header is screenshot from Banishers: Ghosts of New Eden
Dead in Love
Reid McCarter

Videogames are terrified of love. Banishers: Ghosts of New Eden is suffused with it. Every one of the stories that intertwine to create its overarching plot is an examination of love—a big and broad enough topic to support this attention—and the ways in which it manifests. Set in 1695, in and around a fictional English colony called New Eden near real-world Boston, Banishers centres on Cuban-born Antea Duarte, romantic partner and occult master to Red mac Raith, a Scot. The pair work as “Banishers,” something like spiritual detectives who aid the living by helping troublesome spirits move on from the material world.

The upfront twist is that Antea dies near the beginning of the game, just after arriving in New Eden, and, before Red can truly begin grieving, returns as a ghost. From this point on, the pair carry on with their original goal, trying to uncover the events that caused New Eden’s haunting while knowing, too, that the end of their mission will likely require sending Antea’s ghost to the hereafter. The love story is inflected with tragedy. The horrible end to Red and Antea’s relationship happens almost immediately, but its finale is delayed until the player has time to truly learn how deeply the pair care for one another over dozens of hours.

All of this is unusual in mainstream videogames, which typically avoid examining the intricacies of love, fleeing from a serious examination of it with the blushing embarrassment of a child. It’s far easier, especially in action games, to focus on rage and its attending feelings. When love is evoked, it’s usually in a generalized sense: the very beginnings of a relationship, or the end of it, usually as an inciting incident to spur on a character’s motivation.

Banishers, though, begins with Antea and Red already cozily set in the pattern of a lengthy relationship. (As cozy as a relationship can be when one partner is a ghost.) They discuss the trivial and the serious with ease, are surprised later in the game when one realizes he doesn’t know the other’s entire past since they believe they’ve shared everything with one another already.

Ico designed love into its play with two-person puzzle solving. Banishers borrows the latter aspect so its protagonists can traverse environments by combining physical and spectral navigation—Antea sees ghostly trails of energy, teleports across chasms, removes ectoplasmic barriers; Reds shoots down obstacles with a rifle, whacks enemy poltergeists with a sword, and climbs over or shimmies across ledges. How these characters move through the world, fighting spectres and hiking difficult terrain, blends them, from the player’s perspective, into two parts of a singular avatar. They are deeply intertwined on both a story and more granular design level.

For Banisher’s plot to function, it has to stem from the sturdiness of a believable romance. As Antea and Red travel throughout the colony, trekking from lowland swamps through forests and pastures to the heights of nearby mountain ranges, they meet the immigrant population of New Eden and find, unsurprisingly enough, that they’re a remarkably haunted bunch. Surviving in an unfamiliar landscape, weeding out anyone deemed dangerous to the English Puritan project, fleeing across an ocean—all of this helps foster an environment where love and its opposition, hate, flourish in particularly dramatic forms.

Even though the “new” of the New World is emphasized throughout—most clearly in the name of the “New Eden” colony and its inclusion in the game’s subtitle—there’s a gloomy feeling that a kind of ending has come to its cast of characters already. Red, for his part, is a Highland Scot who proceeds through the game mourning the wars he’s seen and oblivious to the devastation soon to come to his home, marked by the looming Treaty of Union, the Jacobite risings, and the emptying of the Highlands in the century (and centuries) to come. Alongside him is Antea, who has left Cuba behind following a personal tragedy, and who spends the bulk of the game as a ghost waiting to be either reincarnated bodily or leave the physical world for good. Elsewhere, there are secret Huguenots and abashed murderers, witch-hunting officials and calloused wilderness guides, all emigres living uneasily in a land that doesn’t seem to fit easily as a new home.

As the plot moves forward, it becomes clear that Banishers’ dour tone isn’t established just to enhance its mood as a sprawling ghost story, but to position the tragedies that have befallen, or are about to befall, its cast as the ultimate result of prejudice. Because bigotry is the refusal of love—of the empathy that true love is built upon—and because hauntings are psychological pain turned literal, the ultimate conflict that gives the game shape, running beneath every one of its side stories and big plot beats, is how the denial of sympathy, especially in its most extreme forms as violent prejudice, echoes beyond time and mortality.

Red has come of age in the aftermath of religiously inflected civil war in the Isles and mentions being at the Siege of Buda during the Wars of the Holy League. Antea was subject to racism in both Spanish Cuba and the Europe she came to after leaving her home. The English colonizers view one another with suspicion, a fear of free-thinking and a dismissal of women driving rifts throughout their community. They’re surrounded by war and suspicious of everyone around them, birthing ghosts with every spasm of violence or expression of prejudice that fills their lives.

Banishers’ greatest flaw, highlighted by this theme, is its reticence to engage substantially with the genocide that is unfolding with the settlers’ arrival. A side mission may reference the massacre of an indigenous group directly and references to the systematic dispossession and murder enacted by the English colonizers pop up in bits of dialogue, but for the clearest possible example of its theme to go largely ignored by the main plot is a glaring misstep. (Banishers attempts to paint over this issue by stating at one point that the indigenous population of New Eden avoids spending much time in the region where the colony has been founded because of an evil presence.) For as cohesive as the rest of the game is, this feels more than a little like the studio searching for an excuse not to examine such an important aspect of its premise

This is a tremendous shame because almost every other bit of Banishers is remarkably assured and considered. What does work in Banishers makes it stand out, and is indicative of a care for historical and personal complexities too often boiled down in games to their simplest form. If only it were willing to explore its themes through a truly thorough examination of the era, as uncomfortable as the prospect of doing so may appear to the game's creators, it would be an invaluable work. 


Reid McCarter is a writer and a co-editor of Bullet Points Monthly. His work has appeared at The AV ClubWiredGQPolygonKill ScreenPlayboyThe Washington PostPaste, and VICE. He is also co-editor of SHOOTER and Okay, Hero, co-hosts the Bullet Points podcast, and tweets @reidmccarter.