Where Ghosts Go to Die: Close Reading Spaces in Games

Places hold onto us. Our memories are burrowed into them. Every floorboard of every building, no matter how old, creaks with the emotions and memories of everyone whose footsteps have left an imprint there. This is hard to express in the absolute since it is undoubtedly rooted in the abstract, but it also sort of just “is” for lack of a better way of putting it. The good thing about video games is that they can make the abstract absolute, whether they mean to or not. Expressing the emotion of Place often seems pretty simple—give somewhere a visual history and thus it is imbued with personality—but to give an unliving place life is something else entirely. To make a place speak with the words of ghosts, of old memories is something else entirely.

Take the world of Red Dead Redemption 2, for example (this game was made under cruel working conditions, contains awful portrays of characters of color, and this needs to just be laid out before I move on). It is intimately detailed, every single part of it feels lived in and has a story of its own to tell. Houses dilapidate and crumble under the miserable history that has happened through, in, and around them. Just look at the state of Lemoyne area of the game’s world map. It portrays a post-war, nearly turn-of-the-century south that can best be represented as a mashup of Mississipi, Louisiana, and Alabama. It is both humid and dry, arid and packed with foliage, dusty and alive, dilapidated and new. It has a little bit of everything, but its history is cruel and its present is sad, forgotten, and meek. The sins of the past bleed into the present. The town of Rhodes holds onto its Confederate ways though the war is lost and long over. The brutal racism of the deep south is felt in every wall, building, fence, and farmhouse in Lemoyne. Folks work to create a future while holding onto the past and so they achieve nothing at all except cruelty and anger. Their homes, like their hearts, are pocked with rot, maltreatment, and a general forgetfulness that speaks to the history of these establishments. The present is as heavy as the ghosts that lurk within the memories and histories of these buildings of all sizes and purposes.

Eventually, Red Dead Redemption 2’s core gang of characters take refuge in the dilapidated estate of Shady Belle—an old, long-abandoned plantation house deep within the woods outside of Rhodes. Before the Dutch van der Linde gang, it was home to moonshiners and rebel raiders. The gang kills them and takes the mantle of ownership in a bloody way, and it is assumed that this has happened before. Rhodes once trafficked in flesh and blood and it still does but in a different way. The rotting house barely holds together. Holes in the ceiling have let water creep in, leading to further decay. Entire walls are gone. Some stairs are messing. Every footfall moans and creaks with the abysmal weight of this place's specific history. There are ghosts here. Though we never see them, we know them to be there. They exist as memories. Trinkets left behind a crumbled bedframe or a broken rocking chair atop the rotted top floor’s porch. Stories are left behind. This home is in a later stage of ruin, it is succumbing to nature’s subsumption, but those stories and memories remain. We don’t need that to be spelled out for us because we know they are there. We may not directly understand them in the absolute sense, but we can feel them. And sometimes feeling is enough to know. That rocking chair used to move to and fro as someone sat in it. It no longer rocks and there is nothing to look out upon beyond the crumbling remains of a cruel past meeting with the uncaring progression of the natural world. Some Place Memories are lost to the forest floor, their ghosts now deader than dead, and while the shambles of Shady Belle let other memories and ghosts linger a bit longer, they won’t always be there. Life will move past Shady Belle and those memories and ghosts will once again die as the home gives in to the natural progression of the end of all things.

Cities are packed densely with the sort of places that hold onto memories and ghosts and things lost to time. Sometimes we can feel it. The previous inhabitants (and their stories) of old apartments often make themselves known to current tenants through stains, old stuff found in drawers, scribbles in the nooks and crannies of walls, and more. A ghost does not have to be a bump in the night. A ghost can be an old memory playing out around us. Old buildings hold onto those that have come and gone through them. Detritus is not always something tangible. It can be a feeling, a memory can be found in a leaking faucet even, and a great example of how this sort of undefinable, intangible aspect of urban living has been made tangible is in the interiors of Mafia II—specifically the Scaletta family’s old apartment in the Uptown neighborhood of Empire Bay (the game’s fictional take on New York City).

