Spoilers ahead. If you own a PS4 and you haven’t played PT you need to stop reading this and go do it immediately. Once you’ve done so you should come right back, of course. Just don’t say I didn’t warn you.
How do you make a game scary? There’s clearly a recipe to it, but it seems like arcane and forbidden knowledge. When experienced it seems obvious – music, lighting, pace – all these things combine in some alchemical way to create fear, but how? Knowledge of the ingredients alone clearly isn’t enough. There’s some secret to their preparation. Maybe they have to be dry roasted first to release essential terror oils. Maybe the tension doesn’t rise if the oven door is opened. Or maybe it’s in the presentation. Pile them up to create some unsightly mess, but place them delicately and expertly and you’ll have the diner filling their pants in no time at all.
Choosing a food preparation analogy for fear creation now seems foolhardy, but bear with me. The point is that the creators of PT know their recipe and like other horror games – Dead Space, Outlast, Amnesia – they have cooked it to perfection to engineer tension and jump-scares in exactly the right places. There’s something else here, though. New studio 7780s has discovered some rare herb to add to the mix and the result is more than run of the mill jump-scare horror. The tension in PT simply doesn’t end. There’s an eeriness to it that’s utterly relentless. It plays on typical horror tropes mercilessly but has a Lynchian flare to it that sends it into uncharted territory for a horror videogame.
It would take quite an impressive act of ignorance to not know by now what PT is. A “playable teaser” that ends with a trailer for a new Silent Hill game directed by Hideo Kojima and Guillermo Del Toro (and starring that bloke from The Walking Dead that’s not Andrew Lincoln) has set the gaming world alight with anticipation. It’s an exciting prospect to say the least. A master of horror storytelling teaming up with, well, Hideo Kojima, could surely produce something special. Unless, of course, it ends up being the gaming equivalent of A.I., or worse still, that chilling collaboration between Bowie and Bing Crosby singing ‘Little Drummer Boy’. Just a thought.
For now all the signs are good. PT is terrifying and if the final game manages the same quality of horror we’re in for something special indeed. It’s time to return to that mystery ingredient, however. There are a few candidates worthy of discussion and as I was playing the game a few things impressed me greatly (during those brief moments of respite where I wasn’t cowering in fear).
Repetition. PT revels in it. From an assets point of view, this game is a work of genius. The whole thing consists of an empty room, an L shaped corridor and a manky bathroom. You start in the empty room, emerge into the corridor, explore the bathroom (if it’s open) and then move on to the corridor’s end. Going through the door at the end of the corridor places you back where you started. The first time it happened I grinned from ear to ear because it only takes one time to send a clear message: there is no escape. You will walk this corridor until the game is done with you. You, the player, are not in control. You can choose to move forward and backward and you can turn off your console, but that’s it. Best get going back down that creepy ass corridor, worm.
Realism. PT is about as close to photorealistic I’ve seen a game get. It helps with the horror because when the horrible things happen – and believe me they will – it’s all the more unsettling. Squint your eyes and you could really be walking down the corridor of a suburban domicile just about anywhere in the world. Ok so your house is (hopefully) less littered with empty booze bottles and discarded blister packs of spent pills, but the lighting and level of detail in the game’s setting are simply staggering.
Lynchianism. I’m a sucker for David Lynch and PT is definitely taking some cues from his work. When I encountered a skinless almost-baby making distorted mewing sounds in the sink I was immediately reminded of two things: Eraserhead and the need for some new undergarments. It can only be praise to say that after completing the game I was gagging to watch Eraserhead and Twin Peaks for the millionth time. Lynch is the king of surreal, unsettling horror, so his influence in PT is a welcome one indeed.
Horrible, horrible jump scares. Until playing PT I had only ever screamed involuntarily while watching The Orphanage, and in that circumstance I got away with it because everyone else screamed with me. Sitting on my sofa, playing PT with my partner beside me, it happened for the second time in my life. I walked past the radio, which was telling a gruesome and chilling story of murder, only for it to be interrupted by a voice telling me not to turn around. Obviously I turned around, and was immediately set upon by a ghostly woman, who promptly devoured me. It doesn’t sound particularly scary in the retelling, but it led to both my partner and I screaming aloud and waking our six week old from a rare moment of slumber. We laughed afterwards, but only to mask the fear.
There’s also a fridge covered in blood, bound in rope, suspended from the ceiling and emitting the sounds of a terrified child. I’m not sure further explanation is needed because that’s a thing you have to put up with in PT, and it’s bloody ‘orrible.
I’m not sure any one of these things is the mystery ingredient that makes PT so special. It’s probably fair to say they all combine and are responsible in their own way for adding to the horror of the experience, but they bode well for what’s to come. If Silent Hills (the unnecessarily pluralised name of Kojima/Del Toro’s entry to the series) can sustain the same feeling of terror present in PT we’re in for a treat when the game eventually arrives. Many horror games are adept at using jump-scares and while PT is no exception, it’s the psychological aspects of its horror and the intelligence of its design that makes it stand out from the crowd.