header is screenshot from Banishers: Ghosts of New Eden
Ghost of the Week
Gareth Damian Martin

It’s strange how, when trying to imitate the genre storytelling of other media, games replicate rather than adapt the structural aspects of these forms. For example: prestige TV, a popular reference point for game storytelling in the commercial mainstream, is often simply replicated in cutscene form, with gameplay spacing scenes out like a set of interactive ad breaks. Meanwhile procedural dramas, like detective shows or monster hunting stories, are either replicated as linear sequences, as in The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, or turned into elaborate simulation such as L.A. Noire. Neither seems to engage with the narrative structures of these types of stories as a fuel for game design, instead either seeking to simply replicate the structures in game form (Witcher 3) or do away with them completely in order to instead attempt some kind of “real” deduction gameplay (L.A. Noire). But what makes a procedural drama work is not the basic sequencing of its plot, nor its realism, but a kind of meta structure that the writers, actors, and viewers are all aware of and engaged with, even when the characters are not. This is something that in Banishers: Ghosts of New Eden, developers Dontnod show a masterful control and understanding of. 

In Banishers: Ghosts of New Eden, the player plays the role of two "Banishers," supernatural detectives tasked with granting “Life to the living, death to the dead.” Their role in this 17th century fantasy world is often to investigate hauntings, where ghosts are interacting with the living, and untangle the web of connections that bind these spirits to the world. In this sense, Banishers is very much a procedural drama: its “haunting cases”, a handful of which form the main path through the game and the rest which form an optional but heavily incentivised set of stories, are all investigations that focus on the details of a death. You might investigate a blacksmith whose strange behavior has frightened his wife, for example, and uncover a murder which they both played a part in. Or perhaps you’ll find yourself judging two brothers overlooked by the ghost of their father. The texture, the richness of these stories lies in the details, and while they are often well drawn and well acted that is not what I want to bring your attention to. Instead, I want to look at what binds these stories, a central structure to which Banishers religiously sticks.

In Banishers’ pause menu, the “Haunting Cases” get their own screen, each case displaying in a map of investigations. It's the kind of Miro-like user interface (UI) that has become popular across games, the spectrum ranging from the stripped back form of Assassin's Creed Mirage’s investigations, to Alan Wake II’s elaborate and ornate “mind place”. But Banishers’ UI is notable for how formulaic and simple it is. Each case typically has three things: Two (sometimes three) living people and a single ghost. Each of these has three “hints” and one “intent” which is revealed when the three hints are uncovered. The whole thing is represented with a set of portraits and some gold and silver coins. That’s it. The game isn’t shy about this either, Dontnod wants you to understand that this is the formula it's working with, this is the structure it has decided makes up a haunting, and if it is aware of it then you, as the player, should be, too.

This kind of “exposing” the narrative works of a game is not exactly a surprising move from Dontnod. In 2023 the studio released Harmony: The Fall of Reverie, a fascinating visual novel which shows the player its entire branching structure, chapter by chapter, in the hope of empowering them to make narrative decisions on more than just gut feeling. It's an intriguing experiment, and while it starts a little flatly, it soon builds into a fascinating form that would do well to be repurposed for all kinds of different stories. Banishers is less experimental, but it follows a similar guiding principle: expose the structures to the player so they might find a richer relationship with the stories you are telling. Rather than aiming for “immersion”, where the characters and plot are meant to feel “real”, Banishers goes for “engagement”, where the story structure itself is the thing you are playing in and with, alongside the characters.

Which brings me back to procedural drama. So often looked down upon from the heights of the last two decades of the “Prestige TV Boom”, the beauty of the genre's narrative approach lies in a tacit acknowledgement of narrative structure, and then the play and sense of conversation that emerges from that. We know there will be a new murder/case/monster/planet each week, we know it will be solved and resolved. We know there will be a twist, a reveal, and we know the status quo will be established. We know all those cards are in the authors hands, but we don't know how, or when, or with what new quality or twist they will be played. 

This is how Banishers works, too. Each of its haunting cases is basically linear, with a decision point at its end, but the joy comes from watching the case unfold as you play. Sometimes the ghost is the first thing to be revealed, sometimes it is the last. Sometimes a character's intent is exposed early and then recontextualised by the filling in of the other actors. Sometimes it is held back, the grayed out space tantalizing, until the denouement. Banishers plays with the simplest of three and four character narrative forms, and because of their simplicity, it has such fun with them. Each case is a delightful little spin on a thing you know, a satisfying and troubling linkage of event and intent that is tight enough to sit in a single short play session. Rather than restrict its quest writers, Banishers' tight per-case structure challenges them, just like writers rooms of old were challenged by the forms of “monster of the week” TV. The system is exposed for everyone to see, which means the writers can have fun with it, twist it, and play with the player in nudge-wink kinds of ways. The procedural structure is generative of some of the most playful and fun unfoldings of narrative sidequests I have seen in a AAA game in a decade. With Banishers, Dontnod shows that procedural drama is the perfect source of inspiration for a narrative game, but only if you understand it in terms of systems and structures, patterns and procedures, and trust your audience with that knowledge, too. Yes, Banishers' ghosts are beautifully filled in with grief and longing, characterful voice acting, and genuine pathos, but it is the machine they inhabit which really is the star of the show. 


Gareth Damian Martin is an award-winning writer, designer and artist. Their first game, In Other Waters was widely praised by critics for its “hypnotic art, otherworldly audio and captivating writing” (Eurogamer). Their second, Citizen Sleeper was equally critically acclaimed, and its prose was named "some of the best in all of video games" (Waypoint). Their games criticism has been published in a wide variety of forms and they are the editor and creator of Heterotopias, an independent zine about games and architecture. Find them @jumpovertheage.