October is the month for all ghouls, ghosts, and haunts of all kinds, so naturally we here at Sidequest wanted to talk about our favorite spiritual apparitions in-depth. Or perhaps, given the season, we want to talk about them in-death (cue echoing maniacal laughter from an unseen source). Join us in this paranormal conversation—share your favorite spirits and poltergeists in the comments!
Who’s the best game ghost? Explain.
Melissa Brinks: Gengar. I know this doesn’t make sense because my next answer is also about Pokémon and Gengar is arguably a lot scarier, but I can catch a Gengar and be its friend and I don’t know what the fuck is going on in my next answer.
Cress: Gotta give it to my boy, King Boo! I love the stupid little laughs boos make and King Boo is just MORE. I’m a huge fan of Luigi’s Mansion and I wish in another life we could become friends with King Boo. But that may end up being the afterlife.
Zainabb Hull: Cole from Dragon Age: Inquisition. I’ve long identified with Cole, a spirit who can see and soothe others’ pain. Cole speaks to my extremely earnest, extremely goth heart like few other video game characters.
Emily Durham: I second Cole! But just for the sake of coming up with my own answer, I’ll also throw in Justice, another Dragon Age ghost. When I played Dragon Age: Origins’s Awakening DLC, I really gravitated toward the sarcastic, jokey Anders, and I remember yelling to my Dragon Age-obsessed friend when my party met the spirit of Justice in the Fade. And I was utterly delighted upon meeting Anders again in Dragon Age 2, after in the interim he’d willingly allowed Justice to possess him. I think it’s SO narratively interesting that Anders’ personality changes from snarky to haunted (no pun intended) in between the two games, and that once Justice and Anders meld, they embody more of the spirit of Vengeance than Justice.
Alenka Figa: I was debating responding to this roundtable, because I’m just going to talk about Speed Dating for Ghosts the whole time and I already reviewed that game, but what the hell! I’m voting for Hattie, who is a sweet grandma ghost who visits her still-living husband in a nursing home. Hattie is super spunky, and when you interact with her you’re flirting with/dating her, helping her reunite with her husband (which… ghost polyamory?), and just basking in her warmth and friendliness. Kinda weird, but also just great—and it’s a nice contrast to the legit horror parts of the game.
What is the scariest game ghost?
Melissa: Unquestioningly, the ghost sprite from the original Pokemon games. Lavender Town absolutely terrified me as a child, especially the person outside the tower who, if you said you didn’t believe in ghosts, asked, “That white hand on your shoulder—it’s not real?” After I read that and saw the ghost sprite, I never recovered.
Cress: I absolutely agree with Melissa on the Lavender Town ghosts. So much so that there’s still a part of me that believes in Lavender Town Syndrome.
But as for ones that I dread seeing again: The main antagonist of Fatal Frame III, the Tattooed Priestess, can randomly appear in areas and will be an instant game over if she touches you!
Zainabb: I haven’t played many games with scary ghosts in them since I’m a big ol’ scaredy cat and have to avoid horror games. The only time I was genuinely scream-and-jump-so-hard-you-drop-the-controller afraid of a game ghost was when I played the questionable PS2 horror, The Suffering, as a kid. Instead of being creeped out or jumpscared by any of the game’s numerous nasties, an apparition of a human child running past the player character caught me by surprise. No, the game didn’t intend for this to be a scary moment. Yes, I immediately dissolved into laughter at myself afterwards.
