Aesthetics of the Abyss

Game Controller

Aesthetics of the Abyss
by Angus Stewart

To seek, use, and elaborate the aesthetic dimension of a text is neither shallow nor inadvisable. Why bother with the truth when the book in your hands is so beautiful? Why join the headlong rush toward a mere imitation of objectivity? The world is always uncooperative, but the aesthetic is yours to play with. 

Below, I will engage in such a game.


Maps to Elsewhere

I was born in 1993, and on the Christmas morning of 1998 I received a Gameboy Pocket and a copy of Pokemon Yellow. Ever since then I’ve always been at least partly absent from reality. Games, like life, deliver challenges, but as in life their blows are softened through communion. Pokemon’s land of Kanto can be vexing, but navigable through conversations with friends at school. 2022’s Elden Ring (a more recent, adult, and unkind game) delivers beating upon beating. The rattled player will turn online, where a hivemind has documented and unravelled its challenges to the atomic level – map, mathematics, and code. Lore and aesthetics are also exhaustively explored. There is some consensus online that the game is essentially unplayable without this online, crowdsourced dimension. Crank the difficulty high enough, and you will drive the ants into a frenzy.

I am not especially vulnerable to frenzy, per se. But like Alice, I am a little too easily snatched by the beyond. Halfway back through my life and then a little further, I encountered an incomparably difficult game. Today it lives in my attic, alongside gorgeous companions. Sometimes, after I climb that ladder and clamber through that hole, I forget my immediate task and find myself drawn to the shelf, crawling, reaching, to pick up…


The Hardest Game in Existence

MAZE. The author is one Christopher Manson, and its full title is MAZE: Solve the World’s Most Challenging Puzzle. It takes the form of a gnomic, illustrated ‘choose your own adventure’, deploying a select one hundred or so words per artwork. One could argue (as do the book’s directions) that it is not really a book at all.

To solve MAZE, one must solve three problems across its 45 rooms.  First, find a 16-step path from room 1 to room 45 and back again. Then, extract the coded riddle in room 45. Last, find the answer to said riddle along said 16-step path. All pieces of the puzzle are alluded through clues ciphered in the text and images. 

From the start, we are astray. A brooding narrator leads we the readers and a set of sparsely described and mostly hapless ‘guests’ into the maze, feeding us all on a diet of cold judgement and red herrings, and always concealing far more than he reveals. Consider his opening words:

I met them at the gate though I usually wait inside. Preoccupied with their own thoughts, impatient, like so many children, they didn’t see who I really was. They never noticed my crown, my pain, the fire in my eyes.

Though we have arrived to solve three particular problems, the artistic and tonal dimensions of the maze and its resident guide present us with proliferative mysteries. Who is the guide, and what does he want? What is the maze, and what does it want? Where are we?


The Thirty Years’ War

Like Elden Ring, MAZE is deeply aesthetic. The former casts its desperate bloodletting across saturated vistas of luminescent decay. Every pixel of the colour spectrum is assigned its own history, and an allegiance to a particular camp or method in the player’s Nietzschean struggle to supplant god.

Unlike Elden Ring, MAZE is analogue. It is print. There is no colour. There is no sound. Full-page art decorates every recto. We move pass through pencil sketches of depopulated rooms and passageways, plus the occasional courtyard or underground tunnel. An eerie calm presides. There are often subtle indications that somebody has just left the rooms we have entered. Detritus classical and postmodern litter the floors; decorate the walls.

Like Elden Ring, the hivemind’s work upon MAZE is mostly but still not yet complete. Since its relatively recent release, Elden Ring has seen its most arcane strategies unlocked and optimised, but online updates continue to expand and reframe the puzzle. Conversely, MAZE was published in 1985 and (without the possibility of downloadable content) retains much of its inscrutability. Certain facts have been ascertained, but every (quasi-)logical step of their deduction remains up for debate between the last madmen standing.


Offline and Alone

A hazy blend of intuition and memory suggests that I discovered and inherited MAZE somewhere in my grandparents’ house – itself a rather labyrinthine arrangement. I cannot picture any pair of familiar hands passing it to me, so I might have just as easily picked it up secondhand, and there is indeed a likely price pencilled on the cover interior to indicate as much: 65. The truth is lost to me. What I do recall clearly is inspecting MAZE in my teenage bedroom, endlessly, never knowing whether I was progressing.

