"Don't Touch That Dial Now, We're Just Getting Started..."
I wake up in a dimly lit room with nothing around me except concrete walls and a singular cockroach. Staggering to my feet, I notice a door ahead of me. Desperate to escape the dreariness of my current environment, I open the door… And step into a hallway. A radio crackles in the distance. The voice in the broadcast regrets to inform me about the cruel murder of an entire family. As I start heading down the hallway, I notice a digital clock near me informing me that the time is 23.59. Of course, just looking through the window ahead of me would have already informed me that it’s night time; all I see is darkness. On a table near me are numerous pictures of a relatively normal looking family. My gut, however, tells me that all is not normal here. As I keep moving ahead, I find the radio and hear the news better at which point I realize with horror that the family was killed in this very house. I keep moving, hoping to escape. A door ahead of me is open. I walk through… And step into a hallway. A very familiar hallway. I walk through it again, past the digital clock, past the pictures, past the locked door, past the radio, and out through the door only to… step into a hallway. That same familiar hallway. Yet, somehow, it’s different now… It’s foreboding. It feels more dangerous. This time, I run through the hallway, past the digital clock, past the pictures, past the locked door, past the radio, and out through the door at which I point I… step into a hallway. At this point, I’ve had enough. I find myself hoping for something else. Something different. Anything! Yet… I fear it as well… I run through the hallway again, past the digital clock, past the pictures, past the locked door… Except, it’s no longer locked. It’s open. Ever so slightly. I can barely see what’s inside… So I step a little closer peering into the darkness unaware of what fate awaits me… On August 12th, 2014, Playstation 4 owners woke up to discover a strange little experience waiting for them on their consoles. The title, known only as PT, was completely unknown to everyone. Not a person in the general public had any idea what awaited them when they booted it up but they all found themselves in the same environment once it started… A dimly lit room.
It wasn’t long before this unassuming demo took the gaming public by storm as people wandered where the hell (a relevant word, trust me) this strange demo had come from. Eventually, it was revealed that PT was a Playable Teaser (hence the name) for a new game in the Silent Hill horror franchise that had yet to be announced. The game, Silent Hills, would be developed by Kojima Productions (of Metal Gear Solid fame) and, to the delight of many, was announced to be a collaboration between Kojima Productions’ Hideo Kojima (a celebrity in the gaming world) and world-renowned filmmaker Guillermo Del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth, Pacific Rim). In addition, it was announced that actor Norman Reedus (The Walking Dead) would be playing the main protagonist of the game. Other than that, little is known about the game. However, to this day, gamers continue to plow through PT uncovering new secrets and creating theories about the meaning of each and every little detail. It is a phenomena that feels completely unique in the gaming world and for good reason. PT is unlike anything I’ve ever experienced.
As a massive Silent Hill fan, I would be remiss not to give a little shout out to my favorite game from the series, Silent Hill 2. I’ll always remember first getting that game when I was about 12 years old. The employee at the store turned to my mom and asked her whether she was sure about buying that game for me because it was highly disturbing. Unsure, my mom turned to me and asked “are you sure you want this game?” I looked her dead in the eye and said, “I can handle it”. To this day, I’m so grateful that my mom listened to me rather than to the employee (though props to him for doing his job well). Unlike many other horror games, Silent Hill 2 is less about harming your game character and more about harming you, the player. A lot of horror games are about your character attempting to survive a horrific situation that they’ve been forced into. Silent Hill 2 is more personal than that. At the very beginning of the game, your character chooses to go to the fog-infested town of Silent Hill because he’s received a letter from his wife asking him to meet him there; the mystery being that she’s been dead for three years. Rather than being thrust into a situation, the main character is there because he not only wants to be there but he needs to be there. At it’s core, there’s a mystery driving him forward but he also has a deeply personal connection to it and that’s one of the things that makes the Silent Hill franchise feel particularly unique. The horror is often tied specifically to the characters themselves, reminding them of their own sins. The music of the game reflects this too, often being tinged with sorrow rather than aggression (be sure to check out the video below for a good example). It’s really horror on a more psychological level rather than a visceral one. Nothing sums this approach up better than the advertising slogan for Silent Hill 2: “wounds will heal but your mind will be scarred forever”.
