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Ghosts in the Machine

Brendan Main | 22 Dec 2009 12:07
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I've never seen a ghost. I don't believe in ghosts. But let me tell you a ghost story.

I woke up last night and couldn't move. I could breathe, but I couldn't lift my body or even look around. I wasn't in pain, but I had the sense of a great weight - every time I strained to sit up, it was like something invisible pushed back, pinning me in place. I tried falling back to sleep. I focused on my breaths and let my thoughts slowly scatter. But even as I tried to drift away into unconsciousness, I held on to a nagging sensation of déjà vu. The experience was unlike anything I had seen or done, but it was nonetheless familiar. It reminded me, in some weird way, of Demon's Souls.

Now, I've had the occasional game-related dream, but a game-related traumatic-limbo-that-feels-like-it's-going-to-suck-the-life-right-out-of-you was something new entirely. I asked my wife Colleen about it the next day, since she has experience studying sleep disorders of various kinds. She described it as "sleep paralysis," which seemed eminently more scientific than my assumption of "horrible gypsy curse." Apparently it occurs when the body's perceptions return from sleep, but the spinal motor remains deactivated, upsetting your neural network. Fascinatingly, many cultures describe this experience as supernatural, as if under the sway of some monstrous thing. In some places, it's a hag that is exerting its will upon you. In others, a demon. And in some, it's a ghost.

The world of Demon's Souls feels similarly haunted. From Software's action RPG on the PS3 is punishing in the biblical sense - it does not reward good play so much as castigate bad. In this game, being dead becomes a way of life. Spectres flit in and out of being across a barren landscape, scouring the edifices of once-proud civilizations. Here, death is not some videogame abstract, to be endlessly deferred with 1-ups and continues.

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It is a solemn, thudding fact, waiting for you mere moments after you've finished fiddling with the character generator: Turn on, tune in, drop dead.

After dying to the game's impossibly difficult introductory boss, you arrive at the baroque limbo that spans this world and the next. There, you are presented with a strange sight: Up a series of staircases sit row upon row of motionless children, each with an extinguished candle in front of them. Only one remains alive and tends a still-burning wick. The message is simple: In Demon's Souls, life is nasty, brutish and short - a guttering candle, easily snuffed. This ageless being is known as The Monumental - perhaps it is monumental that any sort of life at all might persist in such chaos. But even that is unsure, and a monument to the dead is nothing but a tombstone.

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