I enjoy video games. I don’t identify as a “gamer,” per se—I don’t play online, I’m not obsessed with the medium, but I do enjoy grinding through an immersive single player experience.
Unlike a lot of people who play video games, I tend to gravitate toward more realistic settings. Unless it’s an established intellectual property like Star Wars or Alien, space stations and alien worlds generally excite me very little. I’m fascinated by seeing the detail game designers put into recreating our world, or fictionalized versions of it. Helps with the immersion, I suppose.
Having said that, I adore moments when paranormal activity bleeds into these little simulacra of consensus reality. While no shortage of video games treats the supernatural as a central plot point, I’m much more intrigued when games only hint at peripheral weirdness.
I’m specifically thinking of two series that handle the paranormal in similar-yet-fundamentally different ways: Assassin’s Creed and Red Dead Redemption. Both are set in the real world—the former a series of historical eras spanning the globe, the latter a fictionalized late 19th century American West—yet feature side missions and encounters with anomalous activity.
… or, in the case of Assassin’s Creed, that’s how it appears at first. First, a little background on this series. From Wikipedia:
The Assassin's Creed games primarily revolve around the rivalry between two ancient secret societies—the Assassins and the Knights Templar—and their indirect relation to an ancient species pre-dating humanity, referred to within the games as "those who came before", whose society, along with much of Earth's biosphere, was destroyed by a massive solar storm thousands of years before the games. The games' real-world chronological setting begins in the year 2012, but most of the gameplay is in historical settings.
Within the franchise, Abstergo Industries is a mega-corp[oration conglomerate with multiple branches, secretly run by modern Knights Templar. The company is the present-day main antagonist of the franchise. Abstergo secretly created the "Animus", a device that allows its users to "re-live" and experience the memories of their genetic ancestors within their bloodline through a virtual simulation.
It sounds sexier than it is. The backstory of the Assassin’s Creed series is notorious in the gaming world for its bland execution; each entry pushes the greater narrative forward only a fraction at a time. Rather, the bulk of each game is obsessed with slavishly recreating historical eras—Renaissance Italy, 18th century Caribbean, Revolutionary France, etc.—as sandboxes for players to run about, interacting with real-life figures from the time period and using period-appropriate weaponry.
(You can also jump and climb like a spider monkey and leap ten stories into a bale of hay or water unharmed. That’s verisimilitude for you, folks.)
For such a lofty science-fiction premise (and physics-defying acrobatics), there is an interesting skepticism threading its way through the series as a whole. The main game talks of ancient secret societies, non-human species, and secret advanced antediluvian technology, but whenever the protagonist runs into a mystery, the answer is almost always mundane.
These mysteries are plucked directly from the era represented, as well, to further sell the illusion of historical fidelity. While I haven’t played the latest two entries (set in ancient Egypt and Greece), I’m thinking specifically of the side quests from Assassin’s Creed III and Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate. The former is set in the American colonies, where the player investigates an abandoned camp (killed by the Shawnee); sasquatch (just a large man); a haunted lighthouse (just a cloth on a branch); the Headless Horseman (inconclusive, but likely a man); a sea serpent (just a fancy diving suit); and a UFO (“an umbrella stuck in a tree reflecting the moonlight”); all at the behest of Daniel Boone(!).
The supernatural fares slightly better in Syndicate, where the Victorian protagonist joins Charles Dickens’s Ghost Club. Among the topics investigated are Spring-Heeled Jack (inconclusive, likely a man with magic tricks), hypnotism (real, as a means of manipulating others), and a haunted house (just the former owner lurking about, causing mischief).
Who wrote these side quests? Philip J. Klass?
The Assassin’s Creed series tends to handle the paranormal in a very specific manner: the encounters are limited; they are organized as clear quests with solutions; they are uniformly explicable. They stand in direct contrast to the overarching Hancockian plot about ancient civilizations and secret wars between covert organizations. Personal experiences are bunk, but the conspiracy is real.
Let’s contrast this method with the other series mentioned, Red Dead Redemption. While developer Ubisoft cranks out a new Assassin’s Creed title every year, the company Rockstar just released Red Dead Redemptioin 2, a prequel to 2010’s Red Dead Redemption, itself a spiritual successor to 2004’s Red Dead Revolver. Rockstar takes their time, seems to put more thought into their worlds.
Let’s get this out-of-the-way: RDR2 is perhaps the most thoughtful, beautiful, and realistic game I have ever played. You have to eat, trim your hair, clean your guns, bond with your mount… hell, if your horse is male, its testicles tighten up in colder weather. It’s insane. It is 100% grounded in reality. Both it and its predecessor introspectively eulogize the West, and what it meant to be an outlaw in those dying days when the frontier was tamed.
