The Abiding Place of No Desire

Reflections on Fugue in Void

GAME: Fugue in Void
PRODUCER: Moshe Linke (@moshelinke)

The word “fugue” has two meanings. The first, in the realm of music, describes a composition introduced by a brief melody or theme, which is then reiterated and expanded upon throughout by a number of voices. Each variation builds upon the others, creating a cascade of recursive textures. The fugue is a process of multiplying the individual: one voice, speaking alone, is soon joined by others — some echoing, some arguing — and yet, by the end, they all speak the same thing, dialectic as chorus, pieces forming a whole.

The other kind of fugue belongs to the realm of psychiatry, and describes a state of profound dissociative disconnection, during which aspects of one’s identity essential to identifying one’s own individuality — name, personality, even memories and sensations of self — are lost. Fugue is specifically distinguished from retrograde amnesia by two major factors. The first is its temporality: episodes can last anywhere between several days, to months, but always, eventually, the individual returns. The second, and more inexplicable of the two, is its lack of direct physiological causality: it is not linked to either substance abuse or medical trauma, but profound psychic disturbance. Some believe that it is a kind of extreme defensive mechanism in which the individual, unable to bear the sudden presence of some unbearable stimulus, utterly retreats into a state of isolation so severe that even the sense of oneself is left behind.

Moshe Linke’s Fugue in Void largely exists at the intersection — or perhaps it’d be more accurate to call it an absence — between these two seemingly paradoxical definitions. It’s a work which seems intimately concerned with the fragility of the self in relation to the other: tensions between the two permeate every surface of the game’s inhuman and often uncomfortably alien spaces, and always, there is the sense that at any moment, everything is on the verge of folding in on itself — less an act of momentous collapse than a slow but certain erasure through erosion.

Fugue doesn’t see this process as altogether horrifying, however (although there are plenty of moments of profound ontological anxiety to be found here, for sure). Rather, it approaches it with a sense of curiousity, and at times, even wonder. The very first — and only — indication of explicit exposition we will receive throughout the entire experience comes at the start, in the form of a single sentence. In glowing white letters suspended in a black void, occasionally interrupted by what appears to be a passing train: “This is the story of my mind.” Intriguingly, “the story of” soon fades out, leaving us with “This is my mind.” If we view the entirety of the experience through this one line — whether as the implicit narrative of the former, or even the more direct qualia of the latter — the work as a whole, for all its seeming otherness, suddenly begins to feel much more human.

The first mechanically interactive sequence in the work sets the player on a bridge of light shining in the darkness. Just a few metres beneath, a vast monotonous sea churns, its black waves stretching endlessly out into the void. There is no other immediate sign of present life: occasionally, over the lurching sound of waves folding and falling, the cries of seagulls can be heard somewhere in the distance, but they are nowhere to be found in sight. Ominous drones rumble every few moments, seemingly building up towards something, perhaps horrific — something massive looming in the darkness just beyond or sight, or beneath us, passing through the waters below — only to suddenly cut off just as they reach a climax. The player cannot fall off the path, or move further out into the darkness. The only way is forward.

Eventually, the bridge leads to a building of sorts. ‘Building’ here is used in the most tentative manner: the structure seems less of something that was deliberately built as it is something that was discovered, a kind of brutalist concrete cave emerging from the shifts and seizures of some titanic continental slab. Although it lacks clear function or purpose, however, to say it is featureless would be wholly inaccurate: into its monolithic stone surfaces have been carved a series of increasingly narrow and byzantine passageways and chambers, which have been adorned (however sparsely) with fluorescent lights. The stone blankness is interrupted occasionally by bundles of black corrugated pipes, emerging from what appear to be dead ends and tunneling down into impossibly dark holes through which the player must fall to progress. The space as a whole seems a wholly inhuman artefact, whose presence and construction seems almost anathema to life.

In the building’s depths — although any semblance of meaningful cartography is discarded upon entrance — are several atria containing strange metal lattices. It’d be tempting to liken them to Modernist wire statues, especially given their placement and display, often as the sole focal points of many of these rooms; but statues require at least masons, if not observers, and in this place, there are no intimations of either.

