Ghost in the Machine: Players Are Ghosts Within The Code

Games Features
Share Tweet Submit Pin
Ghost in the Machine: Players Are Ghosts Within The Code

You know how in a lot of stories where the protagonist is a ghost there is that moment where they realize that they can’t touch anyone or anything?

That is SO videogames.


A few weeks ago Maddy reviewed Murdered: Soul Suspect. She points out: “I found myself stripped entirely of typical videogame superhero skills. As Ronan [the game’s protagonist] leaves his dead body behind, he tries to pick up his gun—but alas, his fingers slip right through it.” It’s a straight-up snub toward games’ modification of Chekhov’s rule: If there’s a gun on screen, the player can use it.

Some games understand that the player is an intruder. It’s there in games of chaos as well as games of order. The GameCube’s Baiten Kaitos sets you as a spirit that advises and influences the playable characters. Always a trainer, never a pokemon.

The past intrudes: There are the literal ghosts in racing games, where we can race against our past selves. And with the proliferation of online in games we’ve got our friends’ ghosts driving in circles, or invading our Dark Souls realm, or their zombified corpse running around our London in ZombiU. They can’t come into our Dragon’s Dogma games, but they can send their pawns (Dogma’s cosmology is online gaming network architecture as dragon-and-direwolf fantasy). Sometimes they burst in as a PSN or Xbox Live or Steam message midgame.

And when we’re supposed to be in the game world it is like that scene in Ghost: we possess the Whoopi it’s made for us. Murdered has Ronan possess people in order to spy on their thoughts or influence their behavior. That these individuals have thoughts and memories (Ronan influences their behavior by making them think of things he’s observed) is so strange in a videogame. Even though they at most seem to have one or two thoughts, and in some parts of the town different individuals think the same thing in the same voice, this is a game that gives its non-player characters an internal life beyond just knowing to hide behind cover when you’re shooting at it.

Ronan’s intrusion into their minds is presented as justifiable (or at least, not criticized) because he’s trying to solve his own murder, trying to help other spirits move on. Until he possesses Joy, the young woman who witnessed his murder. She immediately throws him out of her head and berates him for being there. See, Joy’s a medium, so she can sense him. And her mind is not to be violated by Ronan. Later in the game he asks her to carry him across a supernatural trap, and she agrees. But the mind-read button doesn’t do anything.

Many a gameworld claims to be hostile toward the player, or even indifferent. That’s the promise of the open-world game, isn’t it? That this is a place that doesn’t care about you. It runs on its own internal logic whether or not you interact. Except they’re usually clearly designed for the player to be the chaotic element in a faux-clockwork system that, unlike a clock, actually cares more about you than its timekeeping

So we haunt games and their characters, but we’re not alone in our haunting. Audio logs, text entries, graffiti. Anything developers place to be left behind by someone else: these are intrusions, too. “There’s an in-world explanation!” you cry. “Trace evidence! Locard! These are the physical remains of previous events!” To which I say: “Stop watching so much CSI. Fictional trace evidence is just as constructed as its supposed causes and effects”. Developers haunt games in other crucial ways: what that code allows, what the engine renders for you to see and hear, what effects their systems cause.

Jorge Luis Borges said that fantastic literature (not, like, “that’s a really great book!”, but fantastic in the sense of fantasy, but not like wizards and goblins fantasy; think early 20th century ghost stories, horror, y’know) had four devices, one of which was the contamination of reality by dreams. In Murdered the past is contaminating the present. The game uses the space as a metaphor: as history invades the plot, so ghostly remnants of 17th century Salem invade its architecture. It’s a straight up Freudian return of the repressed. The alternate space doesn’t overtake the town like Silent Hill’s Otherworld, though. And because Ronan is part of its contamination, its presence isn’t the threat that the Otherworld is.

Because we are a part of its contamination, it’s not so horrific.

There’s a lot of baggage with that word, “contamination”. Forget that. We’re not dealing with notions of purity and the horror of its violation. Leave behind the Modern, monstrous Others and fears of transgressed boundaries. No matter how real they feel, we are not part of these worlds we infect. We all float in here.


There’s another scene in those ghost stories. You know it: the one where the ghost learns to concentrate enough and effect something in the nonghost world. They learn that if they just try hard enough they can bootstrap control over the world around them.

Modders and tool-assisted-speedrunners aside, our game intrusion, as player or otherwise, is restricted by the code. Even bugs, those failures of the software development process to wrangle code into perfect intentionality, to control over what comes out as well as what goes in—bugs are still of the code.

That scene that I talked about at the beginning? When you can’t touch anything? That’s us in our game worlds when we try to step outside of the code, swiping blindly and ineffectually. We’re trapped by the developers’ hauntings, forced to move within their priorities and biases, software development processes and everything else that’s shaping and seeping through the code. Try as we might, there are things we just can’t do. Talk when there’s no talk button; shoot when there’s no shoot button; feel when there’s no feelings button.


Maybe not everything is code.

Brian Taylor makes you so unsure of yourself, standing there but never ever talking sense.