Since it’s Halloween, I thought I would write about ghosts. It’s nothing new to me; it’s a bit of a morbid obsession , just as it is everyone else’s who studies literature or history, whether they admit it or not. I spend a good bit of my time in dusty libraries or reading the words of dead women and men. The tallest building on the campus where I work is the library, a towering aedificium filled with the words and voices of the restless dead, and I commune with these specters daily because it’s part of the career path I’ve chosen for whatever reason (preserving cultural history, fostering ongoing dialogues, pursuing some existential insight—pick any one). I wander through the hallways and stacks of this mausoleum, and I think about what it means to travel to worlds accessible only through the languages of literary ghosts.
Appropriately, one of the aspects of video game I find myself pondering is the persistence of ghosts as subjects and theoretical concepts. Digital worlds, after all, have their own phantoms. While they operate a bit differently than their literary counterparts, different phantoms haunt the architecture of the video game: the glitch, the error, the frozen screen. No matter how deeply we get sucked into games, a glitch draws us back out. It’s a shock to the system that, for a brief moment, we inhabit as players traveling in a digital world. They reveal faults in the code and try to reset themselves; they’re often unavoidable or impossible to predict.
When the game itself reveals its inconsistencies and potential for disruption, the digital ghosts materialize from the ether. Ghosts bother us because they break one of the most established and implicitly recognized rules of human existence: life has expiration date with no exception. An encounter with a ghost shocks us not just because we meet the dead but because we find a basic system of human belief shattered. Like the shades that haunt ancient houses, churches, and cemeteries, the glitches and errors of a game are threatening because they reveal to the player the reality that the worlds they inhabit through game characters are fragile, susceptible to disruption from some unseen void hidden in ones and zeroes.
Glitches are most often accidents. For instance, a bizarre hiccup in Fallout 3 brings you face-to-face with a floating pile of gore and viscera. The forests of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas play host to ghost cars that roam the foggy woods. Perhaps the most horrifying glitch in recent memory are the terrifying half-human creatures in the wild’s of Red Dead Redemption. A donkey-faced woman, a man acting like a cougar, and a human snake monster all provide the western landscape with a heavy dose of “Dear God, why!” These errors are simultaneously ridiculous and unnerving because games work by adhering to a set of rules established in the software programming. These bugs make us uneasy because we expect the system of the game to function in a very specific way. When we find that there are fissures in the architecture, we laugh nervously but remain uncomfortable, possibly even frightened, that digital ghosts can break the rules we rely on so heavily to understand the worlds we explore.
It always amazes me, though, when games use this basic understanding of a haunted space to create terror and horror in ways only video games can. I’ll never forget the first time I played Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem and my character’s sanity meter depleted. As I began to panic, the volume on my TV started to decrease. I thought I had sat on the remote, but I saw that it was a good two feet away from me. I increased the volume on the TV and continued playing. When the normal sound kicked back in, it damn near blew the speakers, subsequently causing me to jump and scream profanities with reckless, terrified abandon. These meta-scares were much more unsettling because I thought the game was malfunctioning; in other words, the rules that govern system fell apart.
Amnesia: The Dark Descent uses a similar mechanic in the form of the protagonist Daniel’s sanity meter. When the defenseless player stays too long in darkness, hallucinations infect the screen by distorting the player’s vision and creating phantoms that have no actual substance in the game. Seeing monstrous creatures or horrific apparitions depletes the character’s sanity meter as well, requiring careful play that avoids all things spooky–no easy feat in a terror-based game. Sanity remains just as important as health, and it requires attentive care, needing light to replenish which, in turn, makes the player more visible to the creeping horrors that inhabit the underground. Playing Amnesia becomes a balance exercise, asking the player to sacrifice sanity for relative safety in the twisting dark while the game itself breaks its own rules to further subvert the player’s assumed control within the game’s environment.
Though it doesn’t make glitch and error the focus of its disturbing gameplay, Dark Souls (and its predecessor Demon’s Souls) makes the player’s character a literal ghost that haunts the damned landscape of the game. When the game begins, your character has already died, and much of the game involves restoring your humanity by killing any number of the game’s terrifying bosses or by performing rituals at bonfires. Beginning as an undead, the player already knows his/her place in this menacing world as everything from the narrow walkways above bottomless chasms to the innumerable grotesque nightmares that populate the darkened forests and dilapidated ruins seeks to kill the player in the most brutal way imaginable. The player, then, becomes the ghost in the system seeking to disrupt the perfectly-function system of cruel isolation. In other words, Dark Souls makes us the ghosts in the machine.
This concept is most prevalent in the game’s multiplayer component. The game is always online, so the player never truly walks the world alone. A player can influence another game by invading his/her world for good or ill or leaving cryptic messages and hints. The player sees ghostly apparitions of other players as they fight monsters or interact with the world. Touching bloodstains left on the ground replays in grisly pantomime the last moments of another player’s life, offering clues to traps that await the player to teach the player how to survive for just a mite longer. Seeing the specter of another human being reminds the player that others share his/her fate–but they remain separated by some force that has sundered the world.
The player, then, re-conceptualizes what it means to play with someone online. Online gameplay provides only a fleeting and superficial connection, but when strangers team up to take down an impressively difficult boss, the feeling of gratification is on par with beating an entire game. Players blink in and out of each others’ worlds and lives, inviting a metatextual pondering of existence and connection in a world of abject despair, positing that we are all just hollowed shells projected on a screen–bodies turned digital ghosts. These interactions, nevertheless, are meaningful in that they help us traverse some virtual wasteland, and maybe that’s all we can ever ask for in online interaction. The game offers a grim truth, beautiful in its bleak frankness, that players are always ghosts in the machine.
It’s easy to think of a digital world as a place of safety or escape. Perhaps they appear harmless or open; maybe they give us chances to exercise creativity or to tour fantastic and wonderful worlds. Those are nice sentiments to be sure, but there are dark things buried in the code. Whatever reasons we play, we make an implicit contract to interact with a digital space bound by rules, and when those rules are broken something unexpected and often frightening breaches the invisible walls. Games are always haunted, and as for us…well, we’re just chasing ghosts.