This Indie Horror Game Made Me Confront My Fear of Death

I’m terrified of my body. The fat buildup on my abdomen. My tiny arms. I’ve always hated having to focus on it and especially hated interrogating its internal functions. Doctors scare me for this reason. I assume my body is trying to kill me; looking inside seems like excessive punishment. I’ve long searched for ways to improve my relationship with my body. Some of them have even worked. But this is still my default, when I look at my skin, when I think about my organs, my blood. Terror.

In The Space Between, Martin, the player character, is an architect. He imagines his buildings as bodies he can live inside of. The game, a short horror title by Christoph Frey that was recently nominated for the prestigious Nuovo Award at the Independent Games Festival, is rife with unease about the bodies Martin builds, and the one he lives inside of. In an early scene, repeated often in the game as a sort of motif, Martin and his friend Daniel play as children. Martin is in a blanket fort. He reaches out to touch the blanket and urges Daniel, who is outside the fort, to do the same thing. “What do you feel?” asks Martin. Him, or the blanket? Daniel says both. It’s this odd, disembodied sort of intimacy—touching without touching. In the scene, though you play as Martin, you never see his arm or his hand. So far as the game’s code is concerned, he doesn’t have a body at all.

Being terrified of one’s body really means being terrified of death. I used to get into spirals when I was a kid, usually when trying to go to sleep. I would imagine death and becoming nothing, and I would feel this creeping terror take hold of me. I would run to my mom, but she’d have no idea how to comfort me. I’d curl up in her arms and ask her what came after death, and why we had to die, and she’d have no answer. There’s no escaping it. If I concentrate, I can feel that terror coming back. I don’t want to die. I don’t want the void. I mostly try not to think about it.

Martin’s afraid of intimacy, which is a lot like being terrified of dying, too. Fearing closeness is almost always about fearing loss. He has another friend in the story, Clara. They meet each other after a mutual round of people watching. Martin brings her to a theater he’s building—his latest creation, a vast deformed piece cut out of concrete and metal. He shows her his room under the stage, where he has apparently been living while the structure is being built. He points out that people sometimes call the space under the stage “hell.” There, Clara and Martin almost touch, almost share intimacy. But they never quite get there. And then the game’s reality falls apart.

I’m writing about The Space Between indirectly because it’s an indirect game. It’s slow and unsteady. Much of it is taken up with elliptical, heavily thematic dialog about walls, and boundaries, bodies and performances. But all the dialog is doled out as incredibly slow-moving text, with no real indication of who is talking. It tries the player’s patience, creates a constant sense of unease. The rest of the game is spent moving through environments Frey has created with distorted PlayStation 1–style art, which gives the whole thing a feeling of moving through a fuzzy VHS surveillance tape. Everything in this game is distant and uncomfortable. The whole creation is suffused with the dread and pain of a body you don’t understand, and a hand you can’t touch.

In one of the game’s discomfiting vignettes, Martin visits Daniel’s grave as he is cremated. Martin’s friend is dead. Martin reaches out to touch the casket. No one is left to reach back. The horror of The Space Between is that they never touched in the first place.

I don’t want to spoil the experience of playing the back half of The Space Between, a game that to play in its entirety only takes about 45 minutes. But I will say that it feels purgatorial. The hell underneath the theater’s stage feels increasingly damned, and there’s a sense that a line has been crossed, as if Martin’s desire for intimacy has pushed against his terror, and the resulting discord has thrown him, and the player, entirely across the lines separating life and death. It’s all a fragmented, unsettling mess with no clear series of events. Only unsettledness and fear. The shadows in the game’s world, which its graphical style renders uniquely impenetrable, suddenly seem to be carrying monsters.

My ideal form of intimacy probably wouldn’t include my body. If my body wasn’t involved—if I could just commune with people through mental contact or some sort of spiritual communion—I wouldn’t have to be afraid. I could forget death and the danger that lurks inside my own skin. Martin wants that, too, and his creations are built around articulating that desire. Within his theater’s hell, he’s buried under that desire. Because it’s not a healthy one, is it? The Space Between suggests we should be afraid of desires like that. I think it might be right.

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