Location, Location: Assembling The Memory Palace

There are places that we can never visit, caught up in the amber of memory, myth and imagination. Games can rebuild them for us, using their own impossible architecture to bring the forgotten and the lost back into being. A computer can be a tool to open up new realms. Let’s dig with it.

Games are often concerned with the understanding and utilisation of space. Whether it’s the tighty controlled timing of the plotted route around a Quake deathmatch level, hitting every weapon respawn spot at just the right moment, or the corner-hugging predestination imposed by a Pacman player. In less abstract terms, Gone Home is a game about retracing steps and reconstructing events by observing the imprints of life in a familiar place. The setting is a domestic palace of memories that relies on a credible and recognisable construction – the titular ‘Home’ – as the frame around its narrative.

The methodology behind the memory palace technique, or ‘method of loci’, has its origins in classical treatises regarding memorisation, which was considered a key intellectual skill to be admired and developed for many centuries. Nowadays, with the Cloud thick in the air and tiny USB sticks capable of containing all the knowledge of Alexandria and more, the ability to retain and reassemble data is seen more as a party trick than a sign of learning. We tend not to trust the rote and the regurgitated.

In essence, the technique is a mnemonic device that relies on visualisation to aid recall, utilising the physical properties of a place to prompt memories. If I were to recite the list of ships and commanders in the Iliad, for example, I might wander around an imagined recreation of my kitchen – Nestor’s host lies by the toaster and Agamemnon is a half-empty bottle of orange cordial. Through association, the ease with which the details of an environment can be recalled – particularly if it is a real place often visited – allows the speaker to ‘walk’ through the poem.

There’s been a flurry of memory palaces in TV shows recently. Sherlock, in both his BBC incarnation and Elementary, makes use of the process, as does Hannibal. It’s easy to see why. Memory doesn’t have an obvious visual component – beyond a protagonist scrunching up her brows like a knuckle, sitting in slack-jawed concentration – but the use of physical spaces, even if they are imagined, is a neat excuse for a visual component to memory. It can look very silly though.

Games present an unusual extension of the mind palace. Many rely on abilities of recall and understanding of space, for emotional impact as well as skill-based competitive elements. Unlike the traditional oratorical palace and its physical aids to recall, a game might seek to disrupt the process of remembrance with the chatter of a nail gun or the particle-pop of a quad damage rocket. Interactive structures, particularly those in which other players have been set loose, disrupt and interrupt repetitive habits. There are glitches in the matrix, pins in the cusion and razors between the piano keys.

Bullet hell shooters demand focus on increasingly tight spaces but, often, they do not allow for deviation from a set route. Everything has already happened, in waves and patterns, and succeeding in style involves an elaborate appeal to memory rather than the sharp reflexes an observer might imagine. When the patterns are rigid, a SHMUP is, arguably, a QTE that lasts for hours, with every one of a hundred thousand projectiles acting as an abstract pulsing prompt.

As with rhythm action games, I fail at SHMUPs unless I’m distracted. I find my zone by allowing my brain to step away from the game, at which point some hitherto hidden portion of my mind takes over, mastering inputs that a blast of concentrated energy would only confuse. But it’s not just the workout of muscle memory that interests me, it’s the ability of games to create digital versions of impossible places. Not necessarily fictional places, but forgotten places, the reconstruction of which is reliant on imagination and research.

There are untapped pastures. Architectural writer Edward Hollis calls back to the idea of the method of loci in his excellent 2013 book, The Memory Palace: A Book of Lost Interiors. It’s a wonderful cabinet of curiosities, reconstructing places that no longer exist in their original form and can only be reconfigured by reference to catalogues, inventory lists, verbal scaffolding and visual representations. All of those things contain possible falsehoods, both deliberate and unintentional.

There’s wonder in the possibilities though. The story of Rome’s rise and fall told through a series of excavated interiors is a bloody historical thriller, which pits men against the gods they would become. There is no obvious place in which these locations could be physically reimagined but Lost Interiors is the perfect book for digital adaptation. The scope for archaeological and spatial exploration within these forgotten rooms and homes is far greater than the confines of genre fiction.

Games can be beautiful palaces for the mind but they rarely travel beyond their own borders. Even at the fringes there are places where walking simulators don’t dare tread. There are so many places that are left unexplored, or touched only by words, and through their interactive environments, games have a unique opportunity to take us there. New memories to trigger and ancient ones to discover.

In the routines of the deathmatch and the arcade, games utilise memory and structural patterns to create a place of conflict. Increasingly, developers are creating places for contemplation as well as conflict and whether it’s Leopold Bloom’s encyclopaedic encounters or the Salon des Refus├ęs, there are landscapes, locations and literary journeys aplenty to adapt in this new form.


  1. Gap Gen says:

    Reminds me (ho ho) of this old RPS article: link to rockpapershotgun.com

  2. NotOscarWilde says:

    The Hound Pits Pub was one of my favourite locations in Dishonored. No combat, just interaction and treasure seeking, and the friendly feeling of being somewhere you’re “at home”, in a way.

    While I use it purely as a recreational vehicle, non-random beautiful and safe locations where you can freely interact and explore are something I remember very fondly. Especially lately there are plenty of critics of Skyrim (especially mechanics-wise), but its ability to create pleasant, comforting states of mind (whether at home, near a roaring fire in the inn, or meditating in the monastery of Mount Hrothgar) was one-of-the-kind.

    Interestingly, my biggest gaming-related childhood fear also has to do with locations — or lack thereof. When I was 10 years old and played Doom 2, I sometimes used “idclip” to be able to move through walls. However, when you enter the walls the last-visible texture (usually the wall) starts tiling itself on the screen, creating images that resembled walls but were disturbingly otherworldly.

  3. Bury The Hammer says:

    It reminds me a bit of when I was watching that WoW documentary-thing they released recently. There are a number of places within WoW that trigger very strong feelings to me. Places like Goldshire Inn and bumming around in Dalaran sewers between raids. These are just places I’ve hung out – not places which have a functionality within the game. It’s odd that I regard them almost as fondly as real places. I guess human brains perceive virtual spaces in a similar way to real places, and geography is quite innate into what we associate with certain states of mind and memory.

    Let’s not even get into the time where I actually knew the way around Battery Park in NYC, despite never having been there, because I’d played Deus Ex so much when I was younger.