I’ve been doing some thinking about liminal spaces for a while – which hey, if you’re looking for a nice rabbit hole to go down, there’s one for you – but I’ll give you the quick version… There have been a lot of spaces described being liminal (and varying definitions of that term), with evidence presented in still images of a real place, or sometimes video. These tend to be spaces that seem unsettling for some reason, sometimes only in retrospect. And there are a number of creators who have explored liminality through works of fiction – usually in short films or video games – where the audience or player is given a window into one of these disquieting places.

There are many factors that can make a place feel unsettling: sparse or dated lighting, the geometry of the space, or dim corners where something unknown might lurk. But as strange as these spaces appear, there is a common factor that ties them together… Namely, these are spaces that were clearly created for people but where no people can be seen using them, and this can make otherwise familiar spaces seem uncanny. This could be something like a school after hours, an abandoned apartment building, or an empty parking garage with architecture that seems to be infinitely repeated in every direction.
Strangely enough, the thing that made me draw a connection between liminal spaces and classic games wasn’t a horror title - quite the opposite in fact - but rather the title screen for Super Punch Out!!.

It’s nothing spectacular… just a boxing ring with the name of the game plastered over it, with a copyright notice and a prompt for the player to press the START button. But there’s something about that space – a boxing ring with no one in it – built for a purpose but not being used for that purpose… it made me think of what classic video game spaces might feel like if we removed the evidence of life.
And so I set out to find the opening screens of some popular classic games, and I started removing the character and enemy sprites from them. I found that the older a game was, the more recognizable it would be when these elements were eliminated. I also found that the realism of the 16-bit era made many environments appear natural even with the characters removed, but environments on the NES seemed to be more constructed than natural… more like they were built around a game rather than environments unto themselves where the events of a game just happened to play out.

Just as the VHS or PS1 aesthetic is often used to explore liminality in 3D spaces, the lower fidelity of the NES seemed to offer a similar feeling of liminality in 2D spaces.
On my first pass, I eliminated player characters and enemies from each game’s opening screen. Then I started working on the HUD to zero out all of the values… the player’s score, life count, health, etc. But after doing this with a few games, I realized that the HUD itself acts evidence of life. It suggests that the observer of the scene has only just missed seeing the player character, or that the player character is soon to arrive. In this way, the HUD represents the anticipation of life… and that’s now how liminal spaces feel. Liminal spaces make you feel a sense of isolation because they seem like places that have been left dormant and may never be occupied again.
I sought out spaces in the NES library that might evoke these feelings. I found that games with darker, more serious themes evoked these feelings more easily than the bright and colorful ones, but the bright ones also seemed lose a lot of their carefree optimism when viewed in this way. As for me, I find all of these images at least somewhat unnerving, and not just because I know something is missing.

Games that use Christian iconography (a rarity for NES titles released in the West) or Gothic architecture lend themselves more readily to a tone of foreboding, so with that in mind, I present the opening indoor environment of Astyanax, the outdoor twilight of Castlevania, and the full darkness of Ghosts & Goblins. Ghosts & Goblins in particular, with its solid black background, opens the player’s imagination to what horrible things might lie between the graveyard and the castle upon the jutting peak in the distance.

Games with military themes also tend to be darker by nature, as evidenced by the muted colors of Ikari Warriors, the starlit jungle of Metal Gear, and the barren wasteland of Journey to Silius. In Ikari Warriors, the plane is the remnant of a crash where the player character(s) survives to fight on, but without that character or any enemy soldiers, this wrecked plane looks as if it could have been sitting abandoned for decades, with no hint that anyone made it out alive. In Metal Gear, the thickness of the jungle makes it look impenetrable, almost as if it is encroaching on the remaining space. Journey to Silius is even more foreboding, offering only the remnants of a city annihilated by nuclear fire, with no sign that life may ever return.

Solid black backgrounds were somewhat common amongst games in the NES library, which adds to a feeling of lifelessness and isolation. In Kid Icarus, the opening area represents the underworld – the very definition of hopelessness and despair – with crumbling architecture built into the bottom of a deep pit in the earth. In Metroid, the world is designed to highlight its darkness and isolation… but without any evidence of our champion descending into that darkness to overcome it, the opening scene looks like an eternal monument to some unknowable force.

Sometimes large outdoor scenes can inspire a feeling of overwhelmedness. Faxanadu, with its darkened sky and imposing architecture, appears purposely designed to oppose life. And the beautiful opening scene of Rygar is less welcoming when you realize that everything – from the wall to the ground to the pillar to the purple mountains in the distance – is made of cold lifeless rock, and it’s all about to fall into shadow as the sun sets behind the mountains amidst a blood red sky.

