A Ghost of a Chance. Or a Chance for a Ghost?

I'm writing about ghosts this week. Booo! Happy Halloween in January everyone, I hope you have your Jack Frost o' Lanterns keeping you warm and that the trick or treaters by the door that haven't all died from exposure. Because having frozen corpses of children near your property that you will have to later explain to a nice policeman is scary, and scary is the reason for the season here in Mento Blog Land this week.

Because I played the doubly disturbing Fragile Dreams: Farewell Ruins of the Moon (for its ghosts and also for its emotions) in the past few days, I wanted to highlight the versatility and innovation that the spectral dead bring to games that focus their narrative and/or gameplay on the intangible horrors that await behind the grey veil that crucially obscures our vision of the netherworld beyond and protects our ever so brittle sanity from a realm of madness from which there is no ret- Look, I just wanted to talk about ghosts. I like ghosts. From the zenith of high-brow culture ("Ghost Problems More") to that of its lowest nadir ("Ghostbusters 3: The Legend of Swirly's Gold: Swirly Being The Ghost In The Ghostbusters Logo Yes This Is All Going Into The Subtitle Mr Copy Editor I Don't Care How Messed Up The Posters Are Going To Look: The Official Game of the Movie"), our entertainment mediums (so to speak) have discovered many a means of incorporating the incorporeal in a way that will either titillate us with jump scares or make us ponder solemnly about how death is such a huge bummer. Both are equally terrifying, frankly.

So, then, a video game history/rundown of apparitions and their applications as they pertain to our favorite hobby. Hold on tight, because this spookhouse ride doesn't have brakes. And we're all out of ride tickets. That cotton candy is turning to grit in your hands. The... the carny guy outside looked at you funny. It's probably, I dunno, 50, 55? degrees outside and that's sort of chilly if not really the kind of weather where you'd bother wearing extra layers, you know? I think people get way too weird about it being a few degrees cooler and-

What the hell am I even talking about? Here's ghosts:

Ghostly Quality #1: Identifiable Shapes

Inky. Probably. I'm no ghostist, but they all kind of look the same. Not to mention how they float over here, taking our jobs...
Inky. Probably. I'm no ghostist, but they all kind of look the same. Not to mention how they float over here, taking our jobs...

Yeah, ghosts kind of got an inauspicious start when they originally appeared in the video game scene, starring alongside a ravenous pizza beast that was debatably scarier than they were. It's been said on numerous occasions that ghosts were chosen as Pac-Man's eternal nemeses because of how simple and identifiable a shape they had. Since they were mortal, in a sense, they rarely registered as true ghosts. Really, they could well have been any sort of being that regenerates their entire corporeal forms from a pair of sentient eyeballs. The list of real-life animals that can pull off a similar feat is literally endless.

As the Pac-Man franchise continued to innovate in the video gaming world - creating one of the earliest side-scrolling platform games, the earliest game to feature a (I'd say non-sexualized, but oh man that beauty spot. You know what I'm talking about, hey fellahs? Dismembered lady torsos ain't nothin' on that business, hoo boy) female protagonist, the first instance of a video game teddy bear getting visibly irate that bizarre creatures were stealing his jelly beans - the ghosts likewise continued to be a presence in Pac-Man's oft-dark world of fruit and steroid abuse. To Pac-Man and a generation of Arcade-obsessed youths, they were villains; to every other spook on this list, they were trailblazing heroes.

Ghostly Quality #2: Look, But Don't Touch

No! Wait! I DO give a damn! Honest! I-ARRGH!
No! Wait! I DO give a damn! Honest! I-ARRGH!

Moving ahead to the mid-80s now, we have a couple of examples of ghosts in perhaps their most commonly used role: That of an undead horror from which you were expected to run away from very fast. Obviously, the Pac-Man ghosts had a bit of that aspect too, but they came from an era where everything killed you in one hit. In that respect they were no different than the robots in Berzerk, those space invaders in that one game (Defender?) or even the mindless space rocks of Asteroids. When video games invented hit points and saving and ghosts were still a nightmare to deal with, that's where this category comes in.

