It’s a great time to play scary games with friends. Thanks to a resurgence of multiplayer horror from indie studios and the burgeoning Phasmophobia-like subgenre, there are a bunch of really solid offerings you and your fearless crew can put on your weekly rotation for less than the price of dinner.
Kinetic Games’ sleeper horror hit Phasmophobia was just the beginning – an absurdly strong beginning, but a beginning all the same. It arrived at a time when people were trapped at home and eager to try new things, quickly becoming a viral phenomenon and turning GR’s self-professed scaredy cat Alyssa Mercante into a bonafide fear junkie. It also showed other indie studios just how much a creative team can accomplish with a relatively small toolbox.
Phasmophobia excels at making the tiniest little micro events seem terrifying, like lights shutting off on their own or, god forbid, a door closing by itself. Even the muffling of sound as you enter a building from outside creates a palpable sense of dread. But eventually, if and when the ghost you’ve been hunting decides to turn the tables, you have exactly two options: gun it for the door or find something to hide behind. Both strategies are equally nerve-shredding; running is a breathless rush to safety and hiding is an unbearably tense wait for the sound of footsteps or the appearance of whatever horrid ghoul is stalking you.
Thinking about its success and impact on the indie horror space, I can’t help but be reminded of the 2007 found footage horror movie Paranormal Activity. Like Phasmophobia, it was made on a shoestring budget by just a few people, it wound up making a ton of money, and most relevant to this piece, it inspired a resurgence in a space rife for creativity. I’m not saying Phasmophobia is the first of its kind – Pacify comes to mind as a similar experience that launched earlier – but it did bring the format to the mainstream, indirectly producing a slew of new multiplayer horror games built on a similar foundation but with fun and unique twists.
We forewarned you
I’m a lifelong horror game junkie, starting with Clock Tower – not the SNES classic, but the criminally underrated (or maybe just bad, it’s been a while) PS1 game – and yet despite how much I love the genre, I have a really hard time getting through most of them simply due to anxiety. It’s something I’ve written at length about.
Thankfully, I have very good friends who play all of the mean, scary games with me so that I can have fun without panic attacking. The problem, until Phasmophobia entered our rotation, is we didn’t have a lot of options that really put the focus on horror, not to mention ones that are replayable and affordable enough for a group of four to play together. And that right there’s the intersection where this wonderful renaissance of multiplayer horror rests: fun for days, accessible, and scary as hell.
We played so much Phasmophobia that, like you might do when you discover a new band that slaps, we started looking for other games like it, and, well, we struck a goldmine. The first of many Phasmo-likes we played, Devour, is still one of the scariest games I’ve ever experienced. Like Phasmophobia, the debut title from Straight Back Games tasks you and up to three friends with entering a scary place and trying not to die – that’s your foremost goal, anyway. If you actually want to beat the game, you have to collect goats and sacrifice them, gradually provoking the horrific, white-eyed Anna into a full-on frenzy. Its latest update, in which you’re stalked by a giant, anthropomorphic spider, is an absolute blast. If value is measured in heart-stopping scares, Devour is an absolute steal at just $5. It’s also highly polished and visually impressive for such an underground game.
Dreambyte Games’ Forewarned is another indie gem that emerged in the last year from Phasmo’s viral wake. Again, you and your buddies are on location at the site of paranormal goings-on, and it’s up to you to sniff ’em out. But instead of a suburban house or goat farm, Forewarned takes you inside accursed Egyptian tombs to investigate the imprisoned Mejai haunting the interiors and collect ancient relics.
Identifying the vengeful spirit you’re dealing with is only the beginning of your job in Forewarned, as that just allows you to get into the inner tomb and open the main sarcophagus. After that’s the hard part, as the process of opening the exit out of the tomb and making it back to the Jeep in one piece is the hardest, and scariest part of Forewarned. Even with friends, it can be a pretty traumatic experience, especially since your dead friends can (and will) torture you in the afterlife.
The list of new multiplayer horror games isn’t at all confined to the Phasmo-like space – that’s just what I tend to gravitate toward. For the truly phasmophobic, I’d recommend checking out GTFO from 10 Chambers Collective. You still get to have your trusted comrades by your side, but instead of hunting ghosts, you’re avoiding creatures the developers explicitly say aren’t zombies or aliens, but look like some combination of the two. The key here isn’t to identify the things, but to sneak carefully around them until you reach an extraction point, at which point a horde closes in and your goal is to blast ’em to bits, Left 4 Dead style. GTFO is different enough from the aforementioned games that I wouldn’t call it a Phasmo-like at all, but there is that same immensely replayable ‘get in and get out’ formula at its core. It’s also incredibly challenging, to the point where it took me and a friend three separate nights to make it through a single run.
We ain’t afraid of no ghost
It isn’t just me and my pals gleefully picking through the indie horror catalog on Steam, ever delighted by the results. After the initial cooling effect on the tail of its viral success, Phasmophobia has largely held onto its player base, hitting 32,000 peak players in the last 30 days – that’s higher than any of its peaks between February and July 2021 when it was still fresh off its big internet moment. Devour, Forewarned, and GTFO, while not as popular as Phasmophobia, haven’t seen substantial drop offs either.
I asked the Forewarned devs what they believe is powering indie horror’s recent momentum. While the team echoed my thoughts about replayability and low price points, it did pick up on something I hadn’t thought of: “Most indie developers are committed to improving their games continuously based on community feedback,” they explained.
When you buy an indie game from a two-person studio like Dreambyte, you’re getting a farm-to-table experience; there’s no middle man. The people that made the game are the same people publishing it, marketing it, and selling it. That makes it easier for player feedback to be heard by the developers, and because the studios are still trying to build up a player base, they’re a lot more eager to listen to and implement changes based on that feedback.
The devs at Dreambyte were also quick to give credit where credit’s due. “As players ourselves, we love the aspect of experiencing horror and working together to overcome a challenge with friends. The team behind Phasmophobia certainly deserves credit in designing a game where this theme is epitomized and carving forth a genre of investigative horror. We feel there’s room for innovation in several directions that all fans of the genre can enjoy, with Forewarned being our unique take on it.”
This could run and run
It would take a full work day to cover all the great indie horror games I’ve found recently, and sadly rattling on about them isn’t the only responsibility I have in this job. I mentioned Pacify earlier, and while I’ve yet to try it out myself, its ‘Very Positive’ Steam rating speaks for itself. There’s also Midnight Ghost Hunt, a ridiculously fun and chaotic little ghostbusting sim I got to play with my bud Alyssa recently – though that one’s still in beta. Point is, there’s an ancient tomb’s worth of cheap scares to play with friends right now, so join virtual hands, light a few e-candles, and bond over some weird sacrificial shit.