Games Need To Stop With The All Ghostly Flashbacks

I’m trying to recall the first time I encountered the ‘ghostly flashbacks’ story delivery method. You know, when you’re walking around in a game and suddenly before your eyes you’ll get spectral figures from the past, or outlines, or swirls vaguely resembling human forms that give you great big exposition dumps of backstory? You then feel obliged to stand around waiting for them to finish their dull little routine because, dunno, you’re their only audience and it somehow feels rude to just walk away?

I guess the developer intention behind thisis to offer flashbacks without having to cut away to an actual flashback scene, making it economical but also more immersive for the player as it’s happening in-game before your eyes, and you still have the freedom to move around.

For most of my life, I’ve found this method of storytelling excruciatingly dull; it’s slow, it’s visually unappealing (sometimes the ghosts are just smokey squiggles), and quite often it doesn’t even fit with the game you’re playing.

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The first time I remember seeing this was back in System Shock 2, I think, and in fairness back then it was self-soilingly terrifying and novel. That game was hugely effective at fraying the old nerves, with its mutants running around and apologising as they battered your head in with a wrench. So when the ghosts pop up it’s a legit ‘WTF’ moment. The game contrives to explain this by saying that your cyber suit has “perception enhancement” that can detect “residual psychic emanations” (gotta love ghost science), but visually it was striking. The ghosts were fully animated, fully voiced, and nudged you along in the right direction in a game that didn’t do much else to guide you.

Loads of games have done variations of this over the years without really improving on it. System Shock’s spiritual progeny Bioshock did it, the recently released Redfall did this, as did Fatal Frame/Project Zero and myriad other games (I could give Fatal Frame a pass seeing as that series is all about ghosts anyway, but they overdid it when I played the recent Fatal Frame 4 PC port, grinding an already slow game to a dreary crawl).

I understand having a bit of ghosty story action in the occasional open-world RPG quest, but it doesn’t work as a central storytelling device. In Redfall, for instance, the game is filled with these squiggly character outlines (that aren’t even properly animated) where you’re sometimes standing around for upwards of a minute while the stills play out in front of you.


These sequences are prolonged by the fact that some of them are mission-critical, and you need to play them out to progress the story. What’s more, to unlock these story snippets you first need to shoot a globular creature called a Sin-Eater, which then unleashes a little wisp that you chase to the place where the ghostly scene will play out. It’s so small and zippy that I actually lost track of it on a couple of occasions, forcing me to go around searching for a thing to unlock a flashback that I didn’t even want. C’mon Arkane, you can do better than that!

It’s not like these little ghost vignettes are always as intrusive as that. Bioshock, for instance, has ghostly flashbacks, and sometimes they’re quite nicely stylised too, such as a pole-dancer or a couple courting each other in Arcadia Gardens. Predominantly however, Bioshock uses audio logs to flesh out the backstory, which let you absorb the story while continuing the game instead of glue you to a low-budget little scene. Notes and scraps require a bit more focus from the player, but somehow that too feels more satisfying. Notebooks, journals, diaries feel integrated with the world, and after reading them you can always snoop around the room like a detective, trying to get more info on what you’ve just read and corroborate it with the scene around you.

Another thing is that most of these games aren’t ghost stories. System Shock, Redfall, and Bioshock have crowbarred the existence of ghosts into their lore just so you can watch these little vignettes play out.


Even in games that are ghost stories, like The Medium, Layers of Fear 2, or Fatal Frame, these pseudo-flashbacks make me feel instantly exasperated and eager to move the hell on. Why not have the ghosts actually interact with the player in spooky but non-hostile ways, nebulously hinting at harrowing story events for you to figure out. Fatal Frame has the boring flashback ghosts, but it also has creepy grainy black-and-white footage from the past that gives your ragged hints of what happened. The excellent Taiwanese horror Devotion, meanwhile, has momentary flashes of ghosts re-enacting the past, but they happen so fast that sometimes you only hear but don’t even see them; that game generally makes cool use of things like old TVs and doll houses to lay out breadcrumbs to the past.

So sure, a bit of ghosty backstory can work when used sparingly, but at a time when games have come up with so many more creative ways of filling us in on past events, it feels like there are better ways to do this than making us stand around waiting for a couple of spooks to go through the motions (especially when so often the game in question has nothing to do with ghosts anyway).

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