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The endless liminality of a procedurally generated airport

Published onJan 08, 2021

The page for Interminal, a procedurally generated infinite airport made by Ivan Notaros and Ferran Bertomeu for the 2020 #procjam and #7dfps game jams, positions it as a kind of nostalgia. “Do you miss airports?” The pandemic isn’t mentioned explicitly, but we all know why one might miss these spaces.

During this period of endless domesticity, I’ve been enjoying photos shared to communities such as the Facebook group “Edgelands,” which celebrate the strange beauty of liminal spaces: unused meeting rooms in hotels, empty car parks, the unpopulated concrete stretches where resources flow in and out of cities. The YouTube algorithm even served me a playlist entitled “songs that sound like how liminal spaces feel.” “I wanted to capture that nostalgic, lonely feeling you get as you look at pictures of liminal spaces,” writes its creator, “The longer you look, the more unsettled you feel, until the music is gone, and you are left with only silence.”

Interminal captures a liminal space with incredible care. There are many fine details that have been crafted to reward close attention. I love the way the footsteps echo, for example. It emphasizes that there are no other bodies in this space. Nothing soft is here, just glass, steel, and marble. Plastic-wrapped duty-free goods, clean and sterile.

Moving through Interminal, I feel an incredible longing. In the before times, a lot of my plane travel was to see someone I love. This moment of walking through an airport terminal, and its accompanying sense of liminality, has often been in anticipation of a warm, loving embrace on the other side. It is a moment of solitude, even though, of course, I might be surrounded by other people if the airport is busy. It is the last moment where I’m the “me” that I am when I’m not a “we.”

I hear one of Interminal’s airplanes before I see it. On the other side of the glass wall, I see it taxiing gently across the asphalt. I love the warm sound of the machines. The sound of air rushing through incredibly quickly, like the machines are taking a long in-breath.

Since the pandemic began, I’ve had nightmares about being in places where other people are. I’ll be at a party, or on a train, with a crowd of strangers, enjoying my remembered life, and suddenly whatever part of my frontal lobes that hadn’t yet woken up will come online and remind me: there's a pandemic! All of us are making a terrible mistake that could get someone killed! I try to tell everyone we need to get out of there, but nobody is listening.

I saw my nightmare made real in video footage captured in mid-December by a journalist who felt compelled, along with hundreds of other people, to catch a train to Leeds from St. Pancras Station in the final hours before London was locked down to prevent spread of the new coronavirus variant to the rest of the country. A throng of people were packed into a liminal space that is so familiar to me, trying to take the same train that I had taken several times a year in the before times, almost certainly spreading the virus in the process. I felt both terrified for them, and utterly infuriated.

This simulated airport terminal is reassuringly empty. There is nobody to talk to or fight with. The one verb in this game is “smell”—you can pick up a perfume with a procedurally generated brand name from duty-free, smell it, and read a procedurally generated description of its unique odour. Some of the perfumes are literally tinged with anxiety.

We no longer believe in the miasma theory, popular during the Great Plague, that bad smells carry disease, but there is still a connection between our sense of revulsion at bad smells and an instinctive reflex to protect ourselves from dangerous airborne contaminants. My senses are spectacularly overreactive to perfume; many fragranced things make my airways feel like they are burning. In the before times, I experienced a dissociative episode in St. Pancras Station triggered by a scent someone was wearing.

There’s an extent to which procedurally generated content is itself depersonalised. The labour of inventing an infinite number of perfume brands and laying out an infinite number of shop floors has been eliminated, resulting in these ineffable products, untouched by human hands. The value of these luxury goods drops to zero, stripped of the illusion of interpersonal connection that comes with brand creation.

I don’t want to become misanthropic: the problem that generated the crowd in December was systemic, but I feel disturbed by the personal choices required for it to form. A polyamory blogger recently wrote that the pandemic has shaken their trust in other people. How do you repair that, and if you can’t, how do you get close to people again when this is all over?

Zach Alexander:

I liked your essay!