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P.T. is the first REAL horror game in years, and the smartest game on PS4

A couple of days ago, I finally played P.T., the playable teaser for Hideo Kojima and Guillermo Del Toro’s in-production Silent Hills. Weirdly, I’d had a nightmare about playing it a few days earlier. Blame the post-Gamescom sleep-drought, blame everyone I know telling me it was beyond scary. But whatever the reason, I’d had a really stern, really screwed-up dream about my subconscious’ imagined version of the game. It lingered for a while, as these things do, via that heavy cloud of mental strangeness that sticks around the morning after a heavy one. But eventually it went away. 

And then, it was replaced by the real thing. You see, it turned out that the dream had been not just a weird little fore-shock, but a prophetic experience. Because P.T., while superficially very different to the weird, abstract cavalcade of gravity-bending skin-flaying I had dreamt, delivered on exactly the same impossible levels. It was a game-changer. Everything in horror gaming was different after experiencing just its first half hour. And it still is. In fact P.T. has changed my whole scale for what a good horror game is, not just in quality, but in ethos and philosophy too.

I’m a life-long horror fan. From my initial primary school vampire-obsession, to my discovery of gleeful, garish ‘80s horror, to my later love of smart, atmospheric horror literature and the increasingly harsh, meaningful sphere of the modern leftfield, I live and breathe this stuff in all its forms. So obviously I love horror games. But for years, there’s been a stark disparity in the treatment of horror between interactive computer-scares and those in other media. It’s a disparity I’ve conveniently ignored. But after P.T., I can’t any longer. You see, most horror games are games first and foremost, with the horrific elements simply sitting alongside as an aesthetic and tonal garnish. Real horror though, works the other way around. The horror is its the focus, and it makes its medium work to serve that, with real purpose. 

But P.T. though. Good Lord, P.T.... Knowing that it’s a short game, I set aside an ample number of hours to start and finish it on Monday night. I only lasted 30 minutes. The reason? It was just too much. I’m not just talking about its scares, which are some of the most powerful and genuine I’ve ever experienced in a game. As much as those, it was the sheer level of directorial and artistic ambition that overwhelmed me. P.T. operates on a holistic creative level that’s been absent from horror games for so long that I just wasn’t prepared for its approach to horror in an interactive form.

Everything about P.T. is intricately considered and seamlessly integrated. Firstly its structure. That single, looping corridor is the conduit for everything that it builds. An enclosed, fecund petri dish for intensive, intelligent, increasingly meaningful horror whose claustrophobic sense of isolation builds increasing, ambient panic. Just as its repeating, rhythmically iterating structure focuses the senses on each and every change in scenario and atmosphere, making even the smallest difference alien, significant, and desperately ominous. Every time you leave is a monumental relief, and every simultaneous instance of returning is a moment of primal foreboding at how things might, and almost certainly will, escalate, compounded by the knowledge of the seemingly countless iterations before.

It fills that structure with an unbroken feedback loop of ‘total horror’. Everything that happens, everything you see, everything you do, everything you discover, is bound through the intended experience. Everything is of the experience. Nothing is tangential or tertiary, Everything has meaning beyond simply scaring you, but the complete symbiosis of all of the experience’s elements means that it will scare you constantly.

Because P.T. understands that to evoke real horror, one must work within the realm of psychology. Externalised threats--monsters, zombies and the like--are all well and good, but they’re transient fears. Kill them, distract them, hide from them, and they’re gone. Psychological fear and trauma however, never go away. They exist inside the player and the lead character, and follow them everywhere they go, growing stronger and more potent with every new experience.

That’s the field in which P.T. plays. It operates on dream logic. Or rather, nightmare logic. Some have criticised the game for its linearity, for its obtuse, prescriptive puzzles, seeing these as evidence of lacking game design. In truth, these traits make P.T. more successful, not less. Because this is horror, not a game dressed up as horror. The ability to choose a tactical approach to a monster, to hide from it or stealth-kill it, is actually an avoidance of its real horrific substance. The potential any horror threat may hold--not that most in games really represent anything meaningful--is deftly dodged with each and every act of savvy player agency. Most games are about evading or repeatedly vanquishing horror, not dealing with it.

