Webs of a Monstrous Spirit: Queerfeminist and Chinese Folkloric Entanglements in The Rewinder 山海旅人

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Editor’s Note: This is the fifth post in the Ghost Light II: Monstrosities series edited by Caroline Abbott. The 2023 theme of this series aims to problematise the notion of “monstrosity” in the environmental humanities in the interest of illuminating the relationships between non-human, or other-than-human beings, folklore, and environment.

On my ludic-digital h(a)unt for hauntological agencies—ghosts, monsters, and monstrous spirits—I crossed paths with a ravenous arachnoid whose spectral anatomy calls for a critical engagement with Chinese folklorics. Crawling through the ravaged streets of Misty Mountain Studio’s (2021) video game The Rewinder 山海旅人, an eight-legged Monstrous Spirit, or Yaoguai, once terribly wronged in life, chases after my player character, “Qi Yun.” Ultimately defeating the ferocious Spider responsible for the village’s destruction and the deaths of its former residents unlocks another timeline-bending story ending — one in which non-playable character (NPC) Moon’s pain never turns her into the eerie Spider to begin with, and through which she and Ying (her spectral relative from a future-yet-to-come) might find peace through my gameplay. My entanglement with Yun prompts me to ask: whose senses require stimulation to rework the fate of the Spider Yaoguai? How does the Yaoguai embody the game’s take on monstrosity, and how does this relate to Chinese folkloric entanglements with space, time, and kinship in the game? 

Among the ruins of Reed River, we (player and player character), encounter Resentful Ghosts whose suffering we witness—and understand—as the story continues. “[I]nspired by Chinese mythology and folklore,” the video game centers last known Rewinder Qi Yun’s ability to manipulate and multiply timelines and story endings so that lost souls may re-enter the cycle of reincarnation.1 Resentful Ghosts, monsters and spirits trouble the point-and-click puzzle adventure’s “realms” of Heaven, Earth and Underworld, and are responsible for the disappearance of the Rewinder, “a group of talented children [g]ranted […] the power of Rewind, imbued within their blood.”2

Fig. 1. Arriving at the ruins of Reed River Village, player character Qi Yun is welcomed by a hostile Yaoguai in the form of a spider. In one of The Rewinder’s many timelines, Yun and I have no choice than to end the Yaoguai’s life. She is shown here at her deathbed. 2023 in-game screenshot of The Rewinder 山海旅人, used with permission of MistyMountainStudio. 

In its reliance on re-arranging its spatial and temporal structures, The Rewinder’s more, non, or other-than-human creatures educate on living and dying in precarious places and shattered times. This intra-active play is a process of kinship. Per Donna Haraway, I “become-with” Yun’s character through in-game decisions transmitted and executed by mouse, keyboard and screen.3 Unable to read or speak Chinese, I respond to the characters’ multiple and tragic past(s), present(s) and future(s) through the game’s English translation and an explanatory in-game journal that situates The Rewinder’s cultural and mythological heritage its developers account for both in-game and on their official homepage. I practice what Trinh T. Minh-ha might refer to as “speaking nearby” the digital characters through a selection of gameplay scenes and dialogue which help me to explore The Rewinder’s mythological and cultural heritage from my white privileged position.4

“speaking nearby[…] a speaking that does not objectify, does not point to an object as if it is distant from the speaking subject or absent from the speaking place. A speaking that reflects on itself and can come very close to a subject without, however, seizing or claiming it.”

Trinh T. Minh-ha as quoted in conversation with Nancy N. Chen, 1983 [4]
Fig. 2. The Rewinder’s in-game journal is a critical game component that renders its mythological and cultural heritage. 2023 in-game screenshot of The Rewinder 山海旅人, used with permission of MistyMountainStudio. 

Immersion with changing environments and their spectral residents is enmeshed with the player’s experience in-game. Navigating the game world as Yun enables me to communicate with monstrous beings, spirits, and ghosts, and to explore the memories of Reed River’s former residents, enabling me “to alter the past.”5 Returning to and engaging in the villager’s’ flashbacks relates to what Barad (2010) might term intra-active: affecting the villager’s choices alters both previous events as well as present timeline(s) and ultimately, it shapes my own dedication to The Rewinder’s historical context through my gameplay.6

Fig. 3. Shanhai jing / 山海经 (Classics of Mountains and Seas), (sometimes referred to as Guideways of Mountains and Seas), is a Chinese canonical text (典籍) with multiple historical incarnations. Its contents offer basis to spatiotemporal analyses of beasts, beings, history, and legend along more-than-human or folkloric lines of inquiry. [7; 12] Document (and image) Public Domain via Wikimedia.