One particularly large room features several of these structures, obscured in pitch darkness: each one hums with an almost electric activity, and the rumble of thunder overhead disrupts the overwhelming blank ambience of the previous rooms. The player passes through this room amongst the structures guided only by flashes of blinding white light which illuminate the darkness just enough to be able to make out the next few steps, throwing stark, strange shadows across the space. Eventually, the player catches sight of a rectangle of blinding white light: a door, perhaps, into yet another unknown.

This door leads to a series of images: a rippling texture that waves and vibrates, and then a series of tunnels of light extending infinitely towards a single focal point, flashing like synapses firing off in rapid sequence. After several moments, darkness seeps in. When we next emerge, we find ourselves in the desert.

Unlike the previous building, which was a claustrophobic and inhuman space, the building in which the player awakes in the desert seems less of an architectural aberration and more of a cavernous ruin. The light here is warmer, the colours more vibrant: reddish sands lend to the ashy stone a glow that feels pleasant and at times even comforting. Arches sweep upwards towards hallowed heights, over doorways glowing with ethereal white light. In some places, daylight breaks through the cracks where the sand has overtaken the stone.

At the end of the building, the player follows a path out into the desert proper: a vast, featureless stretch of unmoving red, it seems almost like an antipode to the churning waves from which we first emerged. In the distance stands a lone figure: a strange, spectral humanoid shape, rendered in pointillist form. Is it a person? A ghost? Is it even alive? Notably, there is no available interaction with it, and it does not move, or react to the player’s presence. Over the eerie sounds of wind blowing up against stone, one can just barely make out what sounds almost like human voices, spoken underwater from a great distance. As the player draws closer to the figure — at this point, the only visible figure in the dusty redness — these voices intensify in volume, and seemingly, in frequency as well. Upon contact, they suddenly stop, and once again, darkness settles in.

In the midst of the desert wilderness there is an array of monoliths which stretch out into the hazy distance. But even before we see the statues — or are they gate posts, or pylons? — looming in the distance, framing a massive sphere of light from a stream of black, ash-like particles rise into the sky like a flock of birds; we see above us hanging in the pink vanilla skies some kind of massive structure, like a derelict of the future. Although we will later discover it is a tower, whose architecturally-impossible base rises suddenly and unexpectedly in the blasted sands, our first glimpse of it is disconnected from any terrestrial tethers. It looms at once in the distance like a satellite, tiny lights aglow over its alien-like surface, and yet also seems precipitously close as well, its presence imparting upon the scene an ominous gravity.

Interacting with the sphere at the base of the structure brings us into some kind of interior. It’s a return to the dark stone of the first building after the prologue, but this time, there is an important difference: the intimations of a human presence. Lighting up the walls in a warm, humid blue is some vaguely Asiatic-looking character, the first suggestion of a written language. Somewhere in the distance, a voice sings, muffled through walls but definitely there. We pass through narrow hallways with low ceilings which grow more and more cramped, before finally, we emerge in a series of chambers.

The first of these chambers is what appears to be some kind of clock-like structure (or perhaps even an orrery), replete with spinning gears which grind and shift against one another with mechanical duress, producing a ticking that sounds subterranean. The next chamber seems to be some kind of devolved version of this, a rotating mass of uncomfortably long spikes, growing and swirling, coiling and unraveling. We pass through several more rooms, each cast in a different hue of light, featuring increasingly devolved variations of the initial clock. All throughout, the ticking continues, and grows more present, becoming the only apparently consistent logic uniting these strange geometries.

At last, we exit from this sequence, and find ourselves surrounded by red. After several moments, the red turns to white and lifts, revealing the interior of what seems like an uncomfortably claustrophobic apartment. The sudden reveal is surprising, to say the least; and compared to the increasingly abstract and often surreal images encountered in the last forty minutes or so, the intrusion of recognisable signs of life ironically feels unfamiliar and alien.

From the walls, lines are run across from which photographs hang — pictures of previous locations, perhaps mementos — and in the corner sits a suspiciously healthy-looking potted planted, its greenness jarring and even unwelcome. In the tray of a printer near the photographs is the newest print: a close-up of the strange pointillist figure encountered in the desert. There are the intimations of a rudimentary living space: a makeshift bed on the ground, a set of cabinets and inset machines which seem to serve some kind of dining function. Turning around, we see a chair in the corner, with an extendable dome hanging over it. This is where we have emerged from. It seems, then, that our trip has been some kind of simulation: an extended dreamscape, perhaps, or a particularly vivid VR experience. A trip into someone’s mind.