P.T. does not let you do that. It does not even present it as a possibility. P.T. forces you, as your sole means of progression, to face and embrace its holistic terrors, your only mechanic of interaction being closer investigation. No defence. No form of attack. Just the means to confront your fears, immerse yourself in them, and try to come to understand them. That, again, is what real horror is about.

So again, psychology is the only way P.T. could have taken things. Exploration in P.T. is as much mental and emotional as it is physical and environmental, even with the enclosed scenario notwithstanding. Puzzles make no sense if you try to approach them from a perspective of mechanical video game logic--in itself a powerful means of disempowering you, stripping you right down, removing what you know, and forcing you approach its horrors honest and functionally naked--but when you resign yourself to living inside its nightmare, to understanding and navigating it on an instinctive level, following its rules and exploring the thoughts and ideas it wants you to, that’s when you start making progress.

The scrawled phrase ‘Gouge it out’, which prompts you to disfigure a photograph, but which also confirms uneasy suspicions about the scenario’s backstory, blending hideously with the information on the radio, the dirty, ambiguously medical vibe of the bathroom, and the thing in the sink. The phone puzzle--and the related message on the wall--establish an even uneasier sense of isolation, the frenzied symbolism of strained communication compounding the player’s situation, imbuing it with a fatalistic escalation through its slow, back-and-forth solution.

The eyeball corridor initially seems to provide a break from the slow-and-steady, restrictive movement that so suffocates from the game’s start. But again, it’s about something more. The manic, forced sprinting plays off earlier experiences of what horrors can be found by turning around corners too quickly, while the swirling, ocular painting themselves do even more. Their frenzied whirling initially compounds the dizzying panic of speed, but after repeated, potentially infinite loops of the corridor, the detail of their message can be seen.

Some eyes move faster than others. Some barely move at all. Others seem almost asleep. The message here is that while the instinct may be to tear through these horrors, and onto escape, as quickly as possible, only by stopping, standing, observing, and really seeing the devastation at the core of this nightmare, can real progress be made. And both the discovery and execution of this particular solution absolutely rely on that thinking and theme.

One last point on P.T.’s ‘puzzles’. Particularly a point about its last one. Now slightly notorious for its technically unsolved nature, the utterly abstract, unguided climactic task has been completed, but never really understood. There are various, wildly different methods of escape floating around the internet, all effective to varying degrees, and all with their own impassioned, fevered, spiralling logic to back them up. Again, some see this as a failing, But in truth, it is perfect. It's flawless. It's the point. By bringing its players to this obsessed, skewed, pseudo-schizophrenic mental state, P.T. has utterly succeeded in drawing them inextricably into full immersion in its psychological world of horror.

And the real kicker? By spreading out into the real world, by forcing solutions by way of hearsay, internet whispers, and desperate, rumoured logic, it has become its own urban myth. P.T. has taken on life, its horror story becoming real folklore, and its essence now effectively ‘haunting’ the real world.

If that’s not real, powerful horror--and if that’s not real Silent Hill--then I don’t know what is. However different it may be structurally or mechanically, if Silent Hills is taking P.T. as its philosophical statement of intent, I couldn’t be more excited. And terrified. In fact I don’t even know how I feel. It’s all too much.  

22 comments

  • rxb - August 28, 2014 5:27 a.m.

    Good piece Hooters, sounds like finally the games medium is being fully utilised for pure horror. Way too scary for me. And your definitely right about it's final puzzle becoming and urban myth, what better than that?
  • freeden - August 28, 2014 1:45 a.m.