Each illustration is a room, and each room – with one troubling exception – contains doors. Adorning each door is a number from 1 to 45, and by choosing your door you choose which ‘room’ becomes your next step through the maze. Each page is littered with potential clues, but I noticed no more than a few vague patterns, and correctly interpreted only one fragment of the final puzzle.

I failed MAZE, and in so doing joined in a long tradition of failures.


Folding Mirrors

My edition of MAZE is the UK edition, not the original.US publishers Henry Holt bundled a competition along with their book. If you could mail them the answer to the three prime riddles within six months post-publication deadline, you would be the winner of a $10,000 prize. Amusingly, the UK edition dangles a meagre £1,000. In any case, nobody provided all three answers in time. After a twice-extended deadline, the US prize was divided between the best guessers. As for the British prize money… this point is lost to history.

Differences between the paratexts offer themselves for interpretation. The Holt edition’s blurb is precisely 260 words long, and written in the voice of the Guide. There, he drops a few hints regarding interpretation. The UK Sphere Books edition bears a much shorter and more conventional blurb, and an unearthly, proto-vapourwave cover – sourced not from the artist behind MAZE but another named Peter Goodfellow.

MAZE’s digital twins are more intriguing still. A 1994 Mac OS video game recapitulates the pages in tasteful colour, and adds music and narration. A later, uglier video game adaptation was brought to demo stage then canned, and some say that there was an Anroid-friendly conversion of that demo. Here we might infer a path through time from Apple to Google, or from a closed to an open publishing format.

Along similar lines we can trace the evolution of MAZE’s hypertext incarnations. In the dialup era, various individual users tried recreating MAZE as a website; the rooms as pages, the doors as links, and the text as text. These efforts and the discussions they provoked remain scattered across 404 errors, caches, and antediluvian mail groups. One survivor, from the publisher itself, was erected in 1996, and possibly linked up with the aforementioned dubious demo. (Note, if you will, a MAZE-esque footnote crediting the web designers but pointing in two contradictory directions: and Tread carefully, reader.)


No Time is Passing

Anemoia is nostalgia for a past you never experienced. I am not afflicted outright, but I do often wish that I could rewitness events that I wasn’t fully equipped to comprehend as a child. To be frank, some of this probably stems from a parental divorce that, at age 8, totally blindsided me. But I also wish, deeply, that I could flit backwards to rewitness the birth of the internet, day-by-day – let’s put that partly down to unconscious entanglements, and partly down to my latecomer, pandemic-induced pining for cyberpunk aesthetics.

Around the time I was flicking between the pages of MAZE, it was still the 00s. Considerable swathes of the primitive internet must have still been alive. Perhaps I could have looked up websites that I would later feel nostalgia for, despite never having visited them. But it never occurred to me.

I remember Googling the answers to MAZE in my later teens, or perhaps my undergraduate years. I walked away with the understanding that the answer to the riddle of the maze was ‘Atlas’ (incorrect!), and that ‘Atlas’ was also the identity of the Guide (incorrect!). ‘Atlas’ didn’t make any direct logical sense (because it was incorrect!), but the connotations of an antiquitous, celestial, crushing burden did feel like a rough match for the spirit of the text. As one progresses through the labyrinth, the insinuations accumulate – we cannot miss that the flow of time is askew – perhaps deliberately disrupted. We may well have passed into another world. It is entirely possible that we are not really here, and that our real body is somewhere else, far away, asleep or slowly expiring.



MAZE’s author is one Christopher Manson, whose surname I have invariably misread as ‘Mason’ ever since I was directed to the fact that on the book’s title page, his illustration includes a set of masonic symbols: a spike, compass, hammer, and square. A glance across Manson’s bibliography indicates a sustained interest in the mediaeval culture(s) of Europe. See Till Year’s Good End, The Tree in the Wood: An Old Nursery Song, and the deliciously numinous The Practical Alchemist: Showing the Way an Ordinary House-Cat May Be Transformed into True Gold, by Means of Divers Methods and Practices.

