Most of Perfectly Ordinary Ghosts was written during a few nights of terrible heat and humidity in late 2017. It sat alone and was picked at occasionally for the next six months, before I finally got around to polishing it and releasing it in an effort to finish something before I focused on my bigger projects.
Video games are pretty good at space. Since 3D games became de jour space has been described in so many ways. Many advancements and problems, especially in new technology like VR, revolve around one thing – how does the player move around the space?
Perfectly Ordinary Ghosts is about spaces. Rooms and corners and corridors and walls and archways that all make up one grand house of the mind. I could have made it all in 3D, but I used a language and a construction within a medium that does not recreate space. Prose in Twine makes it all happen in your head.
In The Practice of Everyday Life, Micheal De Certeau talks at length about the relationships humans have with their spaces. Rituals are practiced while we walk and talk and exist in spaces, patterns that we repeat everyday over the years. He defines our storage of memories as an “anti-museum’ – the contents are not transferable or able to be easily displayed. When we map these memories to the spaces around us, they get defined by what is absent. Go on for long enough we see these memories turn into legends and folklore and haunted places. Buildings are geographically fixed places, but contrasted with the mass of people who come and go from them they become temporally far reaching.
Gothic literature is built on houses. From Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto to Guillermo del Toro’s Crimson Peak, a large part of the gothic has focused on the family house and what we find inside it. A typical framework moves from public or ‘known’ spaces into private ones, with the horror and dread of the situation intensifying as the protagonist explores deeper. Often a family secret is revealed, or the protagonist’s own sense of self is turned inside out by new and terrifying information.
Perfectly Ordinary Ghosts explores this structure within a suburban home, instead of the manor or castle that we might expect. However, the house is not typical. Spaces have awkward proportions, corridor corners turn in and around themselves and unknowns exist above the ceiling. Although larger houses are the norm for a country like America, New Zealand houses are generally smaller. This is particularly true of Wellington, where houses are stacked on top of each other up cliff sides. The house sits as an anomaly in its surroundings, and echoes this strange behavior inside itself.
Windows, doors and boundaries are marked out and paid attention to. Glass is treacherous, it can hide things that shouldn’t be seen, or reveal them. It can reflect or deflect. Much like the city lights that brush up against the foothills of the far mountains, whatever is outside the boundary of your bedroom walls will test the line that’s been drawn. And what is horror but the consequences of lines that are crossed?
Women have had a unique presence in gothic literature since its beginning. The Bronte sisters knew the lines drawn in dark manor houses well, along with Clara Reeve and Anne Radcliff. A particular inspiration for me was Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s short story The Yellow Wallpaper, which inspired the tagline of “a domestic horror interactive fiction”. Detailing the ‘slight hysterical tendencies’ of an unnamed woman, Gilman’s haunting house warps and changes as she is confined to a life of forced bed rest. A marker of domesticity and good taste, the wallpaper is reduced to mentally and physically marking the protagonist as she falls deeper into despair. Perfectly Ordinary Ghosts takes parts from Gothic traditions of haunting houses, and parts from the subgenre of gaslit women facing their own internal fears. Blurring the lines between what is real, what feels real and what isn’t real, it prompts the question – does it actually matter?
Returning briefly to the topic of New Zealand, I feel like I need to say that I don’t consider Perfectly Ordinary Ghosts to be a work of New Zealand Gothic. Gothic art in Australia and New Zealand tends to draw on anxieties regarding colonization and the loss of cultural identity – either for the indigenous people or the now settled colonizers. Perfectly Ordinary Ghosts is entirely a result of a summer spent in Wellington, New Zealand – but its influence is only skin deep.
Women are so woefully underrepresented in video games, so what hope do we have of media that even acknowledges our quieter moments? Wilderness, we have learned, is to be conquered. Loudly.
Mountains must be defeated, man is pitted against the seas and skies, unknowns can’t be left to rest. We see it all the time in games – male protagonist must clear every dungeon, every monster, explore every question mark. Many of my favourite moments in a game like Skyrim have been watching the snowy wind blow against an exposed ruin, and leaving some parts of the map completely unexplored.
There is nothing to be defeated in Perfectly Ordinary Ghosts, nothing to be won. Drifting from room to room and back again, as often as you like, the silence is all there is. Allowing yourself to simply exist in the empty rooms leaves room for so many other things. If you live with the ghosts you can get used to them, but never know them.
In 1902 an aspiring poet wrote a series of letters to poet Rainer Maria Rilke, and published his replies in a book soon after Rilke’s death. A recurring theme is Rilke’s discussions on loneliness, often framed as a landscape to be explored. He argues that many people are too afraid to realize that solitude is our natural state, and that it must be faced with quiet resolve. We are not trapped by solitude though; we need to pick over its rocky terrain to see what we can find there.
A few scenes in Perfectly Ordinary Ghosts are oddly formatted and seem unrelated to the story. Diaries (and their close public cousins, the scrapbook) often get filled with postcards and receipts and flyers and souvenir maps. Even normal books end up with a battered ticket stub being used as a bookmark. Ephemera is the name for anything that exists only to be used for a short time then thrown away, and has taken on a romantic bent with the popularity of scrapbooking and the nostalgia for physical objects in a digital age.
In Perfectly Ordinary Ghosts these asides are the digital equivalent to a postcard tucked between two pages, though they often reveal something much more disquieting or mundane. They were a fun addition that added richness without sacrificing mechanics. Being un-tethered from the main story, and mostly unexplained, adds to the sense of unease and oddness. There is also a slightly voyeuristic bent, blurring the lines between public and private.
I never really considered making a Twine game. It was a fun experiment; perhaps I’ll do it again.