Thursday, August 21, 2014

P.T. (2014, PS4) - Perpetual Terror in a Waking Nightmare

Announced in the middle of Sony's Gamescom 2014 conference on August 12 and released on the Playstation Network that very day, P.T., a first person horror title by fictional game development house 7780s Studio, is a great many things. It's a genuinely good horror experience, an obtuse puzzle meant to bring online communities together to solve, and the best marketing project I've ever seen in the video game industry.

There's no longer a secret about what P.T. actually is; it's a "playable teaser" for a new Silent Hill title by Metal Gear's Hideo Kojima and director Guillermo del Toro, starring The Walking Dead's Norman Reedus. P.T. is not meant to be a demo for the upcoming Silent Hills (now with an "s" at the end), but rather an atmospheric experience to get players in the mood to be terrified. It's a complete experience in itself, and takes a couple of hours to reach the final puzzle if you're going in fresh. The final puzzle will be discussed in depth further on. Best of all, it's a free download. After completing the game, a video plays teasing you with the first info on Silent Hills.

P.T. features no combat, no traditional narrative, and gameplay mechanics that are left mostly unexplained. Players wake up alone in some sort of basement dungeon and upon leaving find themselves in a small hallway with a few doors, scattered trash, and a few cockroaches. The door at the end of the hall loops back to its entrance, and each time you loop through it something changes. Sometimes players are required to interact with the environment in order to progress to the next loop, sometimes it progresses naturally on its own.

As P.T.'s  recursion goes deeper, it quickly becomes obvious that something tragic happened in this house, though it's never quite clear what the player character's role in it is. A horrible ghost begins to stalk you, chilling noises surround you, and the landscape itself becomes more broken and hellish as the physical laws of the world continue to degrade. I won't go into any specific scares or puzzles, as it's best experienced without knowing what's coming, but it's one of the most effective uses of first person views I've seen in a game. The atmosphere is thick, claustrophobic, and oppressive, and it wouldn't have been nearly as strong with a third person camera. This is your nightmare, not your character's. It's everything the sloppy Outlast tried to do, only actually good and without obnoxiously poor writing.

I really like P.T.'s mundane yet disturbing setting and its gradual ramping up of the craziness. It feels close to the wonderful first person apartment sections of Silent Hill 4: The Room, released ten years earlier. It's a very nice looking game, in large part due to its lighting effects, and looks better than a great many other small scale games. Not surprising given its creative team and Kojima's impressive Fox Engine, but the team behind this game did an amazing job with very simple areas. Players really get to intimately know this hallway by the time the game ends, and it's amazing how much was done with so little.

The game's final puzzle is a sort of social experiment. It's beyond obtuse, and even the few lucky people who completed the game on its first day were at a loss as to what they did to finish it. As of now, nine days later, there's still no 100% guaranteed way to complete it, but enough people have combed through videos and translated the game's multilingual flashes of text and experimented for days on end that there are a few methods that more or less work. Sometimes. And not for everyone.

Reading internet forums in the days following P.T.'s release was practically part of the game itself. It's easy to find dozens, if not hundreds, of people offering their own "100% Guaranteed" ways to complete the game that they can reproduce but other people can't. The amount of cooperation, confusion, speculation, and occasionally flaccid anger that the game's final puzzle drew out is equal parts impressive and funny. As everyone rushes to give their own solution that may or may not work, P.T. itself is elevated to a sort of haunted game made of unseen rumors and half-truths. We don't all see the same scenes or experience the ending the same way, and the ghost gets us all at some point.

Actually completing the game and seeing the ending isn't really the point. The shared social experience is what made it so bizarre and interesting to watch, and that's something that really only works best right now, while the title's still fresh. The rest of the game will remain a solid, scary experience, but the final act is its own beast. If you're a horror fan at all, P.T. is a must play, especially since it's free, but don't drive yourself crazy trying to figure out every part of it for yourself. You're alone in this dead, haunted house, but you've got friends all over the world willing to help you get out. There's something weirdly touching about that... even if their answers only work 1/3 of the time.

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