    I am going to preface this by saying that I have not yet played this and I am not sure I will. The promise of jump scares does not entice me into a horror game. And while I realize that this was created so as to somewhat fool people into NOT knowing it is a demo leading to a Silent Hill teaser (or Silent Hills, if you prefer the wholly proper name), now that I know this IS in fact a teaser for Silent Hill, I want to save my perception of the new Silent Hill game instead of comparing it throughout the course of it's development to this demo. Okay, so, moving on. I have to say I do love that this demo so changes how horror gaming can be perceived. It more closely resembles those horror games like Amnesia, where the horror comes from powerlessness and being almost completely helpless. The feeling of horror lies, not simply in the fact that there is something horrific waiting for you, but that there's nothing you can do about it. You know there is something waiting, and yet you are powerless to stop it. It's a far cry from Resident Evil, where the problem isn't in being powerless, but in how to survive and the fear of making a mistake. To examine horror and how an effective horror game works, you have to examine where the fear is coming from. It's different for all types of horror games. Now we come to Silent Hill. First, what worked originally about the Silent Hill franchise. Survival horror, when Silent Hill came around, was new and Resident Evil was the peak. RE worked because it took well known action tropes and disseminated them by putting you into a horrific situation, limiting your options for dealing with that, throwing horrific monsters at you, and forcing you to confront those situations in ways that went beyond simply blowing away all the monsters, ala Dom. Silent Hill was different. First and foremost, Silent Hill was almost completely ambiguous. You didn't know where you were or what was going on. All you knew were the motivations of the primary character. On top of the mystery, you were also thrown into a horrific, unexplained situation. Mutilated and burnt bodies, a foreboding darkness hiding further nightmares. While combat was apart of the games, you were almost always an average person. Gameplay reflected this. The core component, the most important thing were the characters and story and the mystery. Third, the ambiguity of the environment, it's horrific nature and design, and the demonic elements that covered the real world created an environment that was ambiguous and horrific beyond imagination. It wasn't something that could be explained, nor would you get an explanation. The most horrific thing we can encounter is ambiguity, lack of knowledge. What we don't know, don't understand, is far more frightening than anything we can imagine. In RE, we were never left truly ambiguous. Sure, we were chased by monsters, but we always understood where we were, what we were up against. We always had a solution. But when you start diving through the levels of hell that make up Silent Hill, there is no understanding of where we are. We barely understand what is going on. All we truly know is that the character has a motivation and the we must keep pressing forward. Okay, so, through this long winded essay, what's the point. Here it is, and here is where I differ on P.T. For all that P.T. gets right, what I don't think it gets right is Silent Hill. Yes, there are jump scares in Silent Hill, but they are a very minor part of what is actually horrific about Silent Hill. P.T., as we all know now, contains numerous jump scares, and those instantly take the spotlight. Your heart doesn't race because you don't know where you are or question what is going on or what the motivations are. Your heart races because you never know when something around the next corner is going to jump out at you. It's a completely different kind of horror and it creates a completely different kind of feeling or uneasiness. That's not to say it doesn't have value, but it's not where the value of the Silent Hill series is placed. My greatest wish is that the demo is just a demo and that the actual game will be completely different, more in vain with the classic Silent Hill series. I trust Kojim and Del Toro because they are masters of their industry and masters of storytelling. But I don't want a game that has me tensed up because I expect something to pop out at me from around the corner. I want to be tensed up because I have no idea what the heck is going on. I want the environment to creep me out and I want the ambiguity in the lore to be present. The last thing we need is for Silent Hill to go from being a game that crawls under your skin to one that mimics jump scare cinema from the 80's and 90's.
  • usmovers_02 - August 28, 2014 3:18 a.m.

    Yes there are jump scares. No jump scares are not the reason PT is scary. I'm an avid horror fan and I promise you it's the atmosphere and setting that take center stage, not the whats around the corner scares. It's entirely possible to beat the entire demo with only a single jump scare and still have an absolutely terrifying experience. I also promise you that you are missing out on one of the greatest experiences in the history of gaming.
  • XxSCUMDOGxX - September 4, 2014 4:49 p.m.

