By Noah Howard
You wake up in a damp, dark room, empty except for a scuttling cockroach. There’s a single door with a light emanating from it. You slowly walk over and, upon pushing it open, find yourself at the end of a long, dimly-lit hallway of what looks like a classic suburban home. There are pictures on the wall of a smiling family and potted plants that would have provided a cozy feel if not for the ominous creaking in the background. As you walk down the hallway you find the source of the noise: a chandelier, swinging back and forth like a metronome, above a table holding a radio. A newscaster’s voice can be heard describing a grisly murder, where a mild-mannered husband slaughters his pregnant wife. Continuing your stroll, you find the stairs to a dark basement. You descend and open the door. And when you open it, your first moment of creeping chill flies across your skin. You’re back at the beginning of the hallway you just exited, and there’s nowhere to go but forward.
So goes “P.T.,” the ominous free horror game released by master video game designer Hideo Kojima in collaboration with genre-film maestro Guillermo del Torro as a “playable teaser” (hence “P.T.”) for their collaboration on “Silent Hills.” Due to creative differences, “Silent Hills” was canceled by its publisher and “P.T.” was removed from the Playstation Store, making it impossible to access unless it had already been downloaded during the short window of time when it was available. And that’s a shame, because “P.T.” is easily the most terrifying game, and possibly the scariest work of art of any medium, ever created.
Like horror movies, most games in the horror genre are mind-bogglingly fun, tense and goofy adventures abounding with psychological twists and inventive creature design. The “Resident Evil” series is often held-up as a cornerstone, as famous for its intentionally bad acting as for its survival-oriented gameplay.
But “P.T.” isn’t in the least bit fun. It’s a stressful, tense, unpredictable experience where the player is never allowed to orient themselves or gain any grasp of what’s going on. Most games work by applying consistent logic to their worlds that players can interact with. “P.T.” works in exactly the opposite way, by removing any perceivable rationality and leaving the player lost as a result.
“P.T.” has two predictable aspects, each of which leaves more questions asked than answered. The first is its recurring structure: The entire game takes place in the same hallway that repeats every time you descend the basement stairs. Each repetition brings subtle (or occasionally dramatic) changes, creating an unending feeling of spiraling downwards in a not-so-subtle reference to hell. The second is the hallway’s resident ghost, Lisa, a smiling corpse with empty eyes and a bloodstained womb. Lisa’s presence seems omniscient. Though there are only a few moments when she can actually kill the player, the player remains blissfully ignorant of when they are and aren’t safe. Instead, they see the ghost wandering the hallway, looking on curiously at this unexpected invader to her peaceful resting place, never certain if she plans to strike or only to watch silently.
Progression requires interaction with increasingly obtuse “puzzles,” most of which have logic that only conspiracy theorists might be able to see, and many of which require thinking about the game on a meta-level to discover. Notice the blue “X” painted over the woman’s face in the family photo? The only other blue “X” in your vicinity is in your physical world: the button on your Playstation controller. Press it, and watch the photo’s eyes get gouged out to resemble your ghostly companion.
Continued progress requires knowledge of loading screens and secret ciphers, and as the player descends further and further downwards through the same hallway, they are made to feel less and less in control of the logic behind what’s happening. The final puzzle is near-impossible to figure out without consulting and collaborating with other players, combining phone rings, a baby’s laughter and physically screaming the name “Jerith” repeatedly into a microphone attached to the console. Not only are these puzzles obtuse; they force the player to bring the experience of playing the game with them into the outside world. “P.T.” does not allow you to walk away from the screen. If you want to see the credits roll, you’ll have to hold the game in your mind as you frantically consult with other players to uncover its secrets.
And that’s what makes “P.T.” truly so horrifying. Most horror media can be consumed and set aside, but “P.T.” forces you to replay its most disturbing moments over and over in your head, ingraining gruesome memories that might instantly be forgotten in an equally gory horror movie. By forcing you to interact with the game through its loading screen, through other outside clues from the developer, and through physically shouting into the microphone, “P.T.” grounds its world within your real one, forcing you to interact with the game just as much yourself as through your nameless digital avatar. Even now “P.T.” continues to yield new secrets. One fan just discovered that, for a good portion of the game, Lisa follows directly behind your back. Because the game is first-person, unless you’re one of the few people observant enough to notice her shadow, you never would have known that her empty eye sockets are constantly staring into the back of your head.
I’ve played through “P.T.” only a few times. Once you know the solutions to its puzzles, the game can be completed in just over an hour. But I still struggle to return each time I decide to revisit it. My skin still crawls when I see Lisa standing motionless in the hallway. My ears still perk up when I hear the creaking of the chandelier. That hallway, that infernal, never-ending hallway, is burned into my brain. And the beauty of “P.T.”’s terror is that I am now incapable of forgetting its every detail. “P.T.” has left my Playstation’s hard drive, and has forever settled itself into my nightmares.
Contact Noah Howard at noah.howard ‘at’ stanford.edu.