Even games that are pretty upbeat in their overall themes and music can appear hostile without anyone inhabiting the space. Take for instance, the choppy sea and looming thundercloud in Balloon Fight, the steep cliffs and gnarled brush in Blaster Master, and the raging storm and seaswept ship in Shadow of the Ninja. Perhaps most surprising of all is the opening scene from A Boy and His Blob: Trouble on Blobolonia, with its muddy cityscape reflected across a wide river, and its lights blending into a sepia haze. In the foreground, a completely dark house – without even a porchlight – stands in stark contrast, with an isolated streetlamp nearby.

The cooler hues of green and blue can be calming, but perhaps less so when they appear beneath a darkened sky or full canopy. This can be seen in the towering cliffs and distant snowcapped mountains of Contra, the shadowy forest of Little Nemo, and the thick canopy of DuckTales. Even more strange is the unnatural architecture and jagged cliffs of Snake Rattle 'n' Roll, where the entire world appears to be a construct floating in empty space.

Auto-scrolling games don’t lend themselves terribly well to this feeling, as many start out in empty space, or offer limited background details. But there are a few... Here we have the darkened canal of Cobra Triangle, the barren starting line of R.C. Pro-Am, the abandoned highway of Spy Hunter, and the menacing cliffs of Legendary Wings.

As discussed, buildings sitting completely empty or with no people nearby can feel unnatural as well, as seen in the back alleys of Double Dragon, outside the high school of River City Ransom, near the subterranean construction of Crystalis, and within the abandoned warehouse of Goonies II.

Areas that are meant to evoke the start of some grand and whimsical adventure appear less welcoming without the presence of a burgeoning hero. Take for instance the stillness of the kingdom in Final Fantasy, the unforgiving mountainous terrain in The Legend of Zelda, and the overgrown village in Willow. Even the impossibly bright starting screen for Little Samson, with its grassy platau, blue sky, puffy clouds, and colorful mountain range, seems daunting without its plucky hero waiting to charge into battle. Perhaps it’s that single strip of pure black running along the midscreen – the place where the hero should be standing – that suggests something darker at play.

And now we make our way to the some of the brightest and most colorful games on the NES. Starting out with Nintendo’s line of "black label" games, we have Super Mario Bros., Duck Hunt, Kung Fu, Excitebike, Pro Wrestling, and Rad Racer, which are likely titles that players of the era remember fondly. But when we take Mario out of Super Mario Bros., we’re left with a somewhat unnatural space containing a flat blue sky, one bush, one hill, and one cloud… all apparently sitting atop a gigantic brown wall. Duck Hunt appears to be a similarly fabricated space, and the architecture of Kung Fu seems to extend forever. The arenas of Excitebike and Pro Wrestling appear hollow with no contenders and no audience in the stands. And Rad Racer looks like a long road leading downhill into the embrace of an endless ocean.

There are many cases where the absence of a character draws your eye. For instance, the starting point on C-Island in StarTropics seems out of place. The lack of any people in Bionic Commando not only calls into question the purpose of the towering structures, but the ground itself seems to be hanging in the sky, terminating unnaturally at its endpoint. And Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, for all its blue water and manicured architecture, shows an open manhole in the center of the screen. As a viewer, you can’t help but have your eye drawn toward it, to question why this dark opening is centrally positioned, and wonder what lies in the darkness below.

Environments where tile sets are meant to elicit a playful nature can appear alien when the action is removed. Take for instance the strange configuration of the ice blocks in Kickle Cubicle, the uncomfortably infinite puffy trees in Adventure Island, and the rows upon rows of strange growths rising up from the ground in Kirby’s Adventure. Without a chubby pink creampuff standing ready for action, it seems that the world has been overtaken by thousands of giant monoliths growing slowly across the landscape.

And finally we have Punch-Out!!, the game that got us started on this journey, in a roundabout way. I thought this one would be easy… just delete the giant characters from the solid background and let the feelings of isolation wash in. But once the characters were erased, I realized that I needed to get rid of the audience as well… which turned the stands into a sea of darkness. Then, with them gone, it wasn’t enough to just erase the HUD, because the absence of the numbers and meters still had a presence in the surrounding space… so I extended the ceiling tiles to cover the entire area, resulting in a very empty-feeling stadium, and ultimately one of the better examples of how a constructed space can feel strange when it sits empty and has no objective purpose.

I’m curious to know if any of these images evoke an unsettled or disquieted feeling within you, or if I’ve just wasted a bunch of time on a rambling thought exercise about some otherwise nice video game backgrounds… But I feel like there’s something here.

I can’t help but look at something like Snake Rattle 'n' Roll and think… what was this space for? Who would construct this, and why would anyone willingly come here? And damn if that Boy and His Bob opening scene isn’t unnerving for me… like, this is a game about feeding jellybeans to a blob… why do you want me to feel despair?

The comments are open if you’d like to share your thoughts.