Consulting scholars You Chencheng and Zhiqiu Benson Zhou for contextualization, we may comprehend the significance of the digital game’s take on other-than-human beings such as “yaoguai, spirits, shapeshifters and other strange characters” whose strangeness (or Queerness) “ha[s] served as the basis of premodern ghost narrative tradition.”7 Importantly, You Chencheng reminds scholars that the “umbrella term” yaoguai “cover[s] all kinds of supernatural beings” and has taken on vastly different meanings through Chinese folklorics, environments, regions, and histories.8 These folkloric aspects guide The Rewinder’s modern reinterpretation. Yun’s in-game encounter with a “half-spider-half-woman thing”9 parallels You Chengcheng’s discussion of “[c]reatures in arbitrary combinations of human-animal bodies.”10 These beings, Chengcheng explains, derive their origins in part from the classic Chinese canonical (dianji (典籍)) text Shanhai jing (Classics of Mountains and Seas) and its “mythical geography and fantastic ethnography.”11 Zhiqiu Benson Zhou’s explication of “yaoguai (demon or evil spirit, 妖怪), […] [as] human-like but not human”12 further reveal the Yaoguai’s entanglements with “a cosmological worldview of Confucian gender order, in which Yaoguai is tied to demonic, perverse, and inferior femininity.”13 Accordingly, Yun notes of Ying’s transformation into the Yaoguai: “this monster is different than Ying — she has fully transformed” into “[a] Monstrous Spiri[t] obsessed with evil.”14 

Fig. 4.A. Successfully “rewinding” The Rewinder’s secret level reunites Moon and Ying with their respective husbands across timelines. 2023 in-game screenshot of The Rewinder 山海旅人, used with permission of MistyMountainStudio.

The Yaoguai’s cobwebs urge player, player-character and NPC entanglement with non, more or other-than-human beings, and to empathize with grief as the cause of their monstrosity. Slowly, I become involved with Moon’s pain and her experience of loss. The murder of her husband at a time when she was seriously ill and vulnerable which turned Moon to “resentment.”15 Both in visual and non-visual dialogue apparent through multiple timelines, before and after Moon transforms into the Yaoguai, the player watches her pursue prey and await the Rewinder. A thirst for revenge among spectral apparitions who went through terrible pain in life appears to be the game’s leitmotif, highlighting the variety of suffering that may turn someone or something into a Resentful Ghost or a Monstrous Spirit. Indeed, the Yaoguai’s monstrosity can be read in Derrida’s conception of the ghost — a being that takes possession of the living to commit crimes for which it cannot be prosecuted: “neither living nor dead, present nor absent.”16 When Yun arrives at Reed River, he wonders if the only remaining human-like villager, a pale-looking, inapproachable and mumbling woman named Ying, “[i]s […] human, or … a ghost?”17

“The point is that the past was never simply there to begin with and [its] future is not simply what will unfold.”

Karen Barad, Meeting the Universe Halfway. 2007. 315. [12]
Fig. 4.B. Successfully “rewinding” The Rewinder’s secret level reunites Moon and Ying with their respective husbands across timelines. 2023 in-game screenshot of The Rewinder 山海旅人, used with permission of MistyMountainStudio. 

The restriction of the Yaoguai’s agency to predictable, encoded movements raises awareness of the complexities of femininity and womanhood set in a fictionalized version of ancient China. The Rewinder’s use of more-than-human and time-bending connections between Moon and Ying — two female characters who lived in Reed River almost a century apart — demands a queerfeminist reading. Over the span of multiple timelines, both become victims of betrayal and oppression, lose their spouses and their homes and become possessed: “[l]ife is full of cycles.”18 While the main storyline adheres to both Moon’s and Ying’s deadly fate regardless of the Rewinder’s choices, it is possible for Yun to intervene in one of the painful events which precipitated Moon’s arachnoid transformation. Staying-with her pain until an alternative, secret ending is unlocked reveals another path: instead of completing The Rewinder by defeating the Yaoguai, Reed River can be saved by preventing Moon’s demise: gathering all of the game’s collectibles allows me to return to Reed River’s past once more to do justice to both Ying, Moon and their other-than-human kin, The Spider Yaoguai. Indeed, this Monstrous Spirit is far more than a nameless game opponent and serves as a pivotal figure for responding to Reed River’s spatiotemporalities.

