The first time I encountered a ghost was at a house on Tanglewood Street. She was in the kitchen, by a sink full of dirty water. Three of my friends who came hunting with me were snickering in the background. One thought it’d be funny to ask the ghost if she died before she got a chance to call the manager. (Her name was Karen; it was a very uninspired conversation starter.)
Turns out Karen was a demon. She had a mangled face, wore tattered clothing, and snapped my friend’s neck before he could make it to the dining room. We heard him scream, watched his body fall lifelessly to the ground, and decided to book it back to the van parked outside before Karen could claim another victim.
This is what it is to play Phasmophobia, an early-access, indie co-op psychological horror game that dropped on Steam earlier this Fall. Its premise trades on the same guilty-pleasure, adrenaline-infusing vibes as those obscure paranormal reality TV shows. You know, the ones where a medium and an NYPD homicide detective pair up to raid haunted houses, or where Rob Lowe ropes his kids into investigating urban legends? Ghost-hunting scratches a particular itch, combining chills and thrills with true-crime elements that tease us with the promise that we might be able to solve the unsolvable, explain the supernatural, uncover what lies beyond.
The endgame of Phasmophobia though is a little more straightforward: get evidence and get the hell out of there.
You do not vacuum up a Wraith Bill Murray style or help a Spirit cross over like Jennifer-Love Hewitt. No, you’re there to piss these ghosts off enough so they’ll show their corporeal forms for the camera, or leave a handprint on a door, or have a bit of fun with an Ouija board that you’ve left behind. And that objective may sound simple enough; it may lure you into thinking Phasmophobia is just another horror-tinged video game to play with your friends when the days grow shorter and the global lockdown returns, but you’d be wrong.
And you’ll also probably be the group member who hides in the Ghostmobile “looking for orbs” as your teammates risk their virtual lives inside.
The basic gameplay of Phasmophobia is easy enough to pick up. A group of up to four players enters a haunted building – a house on a quiet street, an asylum with a horrifying history, a farmhouse, a run-down school, a prison – with the objective of finding and identifying a ghost, before collecting evidence of a haunting. Your headquarters is a fully-equipped van parked outside, a place you can go for supplies, for directives on your mission, and to monitor night-vision cameras you’ve set up once you’ve summoned the courage to cross the threshold (or figured out how to open the front door).
You’ll have ghost-hunting essentials on your journey – journals, smudge sticks, cameras, flashlights, and more – and specialized equipment, like EMF Readers to detect the presence of a paranormal entity and Spirit Boxes to communicate with the particularly chatty specters.
You’ll need to locate the Ghost Room, the favorite haunt (see what we did there?) of the pesky phantom before setting up equipment to figure out just what type of undead squatter you’re dealing with. Is it a wraith, a particularly nasty baddie who can move through walls? Or a Jinn, a territorial being who doesn’t appreciate mouth breathers invading their space? Is it a male or a female-identifying creature? A child? A man?
You can also uncover more about the spirit’s backstory, if your nosy nature gets the better of you, to figure out how old the ghost was when it died, how many years it’s been dead, and if it murdered someone in a past life.
And you can do all of this through the game’s fairly remarkable voice-recognition software which is what really elevates Phasmophobia into something more than just a two-dimensional horror adventure. Not only are you chatting with your fellow paranormal investigators – friends or strangers, they both offer up unique gaming experiences in this world – you’re also interacting with the nightmarish creatures intent on scaring you to death (literally). Even when your push-to-talk capabilities aren’t engaged, these ethereal tormentors can still hear you, and they’ll react if you utter certain phrases or accidentally call them by name.
Phasmophobia mines the most out of its co-op experience in that way, instilling terror in players who might not even be in immediate danger themselves.
You’re standing in a bedroom of a two-story farmhouse, taking pictures of a voodoo doll when you hear your friend scream from the living room. She’s frantic, being chased by a Mare or a Yurei — you haven’t quite figured the nature of this ghost out yet. She begs for your help, throws some colorful curse words out there, and then … ? Silence. She’s dead. You’re down by one, and your sanity level – a unique marker that dips the longer you spend searching and engaging with these paranormals – reaches a new low. If it drops any further, you’ll be hunted by that same ghost, the one who just snapped your friend’s neck like a twig.
You’ll have to find a closet or a utility room to hide in and hope that your teammates do the same. The doors will lock, the lights will flicker. You’ll hear a heartbeat pounding through your headphones, a chilling sigh sweep by, and, if you’re really unlucky, you’ll see two rotted hands closing around you. You’ll be dead too, left to wander through the game as a poltergeist yourself, unable to talk to your group or help them avoid the same fate. (Of course, you can also have some fun scaring the sh*t out of them by hurling beer cans and slamming doors, but, to stress, that should not be your main goal.)
It’s the waiting, the unknowing, the uncertainty of Phasmophobia that feels even more disturbing than the ghosts themselves. It’s not being able to see past the scope of your flashlight while hunting a shy spirit or witnessing a darkened form move towards you when you light a candle or hearing a bone-chilling voice scratch its way out of a spirit box when a room looks to be clear.
Phasmophobia doesn’t just want to scare you, it wants to immerse you in an experience you thought you were tough enough to take on and then magnify your embarrassing weaknesses for everyone else to see. It wants to give you a wake-up call, to teach you a lesson, and to make a masochist out of you so that you keep returning to its world, keep trying to confront its Revenants and Banshees and Onis while you squirm in your seat and listen to the shrill terror of your friends.
It’s a game that will long outlive its predicted expiration date – most people assumed we’d be tired of it post Halloween – because it offers the kind of horror co-op experience that gaming just hasn’t been able to deliver. Until now. And it’s also serving as a model for other games of its ilk, ones hoping to create shared adventures that enthrall so thoroughly, they stick with you long past your log out.