I don’t have a PS3 or PS4. As such, I haven’t had to listen to Hideo Kojima’s rambling in quite some time. Don’t get me wrong, I loved the first Metal Gear Solid. Well, the first one in 3D. I was unaware of the earlier entries until much later in my life, and I don’t really feel bad about it.
That first foray into his world was glorious. No stealth game had ever given me so much freedom, and plot in games was still in its infancy, so any dialogue at all was welcome. I felt like it was a little too preachy toward the end, with the 45 minutes of rambling about freedom and America, but I rolled with it, because I was so grateful for something that wasn’t Spyro on my Playstation.
It was incredible. Memorable characters, tight stealth gameplay, and punishing game mechanics combined to make a challenging game that compelled me to finish sections just to find out what happened next.
Then, MGS2 happened. More specifically, Raiden happened. I couldn’t suspend my disbelief enough to listen past his whining, and the franchise lost its luster for me. Entry after entry, Kojima kept talking more and more about what he thought of freedom and America, and I couldn’t make myself care. I tried so hard to enjoy MGS 3, since it was one of the first games that went for a hardcore survival theme and I am all about that, but the characters just do not shut up. Listening Snake explain his fear of vampires in MGS 3 isn’t fun, and neither is listening to Raiden being all conflicted about his work girlfriend in MGS 2. I have a fiancée I work with, now, and don’t need to watch someone else wonder if that’s his work or home girlfriend talking. Even at the time, being a single man, I didn’t enjoy it. I grew out of whiny protagonists right around the time I figured out to stop whining in real life.
Years passed, and entry number four in the series came out. Months before the release, I read a report that the ending cutscene would be NINTEY MINUTES LONG. As I have said to many friends on many occasions before today, that is not a cutscene. It is a feature-length film. No game I’d ever played at that point would allow me to stop a game in the middle of a cutscene and resume it later, and no one came forward to inform me of MGS 4 being any different, so I didn’t even try the game. Maybe it did have some form of interface for navigating the long-ass cutscenes, but I never found out, and don’t currently care. I am too blinded by just the thought of having the power cut off 80 minutes through a 90 minute cutscene to even want to learn about it, now.
Fast-forward to 2014. Kojima and Guillermo del Toro have announced their intent to make a game so scary it will “make you shit yourself.” Direct quote. They have named it “Silent Hills,” either to emphasize that this is a reboot, or because they want to win Worst Title Ever at E3 this year. I was intrigued by this, but skeptical. These are two men who I consider to be long-winded, which is a quality I do not enjoy in a game. But, I am also quite fond of products they have both released. So, when Kojima’s mysterious P.T. released, I buckled and forced someone to let me play the demo.
The first several minutes are like hell on earth, in all the right ways.
Let’s go back for a minute, and look at what epitomized the fear we have felt in games. Disempowerment is key. You have to make the players themselves feel powerless. This seems to be an easy concept, but it directly contradicts the way that so many companies develop games. You have to make the player interact with the game in some way. I mean, that is literally the definition of a video game. Player interaction. And, apart from a small handful of genres, most of that interaction comes in the form of combat. Interface and style and presentation aside, the huge majority of video games are about murder. Being someone capable of killing hundreds, thousands, and especially millions of enemies instantly prevents you from being disempowered. Even though this is arguably the most important element of fear, most horror games fail at disempowerment, apart from isolated, yet memorably terrifying moments of surprise. Halo did this very well. The Flood make you feel powerless. For the first several minutes of the encounter, you don’t even know if you’re accomplishing anything by throwing all your ammo at them. Halo isn’t even a horror game, but this section of it is horror at its finest.
