Sam Anderson has an idiosyncratic little essay on caves in the latest edition of The New York Times Magazine. That may seem like an odd piece to highlight on a blog that concerns itself with media shifts, but there’s quite a bit on media in “Entering Darkness”: Werner Herzog’s first foray into 3D, cave paintings, home videos of Osama bin Laden, and Google Maps.

These considerations lead up to what you might call a prehistoric poetics of space:

The appeal of caves is, obviously, primal. They offer, in their darkness, both an instant physical reward — shelter — and something more metaphysical. For as many millenniums as there have been humans, caves seem to have been considered a contact zone with the magical, the otherworldly, the irrational, the unconscious.

In that regard, one form of media Anderson might have named, but did not, is that of interactive fiction. The association is particularly apt since the most broadly-accepted history of the genre begins with Will Crowther’s Colossal Cave Adventure.

Because of that lineage, you might say that interactive fiction has caving in its DNA. Crowther was a caver, and the eponymous cave was based on his experiences with an actual environment, Bedquilt Cave in the Mammoth Cave system. By working out a system to represent his caving hobby as a text-based game, Crowther was unwittingly codifying the conventions that would define a genre quick to depart for other vistas.

But while IF games have repeatedly left the caves, the caves have never quite left IF. The fundamental activity of most IF games still involves a virtual form of caving, even when the game world is patterned after a very different environment. Originally the rooms by which most IF worlds are defined were the rooms, galleries and passages of a cave, not those of a building, and functionally they still exist in part to be discovered and explored.

That process of discovery constitutes a great deal of the appeal of IF gaming, it would seem. In a heartfelt reminiscence for Rock Paper Shotgun, Leigh Alexander recently discussed Adventure as an extension of the childhood passion not just for exploring, but for mapping the unknown. She writes,

Trails were to be followed, walls scaled, and any unusual object, from abandoned toys to simple garbage, had the possibility of being invested with magic. They were faerie crowns, they were clues in a murder mystery, they were signposts for travelers.

You might call this an example of cartological passion. I’d be surprised to learn that it isn’t a common element in the childhoods of most IF enthusiasts, if not of every adult still enthralled with story in general. We find cave-like images serving as the entry-way into some of the most enduring fantasy stories of the past century, e.g. the hillside doorway in The Hobbit, or the titular piece of furniture in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. The difference between those two, I’d suggest, is that most of us have come to understand that the latter as an allegory for Christian doctrine. Far from enriching our experience of the book, that information robs the story of much of its intrinsic interest. Once we learn how the map corresponds the terrain, our cartological passion begins to wain.

That may help to explain why attempts to provide a better integrated mapping function has never really caught on in IF games. Part of the appeal of an IF game is in the quiet mental conversion of the story into a meaning-laden map of the imaginative terrain. A real map can, at best, only suggest the interaction of those meanings as they’re schematized in the game world. As such, IF maps tend to be strictly functional sidelines to the game itself, keeping the player from getting unduly lost, or serving as a handy reminder of where a given object is located.

The real map of an IF game world cannot be strictly spatial, and as such, it might be better to compare them to the memory palaces explored by the late historian Frances Yates. There, the loci of the map are only superficially spatial. As symbols, their real purpose is to point beyond themselves. Beyond the semblance of the spatial is the realm of meaning, and by its extension into meaningful representation, the map expands in more directions than are encompassed in our natural, visual sense of inhabitable space.

This, too, belongs to our sense of the potential of caves. You’re probably most familiar with that symbolic resonance through Plato’s allegory of the cave. There, the denizens of the cave perceive the truth of reality only indirectly, as shadows cast against the wall. The philosopher ascends to the surface and, after acclimating his vision to the sunlight, is able to return to the cave and see those symbols for what they truly entail.

Twenty-four centuries of trying to fit Plato into a strictly rational scheme has sometimes led his interpreters to read the allegory in overly schematic terms. The shadows that the prisoners of the cave perceive are taken to correspond to notions that can be formulated in precise and unambiguous language. Enlightenment thus becomes a brand of semiotics.

But we need not interpret the allegory as an effort at direct translation. It may be that the truth comes to us in shadows because truth eludes precision. As such, we might be better off understanding the symbolic value of the cave in terms of a work like Robertson Davies’ novel The Manticore. There, the cave is the locus of an encounter with a fundamentally inexpressible experience in archetypal terms. This is the symbol by way of Schopenhauer and Jung, messy and organic because possessed of the life that makes humans so complex and vibrant.

By bringing in the allegory of the cave, I mean to suggest not that IF games ought routinely to present schematized ideas in allegorical form, but rather that it is in the nature of the genre to create systems of symbols. The IF world is a complex arrangement of such symbols, grafted onto a text-base cave-exploration simulation. Because those symbols come to the player in the abstracted, evocative form of language, they lend themselves to the imaginative act of mapping meanings.

They don’t have to be the insipidly transparent symbols of ideology, fitting neatly into a logical machine whose function it is to reduce the world to only that which can be easily grasped and, thus, just as easily discarded. Just as often they are the logic-confounding symbols of our inner lives. A symbol, in this context, is not a correspondence, the way that equivalent words in different languages can, perhaps, be translated into one another. Nor is meaning something in the symbol itself, but rather something that attaches to it. The symbol has, in itself, no meaning, only the meaning it derives from its place in the context of the game world, and possibly the meaning it points to in the broader context of the player.

Ultimately, that alogical aspect is suggested by the cave itself. As Anderson notes:

caves challenge any common-sensical division between secular and sacred. A cave is a paradox: a place defined by its absence.

That may be literally true in the case of Adventure. According to legend, Crowther created the game in part as a way of sharing his love for caving with his daughters, from whom he had been estranged by a recent divorce. Whether or not the story is true, there’s an obvious appeal to seeing that parental bond as having motivated the game’s curious assemblage of sometimes disparate elements – golden eggs, a pirate, magic words that teleport the player to distant locations. Even where those meanings remain private, our assumption (or is it a hope?) that those elements do, after all, imply some meaning gives them urgency.


is the founder and editor-in-chief of Culture Ramp.
— Please submit all corrections, responses and rebuttals as letters to the editor.