Videogames are fixated upon corridors, be they literal or otherwise. But why, and is it a problem?

As I wandered thirsty as a cloud round this year’s Eurogamer Expo show in London, I was struck by how many of the games on show were, fundamentally, games about moving successfully through corridors. At the same time, lots of showgoers were obediently shuffling slowly down invisible corridors in queues, wrapping themselves snakelike around innumerable booth corners for the chance to sprint through the lightly disguised corridors of the hottest playable preview code, such as COD Blops 2 or Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance. While they were inching down their queue-corridors, many of these people were playing other games on their 3DSes or Vitas to pass the queuing time. These games, I fervently hoped, were also about moving through corridors, so that these happy expo-goers could be described as being in the ultramodern position of navigating virtual corridors while navigating wall-less corridors until they could navigate other virtual corridors, before going home by navigating the corridors of the Underground.

A videogame corridor is possibly the simplest way to create epistemic suspense through spatial engineering. You can look down the corridor, thanks to games’ adoption of scientific perspective (the ‘firstperson’ view), but you don’t know what lies on the other side of the door at the end, or around the corner (as with the trailblazing corridor-horror 3D Monster Maze), or perhaps the end of the corridor is shrouded in sable shadow or cordite smoke. Corridors are inherently mysterious – in Resident Evil as much as in Gothic fiction of the 18th century, with all its dark, secret passageways in cursed ancient castles. Even more suspenseful are corridors with covered skulking points or several entrances feeding in from the sides. It’s no surprise that a whole genre came to be described as the ‘corridor shooter’, although if any bright digital satirist has made a game where all you do is literally shoot the corridors, I am tragically unaware of it.

The corridor is inherently authoritarian, seeking to corral unbounded biological movement into unnaturally linear paths. Early man did not grow up in corridors but on wide savannah plains, which is posited by some evolutionary anthropologists as the reason why our field of vision is wider than it is tall. To put a human being in a corridor, then, is to create a tension between our sensory equipment, tuned to one environment, and the artificial new surroundings. It is to say to us, with a sneering challenge: ‘Adapt to this!’

The phenomenon in videogames of what I like to call the ‘jungly corridor’, then, may be taken as a sophisticated joke about man’s struggle to negotiate modernity using his woefully inapt primate heritage. What looks like lush, natural rainforest or tropical island vegetation turns out to be a series of corridors no less soul-destroying than your local council offices. The Uncharted series has lately taken the jungly corridor to new heights (or at least new lengths), and the newest entry in that series’ inspiration, Tomb Raider, showed a competitive playable level at the Expo: a one-way limp through an extremely jungly corridor, punctuated by scripted scenery breakages and a bit where you have to walk carefully across a log. (When was the last time you had to walk carefully across a log in a videogame and thought, ‘Wow! This is really fun! I hope I don’t fall off’? No, me neither.)

But let’s not be too harsh on the jungly corridor, for – like the war-torn city corridor, where most of the streets are conveniently blocked off by indestructible domestic vehicles – it’s really an acknowledgment that we don’t want as much freedom as we think. Corridors might constrain your movement, but only so as to show you where the next exciting thing is. (Even an ‘open-world’ game is usually corridors all the way down, it’s just that you can choose which set to visit at your leisure.)

It’s a common misconception that the title of the Japanese film Ai No Corrida means, ‘Oh no, not more sodding corridors.’ But since we spend so much time in corridors in games, we should consider our aesthetic preferences. Mine is for the corridor that glories in its corridorship, the überfunctional stainless steel tube of doom. Even such purist corridors can be made more or less dynamically interesting depending on player vocabulary. Can you use the ceiling gymnastically? Or do you have something like Perfect Dark’s laptop gun? The act of chucking that weapon on a wall (thwop) while racing around a corner enabled you to change the corridor’s meaning on the fly, transforming it into a deathtrap for your pursuing enemies. (At such moments of giddy empowerment, Perfect Dark was more like Spy Vs Spy than other FPSes.)

Given our naturally rebellious nature, corridors are always going to be retooled as zones of play. Creating mayhem in the architecture of bureaucracy is just too tempting. Generations of schoolchildren have had to be told not to run in corridors, although I hope a handful of smart alecs have occasionally answered back that the root of our word ‘corridor’ is the Italian ‘correre’, which means ‘to run’. In which case, Sir, isn’t that what corridors are for?

Illustration: Marsh Davies