My first example is the Scarlet O' Hara ghost from ICOM's Uninvited, one of the three original MacVenture adventure games (along with Shadowgate and Deja Vu) that most users here will probably know from its NES incarnation. This spiteful spook will wait inside of one of the many doors on the first floor landing and hover benignly in front of you until you decide to do something. If you do decide to do something, like try to reason with it, it'll suddenly be all up in your grill and tearing your face off. It's the game's first big scare and first instance of a puzzle you cannot escape from without the right item (even trying to leave counts as "agitating" it), so if you hadn't yet been introduced to the game's save feature, well, you'll know better than to open a bunch of weird doors next time. Honestly, if you're coming to this game from Shadowgate and still haven't learned that crucial lesson, it's hardly the game's fault for insta-killing you for no reason.

The other example comes from D&D. Rather, the early computer games that commendably managed to squeeze in so much of the venerable table-top's immense ruleset in lieu of graphics or sound or pretty much anything else of note. D&D has a lot of rules in particular regarding how bad for your health a run-in with any of its menagerie of non-corporeal entities invariably tends to be. If we look at Might & Magic VII, which despite being released at the turn of the millennium still uses many of the old-fashioned ideas of its 80s antecedents to be deliberately nostalgic, ghosts will occasionally prematurely age you an entire year upon contact, with nary a congratulatory slice of birthday cake to compensate. They really don't mess around in those old games. Fortunately, the age of the characters makes no appreciable difference and this unnatural aging can be reversed for a sufficient amount of tithes at your local chancel, but it's a relatively early in-the-game wake-up call that impolitely informs you on the importance of letting the dead lie. Or float. But float somewhere else, preferably.

Other ghost games where it's best to just run like the dickens: Bubble Bobble, Silent Hill 4, Spelunky and those adorable but deadly Boos in any post-Bros. 3 Mario game you care to mention.

Ghostly Quality #3: Bustin' Makes Me Feel Good

Sure it can exorcise the restless dead, but where are the Instagram filters? I can't convey my true feelings about PBR with this shit.
Sure it can exorcise the restless dead, but where are the Instagram filters? I can't convey my true feelings about PBR with this shit.

Of course, it's no fun if ghosts are this intangible, invincible presence in a game. Games are all about killing things, whether they be aliens, monsters, foreign people who disagree with America or the undead. As such, video game ghosts are usually vulnerable to something, even if that something needs to be equally magical in nature to compensate.

The Fatal Frame series, known over here in Europe as Project Zero and simply Zero in Japan, features the Camera Obscura: An enchanted photography machine that is somehow able to banish ghostly essences due to crystals or qi energy or God knows what hippy spiritual nonsense that goes on over there. It's really just a contrivance to make sure the only way you can hurt any given ghost is to let it get really close to a first-person viewfinder and scare the crap out of you first. That the camera is based on an actual legend was something of an added bonus for the game developers, I feel. In addition to fighting malevolent ghosts, it can also be used to catch those brief glimpses of less aggressive apparitions as they attempt to direct your frightened teenage girl protagonist (usually) to where the next jump scare piece of the puzzle is located. However, the solution behind whatever happened to everyone to turn them all non-corporeal and sinister generally needs to take the most circuitous route possible around the creepy mansions that feature in the Fatal Frames. It's the Cretan Labyrinth effect: Though by all appearances a maze, there is in fact a single route with no dead-ends that is intended to take as long as possible to navigate around, the idea being that you can not escape the minotaur in the middle and still be horribly lost and confused by the time you reach it. In this case, that means not escaping the terrifying ghosts that lie waiting in every innocuous clothes hamper, wardrobe or well because you'll be required to probe them all for the next key or emblem or crest or precious stone or-

As well as magic Japanese cameras, ghosts are also shown to be susceptible to: Flashlights, vacuum cleaners, proton packs, Power Pellets, random junk a chickenman has found and teenagers discovering who they really are underneath that costume.