Exiting from the cramped apartment through a sliding stone door, we emerge onto a balcony, overlooking a gloomy smog-choked cityscape, like something out of a cyberpunk dystopia. The familiar trappings seem to all be present: below us, the sounds of human activity echo through the cavernous depths: the screech of car tyres, the bustle of human movement and industry, sometimes a peripatetic voice or melody from a song just barely straining out of the noise.

And yet, there isn’t a single visual indication of any of this activity, or any activity at all. A single glowing orange sign — a pair of Asiatic-looking letters — glows against the side of a building before us, illuminating the fog; and in the distant towers, lights from what are presumably windows glimmer. But below us, where all the sound seems to be coming from, there is an abysmal darkness; and up above, nothing moves, and everything stands still with a kind of abandoned solemnity. The balcony extends to accommodate the neighbouring apartments, yet there is no indication that there is any other life at all: the windows, if they can be called that, are opaque and dim, and the doors are firmly sealed, the utter lack of features for accessibility suggesting an almost tomb-like state. We have awoken from the solitude of the dream, the deserts and caverns of the mind: and yet, even here, we are still alone.

There is a profound loneliness at work at the heart of Fugue in Void. Its landscapes are immaculately barren, their granite glaciality desolate even by the already spartan standards of the brutalist movements with which the author seems so enthralled. The architecture here is inhumanly indifferent to the presence of the lone spectator that moves through its passages: it isolates and separates, and thwarts all attempts at communication. Multiple times, the player comes into contact with what appear to be the echoes of other people, other lives: yet all they are is echoes and glimpses, muffled and warped by impenetrably dense stone which rejects connection. The only other distinctly human-like presence, encountered in the midst of a barren wilderness, is already scattered into a series of almost unrecognisable points long before the player even witnesses it.

The dual dissonance of fugue plays a central part in the author’s attempts at negotiating this loneliness. Each of the environments is a series of echoes and variations on one another: a sea becomes a desert, a finely-tuned clock a mass of disparate particles. Bottomless holes rise into pillars; vast chambers narrow into claustrophobic corridors. The contrapuntal repetition of themes creates a constant sense of imbalance and unease: the player never feels sure of any sense of meaning or belonging, of their place in these strange spaces.

The voice of the fugue at work here is not that of the spectator, who is utterly dwarfed and alone; but of the stones themselves, whose contradictions are anathema to interpretation or superimposition of meaning, and cannot be inhabited. Architecture has long held an almost mystical association with music: a symphony as a cathedral of sound, stones arranged like melodic harmonies. Traditionally, both have long served the hearts and minds of humans (or their ancestors in the gods). And yet, in Fugue, the stones still sing: not the songs of men, but of an order from which humans have been permanently excluded.

What place, then, do these songs have in the mind — or more ambiguously, the story of a mind — of a human being? The final space encountered seems to suggest that the entirety of the Fugue has been of the psychic variety: a moment of passage into the titular void of the incomprehensible. The isolation of the fugue state is reflected here within the very space itself, both internally and externally through the utter lack of visible identity of any kind. For whom were the photographs which hang in the apartment taken — and for that matter, when were they even taken?

The only people, it seems, who will view them are the hidden spectator whom the player ostensibly guides, and the player themselves. For the spectator, alone in a dimly-lit, cramped apartment in what appears to be a city profoundly alienated from itself, passing away the days in a virtual reality, the photographs seem almost like mementos of fugue, souvenirs taken so that one could look upon them later and say, I was here, and this is proof. But what the spectator does not know (at least ostensibly) is that in fact, they are not alone: we are here, too. We have followed them through the sinuous passages, the tunnels of light. We have seen what they have seen, and we too have experienced what they have experienced. What they may forget, we have remembered: my screenshots will serve the same purpose as their photographs, and my words will, like a voice calling to another in the darkness, join with those of others and together we will sing our own fugue, our own song to pass the days and survive in our dimly-lit, cramped apartments, in cities profoundly alienated from themselves. This is the story of my mind: and in witnessing it, it has become the story of yours as well. We are not alone.