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.
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.
This transience is not limited to ambience and philosophy. It informs the very space you occupy and the ground beneath your feet. Though Demon’s Souls is chiefly a single-player experience, it is designed to allow glimpses into other players’ games. You can scrawl short messages alerting or misleading others to the dangers ahead. Bloodstains litter the ground, each one announcing where a fellow doomed soul has met their end. When investigated, these spatters play back the hapless player’s last few moments in ghostly pantomime. It reminds me of the Irish folktale of the fetch, an apparition that appears to you in the way that you will die. This could all be taken as a paranormal camaraderie – a resistance beyond the grave. But for me, this spectral communion has the opposite effect, driving home the experience of isolation even further. Demon’s Souls may not be the scariest game I’ve ever played. But it may be the loneliest.
On the face of it, it seems paradoxical: What could be lonelier than being alone? I’ve spent thousands of hours of game time by myself, but seldom think of it as solitary. I am occupied and engaged in a way that precludes isolation, perhaps in the same way that, for Douglas Adams, “one is never alone with a rubber duck.” There is that solipsism of the hero: the myth of importance. Taken as a strictly single-player experience, Demon’s Souls’ gloom could be palatable and even welcoming – yes, the world has been crumbling into a demonic abyss, but now I’m here, and I’m kind of a big deal. Alone, I can entertain the notion of being that last spark of light in a dying world. But being connected, even peripherally, belies this illusion. Witnessing those countless others slaving away at the same quest spoils the isolation, and any hero-fantasies I might have entertained seem idiotic and quaint. Though my quest may be private, it is not unique. I am not a beautiful snowflake. I am grist for the mill.
Multiplayer gaming has its own myths of importance. In a massive environment, I may not be worth much as an individual, but I am part of something larger, a force greater than the sum of its parts. We assume that games will organize us in relevant ways, and this allows us to array ourselves as we see fit. Demon’s Souls has different plans for us, however. I’ve spoken to many people who love the game, but wish that they could play it with their friends. This seems to be precisely the point: In such an alien place, friendship is impossible. Temporary allies may be summoned from the ether, but they’re less heroic alliances than fleeting moments that coalesce and then disperse.
Space in Demon’s Souls is seldom to be shared.
In another game, if I saw a fellow player fighting the good fight against a horde of monsters, I could swoop in and help or slink behind him and stick a knife between his ribs. In Demon’s Souls, the moment is past long before I witness it, an echo of an echo. And then, not every point of connection is a welcome one. Later in the game, you may choose to enter another person’s game as a black phantom with the intent to stalk and kill him, siphoning your victim’s soul like some digital Dracula. These invasions are unmarked and unannounced, lending to the constant threat that some stranger is prowling through the sacrosanct space of your save file. Starved for contact, the very push to connect becomes somehow craven and predatory.
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 www.kingandrook.com.