The McMaster Files

Ghosts in the Machine

This column is a reprint from Unwinnable Monthly #123. If you like what you see, grab the magazine for less than ten dollars, or subscribe and get all future magazines for half price.


A repository for games and ennui.


Videogames have been around awhile. Not counting early games on mainframes at universities, we’ve been videogame obsessed since the late 70s, well over 40 years ago. All the while, outside of the digital world, life marches on. Birth, death the cycle of life. When a life ends, the belongings of that person don’t go with them – they are doled out, or given away, or sold. What happens to our digital life when we die?

Electronic worlds are adaptive and resilient, but at the same time fragile. They aren’t physical things, not in the way we look at it, so lack any textile representation that doesn’t require very specialized machines to work. As such, we’ve seen several worlds end. The time spent, the happiness, frustration and tears, go offline with them. But that’s not really what we’re talking about.

The other side of the equation, the people that play, are much less resilient. There are examples of players being immortalized in games, little tributes by the developers for people who were fans and didn’t make it. However, for each of those, how many more slip away without notice but to a handful of friends and family. Where do those online identities go?

My father-in-law passed away a little over a decade ago. He had been injured in a work accident, which left him with a broken back and a lot of mobility problems. The doctors had him on Oxycontin and a ton of other narcotics to stem the pain. He also didn’t care very much about living in his condition.

Art could have had more years of life, but instead of being careful, he leaned into it and accelerated the process. When your liver and kidneys are having a hard time keeping up with all the chemicals in your body, it’s probably not the best idea to drink a bottle of bourbon a day. That’s neither here nor there, it’s my grief talking, even after all this time, the pain dulls but it never leaves.

In his injured state, Art had to rely on me and my wife to run a lot of errands to help him out. We saw him most days, bringing him groceries or helping him out around his apartment. Then there were the game emergencies. Art had loved videogames since their inception and always had a console. Towards the end of his life he had moved from the PS2 to the PS3.

Many were the times that Sarah or I would get a call about helping him beat some “fucker” in Dark Cloud, Bad Company 2 or BioShock. Inevitably, we’d go over to his apartment and help him beat the part where he was stuck. I was never sure if he was really stuck or if he was just lonely. Either way, we played a lot of games together.

[pullquote]Inevitably, we’d go over to his apartment and help him beat the part where he was stuck. I was never sure if he was really stuck or if he was just lonely. Either way, we played a lot of games together.[/pullquote]

His apartment caught fire and he barely made it out alive, not to mention the games. After that, his health turned for the worse and there wasn’t any more time for games. The time we spent together was more caretaking than keeping company, and it wasn’t much longer before Art succumbed to his illness. The shock of loss felt when a loved one passes is breathtaking, still to this day, but time heals all wounds. That’s not really true. Time heals most wounds.

I didn’t use my PS3 much for a while. I didn’t really want to play any of the games we had shared. Just didn’t feel right. So there it sat, gathering dust in my entertainment center.

Art and I both loved Level-5 games and would play them together, so when White Knight Chronicles came out a few months later, I picked it up as a tribute. Sarah and I sat down, turned on the PS3 and played a bit of the game. Afterward, sitting alone in my living room, I started messing around with PS3 menus and opened my friends list. There he was. PieWaquet was his username, it was his play on a cat named Pyewacket in a book he liked, came up in my friends list.

I’m not sure why I was shocked. Of course it would still be there. It’s a free account and it’s not like we were going to send a death certificate to Sony to shut down his PSN. It was just something I’d never considered. Upon opening his profile, there it was, writ large, the games we had played and the trophies he had earned with and without us. The feeling of longing, to just go back to those days, was intense, but then there was something else – the bittersweet knowledge of better times. Those days were gone, but I experienced them in the first place.

I wish I could say otherwise, but the ghosts have multiplied over the years. These profiles are pieces of what was once a whole – obelisks in the digital sands denoting a time where we crossed paths. I miss them all, but I’m so very thankful for the time we had. The ghosts in the machines were my friends, and maybe they exist to remind us to enjoy what we have while we have it.


Jason McMaster is a writer and editor with a lifelong passion for games. When he isn’t working on Unwinnable, he’s either on his PC or playing a board game. Follow him on Twitter @mcmaster

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