It’s not uncommon for horror games to take off on Twitch. Usually they’re flashes in the pan: The janky P.T.-alike du jour grabs eyeballs for a few days and then quickly descends back into the poorly-lit pits of obscurity. Phasmophobia is different. Sure, it’s inspired by P.T., and yes, it’s janky as all get out, but it’s been a major player on Twitch for the better part of a month, and over the weekend, it became one of the five most-played games on all of Steam.
In Phasmophobia, players are not ghost busters. Instead, they essentially function as a ghost reconnaissance team sent to collect intel for an eventual squad of ghost busters. You and up to three friends enter one of several spooky houses and, using tools like cameras, crosses, books, thermometers, EMF readers, and Ouija boards, attempt to detect paranormal activity and suss out exactly what kind of ghost you’re dealing with. Oh, and of course, you try not to die. Unlike more linear horror games, Phasmophobia is a spooky sandbox, where different combinations of players, houses, ghosts, and tools guarantee a different outcome each time. Even in early access, it has lasting appeal for players and viewers, which is likely why it continues to gain popularity nearly a month after release.
The game derives much of its appeal from uncertainty. Ghosts are not all that hostile when games begin, which forces players to seek them out. It’s not clear where they are or even what they are; players might measure room temperatures, or lay down sound sensors and go back to the van to monitor them. Players then have to collect evidence about what kind of entity they’re dealing with. This can involve anything from gingerly setting down a book to see if a ghost writes in it to aggressively photographing the ghost itself when it appears. However, as time passes, the likelihood increases that the ghost will begin to hunt players. Lights flicker, players’ communications turn to static, and the ghost begins following and insta-killing anyone it can get its hands on. So basically, you spend much of the game getting as close as possible to the proverbial lion’s mouth, but not so close that it can bite your head off.
How you do that is up to you. One group of players might rush into the house together, shaky hands practically interlocked, brandishing an assortment of random tools, while another might split the party in a calculated fashion, with one staying back in the equipment van outside and directing the others inside the house (one of whom is wearing a camera) via a video feed. Phasmophobia also employs voice recognition software, so I’ve seen some players just yell a ghost’s name (they all have names) until... well, usually until bad things happened to them.
Within this stew of varying approaches is where things get interesting. A good Phasmophobia stream is like watching a horror movie unfold organically. The game’s particular toolbox gently guides players into recreating insanely tense scenes where you just know somebody is about to die. Perhaps players set up a camera in an area where they’re pretty certain the ghost will appear, but then, while fleeing back to the van, they realize that nobody actually turned it on. One player volunteers to creep back in near pitch-black darkness and take care of it on their own. Imagine being in a theater with 4,000 other people who all realize what’s about to happen, who are all shouting “Don’t go in there” even though they know it’s futile. That’s Twitch chat during Phasmophobia’s best moments. But Phasmophobia is not scripted, so maybe that streamer will look at chat and come to their senses. That, too, is part of the fun.
Somehow, Phasmophobia manages to offer both white-knuckle dramatic tension and top-notch slapstick humor. Part of this comes from the game’s jankiness; there is an incredible sort of comedy to a game where flickering lights cause players to jump out of their seats, but they don’t even flinch when one character clips into another, creating what appears to be a disembodied, floating human jaw. It calls to mind SB Nation creative director Jon Bois’ recent piece about survival game Rust: “There’s a wordless, deranged comedy to video games,” he wrote. “They produce sights that are so clumsy, thoughtless, and bizarre that no one alive could ever tell a joke so funny.” Phasmophobia also has a VR mode with all the hyper-natural movements and gestures that entails, so the horror-comedy uncanny valley is deep indeed.
But the comedy also comes from another, much more human place: miscommunication. While Phasmophobia may not look it, it has a lot in common with Twitch’s most prominent flavor of the past couple months, Among Us. Both are infinitely reconfigurable sets of perfect storms for arguments. Both focus on unseen killers and the paranoia such scenarios generate. Both are ideal pandemic games, the sort that lead to such boisterous laughter that, for a moment, you might even forget that you’re not all in the same room (or terrifying murder house, as it were). Contrary to popular belief, the new Twitch meta is not “party games,” exactly. Instead, it’s accessible games that facilitate loud, comedic arguments between big personalities. As Twitch transitions from being a platform rooted in esports and skill to something that is, first and foremost, personality driven (even if that means some streamers aren’t also world-class video game players), this makes for a natural evolution.
Phasmophobia causes players to scream at each other just as much as at what’s happening on screen by giving them multiple unreliable sources of information. One player with a thermometer might detect an exceptionally cold room, which suggests that a ghost is nearby, but another might find a sink spewing dirty water—another, different clue. Before long, they’re arguing, only for something otherworldly to begin stirring in the darkness. Then they’re arguing more loudly while running for their lives. Hasan Piker and Esfand’s stream from last Friday is basically an extended example of that dynamic:
Then there is what I consider to be the platonic ideal of a Phasmophobia clip: Lord Kebun successfully taking a very good picture of a ghost while his friend runs around, flails, screams, and dies. Somehow, it combines tension, drama, a multi-act structure, betrayal, jankiness, and countless punchlines, all within the span of 38 seconds. It is a masterpiece.
Phasmophobia is not always like this. I would even go so far as to say that it’s not like this most of the time. Like any good work of horror media, it knows that the build up is the most important part—that you’ve got to prime the mind before you can scare the shit out of the body. Sometimes it errs too far in that direction, resulting in long stretches of nothing, or just straight up glitches out. But when the game pops off, it really pops off. It is a truly impressive glimpse at horror’s future that I will never play more than absolutely necessary because I am a giant baby.