There’s this old story about a guy who found his father’s ghost in a racing game. He and his father used to play an Xbox game called RalliSport Challenge together when he was little. After his father passed away, his grief kept him out of the game for a decade. When he finally restarted it, he discovered his father’s “ghost” during a time trial. When he told this story in a Youtube commentary on a spirituality in games video, he described how he started to play the game a lot, fighting his father over and over again until he ‘he becomes good enough to be able to beat him. When he finally reached the finish line first, he put the brakes on and waited for his father’s ghost to catch up so that it was not removed.
I thought about this story a lot this weekend while playing Phantom Abyss, a new first-person platformer from Team WIBY and Devolver Digital. Like RalliSport Challenge (or any other racing game), you’ll encounter the ghosts of other players as you navigate procedurally generated death trap dungeons on a quest to find the rare relics hidden within. However, the levels in Phantom Abyss aren’t races, although it can certainly start to feel that way as you run, slide, and swing through each course. Rather, each level is meant to be played and completed exactly once. If you reach the end, that level is permanently removed from the game forever. The ghosts you see are all the players who tried and failed to complete the level. Each of them will run alongside you until they die. If you manage to hold out until the end of a level, you’ll be there on your own.
It’s a mechanic borrowed from Souls games and serves pretty much the same purpose. By letting the ghosts run past you, you can follow their paths and use them to avoid traps. Fortunately, they can’t leave you messages like they do in Souls games, but they can lead you to hidden gems in the dungeon and show you where the more devious traps are. If you see a player’s ghost fall into a pit, there’s a better chance that you can avoid the same fate on your own.
But they have an additional utility that ghosts in Souls games don’t. Since each level can only be completed once, the number of ghosts you see can give you a clue as to how challenging you are. If you start a race with ten ghosts, you will know right away that this is a particularly tough dungeon that claimed the lives of 12 players before you. You should take your time here, look at where they made mistakes, and try to avoid making the same ones.
Ghosts can also provide bonuses. Depending on what type of whip you bring with you (your swinging tool), you will be able to interact with ghosts in different ways. One of my favorite whips allows you to heal if you’re around other ghosts. It drastically changes my playstyle when I use it as I feel more confident to run ahead of the pack. I don’t mind jumping head first into traps and taking damage because I can just wait for the other ghosts to catch up and heal when they hit me – assuming they end up doing it. ‘achieve.
There is another big difference between the ghost in Dark Souls and the ghosts in Phantom Abyss. While the Ghosts of Souls are a random selection of other players, usually those playing the game at the same time as you, the Ghosts of Phantom Abyss represent everyone who has played that particular level before. Ghosts only exist until the level is beaten, then they and the level itself are removed forever.
Ghosts are useful because they help you avoid danger, but they are also meant to trick players into completing the dungeon. When you complete a level that has defeated 12 other players, it can be really nice to know that you are the only one crossing the finish line. The intention is clearly to make you feel like you’re better than everyone else, and when you bring the relic back to your base, you can look at it every now and then and remember which dungeon you’ve conquered – the one that’s at hand. you and no one else.
But I can’t help but feel some sorrow for the ghosts that are being suppressed. It might sound silly, but the dungeon race in Phantom Abyss is a group effort, and destroying the memories of the players who helped me get there hurts a bit. I have the most fun running alongside a large group of other players, dodging spikes and jumping over pits together. If I go far enough into a dungeon, I end up running around on my own and, frankly, feeling pretty lonely. If I go all the way, I almost always hesitate for a moment as I think about the ghosts that helped me get here, trying to immortalize them in my memories as I retrieve the relic and banish them to the void.
I had a really fun race last night that started with about seven other players. I got a little late and let them lead me to hidden treasure chests that I certainly would have missed. The whole group reached the last stage of the dungeon but ended up falling prey to a series of particularly dangerous chambers. When I got to the end, I couldn’t bring myself to finish it. I thought about the guy from the Rallisport Challenge, and even though I don’t have the same connection with the other riders as with his father, I still felt that it was not right to remove them . I know it sounds absurd, but I thought about my ghost running with the pack in someone else’s game, and it brought me more joy to think of this vivid memory than to just add another relic to my collection, so I jumped into a pit and finished my run.
Eventually another player will run around this dungeon and see me reach the relic, turn around and jump into the pit. Maybe they will understand why I did it, and do the same. Maybe everyone who finds this level will sacrifice themselves in the end so that all of our memories can live on, running the same dungeon together over and over again. Imagine if the dungeon hit a hundred players, all going all the way and then jumping into the pit together, each player making a sacrifice so everyone can go on living forever. It would be a cooler heirloom for me than my whole Golden Relic Trophy Room.
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