Games don’t often change who we are, but a spooky, discounted PS4 remake of a Korean horror adventure game finally got me to start thinking about how I inhabit a shared space and do something about it.
I was sitting on my couch in the dark and blue glow of my PS4, panicking my way through the 2017 remake of White Day: A Labyrinth Named School when it hits me: compulsory heterosexuality makes people do really bizarre shit.
I’m trapped in an extremely haunted high school in South Korea, it’s 2001, and the only reason I’m here is because Lee Hui-min couldn’t just wait to bring chocolates and return a diary to the girl he’s crushing on in the morning. No, it had to be a surprise.
Absolutely normal behavior.
And now there’s a janitor behind me.
Now his baseball bat is in my head.
Now we’re dead, Hui-min.
You know she’s not into you, right?
I can’t entirely blame Hui-min, of course. He got us into this mess, but it’s my fault we were found and bludgeoned to death.
See, I have a problem: I never close doors.
Sometimes I underestimate how much force the smooth-glide hinges on a cabinet require to shut, or don’t want to make noise by overestimating how little force is required to shut something properly. I’ll keep the fridge open while cooking until the beeping prompts someone to tell me to close the damn thing. A lot of doors stay open because I’m never sure if I’m finished with whatever’s beyond them.
Whatever the process behind it, I just don’t close things fully, if at all. Oh, I also leave lights on.
Like I said, it’s a problem. Usually for other people—my partners, parents, the people who are left to contend with the consequences of my leaving the spaces I inhabit constantly looking like they’ve been rummaged through. I always try to do better—I understand their frustrations, I apologize—but change has been slow. Mostly I just like the reminder that someone was here, that I exist, and have an impact on the space around me.
Turns out, that’s not a habit that’s helpful in survival horror games either, which is a weird revelation to have. Survival requires persistence, the continuation of the self. The goal in the end is to say “I lived, motherfucker.”
But sometimes survival means making yourself as small and unobtrusive as possible. Leaving no trace of your existence in the presence of those who would do violence.
So I started turning lights off. White Day explicitly told me janitors will see them and come running. And they sure did.
That’s when I noticed: the janitors always closed the doors behind them.
It’s not something the game ever mentioned, not in a pop up window, or a cryptic text message (White Day’s amusing diegetic hint system), or in the strange creepypasta-like stories written and left behind by school children. But it felt meaningful.
I started closing doors too.
Has a game ever changed your behavior? I don’t mean in the way that Dark Souls teaches you how to play it, learning patterns, correct combinations of button presses in Tekken, or the precise moment when to tap A in Ninja Gaiden to account for NES-era platforming clumsiness, internalizing a game into the motor neurons of your fingers perfectly.
Has a game ever shifted how you act outside of it?
When I was five or six, I took the message of Sierra graphic adventures into my heart: Pick up everything that isn’t nailed down. I stuffed my pockets with anything vaguely attention-getting. After all, you never know when a scrap of copper wire, a gummy eraser, or discarded cassette tape might come in handy. It’s a habit I was quickly disabused of. My mother could only deal with me bringing home a bent ski pole or questionable toaster from an alleyway so many times.
I think a lot about games outside of them, but it’s been a while since a game has made me stop and consider what I’m doing in my own life and then alter what I would normally do.
I started thinking about those doors and the janitors every time I was confronted with one. It turns out there are a lot of doors and lights in one’s life.
I’m actually very sympathetic to the custodial staff of Yeondu High School. Sure, this school is absolutely cursed, and sure they did murder one of my classmates while Hui-min and I watched from an airduct. But this is their space. We’re outsiders here. And if we’re going to trespass the least we can do is not make a mess, waste power, or assert ourselves aggressively over their domain.
Their job is to take care of this space, to keep it in a pristine stasis.
Imagine having kids come in after hours and fuck up the space you’re charged with maintaining? Hell no. We can’t have people just coming in at night and rummaging around in classrooms, crawling through ductwork, or disturbing the extremely occult shit. No wonder they are so frustrated. Who are we to complicate their labor?
I am extremely on the side of the school janitors.
Starting over, I took a different approach: Make the janitors’ lives as easy as possible.
Hui-min was a good, conscientious boy (even if he was still weirding out over this girl he didn’t know). We closed doors behind us. Only turned on lights when we actually needed too, and made sure to turn them off immediately after.
It became a tight sequence of gestures: flip switch, step through, turn around, and close the door. We repeated if for hours, through obtuse puzzles and frantic micro-management of the things in Hui-min’s pockets as we made our way through this spooky school. When we opened drawers or lockers, we closed them after.
We walked, rather than dashing wildly through communal hallways.
It worked. While there were some close encounters with janitors, for the most part I never ran into them. And while I’ll never know if the game is even aware of this approach, Hui-min and I never got another a nasty surprise from a custodial baseball bat again.
Then I started doing exactly that in my real life. Consciously at first, thinking, “Oh, yes. I should close that cabinet. And I don’t need that light anymore. I’ll turn it off.” The image of the janitors never far from my mind.
While I’d love to say my days of leaving doors unclosed are forever behind me, they aren’t. Some impulses are just too strong for even multiple playthroughs of White Day to overcome, but I’m more cognizant of it now. I think about the doors I keep open, the cabinets left cracked just a sliver, spaces I’ve disturbed that reveal I had been there, done something. And thoughts of disturbing the delicate order imposed by the janitors is forever just over my shoulder.
If nothing else, at least it makes my partner and the other people in my life much happier.
Dia Lacina is a queer indigenous writer, photographer, and founding editor of CapsuleCrit.com, a monthly journal dedicated to microgenre work about games. She tweets too much at @dialacina.