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A Sisyphean Hellscape: On What Makes P.T. So Goddamn Scary

Posted on Friday, August 15 @ 19:00:00 Eastern by blake_peterson


"It's scary as fuck."

Those are the words that come to mind when I think of P.T.—the "Playable Teaser" on the PS4 for Silent Hills, from fictional game developers, 7780s Studio, which is really Kojima Productions in cooperation with Guillermo del Toro. The teaser, as if making up for the heavily maligned lack of content in Metal Gear Ground Zeroes, is free on the PS4 and is one of the best gaming experiences on the device. 

So what makes it so good? I’m curious how much of the design of the game is Kojima’s, his staff’s, and Guillermo Del Toro’s; P.T. is like a terror proof-of-concept that’s a kind of brilliant, self-contained slow burn. Last night I played P.T., and finished around 1 AM, and I didn't fall asleep until 7:30 the following morning, with the lights still on in my apartment.

Part of what makes it so astoundingly good is how it manages to do so much with so little. P.T.’s environment is confined to an L-shaped hallway, with a single room on the side that is initially closed, and a door down a short staircase that, when you enter it, resets you back at the start of the hallway. In the hallway are a few pieces of furniture, a clock, a phone, a radio, and photographs of a couple. For a few brief scenes you may end up in a small separate room, and in one part, the hallway is extended and copied repeatedly in a panicked section and more turns are added, but the game is largely told in that single hallway.

With each traversal of the hallway there’s something new to discover, some element that has to be seen. The side door opens a crack, and your only task is to stare into it. P.T. has no HUD, and the player rarely uses any button presses beyond focusing on an object by zooming in, so they're in a kind of growing, frantic desperation as the game continues and all the player can do is walk and look at things. Of the few occasions you do use a button, one is simply horrifying for what it implies about the player character, driving that psychological terror home. As things get scarier, the desperation grows stronger, and the story builds with each twisted element.

Not that it’s perfect. At several points it became necessary to consult the “Wisdom of the Internets™”, to figure out the vague puzzles, especially during the last cycle, with the puzzle involving the three baby laughs. Kojima said he made it especially hard, and he thought it would take a week for people to figure it out. People have discovered sequences of events that make the baby laugh a second time, but I think it's a tribute to the puzzle's difficulty that no-one has yet been able say definitively what triggers the laugh, only what has worked for them, which often seems to fail for others.

It’s the slow build, the introduction of twisted elements and the occasional jump scare, that creates an environment of psychological horror as the story itself is developed further. Like other Silent Hill stories, it soon becomes clear you are anything but innocent; but it’s how this continuous hell-cycle of reliving the same corridor makes that insidiously clear that is more terrifying than the bumps in the night that accompany it. It’s so well done that by the time you may find yourself being verbally addressed by a blood-soaked paper bag giving you advice about the nature of reality and identity—that may well be the remains of one of your prior trips down the corridor—it seems entirely in place in the world they’ve created, using just an L-shaped hallway. 

The challenge for Kojima and del Toro moving forward is an odd one. The question isn’t, I don't think, how can they make the experience bigger, but how can they keep it small enough and personal enough—while extending it—to drive that terror forward through a longer, more dynamic narrative. Even if there are moments as frustrating as elements of P.T. was, I'll gladly play it.

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