Game Design

playing phasmophobia with friends: a ghost game about shared scares

Despite being in early access, the indie VR/PC psychological horror game Phasmophobia (Kinetic Games) has become the it-game of the 2020 Halloween season.  The 4-player co-op psychological horror game has you tracking down and identifying ghosts like a modern-day Scooby-Doo and company, with all the energy of “those meddling kids”.

In the first two weeks of October 2020, Phasmophobia was the 11th most-watched game on Twitch, the highest ranking in the horror genre.

While Dead by Daylight uses isolation to cause fear in players, and slasher games pit players against each other, Phasmophobia is all about being scared together.  It’s this different, no less effective technique, that makes Phasmophobia deliciously fun to play with friends.

In this post, I want to write about how Phasmophobia incorporates being scared together into its game design, making a genuinely scary and fun experience out of little more than a haunted house and some pieces of ghost hunting equipment.

Why Do We Have Fun Getting Scared?

From the popularity of scary movies and haunted houses, it’s no secret that many of us enjoy being scared.  Why is this so?

When we are scared, the amygdala of the brain puts the body into the “fight or flight” state.  This involves the release of adrenaline, which redistributes the body’s resources to the parts that need it in this state, causing physical responses like a higher heart rate and dilated pupils.

What’s more, studies have shown that fear is also associated with the release of endorphins (the “runner’s high”) and dopamine, serotonin and oxytocin, which are considered “feel good” chemicals1, 2.

1. “Safe Scares” in Non-Threatening Situations

Fear is a primal evolutionary response that is vital in the face of real threats.  But in the case of a scary movie, the brain quickly realises that we are safe, and lets us enjoy the arousal response.  This is why people often scream and then laugh on roller coasters or in haunted houses.

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The idea of being safely scared transfers perfectly to Phasmophobia.  The game allows players to safely fulfill the fantasy of being a ghost hunter.  In television shows featuring these paranormal detectives, people equipped with psychic equipment (e.g. special scanners and recorders) enter haunted buildings and proceed to taunt the spirits in the hope they will make an appearance.

In Phasmophobia, being able to say things in the game, such as call out the ghost’s name, replicates the experience of real life ghost hunting, but in a safe space.  Using this haunted house format in a video game, especially a VR one, provides a similar immersive experience, with the safety net that it’s just a game.  This allows for the pleasure response of getting scared in a safe place where nothing can harm you.

2. Psychological Horror: I’ll Scare You if You Scare Me

Being a psychological horror game, the designers bank on the idea that the biggest scares happen in the players’ minds.  As a result, the game gets away with graphics that are very basic, and character movement and animations that are clunky and painfully slow.

The psychological horror aspect is intensified in a group because players who get scared make each other more scared by their reactions in the voice chat.  Just like when you’re walking around in a haunted house with a group of friends, fear in Phasmophobia can seem contagious, which works to the game’s favour.

3. Scary Situations Bring Us Closer Together

While most horror video games rely on immersion, disorientation and isolation to scare players, Phasmophobia takes another approach.  Phasmophobia celebrates the feeling of being scared together, as a team.

Unlike the purposeful lack of chat systems in Dead by Daylight, communication in Phasmophobia is a must.  In fact, the game relies on voice chat and sound for some of its best scares.

This is particularly effective for a video game because fear can be a bonding experience.  Going through intense situations together builds stronger relationships and memories, and creates a sense of achievement and confidence for making it through.

Accordingly, Phasmophobia is designed with team gameplay in mind.  With a three item inventory limit, it forces you to coordinate with teammates and make multiple trips back to the van for the necessary supplies or equipment.  A big part of the game is communicating your actions and observations to your teammates, especially on larger maps where you might decide to split up to search for the ghost’s haunting location.

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Thus, completing an assignment in Phasmophobia not only leaves you with a feeling of accomplishment, but also with a host of shared stories and experiences, which is very rewarding.  This camaraderie of being scared and being triumphant together is appealing to an audience, which additionally makes Phasmophobia a fun game to watch.

Phasmophobia’s Potential and Pain Points

Undeniably, at this stage, Phasmophobia feels limited in gameplay.  Each round can be boiled down to a checklist of things to test in order to narrow down the type of ghost, along with a couple of other tasks.  In essence, it’s easy to rehash the same tactics for each round.

In addition, there are some struggle points in the game.  Walking back and forth from the van is tedious, especially on larger maps when the ghost’s room is far away.  It seems like the wrong kind of drudgery to up the difficulty of bigger maps rather than more interesting ghost-detecting.

Moreover, evidence does not always show up definitively — but maybe that works because it replicates real life ghost hunting in its ambiguity.  That said, the game’s only in early access, and already has a great premise and design at its core.

Nevertheless, we return to Phasmophobia despite the formulaic rounds and rough-around-the-edges gameplay.  We replay Phasmophobia because we like that feeling of being scared, and the game allows us to get scared safely with our friends, from the comfort of our own homes.

With haunted attractions and theme park events being closed and cancelled due to the pandemic this year, Phasmophobia is just what we need this Halloween.

References Cited

  1. Abraham, Antony D., Kim A. Neve and K. Matthew Lattal. “Dopamine and extinction: A convergence of theory with fear and reward circuitry.” Neurobiology of Learning and Memory 108 (2014): 65-77. Web. 25 October 2020.
  2. Faure, Alexis, Sheila M. Reynolds, Jocelyn M. Richard and Kent C. Berridge. “Mesolimbic Dopamine in Desire and Dread: Enabling Motivation to Be Generated by Localized Glutamate Disruptions in Nucleus Accumbens.” Journal of Neuroscience 28(28) (2008): 7184-7192. Web. 25 October 2020.

Additional References

  1. Ringo, Allegra. “Why Do Some Brains Enjoy Fear?.” Health. The Atlantic, 31 October 2013. Web. 25 October 2020.
  2. Javanbakht, Arash and Linda Saab. “The science of fright: Why we love to be scared.” The Conversation, 26 October 2017. Web. 25 October 2020.
  3. Kerr, Margee. “Why is it fun to be frightened?.” The Conversation, 12 October 2018. Web. 25 October 2020.
  4. Dwyer, Christopher. “5 Reasons We Enjoy Being Scared.” Psychology Today, 19 October 2018. Web. 25 October 2020.
  5. Del Prado, Guia Marie. “3 psychological reasons we enjoy being scared out of our minds.” Science. Business Insider, 18 October 2016. Web. 25 October 2020.
  6. Manning-Schaffel, Vivian. “A Fondness for Fear: Why Do We Like to Be Scared?.” Better by Today. NBC News, 21 October 2017. Web. 25 October 2020.