Haunted the living in: Demon’s Souls/Dark Souls
Demon’s Souls made death in a videogame a truly significant event, changing they way we thought of playing games, because we actually had to be cautious in situations that would cause no fear in other games. You began the game alive, but the first time you died, you respawned as a phantom. This meant your health bar was cut in half, and the effect was permanent until you either defeated a boss (a rare event) or found a rare item to use. Being a ghost wasn’t all bad; you moved silently, reducing the range that enemies detected you, and if other circumstances were right, you’d actually deal more damage. Still, seeing that half a health bar taunting you made you never forget that yes, you were indeed dead.
Dark Souls carried over some aspects of this mechanic, still keeping you vulnerable to enemy player invasions if you were human (in which case the attacking player appears as a black phantom). Dark Souls decided to play nice and no longer cut your bar in half while you were dead (or “hollowed“), but still allowed for players to invade/summon other players as phantoms. Both games had the nice touch of showing other players as ghosts within your own single-player game, fading in and out of existence as they fought enemies in their own worlds. You could even touch the bloodstain where a player died and see their spooky final moments in ghost form, providing some tiny semblance of a warning for your own possible fate waiting around the next corner.
The Souls games weren’t just about being difficult; mood was perhaps even more important, with the near-silent desolation and crumbling run-down architecture laying on an oppressive and depressing atmosphere. For some inexplicable reason, this mood was infectious in a good way, providing a strangely pleasing aesthetic of constant melancholy. Having your character play as a ghost, and having the world populated by the ghostly echoes of other players participating in the same daunting struggle, completed the vision of cold dreariness that has made the Souls franchise unique in gaming.
Haunted the living in: Geist
As ghostly protagonists go, mute scientist John Raimi doesn’t exude a whole lot of personality. On the other hand, he doesn’t really need it, seeing as he can just borrow everyone else’s. The victim of experiments run by the creepy, occult-fixated Volks Corporation, Raimi was artificially turned into a ghost and trained to possess other living creatures – provided they’ve been properly frightened first.
Freed by an empty-eyed little ghost girl named Gigi, Raimi attempts to escape from the facility where he’s held, something that requires a lot of scaring, a lot of bodily possession (of everything from bats, rats and dogs to shotgun-toting sentries and minigun turrets) and a lot of shooting as he runs afoul of guards and the assorted monsters that Volks’ experiments have brought into the world. Still, his floating, ethereal nature – which he sustains by draining life energy from plants, for some reason – lets him do things that haven’t been replicated in any other first-person adventure. Things like scaring hydroponic technicians with robot armatures, hiding in a bowl of dog food to frighten (and possess) its canine owner, and freaking out a female doctor while she’s in the shower, only to turn her into a badass, demon-wrecking commando later on.
Above: Look at it this way: if they kill your "host," they're really just saving you the trouble
Before long, Raimi’s mission becomes about more than just escape; not only does he have to save his friend Bryson, an undercover mole who’s been found out by Volks, but he’s also forced to stem the tide of a demon invasion he indirectly caused. Even at its most grave, however, his mission still allows for plenty of silly crap like hiding in steam gauges and trash cans to spook his enemies into letting him borrow their bodies, so Raimi still manages to leave an impression in spite of his status as the ultimate blank-slate protagonist.
Haunted the living in: Haunting Starring Polterguy
Above: Yesss, look at him
Polterguy was actually a pretty annoying specter, but it wasn’t entirely his fault. Born in the early ‘90s – a time when making your mark as a videogame character meant being all faux-rebellious and saying “radical” a lot – Polterguy was an undead teen in a flat-top and a biker jacket, and his mission was simple: make life miserable for the crass Sardini family, who were somehow responsible for his death.
As the terrified Sardinis moved from house to house, Polterguy followed them, tracking down each one in their progressively bigger mansions and possessing their possessions until they were too frightened to do anything but flee. With gameplay that felt vaguely like The Sims, he could jump into anything that happened to be nearby, scaring the Sardinis with hurled kitchen knives, illusory monsters that popped out of cupboards and appliances, and bloody, severed hands that crawled off table saws and chased family members around.
Other than his annoyingly chirpy “attitude,” however, Polterguy had one fatal flaw: his life force continually dropped, and it dropped faster if the Sardinis’ stupid dog barked at him. Whenever it hit zero, he – meaning you – would have to navigate a subterranean dungeon, gathering “ecto” and dodging fist-shaped traps until Polterguy had enough ecto to get back to the fun part of the game. Even so, the sick thrill of spooking the Sardini kids with their own toys made haunting them worthwhile.