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Phasmophobia is making its own ghost folkore

Phasmophobia is currently one of gaming’s indie darlings. It launched in early access in late September, and as of this writing, I have given it over 67 hours of play time. It’s in my top 5, behind Tapletop Simulator and Fallout 4. How the hell did that happen?

It nails horror perfectly:

  • There is an unknowable threat
  • The player is isolated and powerless
  • The game doesn’t intrude on your immersion

Sure, it’s got typical early access limitations, but when you’re cowering behind the vanity of the upstairs bathroom in a suburban home, you won’t give a damn that it’s probably the same sink that Synaesthezia installed in her last House Flipper run.

Anyway, I’m not writing a review. Just go watch this one and then buy the game. I want to make some observations about how the Phasmophobia community has unintentionally captured the geist of ghost hunting.

Phasmophobia is very light on documentation. My biggest complaint about the game is the tutorial: it tells you to use equipment in the ghost’s favourite room without telling you how to use the equipment, or how to find the ghost’s favourite room. I assume that this is partially due to the fact that Kinetic Games is (or was) a one-man show, but on reflection, I think this paucity of concrete knowledge mirrors the ghost hunting experience.

As a simulator, Phasmo is spot on: it offers the same equipment that a “real life” ghost hunter might use: an EMF reader, a radio “Spirit Box”, night vision video cameras. All of it is quite janky, but as this article in the Atlantic points out:

All of this technology—both the custom and the repurposed—works along more or less the same principle: generating a lot of static and random effects, hoping to capture random noise and other ephemera… For the believer, this is where ghosts live: in static, in glitches and in blurs.

The Broken Technology of Ghost Hunting

Where documentation is lacking, the Internet leaps to fill the void. There are many articles explaining how to play the game, use the equipment, track ghosts and survive their deadly hunts. While the general shape of the game is agreed upon, there are disagreements on what might be vital details.

For example, do footprints count as fingerprint evidence? No. Experienced players and most authoritative guides will tell you they aren’t, but that doesn’t stop many players asking the same question. Feeding into this is this fantastic melange of ambiguity:

  • It’s possible to hear the ghost walking around you (better to call these footfalls).
  • A ghost might leave the impression of its foot in a salt pile
  • After stepping in salt, the UV torch might make footprints visible
  • Fingerprints and handprints highlighted by the UV torch count for the fingerprint evidence type

Misconceptions like this pervade the Phasmophobia community, and while it’s possible to reverse engineer the game executable and its data files for definitive clarity, we all participate in giving the game its own word-of-mouth folklore. By distilling down the essence of ghost lore the game is on the verge of starting its own urban legends.

I’ve spent a lot of money on video games this lockdown. A month after picking up this $15 gem, I’m still spending at least an hour each day investigating the same seven maps, identifying the same twelve ghosts. Ambiguity and inaccuracy are woven into the very fabric of Phasmophobia, and that makes for one of the greatest horror games.

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