This article discusses plot points from the entirety of Ghostwire: Tokyo.
When the people we love die, the void that sucks and eats at the centre of the places they once were can only be plugged up, in small part, through the stories we tell. There’s nothing unique about this kind of observation. It’s the sort of thing that, written out, feels almost painfully banal next to the unhealable wound of grief, even when supported by the fact that traditions from across the globe bear out its universality through belief systems and folklore related to death.
Ghostwire: Tokyo, for instance, is a game of stories and a game about death. Its brief set-up sees the Japanese capital draped in a mysterious fog that leaves the city streets empty but for blueish silhouettes of moaning yurei, Japanese ghosts, and the appearance of hostile, friendly, or disinterested yokai—spirits and strange creatures that represent paranormal or natural forces. (I wrote in greater depth about Ghostwire’s yokai and yurei for Wired) From its opening moments, the game’s narrative enfolds other narratives within itself, wrapping enduring, distinctly Japanese reckonings with the metaphysics of death—and, naturally, the otherworldly in general—into a plot about grief on both a personal and massive scale.
Protagonist Akito Izuki dies in the game’s opening scene but is rescued from becoming yet another of the restless dead lingering in Tokyo’s alleyways and drifting atop its rooftops by the possessing spirit of a detective who goes by the initials “KK.” The main story in Ghostwire is Akito’s and KK’s. The former is motivated to find his sister, Mari, who was in a hospital when the fog descended, and is abducted by an antagonist in a Noh Hannya mask, referred to only as Hannya. KK, on the other hand, is motivated by a desire to stop Hannya from further destabilizing the barrier between the real-world and afterlife. Throughout the game, players learn that Hannya instigated the apocalyptic events and abducted Akito’s critically injured sister as part of his plan to overcome the limits of human mortality—that he’s driven by the loss of his wife and daughter to upend the natural order and defy death itself, regardless of the cost to millions of other previously living humans with no say in their fate.
By the time the plot concludes, Hannya has been defeated, his loved ones returned to the realm of spirits, and Akito’s sister Mari has died. This is presented as a happy ending.
In order to get to this point and earn this hopeful tone, Ghostwire spends about two dozen hours presenting players with a vision of Tokyo that blends aesthetic realism with striking, paranormal forces. The abandoned streets look as if they’ve been modeled on photographs of a rain-swept night in modern Tokyo, down to the mundane details of the items lining convenience store shelves and the discarded drink bottles and dishes stacked up on tables in empty apartments. But there are also yokai and yurei everywhere. Spirits wander between crashed cars in deserted intersections, splash around in pools of ditch water, flit through the sky, or hover in place as cigarette smoke outlines of dead figures, waiting for Akito to help guide them toward the eternal peace they’re unable to find on their own accord.
The game uses the these otherworldly figures to portray a modern sort of animism that literalizes the spirits which live within everything, from the trees growing in Tokyo’s parks to the subterranean waterways of its sewers through to the yokai that might cause a discarded umbrella to begin hopping around, a length of cloth to fly through the sky on its own, or a seemingly empty space to be blocked off by a cyclopic nurikabe. Though its Tokyo replicates a rationalist modern day, architected by the logics of science and capital, Japan’s folk stories have reclaimed their primacy by directly reasserting the creatures that populate them as explanations for reality.
Yokai have returned, in Ghostwire, to once more instil signs of modernity as blankly mechanical as payphone receivers with the presence of spirits. The sound of an evening breeze rushing through the leaves of a tree has become, in it, a potential sign of a yokai. The echo of footsteps in an empty subway tunnel could be a spirit’s call instead of a natural acoustic process. Through long-told stories, Ghostwire’s world has come alive again, despite it being the site of so much death.
There’s a hopefulness to this whose effect doesn’t rely so much on a willingness to actually believe in what the game portrays—or the Shintoism and Buddhist that inform it, or any indirectly related religious thought—but in the ability to remember that stories themselves, by virtue of existing beyond the scope of mortal life, offer their own kind of immortality. The yokai that appear throughout the game don’t have to be seen as literal spirits but can instead be read as a testament to one culture’s stories living on through centuries upon centuries of re-telling. They’re vessels for the essence of what’s come before the physical world of the modern day, echoes that echo eternally until the end of everything.
The dead can’t truly die when the link between past and present, presence and absence, is remembered. Recognizing that makes acceptance possible. Ghostwire’s villain, Hannya, demonstrates a horrible alternative, refusing to live with the pains of absence and trying to overcome loss by magically overthrowing death itself. He does so selfishly, obliterating a city and the lives of those within it by trying to remake the world in a new image. His plan, which he justifies by citing the physical and emotional agony of life, is a perverted extension of Buddhism that echoes the Aum Shinrikyo doomsday cult’s desire to force a kind of violent nirvana upon a populace unable to recognize that their death was for their own good—for their ultimate spiritual benefit.
“In liberating our souls from their corporeal shells,” he says at one point, “we are returned to our true forms.” Hannya looks at his dead family and at Mari, living in torment after suffering severe burns, and wishes to liberate her from the everyday struggle that, as the Buddha teaches, constitutes mortal life. Rather than accept this kind of pain—notably, a foundational step in achieving enlightenment—Hannya seeks to leapfrog it entirely and erase it from existence. This is an understandable reaction, fundamentally selfish as it is, because the torment of his loss makes reality seem meaningless—something that ought to be corrected. But doing so is not only megalomaniacal. It’s also short-sighted. It ignores that pain will arrive again sooner or later and that refusing to learn how to deal with it only prolongs the inevitable.
Akito, on the other hand, ends the game by living through a series of stories from his life that are made tangible to him as explorable memories. In them, his parents die, and Mari is injured. The player is given a walking tour through the extent of the anguish and hopelessness Akito and Mari experienced. During the sequence, thinking back to the emotional torment that filled the days just after their parents' deaths, Mari’s voice says, “Sometimes I wish we could just hit the bottom and get it over with. At least then we could be with mom and dad again.” Back in the present day, Akito both relives these memories and then, after refusing the metaphysical band-aid offered by Hannya’s plan, learns that Mari is about to die, too.
Understanding that he can’t avoid this sort of misery, Akito accepts his grief, having just revisited a waking dream of his and Mari’s shared past, and decides to continue onward in order to honour the dead by living with their stories as a part of him. He looks at his sister’s corpse and tells her, “Next time we meet, I’ll have lived a full life.” He then climbs the stone steps leading upward toward the arch of a torii gate, surrounded by history, culture, and the stories of those who animate his decimated world, and heads toward a few pale rays of sunshine offering hope for a new day
With this, Ghostwire adds its own story to the centuries of folk and religious tales referenced through its depiction of yokai and yurei. It’s retold old stories to bolster its new one, reducing the passage of time across centuries to a mere suggestion. Just as its Tokyo is simultaneously gleaming with 21st century electricity and studded with long-standing shrines and statues, the stories of its characters transcend distinctions between death and life by allowing them to exist together not as overlapping states but at least as parallel ones.
That’s a comforting reminder—an equalization that can’t erase the horrors of oblivion but is capable, if we keep it in mind, of making the full stop of every story’s end turn into something closer to a connective, open-ended comma,
Reid McCarter is a writer and a co-editor of Bullet Points Monthly. His work has appeared at The AV Club, GQ, Kill Screen, Playboy, The Washington Post, Paste, and VICE. He is also co-editor of SHOOTER and Okay, Hero, co-hosts the Bullet Points podcast, and tweets @reidmccarter.