“Finding the Shape in Sylvio 2’s Static,” by Reid McCarter

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“Ghost hunts without technological devices these days are almost unheard of; one could almost say that ghosts don’t exist without the technology that records them.”

—Colin Dickey, from Ghostland: An American History in Haunted Places

Sylvio 2 is a very quiet game. Whether radioing the captain of a boat or gently calling a dead person’s name in front of an empty room, returning protagonist Juliette Waters speaks in delicate, Swedish-inflected whispers. The soundtrack is made up of almost nothing but a constant synthesizer pad, humming along on its own like some alien power generator, until the occasional appearance of wispy, electronic, choral humming, or an insistent drum machine pulse, materialize and highlight a moment. Otherwise, the player is left largely in meditative silence—walking through empty rooms and listening closely for the activity of ghosts that she knows are always, always nearby.

As in its criminally underrated 2015 predecessor, Sylvio 2 stresses the importance of carefully paying attention to the undercurrents of its world. With Juliette lost, yet again, in a huge, deserted environment with nobody (at least nobody living) around, she sets to work trying to uncover what happened before her arrival. Replacing the first game’s mist-shrouded amusement park with a foggy, flooded conservation area, Juliette travels on a rusty old steamboat between tiny black rock islands in search of her lost boyfriend. Soon enough, she learns that these little outcroppings hide passageways below ground, emptying into deserted homes that now resemble caverns.

Once inside, Juliette picks her way through the remnants of empty living spaces—tape recorder microphone or video camera held in front of her to allow communication with the dead. Like the first game, the story comes together by picking up blips of static and decoding the otherworldly voices croaking and gibbering within the noise. The player manipulates eerie clips filled with high-gain tape hum and scratchy distortion, waiting for blasts of hyperspeed chipmunk squawking or low-throated moans that, once reversed, slowed down, sped up, or some combination of each process, reveal the barely legible words of the dead women and men whose spirits are desperate to be heard. The same techniques are used to decode videotapes, only now there are ghastly silhouettes and skeletal faces pointing at objects or visibly groaning their missives from long-since-decayed throats.

All of this takes time and, especially given the cryptic nature of the ghosts’ fragmented sentences, a great deal of good faith on the player’s part that everything will add up to a worthwhile revelation. We spend almost the entirety of the game listening—even when the tape and video recorders are off, the player strains in the darkness of Sylvio 2’s low-resolution environments for paths forward and white blips that trigger opportunities to record bits of ghostly information that will, hopefully, eventually, add up to something more than random dispatches from the dead’s scrambled brains.

In Ghostland: An American History in Haunted Places, Colin Dickey details the reasons why we tell ghost stories by travelling across the United States. He visits and writes about the country’s most famously “haunted” houses, hotels, cemeteries, and cities as a whole. Rather than simply reiterate old myths, Dickey locates the social, cultural, and economic context that found itself sifted down and repurposed as bumps in the night and shrieking poltergeists. More reductively put than the book itself, what he finds is almost always an attempt to make sense of a time and place’s complexity and, quite often, distinctly human evils, by replacing cultural self-reckoning with supernatural folk tales.

In one chapter, Dickey examines the history of the 19th century Spiritualist movement. A few paragraphs are spent on the (then cutting-edge) tools used by those involved to contact the dead. These range over various eras from photography and Morse code (which was thought to legitimize a medium’s table rapping conversations with spirits) through to “the introduction of consumer magnetic tape recordings in the 1940s and ‘50s.” Here, Dickey mentions the 20th century work of Sweden’s Friedrich Jürgenson—who believed he accidentally recorded the voice of his deceased mother while taping bird calls—and Latvia’s Konstantin Raudive who, in 1971, published an English language volume on EVP recordings that gave wide enough berth to ghostly communication to admit “spirits [who] talked in multiple languages, even in the same sentence; that . . . could speak in languages they hadn’t known in life; and that . . . sometimes spoke backward.”

Anyone who’s watched a ghost hunting reality show is more than familiar with the modern version of this same phenomenon: hosts happily interpreting a few seconds of rasping static as a growling demonic voice. In these shows, and in the plot-progressing recordings of Sylvio 2 that take full advantage of Raudive’s ideas, accepting that ghosts can talk through reversed, too-fast, or too-slow words requires a superheroic leap of faith. Lying on the couch, zoning out to a ghost hunter’s antics, most people have to look either for comedy or a willing lapse in rational thought to stay entertained.

Sylvio 2’s drearily contemplative mood cuts off much potential for humour and the slow pace of its storytelling allows its audience to settle into exactly the kind of credulity that allows its ghost recordings to work. Its lo-fi visuals, which resemble the blocky models and smeared colours of a PlayStation One game, suggest, too, that Juliette explores a world where all reality is rendered with less exactitude than our daily lives. Hearing legible sentences amidst deserts of tape noise isn’t difficult when the mind has already accepted that an oily clump of fairly abstract geometry is meant to represent rocks or a flattened computer rectangle stands in for a household door.

The real lynchpin, though, is the game’s willingness to bore the player by making the core action of the game the simple act of waiting—waiting as a slow-moving boat automatically crawls across a placid grey lake on its way to a new glistening black volcanic rock formation; waiting with Juliette’s microphone or video camera extended into a dim room or hallway; waiting for the mysteries of some ominous, forbidden place to reveal the secrets of what, exactly, has left it empty of all but the spirits of the dead.

Primed for revelation, everything starts to look like it carries meaning. A strange sculpture leaned up inside one of the game’s houses, a few names pulled from a recording, or the free-verse poetry that a collection of seemingly standalone sentences turns into can all represent one aspect of the key that will give the spectral narrative more tangible form. Like all ghost stories, Sylvio 2 works by suggesting the formlessness and senselessness of the world around us can be distilled into something understandable.
Its ending—an enormous departure from everything that’s come before—delivers on this promise. The final moments cast the story up until that point in an entirely different light, and one too silly to feel like a natural fit with the rest of the game. Its revelations are entirely separate from anything players could’ve expected. After a few moments of disbelief, though, its absurdity makes sense. The dead that Juliette encountered along her way were only whispering about one small corner of their experience, it turns out. What we thought we had learned from them was only a tiny handhold in the disorienting chaos of a story whose long, slow moments make us desperate to establish meaning where maybe none ever existed. Sylvio 2 makes the most sense when it declares, very loudly, that we don’t understand anything at all. That kind of revelation, frustrating as it may be, seems like one of the best takeaways anyone can have from listening to static, hunting for intangible, ephemeral things.

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Reid McCarter is a writer and editor based in Toronto. His work has appeared at GQ, The AV Club, Kill Screen, Playboy, Paste, and VICE. He is also co-editor of SHOOTER, co-hosts the Bullet Points podcast, and tweets @reidmccarter.