Ghostly Quality #4: Ghost Problems

Sai's a friendly ghost with lots of useful advice. She's totally not floating fanservice. At all.
Sai's a friendly ghost with lots of useful advice. She's totally not floating fanservice. At all.

Really, though, it's when games view ghosts as something beyond an enemy or an obstacle is where they really start to shine. Or give off an unearthly glow, as the case may be. Ghosts have problems; it's usually implied as to being the reason why they're still around. Solving their problems allow them to pass on to the other world, and gets them out of your hair to boot.

Echo Night: Beyond is a slow-paced survival game in which an astronaut explores a silent and empty space station. Or rather, empty but for the ghosts. The ghosts are generally depicted as invincible terrors that will quickly kill you if you linger too long in their presence, but are otherwise non-hostile. Instead, the path to success is to find items - keepsakes - of their past and help them discover the reason for their regret and find their eternal rest, at which point they stop haunting the critical path and you can move onto the next part of the game. This is conversely to something like Dead Space, where the specters of the deceased are distraught about their fates, but choose to express this by tearing your head off with their horrible jabby monster limbs.

Fragile Dreams, to go back to that whole "game I've been playing this week" inextricable aspect of these blogs, is another game that is largely atmosphere and only occasionally hitting spooky things with sticks. While exploring the dilapidated remains of civilization, since everyone got wiped out by a mysterious disease save the hero and a few others, said hero will find items that are imprinted with the memories of the deceased, allowing you to hear their final thoughts. It's all part and parcel of the game's overbearing sense of melancholy, only topped by the sheer depression porn that was Lost Odyssey, but it's a way of instilling terror you don't often see in games, especially not games with art direction as cutesy as tri-Crescendo's (the developers of Eternal Sonata, the saccharine presentation of which would suggest that Chopin was dying of Type-II Diabetes rather than Consumption): Rather than instinctual fear of the unknown, or the similar instinctive fear of a big thing about to eat you, or even that elusive existential dread that causes one to break out in cold sweats, it emphasizes the fear of just being all alone in a dark place.

And of Chickenhead too, of course. I don't think that sort of terror even has a name.

Ghostly Quality #5: I'm a Ghost?!

Early 90s 'tude not required.
Early 90s 'tude not required.

Finally, we have developers who have long since grown tired of watching the ghostly types flaunt these miraculous powers of theirs and decided it was time the players had a turn at the haunting game. By making a haunting game. Ghost protagonists have all the strengths of their ghost brethren and none of their weaknesses. No wait, that's Daywalkers - I get those confused sometimes. Rather, then, ghost protagonists have the ability to possess objects and occasionally people, depending on the game, and can also walk through walls and generally be invisible and when they want to be.

Oddly, many ghost games put you as something of an antisocial sort who wishes to chase out the fleshy denizens of your (technically former) domicile with whatever's handy. This is the case with games like Haunting: Starring Polterguy for the Genesis and a significantly more playable Indie game that was inspired by it, named Haunt the House. Then you have games like Geist and Ghost Trick, where the goal is to use these items and people to your advantage in some way, and solve environmental puzzles with the rules you've been presented. In both those games, there tend to be some harsh and limiting requirements to your ghostly skills and where you can take them, because otherwise being allowed to go anywhere and do anything will make things a bit too easy. Dead easy.

Ghostly Qualities that didn't make the blog: #6 - As the supernatural equivalent to "America's Funniest Home Videos" (Demon's Souls/Dark Souls), #7 - As spoiler bait (Final Fantasy X/The Sixth Sense: The Game of the Movie that doesn't exist), #8 - As... currency? (The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time).


Fragile Deams: Farewell Ruins of the Moon

Fragile Dreams more like fragile grasp on my sanity whenever Chuckles here rolls up.
Fragile Dreams more like fragile grasp on my sanity whenever Chuckles here rolls up.