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Wednesday, August 27, 2014

P.T.


P.T.
Hideo Kojima (and a bunch of other people)
PS4 (and maybe other places? I'm not sure.  I played it on Tony's PS4)

I've never really written about video games before, and I haven't really played much of anything made after the Playstation 2, so please bear with me here.  I'm sorry if anything below is totally obvious to people who've been playing and thinking about video games for years.  I just wanted to write about this game because it's probably the worst I've ever felt playing a video game.

P.T., as I understand it, is a playable teaser for Hideo Kojima's upcoming game Silent Hills, the latest entry in the Silent Hill series of horror/survival games.  In the game you play from the 1st-person perspective of some anonymous man who wakes up in a room and explores a hallway in a house, possibly his own.  The controls are simple: you use one control stick to move, the other to look around and to look in closer at something.

The initial fear comes in quickly as you listen to a radio broadcast about a man who recently murdered his wife and child.  You are alone, exploring a dimly lit hallway.  There's trash scattered everywhere and all you hear is the squeaking sound of a lamp suspended on a chain swinging back and forth above the foyer.  When you finally come across a door that you can open, you pass through it and you end up in the exact same place you began in the hallway.

Now, I understand if uncanny circular floorplans aren't exactly your idea of horror, but don't worry-- it only gets worse.  I'll try to skip past detailing the rest of the awful, horrible things that you're subjected to (a quick look through the "PT" or "playable teaser" tag on tumblr or a search for walk throughs on youtube will help you out there), but "it only gets worse" is something that I feel is an accurate description of my experience playing through it.

I think that's what I want to get at here: games as an immersive experience.  I'm regularly impressed whenever I see new games these days and how meticulously they've built the world of the game that you'll probably only be spending a couple hours a night on, but P.T. is probably the best recent example of a truly immersive experience and it just takes place in a dimly lit hallway.  P.T. achieves this by creating a very real atmosphere that takes advantage of both the visuals and the sounds of the game, but it's also very dependent on the horror and mystery of it all to compel you to keep playing.

After playing through the first couple of loops of the hallway, I set my controller down and decided to stop because it was too scary.  And nothing really even happens during those first couple of loops aside from the terror of being trapped in some sort of strange hallway and this horrible feeling that you aren't alone and that something is going to be waiting for you when you turn the corner.  It only gets worse.

I came back to the game the next night, convinced that since I already knew what was going to happen for those first couple of loops, it would be less scary.  It worked for a little bit; I was feeling pretty brave and confident, exploring the hallway and taking my time looking at all the picture frames and details, but once I figured out what to do next I got scared all over again.  The game is not above using a very effective, cheap scare.

When I think about the scares in P.T. I can easily see those things working just as well for a horror movie.  However, what I think made P.T. a scarier experience for me was that all of these things happen as a direct result of your participation.  With a horror movie, you're always watching a movie.  You're always a step removed from the action that you see.  With an immersive horror game like P.T., you are involved in the fear via the character you're controlling.  This is all happening because you are in a way actively choosing to experience it.  In a horror movie you can shout all you want, but those characters are still going to turn the corner and see something scary.  In P.T. you can shout all you want, but you're the one who's still pressing forward on the controller, ready to look behind that door that just mysteriously opened a crack.  It's that sort of agency and involvement that really makes you feel awful.  You know you shouldn't look behind that door, but you're going to do it anyway.  It only gets worse.

As I was playing, my stomach started hurting from all this anxiety I was putting myself through.  My entire body was clenched, ready to just toss the controller away and bolt out of the living room.  Actively managing my body's fight or flight response was entirely exhausting, but there I was, forcing myself to keep on going, to keep subjecting myself to whatever evils lurked in that awful hallway and that horrible bathroom.  Everything was terrifying and you had to figure out little puzzles to get to the next part, which, on top of everything else, was inevitably just a return to where you started, but somehow scarier.  That was one of the most interesting things about this game, I think; the progression of the kinds of fear and terror that you experience as the game goes on.  It starts with the fear that comes with not knowing what the situation is; who/where you are, what you're doing here, etc.  Then it continues to the more uncanny fear related to doors not opening to where they should,  and things not being in their place; that sort of purposely nonsensical architecture akin to what Kubrick was doing in The Shining or in Mark Z. Danielewski's House of Leaves.  Later on we get more traditional horror elements like ghosts and murder and blood, but those fears of the unknown and the uncanny remain and seep into the rest of it.  Different horror elements are introduced as the game progresses, but they never disappear.  You enter a door and end up back at the beginning, but those horror elements stick around and build on each other, allowing your own fears to grow and, like the best horror, carry over into your own life.  Walking to the bathroom in the middle of the night is always the worst after watching/reading/playing a really good horror experience.

Probably my favorite part of this game came towards the end of my playing experience.  The last half of the game, maybe even more than that, I played while Tessa and our friend Tony gave me tips about the puzzles and what to do next.  None of us had actually played through the entire thing, so with me behind the controls, we set out into that darkened hallway and screamed at every scare around the corner.  I doubt this is what Kojima had in mind when he said he envisioned seeing people around the world having to collaborate to solve the final puzzle, but you make due with what you have.  It was nice playing the game together and sharing the same feelings of terror and dread, knowing that we were all hating every step, but still compelled to keep on going.  That's the kind of shared experience I never typically associated with online gaming groups.  There's something to be said about being in the same room and being scared together and yelling at each other and solving a problem together.  I don't know exactly how that ties in with P.T. being an immersive horror game, but maybe I'll take it as the one big sigh of relief I had during my experience.

Anyway, P.T. was a really interesting and terrifying gameplay experience.  It's nice to see Kojima's odd, brechtian affectations applied to a horror game, as it seems to be a genre of games that really thrives on those tics.  I was happy to have played it, but I was happier that it was all over.  At least until whenever Silent Hills comes out.

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