Emily: I’m not sure if this counts, but I can’t think of any other video game ghosts that scared me as much: the Witch from Left 4 Dead scared the absolute piss out of me with its singing and its crying and its jumping out at you with its bloody red claws…
Alenka: Whoops I lied, I’m going to talk about another game—Yakuza! There is a substory in Yakuza Kiwami 2 that is somewhat typical in structure. Kiryu gets roped into something bizarre, it turns out to be a money scam, and he thwarts it using good ol’ hard-headed himbo-ness. This substory is a play on Ringu or The Ring: Kiryu is tricked into watching a strange tape, and afterward begins seeing a ghostly woman. A man who claims to be a medium tries to get a bunch of money from Kiryu for an exorcism, and at this point it feels clear that Kiryu’s just being taken for a ride… except the ghost saves him from being conned! It’s a really brilliant substory, because it plays with one of the game’s typical narrative structures and then flips it on its head. That flip also affirms—at least for me!—that the ghost is real, and Kiryu is very lucky to be on her good side. Anyone that can steal the hero role out from Kiryu and assert power is terrifying.
What game do you feel makes particularly good use of ghosts?
Cress: The ghosts of Fatal Frame take the cake for me. In the Fatal Frame franchise, you use only a camera obscura to take pictures and depower ghosts in a large haunted Japanese mansion or village. The camera obscura can only depower them temporarily, and as you progress the spirits become more aggressive. The ghosts may have certain areas they stick to, but some can traverse and appear suddenly. Odd camera angles obscure your vision, so you may be wandering along and get the sensor ping of a hidden spirit nearby, just to stress you out.
It doesn’t help that to get the strongest snapshot (or “Fatal Frame”) attack on a ghost, you have to wait until the last possible moment to take your picture—leaving you in suspense as the ghost creeps closer to you.
Melissa: It’s been a while since I played What Remains of Edith Finch, but I feel like the house in it is maybe not literally haunted, but figuratively haunted. The impression I have of the house is of one that’s packed full of living memories; you step into them and experience these figurative representations of how each member of the family died. Their ghosts are not necessarily present in a traditional haunted sense, but they make their presences felt through the visceral memories and the patchwork nature of the architecture. They are there, even if they are not truly there, which sounds like a ghost to me.
Emily: I think that Mr. Oshiro and the entire haunted resort in Celeste is a brilliant use of ghosts in both narrative and mechanics. Mr. Oshiro tragically does not know that he is deceased, and he becomes increasingly confused and aggressive as Madeline tries to quickly help him tidy up the abandoned hotel and continue on her way. He, as the host of this resort, wants his guests to stay… so Madeline’s desire to move on with her journey leads him to more and more desperate means of keeping her there. I think it’s a genius premise for an entire area full of puzzles, while also tackling some pretty heavy “unfinished business” themes.
Zainabb: In horror TTRPG Bluebeard’s Bride, you discover rooms around Bluebeard’s mansion, each of which holds something sinister. The game doesn’t explicitly make use of ghosts, but that’s my preferred way to play; it feels fittingly gothic to explore this deadly house, unearthing echoes of the wives who have come before—and, in my games, for those spirits to represent aspects of the Bride’s rapidly deteriorating psyche.
In Bluebeard’s Bride, ghosts not only play a key role in establishing the game’s gothic atmosphere and themes, they’re also a reminder of Bluebeard’s former wives and how their lives came to an end. This sets players up for repeat gameplay if your current Bride fails to make it out of the house alive.
Alenka: I recently watched my wife play through Disco Elysium (again—she’d played before) and the hanged man whose murder shows up in the main detective’s dreams, not exactly as a ghost, but kind of as a ghost? He haunts the detective, but he’s also a manifestation of his self-hatred and shame. Disco Elysium is a very emotionally heavy game, but the interactions with the hanged man are especially rough. The detective has to interact with his corpse, face his own ineptitude as he tries to hunt down the killer, and confront all the horrors of his past all at the same time.
If you had to choose a game environment to haunt, what would it be and why?
Cress: I think I’d do the Atelier series areas. The lands are generally peaceful, with a heavy emphasis on natural landscapes filled with magical flora and fauna. While the series main focus is alchemy, there are witches and spirits that live in the world too. So even if I only spent my days wandering the countryside, there’s a good chance I’d be able to have conversations with some of the living.
Maybe I’d even take up residence in one of the protagonists’ alchemy ateliers and give helpful advice on brews while floating near cabinets of ingredients.