The next most important element of horror is uncertainty. There is very little we humans fear more than the unknown, not knowing what comes next. This is another thing that games can tend to ignore, though not as thoroughly as disempowerment. It’s not easy to subtly guide players through a game, so we tend to rely on lengthy tutorials and bright, shining beacons to tell players where to go and what to do, next. I can’t be afraid of the evil necrowhatever when my sidekick tells me that I need to go to the evil tower and face the sorcerer in honorable single combat. I already know he’s there. He now has to try an awful lot harder to surprise me. Some notable exceptions occur, like the older Silent Hill games hinting at their most terrifying locations from the beginning of the game, but these outliers do this with style, and make the foreshadowing just specific enough to increase your dread at the thought of going there. Resident Evil 4 did a great job of this in first hour or so. You go from the village, full of definitely not zombies, with no indication of whether or not you are making a dent in the enemy forces, to the lake, where you watch something obscure and large breach the surface long enough for you to know that you have no idea what it is. They obscured your objective without obscuring the direction you need to go. You know you need to cross the lake and get through the village, but you have no idea what will happen when you do. Great design.
The last element of horror I’ll mention is what I like to call psychological claustrophobia. That feeling of being trapped. Obviously, the player is very rarely trapped in most games, since that would kind of defeat the purpose, but the feeling of it, especially when combined with the previous two, is terrifying. Fear has to come from inside. You have to make me, as the player, afraid. Since I probably won’t be physically harmed by the game, this sort of mental trick is key. If you can make me feel trapped when I am not, I will make up all kinds of things to be afraid of. Silent Hill 2 did this very well by accident. The fog we have come to accept as a normal Silent Hill thing was a technical limitation of the hardware. It was added merely to cover up the very low render distance. Yet, it creates a constant feeling of being trapped that very few games since have replicated.
Some games succeed on all fronts. The first Amnesia was brilliant, disempowering, disorienting, and trapping players while they cowered in corners. Eternal Darkness on the Gamecube did this, too. Even Dark Souls, which isn’t generally classified as a horror game, manages to pull off all of these elements to some extent, and creates real fear.
P.T. does all of this, and it does it really well. I can’t believe I’m saying this, but it really does.
If you haven’t played through it, do yourself and favor and do that, now. I’m pretty sure it’s still free on PSN, so download it or bully a friend into letting you use their PS3 or put an ad on craigslist for a friend so you can go to their house, download P.T., and play at least the first 15-20 minutes. Now.
Welcome back! TERRIFYING, right? The instant you load in, you press all the buttons, and don’t do anything. You can only walk around and look with the analog sticks. There is absolutely no combat in P.T. for the entire duration. You just walk around and look, mostly at a snail’s pace around the only corner. It doesn’t sound terrifying, but it is.
It plays like a dream, in a literal sense. You walk through a door into a normal looking hallway that isn’t quite familiar, and walk toward the only thing in sight, a little shelf with some personal things on it. A few pictures, normal stuff, whatever. None of the doors open. Typical dream. You make your way down the hall, which is L-shaped, except for a short branch after the turn that leads to what appears to be the front door of the house. You start at the bottom right of the L, and walk through the only unlocked door at the top. You walk down a short flight of stairs, open the door at the end, and walk into the exact same hallway as before.
It’s wasn’t exactly what you were expecting, but it wasn’t very scary, so you go a little faster this time. You walk up the L past the clock at 11:59, and the pictures on the shelf, and the locked doors, and the radio in the hall, trying every door to no avail, until you walk down the stairs, go through the door, and start all over.
See what I’m saying? A dream. I have had this dream several times. The clock doesn’t advance, nothing really seems to happen. You become calm, complacent, even. Not really afraid, at all. Until something happens.
After several more times running through what seems to be exactly the same hallway and stairwell, you come around the corner and hear a baby crying, seemingly from another room. “Oh,” you think. “Do I have a baby?” THAT’S A VERY GOOD QUESTION. As with a dream, you’re not really sure if you have a baby or not. You kind of remember a vague woman-like shape in some of the pictures, but nothing really screamed “baby” at you.
Nothing seems to be trying to kill you, so you turn to glance over the pictures behind you one more time, but they’re intentionally vague. After a moment, you give up. The baby was sort of creepy, but that was half a minute ago, and it hasn’t happened again.
What you don’t notice is that you are now saying things like this to yourself to downplay your fear. This scenario resonates universally, so it’s already inside your head. And you’re basically just thinking about anything except the fact that none of the buttons seem like they’d save you if there was something after you. The tension is already increasing, because the feeling of powerlessness is being subtly driven home.
