The Network

The Network
Ghosts in the Machine

Brendan Main | 22 Dec 2009 08:07
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Networked in such a way, there is a profound sensation of disconnect - like a sleepwalker, or a working brain clicking away within a torpid body. Here I know what I want to do, but my in-game body cannot respond. Demon's Souls seems to revel in this disjunction: Throughout there are bodies breaking down, bodies disrupted and flesh divorced from soul. The steward of this afterlife is the Maiden in Black, a sepulchral woman whose eyes have been scalded away by wax, perhaps so that she may See No Evil. It's a land of the blind without even a one-eyed king.

I should feel frustrated by these bonds. We're told that gaming is fundamentally about freedom, about wresting control back from the doldrums of everyday life. But with Demon's Souls, these invisible barriers fill me with a certain electrifying thrill. Often in dungeon-crawlers there is that sensation of the descent - in Diablo, one could enter a derelict chapel and go down, down, down, through catacombs, through fissures in the earth, into the very guts of Hell. In Demon's Souls, this descent is metaphoric as well, a trek away from our interconnected world into the dark recesses of isolation. It's the ghost story of a digital age.

Which brings me back to my night of paralysis. The physical disconnect during sleep turned out to be common, something that goes on most nights without incident. It was only in my half-awake state that it turned into something ominous and disconcerting. And though strange, this episode reminded me that so long as we have breath in our bodies, there is that threat of system failure - pull one plug, cut the wrong wire and our spider's web of neurons becomes a tangled mess. Ours is an online age, infinitely more complex and pervasive but prone to the same sorts of primal haunts. Demon's Souls draws on the terror of a hyper-connected world in which we are connected to those around us at all times, but lack the tools to communicate freely or completely.


We become unknowable things, somehow less than ourselves - phantasms that drift in and out of sight and fragments of text scrawled along the floor. For all we may argue about online games, praising them as redeeming or damning them as base, Demon's Souls poses a third option: neither heaven nor hell, but purgatory.

Through the online worlds of a digital age, we find so much. We may spend hours in these places, lifetimes. We may meet and grow close, even fall in love. How unsettling, then, to think that for all we gain from these spaces, there might be something lost. We may embrace these connections completely, but perhaps for all we try to communicate, to convey the whole of ourselves, something crucial is left behind. There is that new nightmare: Perhaps we do not live in such places so much as haunt them. Connected but unplugged, surrounded but alone - simply ghosts in the machine.

Brendan Main hails from the frosty reaches of Canada, where the scariest place anyone haunts is a Tim Horton's. When not having that recurring Tetris nightmare where he's pursued relentlessly by a backwards L, he blogs at

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