What is The Backrooms, and why is it appearing in Dreams?
If you’ve been hanging around some of the trendier parts of the Internet - and, indeed, the Dreamiverse - lately, then you might have caught a glimpse of an unsettling place. Beige carpet. Sickly yellow wallpaper. Corridors that stretch into nothingness. Ring any bells? Then you have encountered The Backrooms.
But what is it, exactly? Simply put, this uncanny space is the visual manifestation of a ‘creepypasta’ (read: spooky horror-legend shared widely online). Ending up in The Backrooms is said to be the fate of those who accidentally 'noclip' through reality and into another dimension - a dimension that takes the form of an strangely empty, seemingly infinite maze of offices. Yeah, we’re shuddering, too. And that’s before the possibility occurs that there might be something in there with you...
It’s a compelling concept that - although a few years old - has enjoyed a boost in popularity as of late, thanks to Kane Pixels’ new short film ‘The Backrooms (Found Footage)’ racking up 18 million views and counting on YouTube since its January 2022 release. Even influencer Jacksepticeye is in on the action, playing Backrooms-inspired games in a recent video. That renewed interest has trickled down into the Dreamiverse, too: right now, you don’t have to go too far through the Trending feed to lay eyes on The Backrooms' oddly damp décor. So why are Dreams creators so interested in making games inspired by it?
For Script-Kit and their collaborator DodjesArmy-2005, stumbling across The Backrooms wiki helped them recognise a feeling they’d both encountered while exploring abandoned buildings. “We created a small Backrooms game just for fun,” they tell us, “The design of Dreams allows for a seamless workflow, and quick iteration, which worked well for us.” It was when they decided to allow the player to walk around the scene that the rest of the ideas followed: “From that point we knew we had to make the game - the atmosphere was just incredible.”
Indeed, the first level of the in-development Backrooms: Edge of Reality is squirm-on-the-edge-of-your-seat stuff - and also features some twists on the original formula. Firstly, there’s been a visual makeover - more suited to the creators’ artistic styles, we’re told - that recalls the lo-fi grime of the early Silent Hill games. But the two also decided to introduce a few mechanical elements to keep things interesting. “We added thirst and sanity [meters] to spice up the gameplay, as we found out during testing that just surviving is pretty lame,” Script-Kit says. The contents of drawers in the level are randomly generated, introducing an extra layer of panic as you scramble for supplies while trying to avoid Script-Kit’s version of what haunts The Backrooms: a Five Nights At Freddy’s-style creature known only as ‘Lil Thiggy’. Menacing.
While Script-Kit and Dodjes’ game prioritises challenge, others might argue that Backrooms games don’t actually need a monster to be scary. That’s the thinking behind Skeuomorpheus’ VR Backrooms game, The Backrooms - VR eerieness. “For me, what makes a good Backrooms creation is the sense of potential - but never revealed - threat,” they say. “As soon as a monster or something appears it spoils it for me. Like in that movie Signs, where it’s loads scarier until the aliens turn up - and then it’s just silly.”
Skeuomorpheus’ early experiments with Dreams’ VR creation update prompted them to quickly mock up a version of The Backrooms that people could physically inhabit: “It was immediately mega creepy, especially with some quiet distant synth noises.” They took heavy inspiration from David Lynch’s films, in which cameras creep along walls towards corners, “suggesting a journey towards something terrible”. They slowed the player’s movement down to achieve that inching slowness, occluded sight lines and corners, and put in a bunch of “weirdly placed electrical sockets” to create maximum unease. “Dreams makes it very easy to make these kind of scenes, as they are very blocky and not technically hard to sculpt,” Skeuomorpheus says, mentioning that pre-made assets for mundane, liminal space-friendly items are plentiful in the Dreamiverse. “So it all comes down to the composition.”
True to its name, The Backrooms - VR eerieness manages to conjure up clawing terror using little more than atmosphere. Another neat touch is the realisation that there's no exit, and you can only quit out manually - something the developer tells us is an intentional tactic to increase the players' sense of claustrophobia. Ironically enough, Skeuomorpheus is “not a huge VR fan - I find the tech really cumbersome and annoying to plug in and unplug - but Backrooms are loads better in VR if you want to give yourself a dose of the weirds. There’s no way that feeling of ‘Is someone behind me?’ or ‘This corner looks like the last one’ could be replicated in the same way on a screen.”
It’s an opinion that duckenomics agrees with. “[Players] want to experience that creepy, familiar, nostalgic world, and video games are one of best ways to bring us into a world,” they say. “Even better if you can play it in VR, which is a plus for Dreams, since I was able to easily make my Liminal Spaces dream VR compatible.” If you head into Dreams and play Liminal Spaces, you’ll find the inescapable beige of The Backrooms once again. But duckenomics has extended their creation to include a variety of scenes that more broadly explore the idea of liminal spaces - a phenomenon that really seems to have captured the collective consciousness. For them, that popularity is linked to the popularity of “analog horror” such as The Poughkeepsie Tapes, Siren Head, Five Nights At Freddy's and Slender Man.
“People like to see something with the rough edges that make it feel real,” duckenomics says. “What makes liminal spaces stand out from most analog horror, though, is that they give us an undeniable feeling of nostalgia and familiarity.” They point to the third scene in their creation, depicting an eerily silent school hallway lined by lockers, extending into the distance. “For some reason, when you remove the people from an establishment that is usually very crowded and lively, what you are left with is something that lets your mind fill in the blanks and insert your own personal memories to fill the void of emptiness in the space. This magical ability to unlock parts of our brain that haven’t been activated for years, or even decades, is what’s interesting about liminal spaces to me.”
They subscribe to Skeuomorpheus’ school of thought re: monsters: “The way I see it, as soon as you add a monster or a jumpscare, you’re no longer indulging in that vivid familiarity of a liminal space because you’re on edge, waiting for the next scare.” But they also appreciate that there are ways to do it well, indicating Kane Pixels’ effort. “A good liminal space has emergent creepiness,” they say. “Much like fine art that gives you particular emotions when you stare at it, a liminal space will make you feel emotions. Liminal spaces usually give an intangible sense of familiarity. Some liminal spaces ‘work’ more for some people than for others.”
For the creators we talk to, this calculated and subtle twisting of the familiar is what the popularity of The Backrooms - and the power of liminal spaces - ultimately comes down to. “I think the Backrooms captured attention because of how the imagery plays on a person’s memories,” Script-Kit says. Skeumorpheus agrees: “That feeling of déjà vu, of weird uncomfortableness in uninhabited and eerie spaces, is a feeling we’ve all had.”
If part of creating a creepy liminal space is taking something ordinary and known, and altering it to create something uncomfortably ‘other’, perhaps it’s little surprise that we’re seeing the idea flourish in the remix-happy hands of the Dreams coMmunity. “There’s all kinds of ways one could explore this phenomenon, to recreate the emotions in a new way,” duckenomics says. “It’s a very abstract type of art that is hard to get a handle on. I might explore the liminal space genre in the future, but I implore others to try because there is lots of potential to make it work and I would love to see it.
“I think Dreams is suited to making just about anything,” they continue. “It could be fun to try and recreate some liminal spaces in Dreams, or better yet, have a whole new take on the genre. Whether that’s a visual showcase or a fully-fledged horror game, Dreams would definitely be able to handle it.”
Want to play more games inspired by The Backrooms and liminal spaces, as seen in the above picture gallery? Check out our curated Liminal Spaces collection right here in Dreams!
The Dreams User Guide is a work-in-progress. Keep an eye out for updates as we add more learning resources and articles over time.