So, you do it a few more times. The scenario escalates. You’re still walking down the same hall, it’s still 11:59, but small things keep happening. The baby cries out more frequently as time goes on. On one pass through, the radio blares at you as you walk by, and you don’t even have the power to turn it off. Or, if you did, I couldn’t make it happen. Powerless in the face of even household electronics.
About 5 minutes in, one of the doors that has been locked every time makes a small sound as you walk by. You turn to look, and the knob jiggles. It’s chilling, yet simple. Nothing happens, but the tension is now through the roof. Your insides are roiling as you try to master your fear. THIS IS WELL-MADE HORROR.
You can’t even call it survival horror, because, so far, you don’t know if things even can hurt you. You haven’t seen anyone else, there is no visible UI, and no helpful hints. Just you and an endless nightmare. After the knob jiggling incident, anything could set you off.
Good thing they went for it as hard as they could.
I’d wager, in the moments following this, a few people actually did shit their pants. If not then, maybe a few moments after that. I don’t want to spoil much, since it needs to be experienced, rather than read about. I haven’t experienced another game that even comes close to the first half of this demo.
There is a moment most of the way through where you are shown something absolutely terrifying that is the most threatening image you’ve seen so far. You see it just for an instant, long enough to see how tall and broad the figure is and the size of his weapon, before he is plunged into supernatural darkness that light can’t penetrate. You can’t see him even a little, but, JUST LIKE YOUR NIGHTMARES, you know he is still there. You run away, but none of the doors open, so you have to go through that darkness to progress.
I have to give them credit, most of this demo is taking something innocuous, a boring hallway, and forcing you to walk down it through some fears you’d swear were ripped from your own head. And, for 20-30 minutes, that was really scary to me.
Unfortunately, it gets boring, and by the time the truly horrifying things were happening, I had pretty much checked out. I don’t need to figure out your whole backstory, particularly in a roughly 45-minute-long demo. I don’t have the time. And I enjoyed how vague I made it, anyway. Keeps the mystery alive. There is a “true” ending you can find, in classic Silent Hill style, and someone found it within something like 36 hours of being released. She wasn’t even trying to find it, so it can’t be that hard. If I was interested, I could probably suss it out myself, but I’m not. I experienced nothing that could harm me, and I saw that damn hallway so many times I actually got bored. There is one moment in particular that I’m sure seriously affected a few players, but I couldn’t work up any more anxiety. For me, P.T. jumped the shark with the figure shrouded in darkness. You made me conquer my fear, guys, when you should have let it conquer me.
P.T., despite being just a teaser of the finished product, succeeds, at least to some extent, in all three of the areas we discussed earlier. You are fully disempowered from the get-go. No combat, no items to turn into explosives, nothing. They take something familiar, then twist it into something unknown, hitting the second requirement of uncertaintly. Most importantly, though, at least for the format chosen, they created the illusion of entrapment. Everything seems as though it is aligned in such a way as to never let you leave that hallway.
Where it eventually fails is the unknown, and it fails more in this regard the longer you play. You no longer question your lack of a health bar because nothing has attacked you. You don’t question what’s going to happen next, since you know you’ll end up in the same hallway again and something a little weirder than last time will probably happen.
If P.T. is the beginning of the game, you can count me out. I can’t imagine the scenario ending in any way that excites me, even if I did get to leave the hallway. My suspicion, though, is that it is more of a tech demo combined with a pledge to make something unlike anything we’ve seen before. If it is, I’m intrigued. This looks very much like something I could get really into, after the disappointment that has been basically every horror game since Resident Evil 3, but my expectations are so high. Horror has always been one of my favorite genres, but I got into these games at a time in my life where I scared more easily. I have never been afraid again like I was while running away from Nemesis.
Kojima and del Toro, I really feel like you’re on the right track, which I applaud you for. If I could recommend anything, it would be to have the courage to shorten it if you need to. Do it like the trailer: short and sweet. Give me eight to ten hours of unforgettable terror that I can relive with slight changes based on how well I understand the story as I repeat it. Hell, make it five hours long, if that’s all you can do and have it be truly scary. If you’re making it horrifying enough, we’ll elongate the experience ourselves. It takes time to wash the shit out of our pants.