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” (XII, 41-2). The Tower of Babel often provokes fascination as 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?

Gamifying Critical Inquiry

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.

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.

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.

Innovations in Narrative Design

While The Gurge explores the themes of climate change, cosmic collapse, and historical discovery, it also experiments with the video game medium as a means of storytelling. Since the Mad Air team comes from a background in creative writing, we had two innovation goals in making this game. First, we wanted to ask: what can the 3D, immersive, and interactive space of a game world do for narrative building that text, image, and film cannot?

We wanted The Gurge to capitalize on the immersive, interactive, 3D space of the medium, where the mise-en-scène of worldbuilding is used heavily as a storytelling tool; visual cues and audio narration react dynamically to the player’s choices; and, importantly, the player’s agency makes the story, by definition, non-linear, a quality we decided to mirror in the theme of temporal labyrinths. Our biggest storytelling innovation, however, was in finding story-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. Textual literature can’t do any of that.

Our second goal was to experiment with iterative game design, like seat-of-the-pants storytelling, where the game’s narrative and mechanics weren’t just limited to the team’s technical capabilities but were actually driven, sometimes whimsically, by them. This meant that the narrative backbone of the game’s story could grow in unexpected ways–with, for instance, a flood covering the entire game world–when we first learned how to create and manipulate a water Blueprint in the editor.

The Gurge is the result of experimental storytelling and experimental game design, where each process fueled the design creativity and storytelling innovations in the other.

The Gurge: Into the Labyrinth has been published in early access on Game Jolt. The next major release is currently in active development and set for publication on PC and Mac in 2021. 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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