Screenshot: Phasmophobia

What is a screenshot? I could talk about technical definitions, like the one above, or I could take a more ‘fun’ route which may lead to a discussion of how I don’t believe in ghosts but Phasmophobia scared the crap out of me. It’s a Friday, and I believe in fun…

screenshot: an image of the data displayed on the screen of a computer or mobile device.

For me, the data displayed on a monitor or TV when playing a game goes beyond mere pixels. A screenshot reflects the capturing of a moment in time. It turns something dynamic into something static. It’s a sort of flattening of data. And yet, screenshots have allowed me to document many gaming moments full of characters, exploration, and thrills. Admittedly, I am an obsessive screenshotter. I like to document ALL THE THINGS. From in-game maps to a thunderstorm developing on the horizon in Red Dead Redemption 2, I capture everything of interest. I probably have thousands of screenshots across my consoles and gaming PC, which is kind of a shame considering I do so little with them. And that brings me to the purpose of this post. I sat at work this morning fixing glue dots to cloth liners and thought about how I miss writing about games. Graduate school (and school in general) has dominated so much of my life and sometimes that results in my putting the smaller things aside. It can be difficult to justify setting aside an hour–even half an hour–to writing about a video game (or whatever the task may be), but I still have games and game-adjacent topics I’d like to write about. These posts (which will probably be infrequent *shakes fist at dissertation) may serve as a kind of journal, part sharing and part reflection on my gaming experiences. If anyone else finds them of interest, fantastic! And if not, I’ll gain some satisfaction through the process of writing something that doesn’t require reading a stack of books and a dozen citations.

Phasmophobia, an indie game developed and published by Kinetic Games, launched on September 18, 2020. Due to how closely I monitor Twitch, I soon became aware of the game and thought it might be interesting to play with friends. Eventually, I mentioned the game to my good friend over at A New Game Plus (please check out his blog; it’s a delight) and we dove into the ghost hunting horror that has now taken 92.5 hours of my life.

The game’s premise is a simple one–team up with friends or play solo to identify the ghost/spirit haunting a given location. Locations consists of a variety of houses, an old high school, an asylum, and a prison. Every game begins with the selection of a contract and equipment (such as cameras, flashlights, motion detectors, and EMF readers) to assist you in collecting evidence that will identify the ghost/spirit type. From there, you load into a truck where a series of objectives are written on a white board and enter the haunted area. Sounds simple, doesn’t it?

Phasmophobia‘s game loop is predictable (enter a building, search for signs of paranormal activity, set up tools that capture evidence, fill out your journal, identify the ghost, return to the truck and call it a day), but what happens in each individual game varies. Add in fellow players with varying play styles and the experience becomes even more unpredictable. For example, when we first started playing, it wasn’t uncommon for one of us to die simply because we didn’t yet understand how the ghosts behave and what we were looking for. Even 50+ hours in, we were still learning the subtleties of ghost behavior and how to properly use our equipment. Maybe that says something about our occasional lack of focus, but it’s great fun to mess around in Phasmophobia. We have even invented games within the game such as entering a house and piling into one room where we taunt the ghost via the spirit box until it kills us one by one.

This ghost taunted us from the edge of the classroom.

When I first started playing this game, I wasn’t sure how long it would hold my attention. Wouldn’t the gameplay get old? Phasmophobia is strengthened by eerie environments, ambient sounds, co-op mayhem, and frequent updates. Initially when playing, I was scared. All the time. The smallest of things like a child’s toy bear sitting in a chair or the sudden shift in temperature freaked me out. Add in ghosts hissing in your ear and spirits crawling down the stairs on all fours and you get a screaming Tab. Eventually those early fears waned, and I became a more confident ghost hunter. I developed a methodical approach, using particular tools to quickly suss out the ghost’s main room. Freezing temps? Perfect. Throw down a video camera in the corner and whip out the EMF reader. Why do you have to make it so easy, ghost-man with an axe? On occasion I do miss the chaos, fear, and hesitation in those early hours of the game, but we still find ways to keep the game interesting and, more importantly, we want to find ways to keep the game entertaining. Recently, my friend and I have been spending more time mastering the larger maps–I’ve even grown to like the high school and prison maps.

I watched in horror as this child ghost went for my friend.

Beyond spooky thrills, Phasmophobia has also reminded me of the joys of PC gaming, especially with friends. I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve played PC games with others on a consistent basis that was highly enjoyable (the Internet is often a harmful mess, which has dissuaded me from playing online as much as I’d like). And that’s what the featured screenshot at the start of this post captured for me: playing a game I have thoroughly enjoyed with some friends. If getting some quality game-time in with friends means crouching in a closet with a Ouija board while an angry Demon is hunting through the house, I’m prepared for it.

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