against humanity and the human actions that have destroyed the fictional world.

The Gurge: Into the Labyrinth has been published in early access on Game Jolt. The game is made using Unreal Engine and Quixel Megascans, with 3D modeling work done in Blender3D and music composition recorded and edited with Garageband and Audacity.

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