A phantasmal landscape dotted with holographic structures that appear simultaneously ancient and futuristic, simulation artist Lawrence Lek’s Nepenthe Valley is a virtual world imbued with the logic of healing. Named for the Homeric drug of forgetting, Nepenthe Valley invites visitors to trace its contours through a series of looping paths on a journey of disorientation and transformation. Healing here does not mean self-optimisation, but a surrender to the world beyond the self.
Culminating in a playable game-world, Nepenthe Valley is conceived as a series of NFT drops spread across three chapters — the first of which is available to collect on our marketplace . Whereas Lek’s previous works dropped viewers into speculative doubles of our present reality, Nepenthe Valley reveals itself in increments and traces — maps, relics and ruins that pieced together form the impression of a world.
After situating the project within his broader practice in conversation with Jasmine Wang , Lek spoke to SO-FAR’s Editor-in-chief to delve into the process behind Nepenthe Valley .
Guy Mackinnon-Little: The world of Nepenthe Valley comes into focus gradually through incremental releases of maps, relics, postcards and so on. It also has a much more ambiguous relation to our present reality than earlier works of yours, which typically take place in a near-future version of a real-world location. How do the worldbuilding conventions used in Nepenthe Valley differ from your previous projects?
Lawrence Lek: The writer Margaret Atwood makes a distinction between speculative fiction and fantasy . Speculative fictions are plausible worlds given our current state of technology, world affairs and so on, while the magical worlds of fantasy are in no way beholden to our current reality. While my earlier works have been more along the lines of speculative fiction, with Nepenthe Valley I was focusing on something closer to the worldbuilding of fantasy. In early versions of the Nepenthe project, the valley wasn’t a valley at all — it was an island. It became a valley because I wanted to focus on the landscape that would contain all of these buildings rather than just their individual architecture. The valley serves as a container that binds together all these distinct places, an overworld with many micro-worlds within it. I was interested in fragmentation not just in the incremental sense you mentioned, but in the decremental or archeological sense. Sites like The Shrine and The Lodge present an architecture in the midst of the ruins. There’s a sense that the collection of works I’ve made are not the first iteration of things to have been constructed in this place. Nepenthe Valley has its own history, outside of my intervention — I think backstory is another important aspect of worldbuilding.
GML: You’ve cited Romantic landscape painting and its notions of the sublime as an influence in the aesthetics of Nepenthe , but the work also differs from this tradition in important ways: players don’t just take in a static, sanitised version of the natural world from a safe distance, but are placed within a living landscape. What did you take from the Romantic tradition and how would you distinguish what you’re doing against that worldview?
LL: If you think of a sublime landscape painting like Caspar David Friedrich’s Wanderer Over the Sea of Fog , there is a single figure looking down over the landscape from a mountain peak. The implied effect is basically the human as master of the universe. It’s like Kant’s argument about the sublime: nature initially seems greater than the human, but because the human is perceiving nature, the human is greater, because we have the mind to perceive nature. Being at the base of the valley, in contrast, creates a very different sense of where the viewer is in relation to the landscape, not just spatially, but psychologically and even metaphysically. Ascending to the peak from the base of the valley, the implication is that the journey is a heroic one requiring effort and exertion. Whereas with Nepenthe Valley , the idea was that you would start at the top and follow the river downwards, flowing, rather than fighting, which relates to my interest in what healing might mean in a virtual space. Of course, in fantasy video games there is literal healing where your health regenerates when you ingest a magic potion or cast a spell. But I wanted that idea of healing to be embedded in the world in the much simpler sense of how the place looks, where the camera is in relation to that place and what kind of journey it describes. In terms of archetypal story structures, there are stories about ascent, and then there are stories about descent. I generally gravitate towards the latter. Geomancer is literally about descent from space, to Earth, to sea and then back up again. AIDOL is also set in a valley in the Genting Highlands in Malaysia and follows a story about ascent and fall. I find it interesting how these narrative structures have a corresponding spatial domain.
GML: Could you say more about your notion of healing within Nepenthe ?
