In my restless dreams, I see that hallway.
By now, the demo for P.T. (“Playable Trailer”) has been revealed to be a teaser for an upcoming reboot/re-imagining of Konami’s Silent Hill series. Titled Silent Hills, the game will be captained by the unlikely duo of Hideo Kojima and Guillermo del Toro. This partnership is absolutely perfect. Kojima’s knack for unconventional storytelling and del Toro’s vision is the right kind of creative team I want to see make a new Silent Hill adventure. It also gives del Toro a second chance at game design after his first idea, inSane, sadly fell through. And if there’s a franchise that needs a shot in the arm right now, it’s this one.
I’ve been a big fan of Silent Hill since the beginning but the last few games have left much to be desired. Silent Hill: Downpour was garbage and I felt left out in the cold after Silent Hill: Homecoming – pretty as it was – veered the series away from psychological terror in favor of something more visceral. Not that I had a problem with violence in the series, it is a staple, but I always felt Silent Hill 2 struck a perfect balance between violence and unseen terrors. No other game in the series has worked that well.
Whether or not P.T. is directly related to the yet unknown story of Silent Hills is up for grabs. Hell, I’m not even certain how much of a presence del Toro or Kojima had in the demo. But if the content is any indication of Silent Hills‘ artistic and atmospheric direction, this could finally be the game that surpasses Silent Hill 2. A bold claim to make, considering that anything can happen between now and the game’s future release. But stepping away from the waking nightmare that is P.T., it is difficult to not get excited by its potential.
Until the trailer’s title reveal, there is no indication that this slice of of a game has anything to do with the Silent Hill franchise. The only clue is the loading icon, three small circles arranged in a pattern similar to Silent Hill 3‘s Halo of the Sun. Played from the first person perspective, the demo begins in a small, dark room lit by a single light afixed above a door. Passing through takes the player into an unassuming hallway in an unassuming house. The hallway is empty and clean, with the exception of small, innocuous objects strewn across a small nook situated in the corner of the hallway. The hallway itself is an “L” shaped path, with another door at the end that leads to a dark room. There are no exits save for a set of doors in a small foyer. With the exit firmly locked, there’s only one way to go. Heading down steps and moving through the door takes you…back to the “L” shaped hallway. Stuck in a bizarre loop, P.T. guides the player through a mysterious nightmare that gets worse with each journey through the door.
Part of what made Silent Hill so effective as a horror game was its sense of mystery and creating tension from the unknown. P.T. amplifies this terror by leaving the player completely in the dark in regards to what they are meant to accomplish. Elements that we take for granted, like tutorials and button prompts, have been removed in P.T. which has effect of making the player feel helpless in a thoroughly creepy place. Figuring out how to interact with the game is a journey of discovery and experimentation. As the game gets more and more insane, not knowing what I am capable of as a player resulted in a level of fear and unease I haven’t felt since Silent Hill 1.
As scared as I was for the remainder of the game, my first reaction to the game was it’s beauty. P.T. looks absolutely amazing on the PlayStation 4 hardware. I believe the game is running on Konami’s FOX engine, which lends the hallway a startling sense of realism through high resolution texture work and exceptional lighting effects. The FOX engine is capable of some amazing imagery, most notably when the hallway loops get more and more frightening. Each loop sends the player deeper into madness. Whose madness, we’re not quite sure. Is it the faceless protagonist or is the house simply haunted? Either way, the game provides a great deal of unsettling imagery and special effects, many of which feel influenced directly by del Toro.
For all its mystery and beauty, as a game P.T. is a mixed bag. While I applaud the game for taking away familiar gameplay elements, forcing the player to experiment can make the last half of the demo quite frustrating. Players are meant to infer how things work in the house and use the limited toolset to get through a series of unconventional puzzles. This turns into a rather trying practice because the obtuse nature of the puzzles leave one scratching their head, unsure of what to do next.
Compounding the frustration and annoyance is the “scary as fuck” atmosphere. There are a number of different ways P.T. tries to push the players buttons as they scour every inch of the hallway for clues. A flickering light, a glimpse of a ghost, the uncomfortable wailing of a tortured woman, the gentle squeaking of a swinging chandlier. Moments like these create an atmosphere so thick with tension, that the smallest action, be it a unnerving voice speaking directly to you from a radio or seeing a ghost close a door you just opened is enough to necessitate a change in underwear. I had to get up and walk away from the game several times because I was so scared. When I fell victim to the ghost, I reacted like that kid in The Shining when he saw the two dead girls. My whole body shook as the ghostly visage of a dead woman filled my TV screen, my eyes closed to shield me from what was going on (but open ever so slightly to see what was going on), a terrified whimper caught in my through. Usually when I get scared, I have the typical “Frat Guy” response, meaning I’ll shout “FUCK!” and then punch the couch. This was the first time a video game had me so scared I wanted to cry. And P.T. doesn’t let up after that. Bloody refridgerators, a Lynchian fetus stuck in a bathroom sink, and a voice on the radio telling me to turn around. Seriously, this game does not fuck around.
Like many others, I couldn’t finish P.T. because I got stuck on the demo’s final puzzle. Thanks to the Internet, however, the ending has been posted online and presents a teaser trailer for Silent Hills starring The Walking Dead‘s Norman Reedus. I’m not quite sure how to feel about his starring roll, since his character in AMC’s TV show wore thin for me early on. Still, given the talent behind the game and the demo I just played, I have faith that Silent Hills could be the game I’ve always wanted. I’m especially stoked to see what sort of creature designs del Toro will dream up. Silent Hill‘s monsters have always been a big draw because unlike typical zombies or biological monstrosities, the creatures in Silent Hill are the stuff of nightmares. They are nightmares, the twisted manifestations of the dark recesses of one’s soul. Given his work on Hellboy II: The Golden Army and Pan’s Labyrinth, I can’t wait to see what he can conjure up.
In the grand scheme of things, P.T. may end up having little to do with Silent Hills‘ final product. However, as a proof of concept, it is an amazing piece of free software. Be warned that it pulls no punches and those sensitive to scary images and sounds may find the game rather traumatic.