My queerfeminist commitment to Moon (and Ying) urges me to become and stay-with Reed River’s conditions of living and dying across centuries. The Rewinder’s multiple endings are equally legitimized by the game’s narration and programming, features that defy linear patterns of space, time and kinship. Moon, Ying and the Yaoguai share feminine kinship — bonds which have historically and in the present demonstrated their power to oppose colonial frameworks and offer emotional support. It is the game’s interpretation of Chinese notions of monstrosity — and kinship between its feminine characters — which ensures the Yaoguai’s pain will not remain unanswered.

Vid. 1: Readers are encouraged to peruse gameplay recordings of The Rewinder 山海旅人 [1] provided by Ian Boes. Shown here, the game’s secret level (and secret ending) which reunites Moon and Ying with their respective husbands. Also available are: Chapter 1; Chapter 2; Chapter 3; Chapter 4; Chapter 5; Chapter 6. Used with permission of MistyMountainStudio (2021) and Ian Boes (2023) with gratitude.

1 MistyMountainStudio. The Rewinder 山海旅人. Gamera Game. Microsoft Windows. 2021.
2 Ibid.
3 Haraway, Donna. Staying with the Trouble. Making Kin in the Chthulucene. (Durham: Duke University Press 2016), 58.
4 Trinh T. Minh-ha as quoted in: Chen, Nancy N., “‘Speaking Nearby:’ A Conversation with Trịnh Thị Minh Hà”, Visual Anthropology Review 8 (1992), 82-91.
5 Ibid.
6 Barad, Karen. “Quantum Entanglements and Hauntological Relations of Inheritance: Dis/continuities, SpaceTime Enfoldings, and Justice-to-Come”, Derrida Today. 3.2 (Edinburgh University Press 2010), 241, note 1.
7 Chencheng, You. “Ghostly Vestiges of Strange Tales: Horror, History, and the Haunted Chinese Child.” New Directions in Children’s Gothic: Debatable Lands (New York/London: Routledge 2017): 83.
8 Ibid.
9 MistyMountainStudio. The Rewinder 山海旅人. 2021.
10 Chencheng. “Ghostly Vestiges of Strange Tales.” New Directions in Children’s Gothic. 2017. 83.
11 Ibid.
12 Karen Barad, Meeting the Universe Halfway. Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning (Durham/London: Duke University Press 2007), 315.
13 Ibid., citing Alvin Wong and Ka Hin.
14 Chencheng. “Ghostly Vestiges of Strange Tales.” New Directions in Children’s Gothic. 2017. 83.
15 MistyMountainStudio. The Rewinder 山海旅人. 2021.
16 Jacques Derrida. Specters of Marx: The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning, and the New International. (New York/London: Routledge, 1994): xix. 
17 MistyMountainStudio. The Rewinder 山海旅人. 2021.
18 Ibid.

See also: Strassberg, Richard E. Chinese Bestiary: Strange Creatures from the Guideways Through Mountains and Seas. 2008. University of California Press.

Feature image: Arriving at the ruins of Reed River Village, player character Qi Yun is welcomed by a hostile Yaoguai in the form of a spider. 2023 in-game screenshot of The Rewinder 山海旅人, used with permission of MistyMountainStudio. 
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Situated in the fields of New Materialism and with an intrasectional focus on Queerfeminism, Dis/ability Studies and Decolonial Theory, Ian Boes (M.A.) is an agential realist who wanders among and speaks nearby various kinds of ruins. Exploring material and digital debris and engaging in interspecies relationships, they seek responsible and responsive modes of living and dying in precarious places. Boes is associated with the German transdisciplinary research collective "Rheinische Sektion der Kompostistischen Internationale" that answers to queerfeminist and new materialist concerns, media and cultural studies and FSTS.

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