Phasmophobia, the best co-op game of 2020, is celebrating its first anniversary. Ghost hunters can wear ugly party hats, and the garage that serves as a base is now filled with balloons and awful techno music. Both the balloons and the party hats appear to be made out of sheet metal, and entering the garage you might find yourself stuck in a crouching position. It's still very wonky, looks like shit, and I'm besotted with it.
Despite its popularity within the warrens of PC Gamer, I held off on picking it up last year because, firstly, I am not a brave man, but also because I've already spent too much of my life playing rough, janky games. Sometimes a boy just wants some polish, you know? What a fool I was.
Rachel was spot-on when she said, last year, that Phasmophobia's slapstick jankiness makes the horror all the more palatable. The accidental silliness of these ghost-hunting misadventures turns something gloomy into side-splitting comedy. Sneaking through the seemingly endless corridors of a dark asylum is genuinely nerve-wracking, until you notice that your mate walking in front of you seems to be in the middle of a Limbo competition. And the death of a teammate is harrowing stuff, right up until you spot their corpse, hilariously contorted on top of a toilet. It's how they would have wanted to go out.
It's not just weird animations or bugs inspiring fits of laughter, either. Every level is filled to the brim with cheap assets, constantly recycled, so every bedroom in a suburban home will have a hideous toy rabbit, and you'll keep coming across brilliantly generic (and weirdly large) magazines that make PC Gamer's worst covers look like art. And we've had some bad covers.
This is particularly noticeable in the abandoned high school, where nearly every classroom appears to be set up, albeit sparsely, for a geography class. These ghost kids might be shit at maths, but they could probably accurately point to every country on a map blindfolded. The maps also appear quite a lot in the asylum, suggesting that this is a world where nothing is more important than map-reading skills.
All of these quirks are likely down to the size of both the budget and team, and the fact that it's still in the middle of development, but they also elevate a game that, otherwise, doesn't have much in the way of an identifiable aesthetic or tone. The low quality animations and assets, together with the fact that none of the buildings really look like real, logical places, create this disorientating, liminal vibe. I think Purgatory probably looks a lot like Phasmophobia.
The ghosts themselves are key to this. There are a lot of them, with a lot of different patterns, so when you hop out of your van you're immediately in experiment mode, throwing things against the wall to see what sticks. I spent one mission filling a house with salt in the hopes of finding a spectral footprint. In another mission, after being told that ghosts don't like swearing, I told our spooky friend to pleasure my nethers, resulting in both myself and another ghost hunter meeting an untimely end in the space of a minute.
Subsequent attempts to tease out a ghost with my foul mouth have yielded mixed results. Summarising the plot of Sex and the City 2 has proven just as effective. Apparently you can also scare the ghost off by enthusiastically rapping.
Crucially, I've refused to look up any tips about the best ways to find ghosts, as that would ruin the ambiguity that has made Phasmophobia such a trip. Going in blind and only learning from the people I've been playing with—who largely seem to be just as clueless—has kept the mystery alive (unlike me, who typically ends an investigation as another ghost). Not that I'm suggesting you should never look at our many guides—after all, my non-existent children need to eat.
What's so impressive about all of this is that Phasmophobia still manages to be utterly terrifying. I mean, holy shit, this game has given me chest pains. Yes, I should probably see a doctor about that, but they'll only tell me to stop eating burgers and playing pants-wetting horror games. I will never stop.
There are these long, extended periods where you'll basically be doing nothing. Just aimlessly walking around hoping your EMF reader will pop off, or you'll find a spot that's very cold. It's true to the TV shows where con artists have to gussy up their exploration of dull, empty buildings by playing up to the cameras, because there's nothing to actually be afraid of. Except in Phasmophobia the ghosts are real and can kill you. This is why the ghosts' ability to listen to your conversations is such a powerful trick. What do you do when you're bored and with your mates? You have a blether. You shoot the shit. But all the time, the ghost is listening, and tracking you via your mic. You're not alone. The house isn't empty. This is all a trap.
My last trip to the asylum really pushed me to the edge. It's a very long building, and every corridor is so similar that you're bound to get lost. Foolishly, I decided to explore one end of it alone. We'd been in there for the better part of a half hour and found nothing, but while the rest of my team was planning on packing it in, I still wanted to see a damn ghost. I came up with a plan. OK, "plan" is probably overselling it.
I took a deep breath and unleashed a barrage of insults, my best ones, the insults that I'd rather not publish here in case this is one of the rare articles that my mum reads. It did not like that. It did not like that one bit. The lights flickered, the whispers started, and everywhere I looked there were just more empty corridors. I didn't know if I was running in circles or everything just looked the same. Where the fuck was the exit? Only minutes before, I had been a big, brave boy, but here I was, spinning around and shitting myself. I no longer wanted to find a ghost. I just wanted to escape this infinite corridor. All those dumb rooms with random maps that I'd laughed at before became cavernous voids that I just knew hid a spectre waiting to jump out and choke me to death. It sucked.
Thanks to my teammates, I made it out alive. From the van, they were able to guide me to the exit, and I never did get to see the ghost. It was probably the worst mission I've played. We found no evidence and spent ages just walking up and down an empty, nearly featureless building. But it was all worth it for that minute of intense fear.
I find myself in the unusual position of hoping that Phasmophobia doesn't get much more polished. Give me more ghosts, toys and spooky locations, sure, but let's keep those rough edges. Even the atrocious shadows and lighting deserve to survive future updates. It wouldn't be the game I've come to love if any of these things looked right. I've grown to appreciate seeing disembodied hands holding crucifixes, or whatever the heck is going on to make beams of light look like you're on a mushroom trip. These are the things that make Phasmophobia so surreal, suggesting that not everything is as it seems.
Unfortunately, I might be out of luck. Phasmophobia's massively successful launch surprised solo developer Dknighter, inspiring them to plan a longer Early Access phase. "[D]ue to the game's popularity, everyone's expectations are increased," Dknighter explained, "so I am going to have to reconsider my plans for the game’s future."
Since then, the team has been expanded, which is great, but also makes me think that some of the best bits won't be long for this world. It would be a terrible shame if its popularity and player expectations gutted Phasmophobia of what makes it magic, but for the time being it's a wonderfully messy, uniquely weird experience. I love it.