After two years of living various experiences with GTFO, I thought I was done with surprises.
GTFO, a cooperative survival shooter from 10 Chambers Collective, is kind of an anomaly. In an industry where the accessibility of games like Left 4 Dead is increasingly popular, the Swedish-made adventure calls for caution. You never start with a full load of ammo; you will often never find enough Med Kits, Trigger Mines, or Ammo Packs to feel safe.
GTFO has no interest in making things easy. You are a prisoner, one of the four has literally fallen into a zombie infested pit as if it was a horror ride in a theme park. But even before that, GTFO is willfully and deliberately oppressive. The game literally screams at you every time you open it. Enemies are hidden in deep, thick fog that reduces visibility to a few yards. Much of the map is shrouded in complete darkness, creating cute little jump scares where you’ll crawl forward only for a sleeping enemy to slowly wake up a few inches from your position.
It’s an intensity best described as Escape from Tarkov crossed with the xenomorphic ’70s lo-fi thriller vibes of Alien: Isolation. Except that there is no real object permanence. GTFO has a story, although there are no direct cutscenes, only snippets of text logs left hidden in DOS-style terminals. Each piece you pass through is actually a mini-puzzle, merging into a larger, nested complication that repeatedly asks the same question: How are you going to survive?
GTFO has thrived on this idea since late 2019, when it launched in Early Access. The timing is odd given the growing appreciation for unapologetic difficulty, whether through indie films like Cuphead or Tarkov, or bigger budget productions like Sekiro and the upcoming STALKER sequel. And its mix of mechanics and environment is almost catnip for Steam, a platform that regularly features titles with challenging multiplayer experiences.
So, during a session with three developers from the Swedish creators of GTFO, my third session with the developers since the start of the pandemic, I was stunned when the developers introduced a new mechanic for the game’s 1.0 launch.
It is almost a betrayal: the very idea of GTFO, the one that convinced hundreds of thousands of gamers to take the plunge, was the sense of accomplishment when you finally completed a level. These levels could take an hour or more, depending on how slowly players made their way through GTFO’s lo-fi rooms.
But GTFO is now selling to a different audience. When launching a beta of R6 – or rundown 6, which is a big part of how the team and community have been keeping up with GTFO’s evolution over time – there’s a lot more information. The Open Level acts like a tutorial, a void that had been largely filled by fans and wiki pages over the past two years. The user interface has more direct prompts, even going so far as to specifically advise players on which command they should type. (Previously, you had to type HELP commands the old-fashioned way.)
The difficulty of the cards has even been split. In previous versions of GTFO, maps sometimes featured giant bulkhead doors. These would effectively unlock a more difficult way to complete the same level, usually containing tougher enemies, mini-bosses, and a bit more of everything. It’s a little different now. The main, almost “base” missions are marked in gold, while the more difficult challenges are now separate cards.
“We’re trying a new kind of concept in the way we build [the rundowns]”, explained developer Robin Björkell.” There are no alternative difficulties on the yellow [missions] – that’s what makes them a little special. All other levels have outer layers, so you can layer your own difficulty according to your own skills.
The first level isn’t a tutorial per se, but the placement and volume of enemies is low enough that most new players can complete it on the first try, if not the second or third. And coupled with the ability to effectively restart missions midway through checkpoint gates, I had to ask: Did the developers feel like they were compromising GTFO’s identity?
“There was a huge discussion if we were to include them, as it takes away the urgency or the hardcore experience of knowing if you’re dying now,” Björkell said. “We have lowered the overall difficulty of the expeditions a little; the old C-level levels are now D-level levels and the old B-level levels are now C-level levels.
“A very, very small percentage of the player base has reached level D or level E [expeditions] … We wanted more players to experience these higher insights, ”added Bjorkell. “It’s a way to make it more accessible.
Despite the success of Swedish indie over the past couple of years, GTFO’s lingering problem was that it didn’t even try to bring on new players. GTFO 1.0 try to resolve this issue, although some players will still find the tutorial level a bit too manual.
Take the opening of a door on the new level A1. It generates a giant UI prompt in red, practically shouting for the team to establish a defensive perimeter before setting off the next alarm. But that doesn’t tell you anything about How? ‘Or’ What you do that. It doesn’t mention the value of blocking previous doors with c foam, a sticky, gooey white substance that saves you crucial time.
It doesn’t advise you on turret placement, or whether turrets are just as prone to friendly fire as your teammates. There is no real advice on dealing with enemy weak points or approaches to cleaning rooms. All this, again, is to be discovered.
Nonetheless, the compartmentalized design of the new “tutorial”, which introduces much larger gaps between enemy clusters, makes it hard to get overwhelmed. If you miss a hit and one enemy wakes up, well, two or three more might follow suit. But generally everything is still manageable.
Storytelling is at the center of attention as well, although GTFO’s styling means most of the story is still delivered in the most understated manner. You will find occasional logs left on terminals throughout the levels; the first tutorial even has a surprise voiceover alluding to the director, the character supposedly responsible for sending your team on all those hellish missions. And some Expeditions will even teleport you entirely to new spaces, spaces with a design and color scheme completely foreign to the dull metal gray that most GTFO players know and love.
A ton of quality of life changes have been added for the full launch of the game. There are cosmetics now. Attributes have been added to the game’s melee weapon suite, providing more flexibility for new and veteran players. An endurance meter has been added to counter players who would simply move away from enemy waves. GTFO’s level toolset has also been improved: Levels can now be much more vertical, which is immediately evident from A1 (the first map in this recap’s rotation).
But much of the basic spirit of the game remains unchanged. If you mess up an enemy wave or handle enough combat along the way, you’ll be overwhelmed.
To this day, I’ve never really played something that has the same mix of horror, rhythm, shooter, coordination, or structure as GTFO. It is a graphic marvel; it is possibly the best looking Unity game I have played to date. The sound design, enemy models, and overall aesthetics are surprisingly capable considering the small size of the developer who created it. GTFO is the by-product of a team with a clear vision, from the high-level concept to the thoroughness of how a terminal interface looks and works.
The only missed opportunity, really, is that GTFO, for now, remains a PC-only game. It is now available exclusively through Steam for $ 39.99, although given Tencent’s investment in the Swedish studio – and GTFO’s consistently high ratings on Steam – a good console port won’t be too far on the horizon.