This particular apartment is old and the building it is housed in can be found at the end of some winding alleyways. It sits above some shops and through its windows, you can see how quickly life moves in the big city. But in the apartment, there is a sense of stasis. Time wants to move on, but it can’t. The Scaletta family’s apartment feels obviously lived in, every inch of it has been used in some way or another. Vito’s childhood room is how it has always been, and while he has grown up, his room and the memories that linger therein have not. In a way, it feels like a safe space to him; a sort of return to a time when he had less to worry about. As for the rest of the apartment, Vito’s sister and mother make it come to life. They do what they can to make it presentable and family dinners are served at a small, old table. They pray and often eat in silence. But the kitchen itself is loud, even when it isn’t in use. You can see the history and previous lives of tenants in it. Apartments are transient places, people come and go while carrying their whole lives with them packed into multiple boxes and bags. But when someone moves, not everything is taken with them. You can’t pick up the intangible imprint you left on a home and take it with you. It stays behind, soaked into the floorboards and walls and ceiling and drawers and everywhere else. You’ve moved on and live somewhere else, but a part of you will always remain in that place you’re now gone from. The kitchen in Vito and his family’s apartment is a wondrous example of this. The open stove is caked with years and years of use. The walls have been painted and painted again and again, smoke stains dot the ceiling, and the countertops’ and cupboards’ once-white paint now yellow with age and use. Other families ate dinner, cooked, and made a life in that apartment’s kitchen. It is never definitively seen, but it is felt. The landlord sees faces come and go, but every single apartment holds onto those who’ve come and gone. These places grow heavy with the weight of generational memory. These ghosts will always linger. Sometimes these ghosts play out memories of those still alive: Vito’s childhood room tells stories of a past now dead as Vito has grown into a man, and not the one his baseball-obsessed youth expected him to be. A ghost can die, a memory can be fundamentally lost forever. This building in Empire Bay’s Uptown—if the trends of modern New York are to be attributed to its fictional counterpart—has probably long since been demolished. The bricks, wood, and plaster crushed and dumped away, effectively killing the ghosts and memories therein. Maybe in its place there is now a new highrise apartment complex. New memories and ghosts will take root and shape, but that building may too be demolished one day. This cycle will likely repeat on and on, with memories coming and going like the transcience inherent to apartments themselves.

The permeation of ghost-like memories is not left only to individual buildings and rooms themselves. Sometimes entire towns, villages and the like are imbued with these feelings of history and prior lives that bleeds into the present. In the opening hours of The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess, Ordon Village is a quaint and sleepy village in the greater kingdom of Hyrule. It sits in a fertile breadbasket between some mountains and is flanked by flowing bodies of water as well as a small pond where Link will often go to sit and think as the sun starts to sag heavily in the sky above. From the get-go, a sense of history is felt throughout the entire village. It is caked in a perpetual golden hour that gives it an ethereal feeling of being a place being in and out of time. The ways of the present could be the ways of the past, Ordon Village’s citizens could be repeating the same routines day in and day out as their ancestors and their ancestors’ ancestors before them, and we never truly know. No definitive answer is again. Once again, it is only felt. Link’s daily life consists of small, trivial tasks. He fishes. He farms. He lives out a simple but joyous life. No one, not even him, knows what’s to come. In a sense, the memories felt in every home and path of Ordon Village become even heavier with the knowledge that the life those memories knew will never be achievable again. The village’s inhabitants and their day-to-day life are about to be turned upside down. But in the moment, all is well. The knowledge that generations have walked the same path as Link and sat at the bank of the same pond to watch the night stars is beautifully comforting. Ordon Village is not weighed down by painful memories or a sense of foreboding. At the moment, it is just warm—even the imbued memories of those long gone feel as if they bleed over into the present by way of kindness. Ghosts reliving memories of a beautiful and easy life, and the village gives them the distance to do so. The brown homes feel humbled by history itself and by the knowledge that many have lived there before. A family might live in the same home for generations. We are never told this and it isn’t really hinted at. It just is. The ghosts and memories that give places a feeling of living history don’t always have to be malicious in intent or heavy and sad in their portrayal. A place can feel lived in without having to show decay or brutal signs of age. The memories that still come to life in the space itself can be simple and kind, unnoticeable even if one looks for them. Sometimes a place can just be old—very old—with enough space for those ghosts and their memories to just be, that itself is a beautiful thing.

Words on games, death and stuff like that.