My first experience with amateur ghost-hunting didn’t go too well. It took me five or six tries to get through the mandatory training, because I struggled with opening doors or figuring out how to turn on my flashlight. Then, I finally felt confident enough to go into the field with a group of friends. We wandered around a quiet suburban house, yelling a ghost’s name until my husband and I were ambushed and murdered by a ghost. Our two remaining friends fled the house and back into our ghost-hunting truck. At the end of the day, we all earned $10 a pop.
Phasmophobia puts players in the shoes of low-budget ghost hunters, using low-tech tools like piles of salt, flashlights, and video cameras to explore places like a cabin, high school, or family home. The goal is to solve any ghost problems for the residents of the area. Is this a simple spirit, or a scary phantom? Only a thorough test with the right equipment can tell.
Players spread out to look for clues, like written notes in a journal, ghost fingerprints, or even a Ouija board. Some ghosts only emerge if a player is alone. The game also picks up all player speech, so a ghost will respond to certain questions, or show up in a rage if a player repeats their name. Players have to figure out the specific variety of ghost is present, take some pictures, and perhaps clear out rooms with smudge sticks. As the clock ticks, the ghost gets angrier and more aggressive, and before long they just start murdering players.
The game is currently blowing up on Twitch. It’s the sixth-most-popular game on the streaming platform, with over 6,400 channels streaming Phasmophobia. It’s among the top five most-played games on Steam. It even has a healthy presence on TikTok, Phasmophobia-induced jump scares have racked up 11.5 million views.
It’s a game that mostly works, but is riddled with little bugs and design choices that slow the action down to a sometimes frustrating or unbearable pace. A very slow walk animation, combined with having to cover a lot of ground, and ghosts that take their sweet time to appear, means there’s a lot of waiting and uncertainty.
Early on, players have to pick up skills like smoothly opening a door or managing their inventory. Until then, you’ll hear a lot of doors rattling in their frames or shuffling noises of a book being put up and down. The in-game avatars can lean back at a 90-degree angle, their torsos parallel with the floor and their eyes blankly staring. In the stark light of day, it’s extremely silly.
So why is it absolutely everywhere now? Because once Phasmophobia gets rolling, it is brilliant. Kinetic Games has nailed the little details that really help a horror scene come to life. The flickering of lights, a silhouette briefly appearing in a door frame and then vanishing from sight, a picture frame jolting off a table with no visible force. These all remain in the realm of believability, especially when viewed through a camcorder or in a dark hallway.
Phasmophobia scratches the same itch as a ghost hunting show. We’re all familiar with this low-rent kind of horror, whether that be the fictional Blair Witch or the documentary-style Unsolved. It’s an angle and style that propelled the Paranormal Activity series to yearly installments.
Once everyone splits up to find crews, there’s room for social game shenanigans. Players are connected by walkie-talkie, but they can accidentally bump into each other in the dark and scare each other. You hear footsteps and muted voices from elsewhere in the house, adding to the tension. Dead players can watch in despair, as a ghost, as their friends loot their body to claim a flashlight and spirit box. Mischievous players can prank their colleagues by jumping out to scare them or flipping the circuit breaker. Just add a healthy splash of the social game fun that comes from playing with friends, like the wild arguments in Among Us, and baby, you’ve got a stew going.
no one told me that the real monsters in phasmophobia are your friends pic.twitter.com/DINPuSxIXh— justin_nick (@justin_moore) October 14, 2020
The baseline experience of Phasmaphobia is good, like holding a repurposed radio in your hand and hearing a ghost commandeer it to yell at you, or going down into a dark basement to flip a breaker with a camcorder held in your shaky hand. But the social element of the ghost-hunting game adds a more texture to that. Going through an abandoned, scary high school is a tense and memorable moment, sure. What really sealed Phasmophobia for me was passing by a classroom where one of my friends was yelling the ghost’s name as loud as possible while running in circles while another friend was loudly apologizing to the ghost and begging her to stop antagonizing him.
It’s a nice, cozy kind of horror that’s light on gore but still offers genuine thrills and chills. It’s perfect for streamers as we head toward Halloween, and it’s a game that is proving as fun to watch as to play.