The quiet horror of procedural generation

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That feeling from being the only one in a building is called kenopsiaThe Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows defines kenopsia as "the eerie, forlorn atmosphere of a place that's usually bustling with people but is now abandoned and quiet." Photos of kenopsic places — abandoned shopping malls, empty airports, school hallways late at night, and other lonely places that evoke feelings of disassociation and disquiet — are popular online. The most famous kenopsic photo is the one of The Backrooms.

According to Know Your Meme, The Backrooms originated on 4chan in 2019 when someone posted a photo, taken at an uneasy angle, of a dingy yellow room illuminated by fluorescent lights. There's no furniture or people. The wallpaper, reminiscent of a 1980s hotel conference room, is mismatched. The carpeting has large stains. A divider at the far end hints at an entrance to another, possibly similar room. A 4chan reader's comment about the photo marks the first use of The Backrooms:

If you're not careful and no-clip out of reality in wrong areas, you'll end up in the backrooms, where it's nothing but the stink of moist carpet, the madness of mono-yellow, and endless background noise of fluorescent lights at maximum hum-buzz, and approximately six hundred million square miles of randomly segmented empty rooms to be trapped in. God save you if you hear something wandering around nearby, because it sure as hell has heard you…

The Backrooms quickly spread beyond 4chan. In the weeks and months to follow, people wrote programs that simulated the "six hundred million square miles of randomly segmented empty rooms." Some of these panic-inducing mazes became the basis for Backrooms games, the object of which is to escape without going crazy.

The Backrooms also inspired a wiki, called Backrooms Database. It's a collaborative writing site where fans "create new Levels, Entities, Objects, Tales, and the rest of the lore, to create a cohesive universe." You can read reports from members of the M.E.G. (Major Explorers' Group) who have ventured deep into the Backrooms and have taken photos of newly discovered rooms and hallways (all of which are, of course, kenopsic) and cataloged the lifeforms that inhabit the lower levels, such as skin stealers, hounds, and facelings.

The Backrooms reminds me of "Report on an Unidentified Space Station," a 1982 short story by J.G. Ballard about a crew of space travelers who make an emergency landing on an abandoned space station. (I read it in the excellent Semiotext(e) SF anthology from 1989, edited by Rudy Rucker, Robert Anton Wilson, and Peter Lambhorn Wilson.) The story is told in the form of eight "survey reports." In the first report, the nameless author gives their first impression of the spacecraft:

Although of elderly construction it is soundly designed and in good working order, and seems to have been used in recent times as a transit depot for travelers resting at mid-point in their journeys. Its interior consists of a series of open passenger concourses, with comfortably equipped lounges and waiting rooms. As yet we have not been able to locate the bridge or control centre. We assume that the station was one of many satellite drogues surrounding a large command unit, and was abandoned when a decline in traffic left it surplus to the needs of the parent transit system

They estimate the station to be 500 meters across. But as they explore its well-lit lounges and hallways, they slowly realize that the station is much larger than they initially surmised. From "Survey Report 2":

We began by setting out across the central passenger concourse that separates the two hemispheres of the station. This wide deck is furnished with thousands of tables and chairs. But on reaching the high partition doors 200 metres away we discovered that the restaurant deck is only a modest annex to a far larger concourse. An immense roof three storeys high extends across an open expanse of lounges and promenades. We explored several of the imposing staircases, each equipped with a substantial mezzanine, and found that they lead to identical concourses above and below.

The space station has clearly been used as a vast transit facility, comfortably accommodating many thousands of passengers. There are no crew quarters or crowd control posts. The absence of even a single cabin indicates that this army of passengers spent only a brief time here before being moved on, and must have been remarkable self-disciplined or under powerful restraint.

They revise their estimation of the size of the station to be one mile in diameter. With each subsequent report, they realize the station is vastly larger than they'd imagined.

In the ninth and final report, the scout estimates the diameter of the space station to be at least 15,000 light-years:

We have accepted the limitless size of the station, and this awareness fills us with feelings that are almost religious. Our instruments confirm what we have long suspected, that the empty space across which we traveled from our own solar system in fact lies within the interior of the station, one of many vast lacunae set in its endlessly curving walls.

The Backrooms, and Ballard's story, made me curious about procedural generation, a process that can be used to automatically create endless virtual architecture, among other things. (Check out the Procedural Generation subreddit for lots of cool examples of what can be done with procedural generation.) A specific procedural generation technique called a "wave function collapse algorithm" is commonly used to create worlds like The Backrooms. This beginner's guide to "wave function collapse algorithms" helped me understand how they work.

Here's a video of an infinite city built using the wave function collapse algorithm:

This video of a city built from a limited set of architectural elements combined in endlessly different ways feels very much like Ballard's space station. Near the end of the video, you can see how the buildings are generated in realtime as you approach the edge of the city. There's no escape from this place.

It's not surprising that kenopsic spaces have become a phenomenon in the era of COVID-19. They represent the millions of unused schools, theaters, office buildings, museums, and libraries worldwide. Just thinking about them triggers a sense of Ballardian dread. Here's hoping we find our way out of this space station we've all been trapped in for the past year.