I read Jorge Luis Borges’ short story The Library of Babel in college. Like most people I know who read it in college, it bent my mind in a way that cannot be unbent. It’s not a story as much as a description of a setting. He describes a universe that consists of a series of hexagonal chambers. The rooms are joined by doorways at the sides, and stacked and joined by stairs above and below. No one knows how many chambers there are, and many believe they continue infinitely. The denizens of this universe wander the chambers, trying to make sense of the countless books that line shelves in every room, most of which appear to be nonsense. One wanderer describes the nature of the random books this way:
This thinker observed that all the books, no matter how diverse they might be, are made up of the same elements: the space, the period, the comma, the twenty-two letters of the alphabet. He also alleged a fact which travelers have confirmed: In the vast Library there are no two identical books. From these two incontrovertible premises he deduced that the Library is total and that its shelves register all the possible combinations of the twenty-odd orthographical symbols (a number which, though extremely vast, is not infinite): Everything: the minutely detailed history of the future, the archangels’ autobiographies, the faithful catalogues of the Library, thousands and thousands of false catalogues, the demonstration of the fallacy of those catalogues, the demonstration of the fallacy of the true catalogue, the Gnostic gospel of Basilides, the commentary on that gospel, the commentary on the commentary on that gospel, the true story of your death, the translation of every book in all languages, the interpolations of every book in all books.
I got to thinking about The Library of Babel while playing Minecraft. Minecraft, as you may know, is a sandbox game, meaning that there’s not a set narrative or purpose. Players are placed in a blocky, randomly generated world, and they can explore and build things as they like. The topography of a Minecraft world is not designed like levels of a typical video game, instead it’s generated by an algorithm. This generation is both random and theoretically infinite. According to Minecraftwiki, each unique world played has a surface area over 9.3 million times that of Earth before the limits of the terrain generating algorithm prevent it from getting any bigger.
Not surprisingly, someone used a Minecraft mod to create an in-game approximation of Borges’ Library universe. It’s not infinite, and not as big as a randomly generated world, but it is sizable. Youtube user superadvancepet, who uploaded a clip of the world, says, “it’s big enough that it runs the game out of memory if you don’t modify the view distance, which is kind of philosophically close enough.”
I’d like to mess around in the Minecraft version, but there’s one huge problem: you can’t read the books. I would really like to see someone build a video game version of The Library of Babel that applies Minecraft’s terrain generation concepts to the texts of the books. I’m no programmer, but it seems like you could write code that would randomly generate and save the text of each book as your avatar picked it up, ensuring that the next random generation would not be identical. The point of the game would be the same as the point of the story, try to find something that makes sense without going mad.
To stay true to the story, the game would need to be a massively multiplayer online game, where hundreds or thousands of players could explore the chambers at once. It would essentially be a huge chatroom, where I’m sure many players would abandon reading in favor of joking around and trolling one another. Which is something that happens in common areas and chat channels of MMOs anyway, even when there’s fun quests to do and people are paying to play the game. MMOs provide something that other art forms do not, they become sites of community, and these communities breed new cultures as a collective response to their surroundings. Borges imagines and describes this process, as literature does, but a game could actually create a space for it to happen.
The more I think about it, I’m becoming convinced that The Library of Babel as an idea is better suited to the medium of a video game than to the medium of a short story. It may be that existential dispair of the library, and its comment about our own attempt to make sense of the universe, would be better communicated through a first hand experience. Literature is a mature art. I think we’re only beginning to see the power of games to create inhabitable spaces that support not only the experience of a player, but the organic development of new cultures.