Given this straight-faced, earnest setting, it is surprising that the two Red Dead Redemption entries present perhaps my favorite presentation of the paranormal in all media. One of my favorite encounters in the original Red Dead Redemption:
He shows up again in the prequel, behind you in a mirror.
In RDR2, Rockstar really threw in all manner of weird things—so many that players are still finding and experimenting with these mysteries a full year after release. The list is endless: Pagan ritual sites, swamp specters, witches, ghost trains, automatons, UFOs, UFO cults, inbred cannibals, mysterious obelisks in the wilderness, voodoo, giant skeletons, ghostly voices, possible time-travelers, serial killers, vampires, Satanists, hermits masquerading as faerie kings… the list seems endless. I wish there was room enough to comment on each encounter. Do yourself a favor and fall down a YouTube rabbit hole on this topic, it's endlessly fascinating.
Here's the thing: this is not a game about the paranormal. It doesn't factor into the plot at all.
Supernatural events in this series most commonly occur randomly and without explanation. They are not listed on the map. They are not items on a checklist. There is no guarantee they will be encountered. They are not necessary to finishing the game. They are not tidily solved. They are huge events and tiny moments. There are clues, but never answers (is that red-headed boy the time traveler or not? Is that the ghost of Agnes Dowd or someone else?). They are few and far between, but they will be encountered at some point. They are unpredictable, following vague guidelines of place, but manifesting inconsistently (once I played for three hours waiting for a ghost train to come by its the designated area, but saw nothing).
In this fashion, Rockstar deftly combines my other two favorite depictions of the paranormal in visual media, the Fargo television series and 2002’s The Mothman Prophecies. Fargo, a loose spinoff from the eponymous 1996 Cohen Brothers film, doesn’t regularly depict the supernatural, but when it does, it is simply a part of the way the natural world works; Season One has a very Fortean fall-of-fish from the sky, while Season Two is rife with UFO imagery, including my favorite depiction of missing time (I couldn't find it online, so enjoy the wonderful way S2, EP1 ends):
On the other hand, I didn’t enjoy The Mothman Prophecies when it first came out. I wasn’t into the paranormal at all back then, so when the film failed to provide solid answers I dismissed it as a waste of time. Now, 17 years later, I realize the brilliance of the movie. It’s disorientating, rarely makes linear sense, and leaves one with more questions than answers, not unlike the famous John Keel book upon which it is based.
So, to return to the initial comparison of how these two video games treat the paranormal: on one hand we have Assassin’s Creed, with its fanciful mythology and faithful historical recreations, treating the paranormal in a dismissive, skeptical sense; and on the other we have Red Dead Redemption, a straightforward Western with an intensely believable world, treating the paranormal as random, unexplained, and unknowable. The former does not take itself very seriously, yet scoffs at the supernatural; the latter takes itself very seriously, and realizes anomalous phenomena enhance, not diminish, a world's believability.
The paranormal events in Red Dead Redemption 2 are like animals, clouds, sunshine, rain, or wind: Rockstar included them as part of the natural world. That speaks volumes to not only the creators’ artistic philosophy, but also the role the paranormal plays in our lives. Let that sink in: while arguably crafting the most realistic game ever made, Rockstar included supernatural activity. They didn’t eliminate it. They didn’t explain it.
They merely presented it as part of the world.
~ POST-SCRIPT ~
This was going to be the entirety of the article, but a quick post-script, since some folks are asking about another game: Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice. Horrible title aside, this is one of my favorite games of all time. I’ve replayed it more than any other console game I have owned. That’s at least in part due to its short play time, but also due in no small part to its depiction of shamanism. The story follows the titular her, a Celtic mystic, as she transverses the Norse Land of the Dead in an effort to rescue her fallen lover.
Of course, the creators didn’t intend for the contradictory voices and nonstop whispers heard by Senua to be actual spirts, Heavens no; the creators go out of their way to make it clear Senua is schizophrenic, and consulted with medical experts to remain as authentic to the condition as possible. I only half buy this explanation—she’s traversing the Afterlife, for Pete’s sake, it’s more than just voices!
At any rate, there are a few things to love about this game. The constant voices make it chilling to play with headphones; Senua has a finite number of lives, represented by a growing “death rot” on her arm, thereby enhancing the stakes when playing; and finally, it has a great visual depiction of shamanism.
Throughout the course of the game, Senua is forced to find runes in the landscape in order to progress. Sometimes these are only visible from certain angles, teaching the player to view the entire world of the game through a symbolic lens, to constantly read the area around them for signs and portents. It’s not an unheard-of game mechanic, but it’s employed thematically here to great effect.
Finally, two other things that make the game great: the design aesthetic is fantastic (if you like Black Spot or The Ritual on NetFlix, you’ll love the enemies in this), and it’s available for download for a very reasonable price.