Why 'P.T.' is more exciting than 'Silent Hills,' and the future of the video game demo!
A mysterious new horror game for PlayStation 4 — simply titled P.T. — was revealed last week during Sony's Gamescom press conference in Germany. Not only that, it was in development by the wholly unknown 7780s Studio... and a demo was available right then on the PlayStation Store. Something seemed off.
Does this sound familiar?
If you follow the work of Mr. Hideo Kojima, the celebrated game designer behind the Metal Gear franchise, you may recognize some of these tricks from his Metal Gear Solid 5: The Phantom Pain reveal. Originally announced during Spike TV's Video Game Awards as just "The Phantom Pain" by a similarly fictitious developer called Moby Dick Studio, the mystery was cracked almost immediately as internet sleuths pieced together the clues. "I personally expected this to take a week to be solved," Kojima told an audience at Gamescom. "I underestimated the players." It didn't take a week. It was just a few hours later by the time Twitch streamer Soapy Warpig managed to solve the final puzzle, seemingly by accident, revealing the big surprise.
P.T. — which it turns out stands for "playable teaser" — is a, well, teaser for Kojima Production's upcoming take on Silent Hill, titled Silent Hills. One of publisher Konami's key franchises, recent installments have failed to keep the series front of mind in an increasingly competitive video game market. Seemingly in response to this gradual decline, Konami tapped its wunderkind, along with his newly expanded Kojima Productions studio, to take this classic out for a spin.
In turn, Kojima — a cursory scan of his very active Twitter feed should serve as evidence of his cinephile bona fides — enlisted the help of none other than horror filmmaker Guillermo Del Toro, whose last attempt to make a horror game ended with the dissolution of publisher THQ. Joining them in front of the virtual camera is Norman Reedus, best known for his portrayal of Daryl Dixon in The Walking Dead, and less known for his small roles in Del Toro's Mimic and Blade II. If you're not sure how exciting this triple threat lineup is, revealed in quick success at the end of P.T., then listen to Soapy Warpig's video which not only first revealed the project to the world, but managed to capture its collective excitement in one go:
When discussing his penchant for these surprise reveals, Kojima added, "I think we're getting better." I couldn't agree more.
P.T. isn't just one of the most clever pieces of video game marketing I've ever seen, it's also one of the best horror games I've ever played and the best game I've played this year. In the tech world, an Amazon Kindle press conference can hold the entire internet's attention for an hour, as they reveal... a new e-reader? Contrast this with, say, a Gamescom press conference, even Sony's Gamescom press conference this year, a rapid-fire litany of games, noise, reveals, promises and oh god it's so boring. Why aren't video games as exciting as a new e-reader?
Kojima's two most recent reveals attempt to answer this question and it's simple: formula. Gamers are raised on pattern recognition, and in an industry full of the same brands, the same mechanics, and franchises on top of franchises, we're really good at reading those patterns. So surprise us, right? Easier said than done, and P.T. represents an entirely new level of marketing brinksmanship: something that's actually worth our time.
Kojima is quick to point out, and P.T. itself proclaims, that it is not a demo of the final Silent Hills experience, but instead a teaser. By this, I think we're to understand that the mechanics and game play of P.T. shouldn't be assumed to mirror those of the eventual Silent Hills game. Where P.T. is presented entirely in first-person, until the final Norman Reedus reveal, perhaps the final product will retain the series traditional third-person camera? (A safe bet considering the investment in Reedus.) Where P.T. is almost entirely devoid of interaction, save for a few puzzles, perhaps Silent Hills will flip that dynamic. Here's Kojima discussing the merit of "action horror":
Even the graphics — which are honestly rather spectacular, and are the most impressive use of Kojima's much-hyped Fox Engine to date — are billed as intentionally low fidelity, so as to not give away the AAA pedigree of "7780s Studios'" creation. Kojima says, "We wanted to make it look rough."
Now I can wring my hands and worry about better production values obfuscating what makes P.T. so effective, but this all assumes that P.T. isn't worth our time and is only a "playable teaser," a label that suggests its very existence is owed to promote something else. But here we are, a week later, watching the entire collective efforts of the internet fail to immediately unravel the game's mysteries. Just yesterday, somebody discovered that the game's Swedish audio track had a different message and, while this mystery wasn't much of a mystery to the Swedish-speaking world, realizing it wasn't the same for everyone worldwide took us... a week? That translated message resulted in even more coverage of a week-old "teaser" and surely prompted even more obsessive scrutiny.
The subtitles have different messages. The various "loops" of the game appear different for many users. There's a ghost on the balcony did you see that ghost oh shit I almost lost it.
The final, infuriating loop has been solved by many, but to this day nobody knows how to predictably duplicate it. That's unfathomable. Think about it! We have the entire internet chiseling away at this thing, and some people insist you need but to make 10 steps (again, the player's clear gait) to trigger the baby laughing, and another 10 to trigger the second laugh. Or do you need to stare at the awful fetus in the sink for the second laugh? Or do you need to listen for the ghost sounds and find the objects she's haunting and stare at them? Or do you need to find the objects and... speak to her?
One of the most popular theories, and the one that I personally subscribe to, is that you need to speak to the ghost using the PS4's headset or PlayStation camera microphone. Kojima himself appears to be teasing that solution on Twitter, encouraging players to play with friends over Twitch. Just like Soapy Warpig did. It's not the video streaming, however, but the audio chatter that solves the puzzle, triggers the second laugh, and lets you answer the phone and exit the house.
This mechanical subversion, using parts of the physical console experience in the virtual, is reminiscent of one of gaming's great freak outs in Kojima's own Metal Gear Solid, the famous Psycho Mantis boss battle.
P.T. feels less like a teaser — especially if the gameplay truly isn't representative of the final Silent Hills experience — and more like a short film. In fact, it reminds me a lot of the shorts that Pixar creates to precede its theatrical releases, shorts that often overshadow the bigger production. And that's something entirely new in the video game space. This isn't episodic. This isn't AAA retail. This isn't indie.
I'm glad it's also good marketing, giving other publishers incentive to try and replicate this formula. To try something other than the traditional video game demo, insomuch as that still exists. To try something other than the press conference reveal, with all its boring bombast. Kojima writes on Twitter that P.T. is the "world['s] 1st playable game teaser introduced in game industry" and, while I may argue over the definition of teaser and what that means, it's definitely the first something. His second thought, however, I agree with completely: "I believe in the possibility such method leads to broaden the game." P.T. is accessible. It's short. It's mechanically simple. It's mysterious. It's also absolutely terrifying.
His final request: "Pls try."
And you should, or you'll be missing out on the best game so far this year and what could be, if we're more than a little bit lucky, the future of the video game demo. At least until this too becomes formulaic, another pattern to be pulled out of the noise.