The events of Ghostwire: Tokyo take place in a version of the eponymous metropolis beset by a miasmic cloud of death. This fog separates the souls of its residents from their physical bodies and is the grim handiwork of the game’s villain, a man named Hannya, who is dead set on escaping the bonds of mortality; for his own sake as well as that of his recently deceased wife and child.
In the interests of avoiding Hannya’s endgame of unnatural, soul-bound immortal existence, Ghostwire’s protagonists, Akito Izuki and the spirit of a dead police detective hitchhiking in his body called KK, chase Hannya around the yokai-infested city. Like Hannya, who hopes to be reunited with his lost wife and daughter, both Akito and KK have their own stories of loss. Akito’s sister, Mari, serves as the plot’s distressed damsel, kidnapped by Hannya while trapped in a comatose state due to injuries suffered prior to the game. KK’s problems exist on the other side of things: He’s already passed away and lost contact with a family from whom he was already estranged in life.
Though there is a mutual sense of loss among the story’s main players, how they deal with that loss is presented as diametrically opposed. The game’s climax presents a neat moral bifurcation: Hannya, stuck on his solipsistic campaign, is defeated by our heroes, who are finally able to come to terms with their loss and move on. As Reid McCarter describes in his essay earlier this month: “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.”
While Akito’s choice is a noble abstention from the selfishness which drives Hannya, it’s also a choice that happens in a cutscene at the very end of the game. It’s a choice made after dozens of hours of entirely different choices. Letting go and moving on are ideals which sit comfortably beyond the horizon of the game itself, which is far more an experience of holding on and accumulating, exemplified by its traditional open-world gameplay. As players, we trample through the city’s burial sites and snatch power-ups from its shrines. We crack open the miseries of the various lost spirits we come across and make use of their ethereal memories as nutrition with which to empower ourselves, just as Hannya does. Even if the game’s final outcome is a negation of the villain’s plan, what does that mean if the shape of the rest of the game so closely conforms to it?
Ghostwire’s plot reminds me of an old fantasy novel, The Farthest Shore, the third book in Ursula K. Le Guin’s famous fantasy series, Earthsea. The book follows the series’ main protagonist, the wizard Ged, and his young companion Lebannen as they seek to thwart the plans of an evil wizard named Cob. Much like Hannya, Cob seeks to obliterate death by erasing the barrier between the worlds of the dead and the living. He is defeated in a similar way. The story’s heroes close the rupture he created and heal the world he fractured. The difference, however, lies in how the heroes of Le Guin’s tale behave prior to their journey’s climax.
The younger of the two, Lebannen acts at first in ways similar to Ghostwire’s protagonists: he is brash, urgent. He sees threats in the world around them and would seek to use violence and aggression to eliminate those threats. The older and wiser figure of Ged, though powerful in his own right, urges and practices restraint. Selfish action is, to him, the path that leads to the creation of villains like Cob. In order to restore the balance of the world they must not contribute to its unbalancing. To his young companion, Ged argues: “... an act is not, as young men think, like a rock that one picks up and throws, and it hits or misses, and that’s the end of it. When that rock is lifted, the earth is lighter; the hand that bears it heavier. When it is thrown, the circuits of the stars respond, and where it strikes or falls the universe is changed.”
How we act in facing the challenges of the world often determines the difference between success and subjugation. The master’s tools cannot dismantle the master’s house, nor can they be used to build something new, something better.
In the book’s afterward, Le Guin identifies the false-promise peddled by villains like Cob: “We are frequently told that greed for endless increase of material goods is natural and universal—as is greed for endless life. We are all supposed to agree that you can’t be too rich or live too long.”
Both Cob and Hannya represent a vision of this sort of grasping, striving greed. The urge to accumulate more, whether it be in the form of life or wealth is a selfish and destructive one. Though they ultimately decide to release themselves from the deleterious cycle by the end of Ghostwire, Akito and KK spend the vast majority of the game hoarding and gathering up resources from the dead around them in order to accumulate more power. They follow in Hannya’s path, sucking up the detritus left behind along his trail of devastation like a pair of insatiable carrion feeders. Sure, the narrative explains that we gather the energy of lost spirits in order to help them escape from Hannya’s grip, but only so that we can hold on to them and use them to make ourselves more powerful in place of our enemy.
Hannya exemplifies one kind of greed, a greed for life; more existence, more memories, more time spent with those we love. Akito and KK represent another kind, one which should feel familiar to anyone who’s played a AAA videogame in the past several decades. The videogame protagonist hungers for more: more things, more resources, more digital currency, more levels, more mastery. We cannot be too rich or live for too long.
In The Farthest Shore, Cob asks: “What man would not live forever, if he could?” There is a nihilistic presupposition within most of us, an assumed universality of opinion that when given the choice for more, we would gladly leap at it, raise up our empty bowls with hungry smiles and expecting faces.
Ghostwire’s structure, built as it is around resource accumulation even as its narrative speaks in platitudes about moving on and letting go, makes similar assumptions. In Ghostwire, we do not really treat the world as a living place, one which must be kept in balance. We treat it instead, like a bazaar, full of interesting trinkets to snatch and interdimensional piggy-banks to smash. Like our own world we treat its bounties as eternal, unending. We assume it will always remain in balance, no matter the impact we make on it.
The decision Akito makes at the end of Ghostwire remains a good and worthy one. It’s a decision to simply stop: to stop fighting, to stop blustering through life, focused single-mindedly on some goal, ignorant of our actions’ consequences. It’s a decision to make peace with what we already have, a promise to make something good from the raw material that’s already there. But a decision like this has to be made up of more than words, more than a simple promise, to be made good on long after the story has neatly wrapped itself up. The allure of the infinite is what got us to this point, the siren song of villains promising endless bounty. Taking another path, overcoming by other means, might seem impossible, but is the only way to truly win.
Yussef Cole, one of Bullet Points’ editors, is a writer and motion graphic designer. His writing on games stems from an appreciation of the medium tied with a desire to tear it all down so that something better might be built. Find him on Twitter @youmeyou.