I have a confession to make: for over a year the GamesRadar team has wrongfully thought I'm a huge horror fan, when in fact I'm a massive scaredy-cat.
For 30 years I've avoided getting scared. I run up the basement steps when turning the lights out. I tried and failed to pay Dead Space. I watched Scary Movie instead of Hereditary. But when GR+ managing editor Rachel Weber turned to me on my second day of work and asked, "You love horror, right?" with her goth-black bob swinging merrily, I responded with a resounding, "Oh, hell yeah." Because I didn't want to let my scream queen down.
It wasn't until this year, unable to spend an entire month cooking up a cracking costume because of a Halloween in quarantine, that I decided to let the fear in. And Phasmophobia, the four-person co-op ghost-hunting game earning Twitch and TikTok views like mad, was the perfect title to usher me into the horror genre.
Turns out I don't hate being scared - I love it. And I think you will, too.
The sound of scares
Phasmophobia was created by UK studio Kinetic Games and is still in Early Access, but it's currently the 12th most watched game on Twitch. Two weeks ago it reached the number four spot for downloads on Steam and there's millions of views on the Phasmophobia hashtag on TikTok. That the game is so popular despite its bugs (there are several) and its small dev team (there's one person) is a testament to the quality and ingenuity of Phasmophobia's features.
Key to the game is its sound design, which brilliantly plays with noise, and the absence of it, to push its fear factor to new heights. Phasmophobia uses both local and radio chat options - you have to run voice chat through the game itself, and push two separate buttons to talk, one for chatting over the walkie, the other to speak out loud. Voice chat is also location and direction-based, so you'll hear the faraway voice of a panicked team member quickly swell into a scream, but struggle to figure out where that scream came from and have to call out over the walkie for answers (which you often won't get).
And the ghosts can hear you, too. Some will respond to questions about their age or location, others seem to thrive off of the embarrassing noises you make when scared. If a ghost is taking too long to show itself, players will provoke it by repeatedly calling out its full name - but this usually results in someone's untimely death. The clever audio design means sound scares are a double-edged sword - you'll either scream at the gurgling of a nearby shade, or start hyperventilating over the maddening lack of noise.
I once successfully survived a ghost hunt alone in a house, crouching behind a bed as a spirit shuffled and exhaled nearby. When the sounds stopped, and my flashlight remained a steady source of light rather than a flickering glow, I moved to escape through the front door. It was then that a single, too-loud footstep rang out. It was my death knell.
Phasmophobic no more
The only horror-related thing I watched during my adolescence was Ghost Adventures on the Travel Channel, because host Zak Bagans was so absurd. The show couldn't scare me, because I was laughing at it. Phasmophobia piqued my interest because it's a ghost hunting game with all the tools I recognize from Ghost Adventures - but there's no Bagans for comedic relief. Instead, I found humor in being an absolutely dickhead towards ghosts, and in the hilarity that lies in the aftermath of fear.
You start off every round of Phasmophobia in a ghost hunting truck, with as many tools as your four-person team can afford to buy (completing missions earns you money). Most people have been playing this game religiously since its September 18 release, so I usually enter a haunted space looking like Peter Venkman in peak ghost busting season. I'm talking UV lights, head-mounted cameras, EMF readers, spirit boxes, crucifixes, sage sticks - a veritable smorgasbord of spectre sporting goodies.
Being fully prepared to hunt a ghost certainly ups your confidence - even if it's woefully misguided. I'll walk around with my flashlight off, guided only by the incredibly dim glow of my shoulder-mounted light, an EMF reader out, asking the ghost to "give me a sign." I'll volunteer for solo trips to the basement. Hell, I've even willingly entered a ghost's room alone and told a female spirit that I was her kids' new mommy over and over again until she dragged me to hell. I laughed the entire way there.
It’s going real well guys #Phasmophobia pic.twitter.com/JCuhnBA12QOctober 26, 2020
Phasmophobia's teamwork inspires fear and laughter in equal parts. In one game, the eerie silence just before a ghost reveal was punctuated only by the frantic beeps of a EMF reader. Our team chat had gone from casually calling the ghost a bitch to communicating only key information. We were scared, and it was obvious. As our flashlights began flickering in unison, indicating a ghost was on the hunt, we started cursing into our mics and scrambling to hide behind furniture. The ghost let out a rattle from deep within its chest, we all started chanting "we're dead, we're dead," and suddenly our fourth teammate who was meant to be in the truck came busting into the room, a crucifix in hand, shouting exorcism rites in Latin. I died, but I died laughing.
The old, horror-averse me? She's dead, killed by a Revenant in Grafton Farmhouse. Now I crave the terror, and the terror craves me.