I was a little late to try out PT because I didn’t have a PS4 until this September. However, I knew I had to experience it as soon as possible and I wanted to know next to nothing about it. Thus, when I finally got to turn off the lights and boot up PT, I did so knowing that it was a teaser for Silent Hills and knowing that it would probably scare the crap out of me but knowing little else. This is how I think people should experience PT so I’m going to try to describe my experience with it while spoiling as little about it as possible.
I’m not going to pretend like I can’t get scared pretty easily. In fact, I get spooked pretty often but, at the same time, I love anything to do with horror. Films are what usually get to me the most. Even if they don’t unnerve me as I’m watching them, a horror film will usually sneak back into my mind just as I’m trying to get Mr. Sandman to pay me a visit. Horror games, however, have rarely gotten to me in the same way that films do. I’ve always felt that games can never be as scary as films because I’m in control when I play games. Usually, it’s possible to defeat the monsters by hacking at them with a piece of lumber or blasting them away with a shotgun. As a result, even though they might scare you at first, you still know that you can get rid of them. PT is different. The only things you can do in PT are to walk, look around, and focus on items. That’s it. There’s no combat which also means that you can’t die. In other horror games, a lot of the fear and anxiety comes from the anticipation of a monster suddenly appearing to cut you into pieces. It’s the fear of death that gets to you most. In PT, however, the fear of death isn’t present. Instead, you simply fear what will come next and that is an incredibly powerful sensation because you never know what that could be. Sometimes, it could be nothing and, in fact, PT can feel relatively mundane at times. I found myself spending ages just walking around the small home, trying to find clues on how to progress yet finding nothing. At times, I’d start to feel less tense and more focused on just finding something, anything, to let me progress. I’d even go so far as to say that I’d almost feel at ease… And boy, would PT make me pay for it. Just when I’d think I’ve got nothing to fear, the game would prove me wrong.
What makes PT an especially effective horror experience is that it forces you to pay attention to small details which is a surefire way to get you immersed in the experience whether you realize it or not. By making you focus on the smaller details, the game makes it all the more easy to catch you off guard. It’s impossible to progress without taking your time and exploring the environment but when the game starts building up tension, it makes you weary of focusing on that crackling radio or peering through that cracked door into the darkness because you never know how the game will punish you for it. Unfortunately, at times, PT does feel like it breaks the golden rule of horror by showing you a bit too much but, for the most part, it follows that rule well. Any seasoned horror fan will tell you that the scariest experiences are those where your imagination is exploited and PT does this wonderfully. Instead of constantly throwing horrible looking creatures at you, the game plays with sound to make you wonder about what’s around the corner. Instead of showing you footage of the grisly murders that happened in that house, the game tells you the story through a news broadcast and lets you imagine the visuals in your head. Instead of giving you the whole story, the game gives you just enough information to form some kind of an idea but still forces you to use your imagination to fill in the blanks. In many respects, it’s horror in its purest form.
Interestingly, in terms of gameplay, PT barely resembles past games in the series. Silent Hill: The Room is the closest in terms of similarity as they both feature first-person segments. However, at the end of the demo, PT informs you that it’s merely a playable teaser and has no relation to the upcoming game itself. As a result, it will be interesting to see just how similar Silent Hills will be to PT itself. The gameplay may turn out to be completely different. However, if PT is an indication of how well Silent Hills will follow the golden rules of horror, it may turn out to be one of the scariest experiences of all time in any medium. Silent Hill 2 would be proud.
PT is unique in many ways. After I ran through that hallway again, past the digital clock, past the pictures, past the locked door… After I noticed it was no longer completely closed… And after I stepped a little closer and peered into the darkness unaware of what fate awaited me… I screamed. I’ve never done that before.
Video: Introduction to Silent Hill 2.