Having slipped progressively deeper into an unhappy rabbit hole from the slow unpicking of the familiar world from 2016-2019 to its rapid disintegration at the hands of the plague that followed, I have learned a little of Western esotericism in recent years. As malaise deepens, so the allure of the beyond develops.

I gather that much of ‘the Western esoteric’ that persists today has its roots in the mediaeval period, which in turn has its roots in the classical Greek, Egyptian, and gnostic cults and philosophies of the Mediterranean. I contend that Manson has at least a toe in that strange underground river. One can see this in the online interpretations of MAZE, which long ago descended into the warring shades of schizophrenia and scepticism that esoteric forms of analysis so easily invoke. Who else is still reading this book? The deranged.

In MAZE, there is a ‘death’ page where the reader is deposited in a room with no exit. It is totally black, save for the bulging eyes of the other souls with whom you are trapped, forever.


A Place You Cannot Reach

Before I ever held MAZE, I was taken by my mother to a place in Yorkshire called The Forbidden Corner – a real-world maze that also weaves through indoor, outdoor, and subterranean environments (though a garden and folly, not a mansion, serve as the foundation). There is a particularly MAZE-esque chamber early in the attraction, where, in the centre of a shadowy fountain, stands a stone figure who we know to be Poseidon. But on the first glance, he’s plainly the devil.

The low point of our visit was a breakdown into tears, when we thought ourselves lost. After our escape, we enjoyed cake at a cafe on the attraction’s periphery. Somewhere in vague proximity was a carp pond, which I could also see illustrated on the Forbidden Corner riddle-leaflet we were handed upon entry. I remember standing at that pond’s edge, watching the great black fish move beneath the water. A waitress told my mother that we had just missed a TV crew filming an episode of the then-famous Blind Date.

On a second visit, we did not make it to the cafe, did not get lost, nor hear of any film crew. I wanted to visit the pond but was told I could not, leaving me unsure of whether it still existed. I had a child’s muddled understanding that both the cafe and the carp pond were out of sight, but not far away. I felt uneasy, harassed by a sense of loss, and rather than resolving on the drive home these feelings deepened as I grew older.

Today, I have taken a look on Google Maps’ satellite view and straightened the matter out for myself. Thankfully, the Forbidden Corner is still in business, and my lost pond lies round a bend and down a lane. But if I ever return, I cannot be sure of what I will find. Homes and attractions often shapeshift, and my mental images of the cafe and the pond are a mess – I suspect that only memories of memories remain; scans of scans.

If I were there I could walk right up to the edge of the pond, see the beautiful black fish gliding, and feel the pleasurable ache of nostalgia abandon me. There might be no great rush of emotion. No shiver down the spine. Eventually, one has to accept that the past is a strictly virtual space. Every revisitation takes us not to old ground but a brand new room, even if it appears identical to a place we visited once before, and even if a footprint remarkably similar to our own stains the floor. One has to accept that the architecture does not owe you any answers.


Pure Aesthetics (a final, hidden room)

Once, I was a devoted attendee of my secondary school’s creative writing club. And once, the two teachers running it let me be king for a day. So I brought in MAZE, opened it at a random page, and challenged the other club members to use what they saw for a prompt. All of the resulting flash fictions disappointed me, but I could not put my finger on what quality or angle they had missed.

Now, with grey in my beard, I can say that one pleasure, dreamlike quality of MAZE derives from its exploration of the uncanny possibilities of ‘the house’. We spend most of our lives inside these artificial boxes, of which almost all must comply with cost, convenience, and common sense. Breakages in these constraints can feel like cracks in reality – evidence that under the right conditions absolutely any item or aspect can be recast. One of the most liberating moments of my childhood came when, during the construction of an attic extension, part of my home’s ceiling was torn away. I’ll always remember playing catch with a guest – a lovely girl from my class at school, who I had known, feared, and adored in the childish way since I was five – tossing a tennis ball up and down, back and forth, across an exposed wall. It was my home, but it was not. The cleaved ceiling had perforated its unspoken ground rules to reveal in the mundane a brand new game. Such configurations can usually only find permission in our dreams.


Angus Stewart is a Dundonian writer living in Northern England. His works have appeared in various small publications, including Ab Terra, Waxing and Waning, and NOUS Magazine.

Image source: Ugur Akdemir/Unsplash

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