LL: Some fantasy role-playing games have a passive healing mechanic where health gradually increases over time. Then there are others where your character incurs damage, but your injury doesn’t heal. There are others still where your health decreases over time, mirroring reality in that you have a tangibly finite lifespan. In all these cases though, health is this quantified resource available to you. But there’s also a parallel and I think more profound idea, which is how that model of health relates to the idea of an in-game life. In some games, you have one life and if you die it’s over — “permadeath” — and in others you respawn from a fixed point. Nepenthe Valley is a game where you never die, but the metaphorical journey from start to finish is the equivalent of what a life would be in a game where you play against an adversary or work through a series of levels. In earlier works I was interested in open-world games or walking simulators, games where there are no objectives other than to explore the landscape. Nepenthe Valley is more about this metaphor of an eternal life, permanently in suspension. I was thinking about the world itself as an animist being, where players get absorbed into its own logic of life.
GML: Rather than sharpening the self into its most-optimised form — as with the neoliberal model of healing as a balm for capitalism’s worst evils — the model here is about turning away from the self and towards the world beyond it.
LL: I was consciously thinking about this idea of both the landscape and the self as constructed, synthetic entities. Even with landscape painting, there’s a lot of manual worldbuilding. There’s a sense that it’s a depiction of reality, but it’s not that different to building a 3D world in a game engine. Both are a result of synthesising all these different elements — that mountain, that tree, those sheep, that lake — and putting them together in a way that they don’t exist in reality, tweaking them to look more correct than they actually are. The idea of the sublime landscape we were discussing earlier is very much a constructed thing. Then there’s this idea of the self, the viewer behind the camera. Navigating a gameworld like Nepenthe , you’re also constructing an identity based on being able to control the camera and exist as this fictional being in this fictional world. That fiction is changing who you are as a player. So the self that exists within a virtual world like Nepenthe is different to the self that exists prior to entering that world. Players enter into the logic of the world, and that logic then gets pushed outwards through this sense of immersion. Healing is conceived as a process of discovery, rather than a process of invention.
GML: And as you were saying earlier about the cycles of ruin present within the architecture of Nepenthe , there’s also an awareness of this world’s vast history beyond your own experience as a player.
LL: I’ve spoken a lot about sublime space, but what’s equally significant to the work is the parallel sense of sublime time. The idea of “relative futurism” or the “relatively ancient” is something that I was trying to construct in the valley. There’s a simultaneously futuristic and ancient quality to the world the player encounters. This relates to my use of game engines as well, where what seems ancient is not 200 or 1000 years ago, but two years ago. As ancient as the last update. Even though everything in Nepenthe is rendered in 4k and looks high-definition, in a very short span of time it will be a time capsule of what an individual game engine content creator like myself was able to produce right now.
GML: That’s perhaps another way healing is embedded within the work. There’s a restless, atemporal quality to our contemporary experience of time, which Nepenthe offers some respite from.
LL: Having our attention constantly demanded by so many different timescales at once is psychologically exhausting. In our economy, there’s a sense that you cannot stand still. You need to upskill, you need to go cyber, you need to keep yourself updated and learn all these new things to avoid being left behind. As consumers and workers, we’re fed the idea that we’re inadequate not only in terms of our possessions or identity, but in terms of where we are and how much we know, which is one of the most toxic parts of the knowledge economy. But once you’re in Nepenthe Valley , you don’t have to go anywhere. That stasis or stillness can bring a sense of healing.
Margaret Atwood, In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination, Virago, 2012.
Caspar David Friedrich’s Wanderer Over the Sea of Fog (1818) is one of the most widely recognised works of the Romantic tradition, which reacted against the Enlightenment ideal of human rationality with a reverence for intense emotion and the natural world.
German philosopher Immanuel Kant described the sublime as a “mere appendix to the aesthetic judging of the purposiveness of nature”. Immanuel Kant, Critique of the Power of Judgment, edited by Paul Guyer, translated by Paul Guyer and Eric Matthew, Cambridge University Press, 2000.
Set in 2065, the centenary of Singapore's independence, Lek’s film Geomancer (2017) follows a decommissioned AI satellite that dives towards Earth with dreams of becoming an artist. Its sequel, AIDOL (2019) sees a fading pop star enlist the satellite in a bid to write a comeback hit.