    I agree, & although I loved RE1 for being 1st console game I remember that "tried" to be scary, mansion was cool atmosphere & I have always loved ZOMBIES (39yrs old, NIGHT OF LIVING DEAD was 1st beta flick my Dad rented with our new VCR) but where RE was more ROMERO, I think SILENT HILL (1&2) was pyscologically twisted, totally unique brand of horror, a mindf*ck, similar to KUBRICKs SHINING, JACOBS LADDER, etc. I would love to play a top notch HORROR game, I'm open to SILENT HILL REBOOT(?), as S.H.-THE ROOM was last one I've played!! If you or anyone has any suggestions for a worthwhile "horror"/adult thriller" title, please share!! I missed AMNESIA & quite a few well received games because I've never owned a PC but do have PS4 & XBOX ONE but have not been able to keep up on gaming news!! (personal b.s.) well,if you stumbled across this.. HAVE FUN-LIVE FREE!!
  • derian-joplin - August 27, 2014 10:14 p.m.

    It's not really a full game, it's just a teaser, for the new Silent Hill
  • GOD - August 27, 2014 9:28 p.m.

    I thought it did a lot things right, but my perspective is a bit different. For starters, the biggest issue I had with it is the fact that the puzzles were so obtuse, but I won't judge the game to come on that because the puzzles were meant to be extremely obtuse so as to prolong the discovery of the reveal at the end. Most other points though about psychological horror and the agonizing over small changes I agree with. Although again, the final game won't be in the same format so you won't have the same atmosphere of a familiar environment slowly corrupting around you. I think an important thing for true "horror" games, is that they keep you on your toes. They can't keep throwing the same thing at you in patterns. If you're able to build a strategy to deal with a situation because you've already dealt with a similar one, then the game has lost its horror. This games pull off horror well because no matter how many times you walk through that hall you don't know what's about to happen and if you'll survive it. A little bit of a tangent, but this is why creatures in the Souls series can be truly scary and evoke horror, albeit in a less scream inducing way. They do things that you wouldn't expect and don't know how to deal with. Whenever you encounter a new enemy and think OK I'll slowly approach while it slowly walks and th- OH SHIT it just lunged 15 feet through the air at me. I could see the enemy the whole time, but it managed to defy my expectations and make me panic.
  • GR_AndyHartup - August 28, 2014 1:54 a.m.

    Great points here, but let me add something. I agree that the puzzles are obtuse, but I think there's more to it than prolonging the reveal. Silent Hill's best puzzles - the ones from SH1 and 2 - have always been bizarre and obtuse, so I think Kojima is giving a nod to that, and is hinting at the approach he will be taking to puzzles in Silent Hills itself. Everything about the demo suggests that he's looking to finally recapture what makes SH2 such an amazing (yes, it still is) horror game. Recent SH's have tried, but none have managed it in my opinion.
  • GOD - August 28, 2014 2:06 a.m.

    Don't get me wrong, I like that the puzzles were not super obvious context clues. The puzzles being obtuse helped to keep up that feeling of being powerless. I just mean that some of the later ones felt a little too obtuse. For example the last sequence or the last picture piece in the menu screen. It's just as important to not make the player feel completely defeated in a game to keep up the sense of horror. I was unable to figure out how to finish it on my own, and even while using the internet to help a friend who was streaming it, they went from terrified to progressively more irritated in the last bits of tedium. Also that baby totally should have attacked in one of the later sequences. Would have scarred anyone from going near that bathroom again. Or any bathroom.
  • pyro19 - August 27, 2014 9:10 p.m.

    This game blew my mind! Finally a real horror game that draws you in and makes you feel like the character. If the new silent hills is going to be like all the other silent hill games and not like the p.t game then im going to be very disappointed. If silent hills is different then I hope kojima well see the greatness of this game and continue to build on this new idea for a game that all of us horror fans are really waiting for.
  • winner2 - August 27, 2014 7:25 p.m.

    I thought it was scary to watch (found a non commentary fortunately) and I'm sure that it would have been scary to play, but I think you're overdoing it Dave. And everyone is mentioning freddy's so I'd like to hear your opinion on that, also because I read an article somewhere else this morning explaining how freddy's is not true horror because it's just you trying to avoid a loud noise/jump scare and that's it. Did seem a little creepy though, I saw it on greenlight or whatever a few days before it got released and suddenly got popular, and something about those animals is just way way off.
  • Slider64 - August 27, 2014 5:34 p.m.

