Utmost Spookiest Games: P.T.
The late months of 2014 have actually been pretty good for new horror releases, with the release schedule managing to count Alien Isolation, The Evil Within, Five Nights at Freddy’s (both 1 and 2), etc. But one release stands out in particular as something that took everyone by complete surprise, and that is PS4 downloadable game P.T. Although it’s release was marked with little indication as to it’s true nature, by now most gamers have come to know that it is actually a sort of “proof of concept” vehicle for a new Silent Hill game being developed by Kojima Productions with creative collaboration from Guillermo del Toro. The letters P.T. stand for “playable teaser.” This comes across as odd to me since we’ve had “playable teasers” in the form of demos for longer than we’ve actually had internet video trailers for games. I guess it’s title is the result of Hideo Kojima having a flair for theatrical new conceptual terminology (see transfarring). In addition, the end of P.T. reveals that this new Silent Hill will be called Silent Hills, so I imagine he now also has another new personality quirk in the form of an addiction to superfluous pluralization after MGSV: Ground Zeroes.
P.T. is a haunted house experience. I’m going to try to refrain from mentioning late-game specifics and speak in only generalities, as I abhor spoiling games that I’m recommending. From a first person view, you find yourself waking up in a dark, empty, concrete room. A lone door stands before you, and as you pass through it, you find yourself in a well light hallway of a common American house. You pass a radio alarm clock in the hallway which appears perpetually stuck at one minute before midnight. A grim news report about a recent murder plays on the radio. The house appears abandoned, but empty bottles and trash lay upon the floor indicating that at some point the residence was occupied by vagrants who eventually decided to vacate. The hall makes a 90° turn at the corner of the house and you travel through the foyer. You check the front door, but its locked. You continue onward and reach a door at the end of the hall which is open. You pass through only to find yourself coming out of the door at the other end of the hall at which you started.
This forms the first “loop” in P.T., as pretty much the entire game takes place along this stretch of hallway. You continually loop from the final door to the first door, but the catch being that with each iteration the house becomes increasingly surreal and demented. Disturbing supernatural events play out before you, and you have no choice but to continue on through the recursion. Eventually you reach a point where you must solve a cryptic puzzle in each loop to progress to the next stage of events.
I stated in the first post of this series that the reason for this undertaking was to compel me to finish games in my backlog, but it has actually become more about me trying to explore ideas I’ve had for a while about horror games. Namely that the Resident Evil archetype people use to judge the “scare factor” of a horror game is actually a very poor way of analyzing such games. I’ve found that a lot of hardcore horror gamers get stuck up on requiring a game to have tension via limited ammo, limited save ability, restrictive combat, restrictive camera viewpoints, etc. before they consider it to be a good horror game. As I discussed with Fatal Frame and The Last Door, I don’t consider these things very important, rather I place a particular emphasis on atmosphere and bewilderment. I find that expecting limited ammo to provide for a scary experience is equivalent to horror movie directors who lean heavily on the use of profuse gore and desecration of the human body to produce scares, because they have no understanding of how to create true atmosphere and suspense.
P.T. is an excellent example of my philosophy. There is no combat in P.T., and there is no real danger either. It is possible to be, in a fashion, “attacked” in this game, but it results in merely a minor setback. Regardless of the lack of threat to player progress, P.T. is still an excellently gripping experience which manages to feel very threatening. The progressively unsettlingly nature of the hallway was joyfully terrorizing to me. A key element of creating good atmosphere is striking deep into a player’s imagination, which is achieved, and expertly so, by P.T. through a display of the creator’s own imagination to pique the player’s curiosity with images, ideas, and experiences that are fascinatingly unexpected and off-balancing in their uniqueness.
I think part of the reason some people cling so strongly to the old-fashioned survival horror tropes of limited ammo and clunky controls is because they provide a relatively easy to fall back on, objective, and semi-quantitative criteria for evaluating the “horror” that a game possesses. The reality is that horror (like humor) is something that is naturally qualitative and to a fair degree subjective which leaves arguments about the relative scariness of a game to become more muddled, arbitrary, and less decisive. It is not possible to merely say, “A game has X and Y aspects and therefore it is scary!” Even, of course, my arguments about atmosphere being key are somewhat tied to this fallacy, as the feel of atmosphere is incredibly subjective. The best we can ever really do when trying to explain why a game is scary is to point to specific aspects of a game and try to explain why they had such an impact on us personally. I do believe, though, that the old-fashioned ideas about horror games are quickly dying, as the burgeoning indie gaming sphere has become the prime curators of this genre. As indie developers are often less compelled to color within the lines, we are seeing a number of horror games such as Outlast, Amnesia, Five Nights at Freddy’s, and Home which are eschewing the mold that was established all the way back on the PSX with Resident Evil and Silent Hill.
Back on the topic of P.T., I was actually somewhat surprised to find out that it is merely a sort of “proof-of-concept” for a new Silent Hill game, as it will not appear as a level in the final Silent Hill game. As a proof, it works mostly to show the competency of the developers at creating an exciting piece of horror. This is a bit important taken in the light of the post-Team Silent games which have mostly not been of especially high quality. P.T. also portends radical changes for the structure of Silent Hill with it’s first person viewpoint and focus on combat-free exploration and puzzle solving. I don’t know if these aspects will be preserved in the final game or not, but it leaves me conflicted. On the one hand, I think its good to shake things up for a series when they become stale and weary (and Silent Hill definitely falls into this category). On the other hand, I think its fairly important for a series to maintain a unique identity. I realize this may appear to be a bit of cognitive dissonance considering I’ve railed against the standard survival horror structure in this post. But its not that I hate old-fashioned survival horror games like Silent Hill 2, its just that I don’t think they should be the exclusive path horror games should follow. Nonetheless, I think exciting things are very much lingering in the future of Silent Hills and the genre as a whole.