The games are heavily focused around exploration; after a short 5-10 minute introduction sequence, your character has the run of the entire ship, and a large part of success in the game involves learning the location of weapons and key resource stockpiles, as well as learning which areas of the ship are most heavily infested and should be avoided.
One key feature of all the games is that the plot is randomly generated on each new playthrough; each game has about 3 entirely different story paths, and character dialogue and behavior is randomly chosen from several different possibilities. Certain areas that could be accessed in one playthrough may be locked down in another playthrough because the character that you needed to open them for you is not alive in that playthrough.
The first game in the series, Ghostship Aftermath, was released in 2014. Originally conceived as a VR title, the game has a rather unconventional HUD seen from the inside of a spacesuit helmet, with pop-up windows and weapons being aimed with a free-floating crosshair. The game also has Survival Horror Resources Management Gameplay elements as ammo is somewhat limited and you only have 98 minutes of air in your spacesuit (though this can be refilled repeatedly in one particular location on the ship) and 60 minutes of battery time in your flashlight (which cannot be refilled). The game also deletes your save file whenever you die, forcing you to start a new playthrough.
The second game in the series, CDF Ghostship, released in 2015, was an Actionized Sequel, ditching the first game's spacesuit helmet HUD for a more conventional first person shooter HUD, including the ability to aim down sights with weapons. The game also does away with the limited oxygen and flashlight battery, and allows you to reload from your last autosave after dying, instead of forcing you to replay the entire game. Story-wise, the game is a Prequel taking place before the events of the first game, as a result there are more survivors still alive on the ship that you can interact with, and throughout the story you can cause events the consequences of which you saw in the first game.
The third game in the series, Ghostship Chronicles, was scheduled for a 2019 release before being pushed back, finally being released in November 2020. It features an entirely new engine with completely overhauled gameplay and presentation. The game takes place on a new ghost ship, the CDF Heckel & Thomas, which has also been infested by the same zombie-creating alien infestation that befell the Goliath. The player and 3 A.I.-controlled teammates comprise a CDF spec ops team sent to investigate the missing ship, and must explore the ship to discover what happened to it. It is somewhat more linear than the previous 2 games, with more maze-like levels and a fixed, non-random plot. The game is divided into 6 chapters, with multiple endings based on factors such as how many of your squad mates survive the journey.
The series provides examples of:
- AI Is A Crap Shoot: ASMI, the ship's onboard computer, seems to be heavily influenced by such luminaries of human-computer relationships as GlaDOS and SHODAN. While she often serves as your Mission Control, she has quite a few "off" moments that make you wonder whether or not you can really trust her. She doesn't do anything overtly hostile in the first game, though one path in the second game shows she's genuinely a manipulative villain. She also betrays you in the ending of the third game, and it isn't even the same ASMI unit either.
- Anti-Frustration Features: In the first game, a submachine gun was added to one of the first corridors you travel through, as the basic pistol you originally were limited to in the beginning of the game was completely ineffectual against the enemies that you had to fight before getting decent weapons.
- Artificial Stupidity:
- The enemy A.I. of every enemy type is pretty much limited to charging at you in a straight line and ramming into you until you die.
- Hostile survivors in the second game are basically turrets; they just stand in one spot and shoot at you if you come into their line of sight.
- Big Creepy-Crawlies: The aliens are giant insects.
- Bizarre Alien Biology: Medical logs on the medical deck note that the aliens have no internal organs or brain, only bones, an exoskeleton, and a gooey slime filling.
- Boom, Headshot!: Several of the tougher humanoid mutants can only be damaged by shooting them in the head. It still takes several shots to kill them.
- Couldn't Find a Pen: Messages written in blood by the crew are found all over the ship; they often give you hints as to the location of useful items or the solution to various puzzles. One such message reveals that the writer wasn't writing with their own blood, but rather using a severed limb they found lying around, which at least makes a lot more sense.
- "Everyone Dies" Ending: In one potential story path in the second game, as soon as you meet her ASMI will task you with killing off all surviving crew members, who she claims are infected. The first several kills are unavoidable as they'll attack you on sight, but towards the end you're given the option of siding with either ASMI or another survivor. Continuing to follow ASMI's order will result in you killing off the rest of the crew, and at the end it's heavily implied she pulls a You Have Outlived Your Usefulness on you.
- Gang Up on the Human: In the second game, aliens and hostile survivors won't fight each other because they were never programmed to interact with each other.
- The Ghost: In the first game, in some playthroughs your Mission Control will periodically inform you that another human is running around the ship messing with the ship's systems. However, you never ever actually encounter this person face-to-face, and the game never confirms exactly who it is.
- Ghost Ship: Naturally. In the first game you're part of a 2-man investigation team sent in to figure out why communication with the ship was lost. By the time you get there, it looks like everyone is already dead. The second game takes place some time before the first game, as a result there are still a few human survivors scattered around the ship, though the place has still pretty much gone to hell already.
- Glass Cannon: Hostile survivors in the second game can't take much damage, but are armed with assault rifles and can cut you to shreds pretty quickly.
