Notes on Perfectly Ordinary Ghosts: Shadow on a Pale Wall

Perfectly Ordinary Ghosts is a “domestic horror interactive fiction”, according to its writer, Victoria Smith. Together with editor Madeleine Mackenzie, Smith delivers a gothic horror through the medium of Twine. Simple and relatively quick to play, Perfectly Ordinary Ghosts keeps it classic both in its application of Twine as a tool for building interactive fiction games, and in its appeals to gothic horror, especially with regard to its preoccupation with haunted houses.

The game begins with the first line of Emily Dickinson’s poem from “Part Four: Time and Eternity” of her 1924 collection, The Complete Poems. The line, “One need not be a chamber to be haunted”, sets the tone and basically maps out the premise for the rest of the game. Smith sets the tale in what we can infer is a new home, and follows the inner monologue of an unknown narrator—there are some hints in the way the prose is written that this is at least partially autobiographical—throughout the different rooms of the house on a notably hot day. 

Through hyperlinks, we are taken on a descriptive tour of the house, from the living room to the bedroom. The game slowly builds a creeping suspense by slowly unveiling details about the new place; in fact it relies heavily on exposition.  That’s not necessarily a bad thing, especially in interactive fiction which needs to be able to paint a picture with words. My only criticism in this case is that some of writing feels clumsy and heavy-handed where I assume it was intended to be evocative. It feels at times that Perfectly Ordinary Ghosts tries to ape canonical gothic writing a little bit too earnestly,  but that said it largely succeeds in many cases at setting an oppressively lonesome tone that curdles into genuine distress at times, and brief moments of relief in others.  

In one such case, upon entering the bathroom, the player is given a prompt to clean the mirror. As in all the other rooms, we are given an impression of what the room feels like through the description of certain minute details: white walls, large windows, gossamer curtains, and in the case of the bathroom, the broken bottom door of a cabinet and a dirty mirror. Here, you are given rules for how to address the situation: don’t lock the door; prepare yourself for what you might see when you open the door; don’t use the bottom drawer; or, actually hide your secrets in there; only look at yourself in the mirror, do not let your eyes wander.

This scene genuinely feels claustrophobic, the character feels trapped. The ghostly figures, where they appear, only do so in fleeting glimpses. The shape of someone down the hall, or in the corner of one’s eye, or in the way the moonlight hits a plastic fern so that it casts the shadowy form of a body upon the wall. A slight grin in the frosted window. The furtive glances at unknown specters loom large over the protagonist’s list of personal rules for navigating their new home. There is a desire to know and control the place, but this desire is often thwarted by the shadows that hang around every corner.

Different rooms in the home seem to represent different states of the character’s mind, and it’s in this fairly obvious use of metaphor that the spirit of the Dickinson line is most clearly articulated. The original poem ruminates on the ways in which the mind can and does create phantasms of its own, without any need for literal ghosts haunting literal chambers. Because of this capacity for the mind to carry trauma from place to place, Dickinson concludes that it is impossible for humans to live in anything other than haunted places. This can be viewed in the general sense that humans tend to imprint pieces of their psyche wherever they go, and that the mind can produce its own monsters. It’s also difficult to separate this conclusion from the knowledge that Dickinson struggled for much of her life with mental illness. The persistence of psychic trauma despite attempts to cope with it, control it or escape it are reprised as central themes in Perfectly Ordinary Ghosts, which draws from gothic literature in one of the most important respects: its preoccupation with the instability of the mind, and the use of supernatural horror as metaphoric of it. As the first stanza of Dickinson’s poem reads, “The brain has corridors surpassing/Material place.”

An empty, unfurnished room that seems apart from the rest of the house is an island of relief from the pit of agonizing psychological terror that awaits elsewhere, and on the total opposite end of that spectrum the bedroom is a dark violet prison of unrelenting malaise. It is in here that we encounter the fern, and where we finally confront the source of the protagonist’s misery. In the penultimate room of the game, we learn of the character’s history of hallucinations before they and their boyfriend moved into the new place. They had stopped after moving to the city, but have clearly returned, keeping the protagonist company in the isolation of the house. A final room follows from the bedroom: the “End Room.” In here there’s no grandiloquent exposition. Instead, it’s a breaking of the fourth wall, delivered in the form of a tease from the narrator asking us if we really expected for there to be a literal ghost.

As I wrote earlier, sometimes I feel that some of these metaphoric stretches get a little too tortured, and the prose a little too purple. Every room in the house is a very clear metaphor for a chamber in the protagonist’s mind,  and that generally works, but the house is also situated on a cliff near a valley (just to put an extra-moody bow on things). Within the home, there are a few other details that I found somewhat hamfisted, like the portrait of Mary Cathcart by painter Thomas Gainsborough the player finds in the boudoir. Upon clicking on the relevant link, a title card explains how Cathcart suffered from tuberculosis in life and that her remains were later “molested” by French soldiers. (Actually, a nice touch in Perfectly Ordinary Ghosts is in how it uses these little setpieces, like a receipt for an artificial succulent or a list of swatch names for all the different shades of white paint used throughout the house.) I find this particular discovery, while interesting on its own, doesn’t break any new ground as far at the overarching themes are concerned. Instead it just kind of beats the player over the head with a historical factoid that has no real impact on the story, and doesn’t tell us anything we didn’t already know about the protagonist and their current conundrum. 

These flourishes and references aren’t necessarily all bad—I think they actually reflect some good instincts. The contrast of the dark bedroom with the whole rest of the house being white with huge panel windows has a way of dilating and contracting the space, making it feel at times impossibly big and insufferably small. It upsets the player’s ability to visualize how the rooms fit together, adding to the overall feeling of displacement. The primary strength of Perfectly Ordinary Ghosts rests in its ability to build suspense, to drip along at a slow pace and build a thrumming, lurching mood of impending doom. But then that payoff never happens. Instead we get a wink and a nod from the narrator chiding us for not getting the very direct moral of the story.

I suspect that the reason for this choice is that the whole thrust of the game is to serve as a ludic adaptation of the poem it’s quoting. That’s fine, but the gothic works the game is also purported to be based on committed to their ghost stories by creating stakes that get sanded to a nub in Perfectly Ordinary Ghosts.  Even something like Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw leaves the reality of the ghost up to the interpretation of the reader to some extent. The point though is that there is something behind the final door; the symbolic is bound in terrible flesh. I feel like Perfectly Ordinary Ghosts sets up some really interesting stakes and constructs a really rich environment for them to play out in, and then abruptly decides to abandon the whole thing. I think the implication here, much like with the Dickinson poem, is that there isn’t really a confrontation to be had because these figments are merely that. They are facts of life, and the game finally ridicules the player for expecting something grander than that. 

People can argue amongst themselves how they interpret that message, but I do think its delivery is a little bit on the nose. I don’t mind a writer explicitly deriving inspiration from past works, and I think that Smith actually puts quite a lot of these gothic literary conventions to good use. Some of the writing is lush and decadent, and works together with the colour scheme and Twine macros to build an atmosphere that’s at once ephemeral and foreboding. But I also think that the didactic feel of the ending undoes some of that, and the whole thing stops feeling like a ghost story. The pieces are there, and I can see where they come from, but they don’t quite have the impact that the rest of the game promises.

Still, there are some very impressive aspects Perfectly Ordinary Ghosts, and I think Smith shows flashes of brilliance in her writing that I expect will increase with time. If you like horror and/or interactive fiction, Perfectly Ordinary Ghosts is still perfectly worthy of your time and money.