There are a lot of different ways for games to scare players. Some use resource scarcity, forcing you to agonize over every bullet. Some assault you with grotesque monsters that make your skin crawl at the mere sight of them. There are games that obscure your senses so you can’t see or hear what’s around the next corner, and games that give you no way to fight back at all. And then there’s the old-fashioned jump scare — ever reliable — like zombie dogs unexpectedly crashing through a window.
GTFO does all the above. But the co-op horror shooter takes things even further: It uses difficulty to inject each moment with terror, and blow past every game in the genre. Many players who try GTFO will call it punishing. Some will insist it’s downright unfair. But the game’s brutal challenge serves a purpose: As you explore the labyrinthine laboratories and tunnels that make up the oppressive underground facility known only as The Complex, the crushing awareness that the smallest slip-up might result in you and your team losing hours of progress creates tension and terror unlike anything I’ve experienced before.
In GTFO, you play as one of four prisoners who are sent deep underground, against their will, to accomplish esoteric objectives at the behest of an unseen entity known as The Warden. The Complex is infested by a variety of “Sleepers,” horrifically mutated forms that lash out with whip-like tongues from toothy orifices. Gameplay is a mix of stealth and shooting combat; you’ll do your best to clear each new room of Sleepers without waking them up, which generally involves skulking around in the dark while syncing up melee strikes with your teammates. Whiffing a bonk or simply taking a step at the wrong time might wake up the whole room, which, if your team doesn’t outright wipe, results in wasting precious ammo (at best). That, in turn, can bite you from behind later in the level, when you trip an alarm that sends endless waves of mutants your way, testing your aim, your improvisation skills, and your ability to make snap choices under pressure.
Understandably, GTFO is a tough sell for some players. Not everyone has spare time to devote hours to a game where a single misfired shot might kill your whole team and send you back to the main menu. Checkpoints are a relatively new addition to the game, but they remain few and far between; missions can take hours to complete, and they might have a single checkpoint, or none. Like every design choice from developer 10 Chambers, that feels deliberate. There are no easy paths through The Complex.
But even when you suffer a crushing wipe, you’re never really leaving empty-handed. Even a failed run can grant you new boosters — boons like increased ammo or health regeneration that you can apply to future attempts. But more importantly, you gain knowledge that you didn’t previously possess.
Much of GTFO’s difficulty comes from not knowing what’s going to happen next. Mission objectives are often as simple as locating an item and carting it back to the extraction point. But that singular task might involve typing commands into terminals to locate said item, reading environmental clues to determine the route to that zone, delving down dangerous side paths to scrounge for ammunition, and any number of unexpected complications. Once you know what to expect, though, you can plan accordingly: Maybe on your next run, you’ll bring two deployable turrets instead of one, or head straight to the critical path without feeling the need to explore quite as much. Failing a mission after two hours of sneaking and scraping by feels bad, obviously, but every wipe imparts another thread of knowledge that you’ll eventually weave together into a successful run.
And boy, does it feel good to see that Expedition Survived screen. After enough time spent in any one GTFO level, you’ll probably start to feel a lot like the prisoners do: crazed, sick, stressed, beaten, and desperate to return to the surface. GTFO has, bar none, the most consistent and polished atmosphere I’ve ever encountered in a game. The prisoners shake and fidget nervously while you’re choosing their loadouts. They draw sharp breaths as they’re awoken from cryo, and each trip downward into The Complex is a cacophony of sound. Your character hyperventilates during combat, causing sluggish movement if you’re not mindful of your ever-increasing heart rate. Simple glow sticks can seem like a gift from heaven in pitch-black corridors where turning on your flashlight at the wrong time might end a run. Each new type of monster you encounter is a body horror mess that requires unique tactics to defeat. Sometimes, your whole team gets teleported outside to a strange desert, which might be on another planet or in an alternate dimension for all you know, and it’s usually all you can do just to survive. At those points, returning to The Complex’s claustrophobic chambers can feel, strangely, like a relief.
GTFO definitely isn’t for everybody, but players who find this all appealing won’t encounter a more consistently terrifying challenge. It’s the perfect game to play with three equally masochistic friends this spooky Halloween season, and the game’s official Discord has active looking-for-group channels where players tend to be friendly regardless of your experience with the game. After all, us prisoners are in this together, and we all just want to get back to the surface.