Emily: Maybe I’m crazy, but I think it’d be pretty neat to be one of the wretched shades in Elysium under Hades’s employ. Or maybe I’d be the shade in orange, cheering Zagreus on in the coliseum.
Zainabb: Realistically, I think I would join the ghostly bears in Cozy Grove, given how much time I already spend with them and how much I resonate with the game’s morbid charm. But ideally, I’d like to haunt the world of Spirit Island so that I can continue my life’s goal of destroying all colonisers.
Alenka: This is a really tough question, geeze. I actually do not like real life dating so I don’t want to haunt the rooms in Speed Dating For Ghosts! I think I actually wouldn’t mind haunting the streets of Kamurocho in Yakuza, because it would be super entertaining? Every ten minutes Kiryu or Majima would run through on their way to some ridiculous scheme. Maybe that’s why the ghost in the substory protects Kiryu, he’s so funny and interesting to observe! He destroys every bicycle he comes across!
What thematic value do you think ghosts can bring to a game, beyond scares?
Emily: I already mentioned the concept of “unfinished business,” and by definition, I think that’s one of the biggest themes ghosts add to any narrative. Returning to our earlier Dragon Age discussion, I think Cole and Justice are two spirits who have plenty of unfinished business. For Cole, he is a spirit of Compassion who embodies the personality of his human friend Cole after he was abused and ultimately killed by an uncaring jailer, and the outcome of Cole’s narrative hinges entirely on how the player has Cole deal with his friend’s surviving murderer. For Justice, even before he possessed Anders, he was obsessed with righting the wrongs he saw before him. And after he and Anders became an abomination… their desire for freedom and justice for oppressed mages very literally fueled the plot of the second game. Not so much spooky, very much so a compelling plot device.
Zainabb: Oh my god, I’m having so many Dragon Age feelings again after reading that! I think something else that’s standing out to me about your description of Cole and Anders/Justice, Emily, is how these spirits represent embodiments of particular emotions or traits. That feels similar to what I appreciate about ghosts in Bluebeard’s Bride, where they tie in with what’s happening with the Bride’s mind as she travels deeper into the mansion. Listen, anyone who knows me knows I hate psychoanalysis with a passion but you know what, ghosts as analogy for someone’s psychological state? That’s a horror trope I will never get enough of. When games make use of this not just to reflect where a character’s at but to influence what the player feels too? Mwah, chef’s kiss.
Alenka: Zainabb, I am with you! I think that’s why the hanged man from Disco Elysium jumped out at me. Ghosts like the hanged man are both manifestations of something that is actually in the haunt-ee’s mind and echoes of real, whole people. One thing that I think Disco Elysium does really well is slowly reveal what kind of terrible person the hanged man was, even as he serves as a force that shames the detective into maybe coming out of this experience a better person, depending on how you play the game. This is a weird comparison, but the ghosts in Speed Dating for Ghosts also let you shade in a personality for your ghost-sona. They have their own journeys, struggles and (undead) lives, but your ability or inability to connect with or date them also reveals things about YOU. It’s a fun duality.
Cress: Everyone’s responses make me want to play these games!
I have to harp on about Fatal Frame III again. Your main character Rei, was in a car crash where her fiancé lost his life and she was the driver. She finds herself drawn to the haunted mansion in dreams and glimpses her fiancé. She struggles to find him deep in the ghost-infested mansion. Heavy themes of survivor’s guilt are woven into the narrative. In the waking world, you can explore his room and you feel the loss as she comments on everything. It makes you want to dive back into that horrible nightmare. His ghost simultaneously is a haunting reminder of her guilt and a thread of hope. Could she bring him back? To me, curse ghosts aside, it’s a pretty terrifying allegory how the one mourning can become swallowed by that guilt.
Melissa Brinks is Sidequest’s editor in chief, co-creator of the Fake Geek Girls podcast, author of The Compendium of Magical Beasts, and an aspiring beekeeper. She once won an argument on the internet, and tweets at @MelissaBrinks.