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
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.