    I felt so bored and disconnected with this game....demo. You don't even feel your in the world, your just a camera that can zoom in. For instance when you "gouge it out" it just happens automatically, you don't see your hand touch it or any feedback. Also, the beautiful atmosphere that is created is ruined by the constant repetition while the game hopes the next time you aimless stumble into the walls you will zoom in on that small bit of text over there.... I spent most of the time playing it, begging for something interesting to happen or it to end. The game just makes no sense, tells you very little of what to do and designed to repeat itself over and over and over and over. I get some people will drink the kool aid because it did feel different but to me, wandering first person camera where every few minutes something minor may happen that sort of progresses a narrative is not an experience I want to have again
  • wiitard07 - August 27, 2014 5:12 p.m.

    Good article Dave, especially the idea that the game itself is becoming folklore in the form of rumors and word of mouth. Seems like a lot of Kojima games have a tendency to do that. Sucks that I can't play the game myself as I don't have a ps4, but I'm hoping that since Sony isn't shouting from the rooftops that Silent Hills is a playstation exclusive that I'll still be able to pick it up on Xbox One. Shame you're getting slammed by commenters for using your vocabulary to your full ability in an editorial.
  • Jackonomics2.0 - August 27, 2014 5:10 p.m.

    Yeah keep saying that every new game that pops up and then be disappointed. Lets hope this one doesn't suffer, especially since it's basically Silent Hill:Kojima edition. Also 5 Nights at Freddy's says hi
  • ariston - August 27, 2014 1:57 p.m.

    Dear Mr. Houghton, Please put away your thesaurus and learn what it means to write economically. I am sincerely trying to help you.
  • winner2 - August 27, 2014 2:45 p.m.

    Not the first time I've had this thought as well.
  • brian-parchman - October 16, 2014 3:29 a.m.

    Thank you! "An enclosed, fecund petri dish", "the complete symbiosis", "externalised threats", "the enclosed scenario notwithstanding". Yes, technically these are all correct ways to describe what you're talking about, but it all makes you sound like a pompous ass. Does he realize that the audience he's trying to reach is the same one that came up with and still uses words like "pwned" and "no0b"? And subscribes to and watches YouTubers like PewDiPie? That guy's an idiot.
  • eche13 - August 27, 2014 1:07 p.m.

    It was scary for the first 5 minutes, after that it was repetitive and just boring. Not to mention the insane difficulty of the puzzles in the later stages. Beyond the jump scares and the psychological aspect that gets old fast, it is not scary in any shape or form.To say P.T is a REAL horror game is simply a stupid remark.
  • Annihilator820 - August 27, 2014 11:10 a.m.

    "P.T. is the first REAL horror game in years" Something tells me you're not ready for Freddy. Make that statement again once you've tried more than one game.
  • wiitard07 - August 27, 2014 5:50 p.m.

    I'll say that Five Nights is a really really scary game, but I don't think it ever elevates itself to true horror. FN@F is a series of very well executed jump scares, where some fault comes from poor build up. "True" well executed horror is a result of a build up of uneasiness from atmospheric elements like music, imagery etc. and is then paid off with a scare. In essence, this makes FN@F all payoff, and no reason to TRULY be afraid. It has a relatively small bag of tricks, and once you get them all in, the game becomes more of an engaging strategic experience with horror elements rather than a real horror game. I don't want to start anything, and I totally realize that fear and horror are abstract ideas that are completely subjective, but I really don't think that Five Nights is real horror. Just an enjoyable, scary game.
  • freeden - August 28, 2014 1:50 a.m.

    The problem with Freddy, and as explained in what I think was a Kotaku article, is that it's not true horror. It's simply a game that presents a challenge and you have to avoid the consequences. You know exactly what's coming and the goal is to prevent it. That is not horror. Horror is rooted in the unknown, in not understanding what is happening. With Freddy, the mysteries presented are so absolutely ridiculous, that anything you don't understand doesn't really matter anyway. Why are the robots trying to kill you? Why are you so limited in your actions? It doesn't matter. All that matters is that there is a goal and you have to succeed. That is a place where the game fails. You can easily recognize it as a game. You don't become intertwined in the mystery or atmosphere, you simply try to achieve the goal.

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