The Pursuit of Knowledge in Doors: Paradox

For much of human history, doors are sites of ritual power. Even in the modern, secular day, they supplement their obvious practical function with a symbolic or cultural load: they mean things. We interact with a battery of social conventions and values that are wrapped around and written over the physical actions carried out on the object. Sometimes it’s as simple as communicating availability: if an office door is open or adjacent, it means come on in. If it’s closed – please go away. We have rituals and traditions built around the door, like when a newly married bride is carried over the threshold into the home. The humble entryway is even drafted into Christ’s promise of salvation: “I am the door,” he declares in John 10:9. “Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture.” I’ve – look, I’ve been thinking a lot about doors recently. I’ve been playing and writing about Resident Evil, and Resident Evil knock-offs like Maid of Sker – in all of these games, the door serves as an organising principle. When you first arrive in the police station in Resident Evil 2, you’re told that there’s an escape tunnel – but you have to find the keys, or you won’t be able to enter it. Passage is made contingent: you can go through, but only under certain circumstances. Only if you complete a challenge – finding things or fighting things or putting stuff together in certain configurations. You have to carry out almost this ritual encounter with the environment before you’re able to gain passage.

Doors: Paradox is a 2022 puzzle game where you interact with these little 3D door dioramas. Each door is locked, and you have to figure out how to unlock it. It’s in the realm of escape room, I guess, but it’s also this very low-key exercise where you just sort of fiddle around with the 3D model. You spin it around and pull levers and admire the flagstones, and some of them occasionally do things like shoot electricity between pylons. As a game, Doors seems to distill some of the qualities that we’ve identified with Resident Evil. There is a locked door, and a series of conditions set around passage, and the player must pay close attention to the specific material nature of the environment in order to move forward. It feels ritualistic. It feels like something is being enacted here, something that sits at the core of video games as a medium.

Daniel Jütte, in his 2015 book The Strait Gate: Thresholds and Power in Western History, describes the history of the door as a symbol of the pursuit of knowledge in early modern Europe. “The trope of entering through a door or other passageway often figured in artists’ depictions of the exploration of new worlds both real and imagined. In fact, door and gate – more broadly, the idea of passage and transition – functioned as a key paradigm for the discovery and acquisition of new knowledge.” He draws out the symbolism associated with the Pillars of Hercules – essentially a sort of imagined gate spanning between the Rock of Gibraltar and the top of North Africa, leading out of the Mediterranean and into the Atlantic Ocean. There was this idea, he says, that beyond that gate was the end of the world. Of course, we know historically that Europeans went on to discover the American continent out on the other side of the Atlantic – so when that happens, the act of going beyond the Pillars of Hercules takes on this symbolic meaning of bursting through the limits of the known world, of venturing out into the unknown and discovering new things. The Pillars turn up on the front of scientific works like Francis Bacon’s Instauratio Magna, with the caption ‘Multi pertransibunt & augebitur scientia’ – many will pass through and knowledge will be augmented. “According to Bacon,” Jütte says, “scientific understanding can progress only when many people transgress the boundaries of present knowledge … the act of passage symbolized by the gate functions as the epitome of curiositas [curiosity].”

We can see these concepts coalescing around the video game’s locked door. The virtual space of video game worlds seem emblematic of the march of science and technology into the 21st century. They are projections of scientific and mathematical power, the children of knowledge that put humans on the moon. As players, we are in a sense heirs to that legacy – in a very whimsical and low-stakes sort of way, but heirs nonetheless. I don’t want to overstate the case: in some ways, Doors: Paradox doesn’t really have a lot going on. It doesn’t have a plot, or characters, or anything like that. I guess there’s some stuff about the conflict between order and chaos. Order is associated with comfort and stability, while Chaos is associated with change and uncertainty. Both are part of the trajectory of humankind, part of the balance that we maintain as we learn. We have to step into the chaotic unknown in order to discover new things, but if chaos gets out of control, it can become destructive. You can find newspapers in the game featuring nuclear disasters like Chernobyl, reminding us that the unbalanced pursuit of knowledge can lead to devastating results. And yet pure order, with no growth, with no chaotic discovery – really that’s just stagnation. The two must exist in tension, in paradox. We progress our knowledge within the balance of these forces. Throughout Doors: Paradox, and throughout other games like Resident Evil, we are presented with an opportunity to learn, to discover. Understanding in these games is transgressive. It requires us to be curious, to go beyond, to cross over the threshold. Their nature as video games affirms the strength of their promise: as products of technological and scientific revolution, they are in themselves evidence of the achievements available to humanity. That heritage belongs to you too, they say. You just have to find the key.

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