The Chaos and Complexity of Cooperative Horror

When you think of horror games, the first thing that comes to mind is isolation. Classics such as Silent Hill and Resident Evil often pit the protagonists against the monsters themselves. Sure, there might be a supporting cast, but the moment-to-moment gameplay typically left the players to fend for themselves.

It’s natural to isolate the player when designing a horror game. Being alone is one of the oldest fears of humanity. The only thing worse than imminent danger is knowing that nobody can save you from it. However, cooperative horror games like Phasmophobia, Dead by Daylight, and Lethal Company have proven that scares are still possible with friends by your side. 

Every horror fan believes they could do a much better job surviving than all those dumb teens in slashers. The irony of cooperative horror comes from the realization that the dumb teens were inside them all along. 

The Psychology of Group Horror

So, how come being in a group is still scary? You would think that having friends over voice chat would somewhat reduce the horror, but more often than not, it just heightens it. This isn’t because of the group being large in itself, but the calculated subtraction of it.

The fear of isolation is still in full effect for cooperative horror, but it takes on a different form. Whereas in single-player, you’re already fighting for your life all alone, cooperative horror turns that instant terror into a creeping dread.

Like a lot of movies, cooperative horror games start with an ensemble cast. Slowly but surely, the cast gets knocked off one by one. With every dead ally found, the realization that you’ll be alone soon becomes overwhelming. 

Even worse, you see evidence of how badly the others have fared. These weren’t scripted deaths like in a single-player narrative. These were real players who “died” despite being aware of the fact that they were in a horror scenario.

Cooperative horror is fully aware of the tropes and, in the case of more comedic titles like Lethal Company, even makes light of them. Ultimately, however, there’s a reason why those tropes exist in horror. It’s because they work, and the pile of player corpses is a testament to that.  

Teamwork Makes the (Bad) Dream Work

One of the trickiest parts of cooperative horror is building a framing device that justifies cooperation. Sure, running away from a monster is motivation enough, but there needs to be “meat” for the players to do in-between that. Otherwise, it’s just glorified hide-and-seek.

Perhaps that’s why, inevitably, a lot of cooperative horror games follow the same-ish formula. A ragtag group of players must complete a series of mundane tasks to achieve their goal. In Phasmophobia, it’s exorcising the ghost. For Lethal Company, it’s meeting the scrap quota. In Dead By Daylight, it’s to survive another day in horror hell. Even action-oriented games such as Left 4 Dead had objectives like “fill the car with gas” or “get a six-pack of cola from the convenience store.”

Fixing generators, gathering data, and checking stuff off a grocery list is busy work. In a vacuum, these mechanics are boring, but that’s ironically what makes them so effective in a horror setting. It’s the same reason why people dread group projects in school. You would think these tasks are simple, but in a group dynamic, they suddenly get way more complicated than they should be.

On top of the stress of wrangling a team toward a common goal, there’s also the looming threat of a violent supernatural entity coming to kill you all. In that scenario, boring tasks become a fight for survival. People are already prone to mistakes without an eldritch horror nipping at their heels. It’s easy to see why a simple QTE or puzzle becomes ten times harder when the punishment is a certain death. 

The Horror and Hilarity of Multiplayer

That said, I’m not going to pretend cooperative horror is a non-stop scare-fest. More often than not, games quickly turn into a campy horror comedy. Just look at how many Twitch highlights there are of Lethal Company or the endless cascade of Lets players messing up basic tasks in Phasmophobia

It’s a delicate balancing act, keeping people scared just enough to be peeing their pants but not so much they get desensitized. Dry pants are not a good sign when playing horror games. It’s even worse with cooperative horror games because of all the shenanigans. Humans have a natural tendency to shield themselves from horrors by focusing on something that’s not quite as horrific.

He got that CAKE 😳 : r/PhasmophobiaGame

In this case, seeing a friend freaking out from a ghost that only they can hear is funny. Even funnier when you’re the one who locked them in there in the first place. Yes, the ghost will most definitely murder them and eventually you in the most horrifying way imaginable. But at that moment, it’s hilarious seeing your friend do rapid 360-degree spins trying to escape the room, all while you laugh from the safety of a closed van.

Closing Thoughts

I love horror games, but I was never the biggest fan of multiplayer games. That’s entirely my fault for sucking at 95% of them. Ironically, that’s why I love playing cooperative horror games so much. Unlike competitive games, cooperative horror plays well with inexperience. 

I love learning the quirks of ghosts in Phasmophobia, finding the most efficient routes in Lethal Company, and allegedly whining on Reddit about The Nurse in Dead by Daylight. Cooperative horror is a recurring nightmare that I love to experience over and over again. 

When I’m winning, I feel like Sydney in Scream, finally competent enough to fight back. When I’m losing, I feel like Randy in Scream 2, forgetting everything I’ve learned and meeting an unceremonious end in the middle of the story. Either way, it’s an authentic horror experience.



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