It's a phenomenon that's gained widespread attention in the past couple years due to the nature of our ever-evolving world. Things are changing, closing, being forgotten. And in their wake are derelict spaces that evoke a nostalgic comfort, yet our brains seem to strangely reject them. We feel like we've been there. We associate memories with images that we've never before seen, and for some reason, we become stuck in this trance of eerie fascination.
This sensation is caused by liminality, a term deriving from the word liminal, meaning something that's occupying a position at or on both sides of a boundary or threshold, something that is within transition. With widespread interest catalysed by subreddits, forums, and social media, the Internet has served as a vehicle for sharing pictures of liminal spaces with others. This has effectively paved the path for various forms of media and online storytelling to capitalize on it, resulting in a myriad of personal stories, creepy-pastas, and indie games to play on the uncanniness that comes with them. Contrary to this relatively recent rise in online popularity, though, liminal spaces are nothing new. In fact, the concept of liminality has always existed among us. We've just never really noticed it.
What is it about source maps that unnerve us? Is it the feeling of loneliness, the emptiness that comes with the very purpose of a landscape? Or is it perhaps the fact that we can hear the sounds of other humans carrying out their lives in the distance, yet in our eyes, we're the only ones here? It's a funny feeling, that, a feeling of confused anticipation as we await people that will never come, contrary to the evidence around us: buildings, furniture within a cozy apartment, beer in the fridge. Nobody ever will.
Throughout the late '90s and into the 2000s, video games were playing on the trope of liminal spaces without even knowing it. "Garry's Mod" and "Silent Hill" are two that come to mind immediately, and while "GMOD" was more of an accidental case, "Silent Hill" was a bit more on the nose. Everything about it is interwoven with the very fabric of what makes liminal spaces so creepy to us. Isolation is always the forefront with the player being left to explore a town that is years past its time, hospitals, foggy streets, a theme park, a subway system, and even an apartment that you're unable to leave. Every single game is stuck in a bizarre state of transition. Nothing is bustling and alive anymore, but you sure as hell aren't in this place alone.
"No Players Online" is a 2019 indie horror game that takes this notion and cranks it up to 10. Everything about it is liminal. We expect the game to be littered with other players. We have the overwhelming sentiment that the space we're currently exploring was, at one time, the home to thousands of multiplayer matches. Yet, we're alone. No players are online but us. And I think this is where most of the lingering dread of a liminal space stems from: the anticipation, the expectation that someone else should be around, as is life, yet there isn't. It's the foundational rejection of loneliness that's hardwired into our brains, and when this loneliness is portrayed through art and even photos of reality, that is where the uncanniness sets in.
You know, autophobia is something inexplicably and terrifyingly unique. And you never really know it until you're in it. At school after hours. At a hotel pool when no one's around. The very last one in a shopping mall. There are so many cases for situations like this, and the beauty of the Internet is that we're able to share pictures and stories of spaces that terrify us, together. Whether it's through gaming or reality, liminal spaces and their play on our natural fear of loneliness are terrifying, and regardless if we ever figure out why they're so eerie, it's irrefutable that they'll always persist in the dark depths of the Internet. They're something of a reminder, a memento, a lens into a world that is and will always be nothing but a burning, fading, and ever-so-distant memory.