- Hand Cannon: The second game has an advanced laser pistol and advanced plasma pistol that are considerably more powerful than the regular pistols. Both can kill zombies in one shot and basic aliens in just 2-3 shots, but the laser pistol can only fire 16 shots before needing to be recharged, and the plasma pistol's ammo is very hard to find.
- Implacable Man/Invincible Minor Minion: The first game has Trooper Brian, a mutated crew member locked in a barricaded-off section of the ship's brig. A very prominent message written in blood warns you not to disturb him. If you do smash down the barricade and go to him, he'll break out of his cell soon afterward and start wandering the ship. He's completely invincible and cannot be killed, and will pop up every once in a while and pursue you for the rest of the game. ASMI will warn you whenever he enters the same area of the ship that you're in. There's no reason to let him out other than the achievement you get for beating the game with him active.
- Kinetic Weapons Are Just Better: The game has two weapon types, laser and plasma. Laser weapons recharge their battery over time, but do relatively low damage and are generally only useful against slower moving zombies. Plasma weapons fire ballistic projectiles and deal better damage, but need to be reloaded with ammo clips.
- Let's Play: The first game had featured playthroughs by Yahtzee Croshaw, Jim Sterling, and Giant Bomb, all of which took it as hilariously bad.
- Men Are the Expendable Gender: Corporal Lannings, your squad's sole female member in Ghostship Chronicles, is the one squad member whose survival most affects the game's ending, as she's your squad's comms expert and thus the only one who can send out a distress call that has a chance of getting past ASMI's broadcast jamming.
- Mission Control: ASMI, the ship's A.I., serves this role in most playthroughs. In some playthroughs of the first game, ASMI has been destroyed and the player receives mission suggestions from their partner, Riggs, instead.
- Multiple Endings: Each game has 4 different endings, based on 3 different story paths that are randomly determined near the beginning of each playthrough.
- In the first game, there's 1 main ASMI story path, 1 main Riggs (your partner) story path, and an alternative ASMI story path known as The Fluffy White Rabbit which is more of a non-linear scavenger hunt for a single item rather than a series of mission objectives. The Riggs story path also has an alternate ending in which you escape much quicker than you usually do because a door that's normally locked to force you to stay on the ship ends up opening instead.
- The second game has 1 story path in which ASMI asks you to repair the ship (which ends with you escaping with Brown and Yasov), 1 in which she asks you to kill the "infected" surviving crew members (which ends with you escaping with Brown and Gibbons), and 1 story path in which you meet up with Captain Frank instead and explore the Icarus Space Station instead of the Goliath. The two ASMI story paths also have an alternate ending where you side with ASMI instead of the survivors, which is also much faster than going for the survivor endings.
- Obvious Beta: The games were all made by a single programmer, who was largely self-taught and learning the Unreal engine on-the-fly while making the first game. As a result they're all incredibly janky.
- The first game has extremely limited graphics options (including only 2 available resolutions, 720p and 1080p) as well as the complete inability to rebind keys.
- The tactics of the enemy aliens largely consist of jumping into your hitbox and bouncing around half-clipping inside you until you die.
- The scripting of several missions is unclear, and it's often impossible to tell whether you're doing something wrong or the game is just broken.
- If you change maps while hold a laser weapon, its battery stops recharging until you fire it. If its battery is at 0 when this happens, it effectively becomes useless.
- One Bullet Clips: Averted. Reloading causes you to discard all the bullets remaining in your weapon.
- Resources Management Gameplay: In the first game, you have 98 minutes of oxygen and 60 minutes of flashlight battery. Oxygen can be refilled in one particular location on the ship, but once you use up your flashlight it's gone for good. Downplayed with ammo and health, because items respawn whenever you revisit an area. Gameplay is more focused on exploring and discovering where ammo and health stockpiles are rather than conserving the ammo and health you have on you.
- Schmuck Bait: There are a number of locked down areas of the ship that contain nothing useful and are filled with tons of powerful enemies. Opening these areas will release said enemies, causing them to start appearing throughout the ship. Messages written in blood will usually warn you about these areas, such as "if it's locked it's locked for a reason".
- Shotguns Are Just Better: The plasma shotgun kills most enemies in one shot, and is the ideal weapon for dealing with enemies at close range. The second game adds an advanced shotgun with a much larger clip size.
- Wide-Open Sandbox: One of the main features of the games is that you have the run of almost the entire ship from nearly the very beginning of the game. Though exploring certain areas without getting a decent weapons loadout first is a good way to get moshed to death by giant bugs.
- You Can't Thwart Stage One: Averted in the first game's "Riggs - Quick Exit" ending. Near the beginning of the Riggs storyline, after reading the Chief Medical Officer's log, Riggs will decide Screw This, I'm Outta Here and tell you to get back to the shuttle. Normally, the airlock door to the shuttle is mysteriously locked and you have to stay on the ship and do various errands to find another means of escape. However, there's a random chance the door works fine and you can escape the ship right then and there.