A Separate Reality: Five Years of “P.T.”

In just over a week I’m going to be playing “Death Stranding,” the long-gestating creation of video game auteur Hideo Kojima. That feels like something of a remarkable statement, given just how long and how well-documented that period of incubation has been; audiences haven’t even touched this game yet, what it’s really about is still debatable, and yet I feel like we’ve been living with and around it forever. Accusations of overhype are of course being lobbed around, maybe not without reason, but I’m ignoring them with steely and perhaps unwarranted loyalty- “Death Stranding” has come to mean a lot to me, an eerie, ominously resonant glimpse at what we might be able to expect from video games in terms of narrative innovation and formal experimentation. And it also means a lot to me because I perceive it as the spiritual if not the genetic descendant of the purest example of horror in gaming I’ve ever seen. 

Five years ago Kojima, working at the time with Konami, released the anemically named “playable teaser” (it quickly and mercifully became known as “P.T.”) for their upcoming project, “Silent Hills.” A new entry in a horror franchise which has long been associated with psychological distress rather than endless encounters with hostile monsters, “Silent Hills” would have had a respected and long pedigree; the games lean in on unsettling imagery and create a lingering sense of dread by crafting stories around the horrors we form and carry with us. Alas, it was never meant to be. Kojima and Konami’s partnership dissolved with deep animosity on both sides, and “Silent Hills” was scrapped. There’s a part of me that feels like this hardly matters. It’s fun to speculate on the shape this game would have assumed (open world horror? branching, butterfly-effect storytelling? randomly generated?), and its status as never-was-and-never-will-be also lends the title a sort of mythical gilding- we can dream that it was going to be the greatest horror game ever, and because it doesn’t exist, it always can be. Reality need never get in the way. But in the end, “Silent Hills” stands as incidental to what we got with “P.T.”. That game, and I won’t call it a demo because that just denigrates the completeness of the thing, was as close to perfect as reality tends to deliver. 

As an aside, and before going any further, I debated whether to include a detailed description of what “P.T.” entails in terms of gameplay, ultimately deciding against it. Every summation I tried to hammer out felt labored and effortful, and the game is emphatically neither of those things. There are excellent Let’s Plays, all of which capture the confining and instant dread “P.T.” evokes, and those with commentary certainly demonstrate how universally terrified we all were by the game. 

I love horror, and I love video games, and they feel like they were made for each other. Games make the player a coauthor of the action they contain; in assuming control of a character, we as players are responsible for participating in the narrative of the game in a way which feels far more intimate than would watching a character carry out actions in a movie or a novel. There’s a permeability of consciousness there which feels ideally suited for horror, as horror seeks to provoke an aesthetic response which shocks and unnerves us. So often, however, games with a claim to be horror titles do little more than occasionally dress up as such. A game will throw some monstrosity at me, and for a while it’s tense, until I figure out how to evade, defeat, or otherwise vanquish said beastie. It can be an exciting feeling, as it requires me to hang in there and persist, but it could then be ages before anything remotely frightening again happens. Games like this feel like the interactive equivalent of watching a horror movie which falls back on whiplashing its audience with jumpscares. Stressful, sure. Scary, no. And, finally, just kind of exhausting and disappointing. 

“P.T.” does not have mere trappings of horror. “P.T.” is not occasionally scary. This game creates an atmosphere so oppressively terrible, from which we want so keenly to escape, as to be nearly unbearable. Every element and design choice is calculated to produce that effect of suffocation; the claustrophobically narrow first-person camera; the restriction of action to moving forward and zooming in on the environment only, when our inclination is most strongly to look away; the cyclical looping of this one hallway and the persistent fear of what could be waiting around the corner. Most commentators, fairly, focus on that appalling, reincarnating hallway as “P.T.”’s cleverest and most effectively horrifying feature- it’s so economical and so nasty in that simplicity- but I’d contend that its sound design should rank as high. Upsetting and incessantly destabilizing, we’re as eager to escape the noise of this place as much as we are the sight of that damned hallway. The very banality of its setting, a suburban home, makes what “P.T.” does all the more unnerving. Horror creeps into places where we expect nothing to go awry. Like the aforementioned parade of jumpscares, if we anticipate where we’re about to encounter the frightening we lose our sensitivity to it. For horror to be something more than an exaggerated startle reflex, it has to infect something unforeseen, and “P.T.” takes the trope of the haunted house- a potent trope because it feeds our dread of something unclean in our private spaces- and spins it up into something almost Dantean. The game’s world is a kind of purgatory, from which deliverance is possible, but the questions it refuses to answer make that escape, if managed, feel ominous rather than triumphant. Who are we in this game- are we responsible for all these reports we hear on the house’s radio of carnage? Are we the victims of it? Did they even happen in this house? We never know and never really can, which makes our ugly suspicion of complicity as players all the more insidious. 

Beyond the sheer ungodly frightfulness of the game, “P.T.” managed to do something else I find fascinating. The determined player could escape the confines of the game’s hallways, but they only escaped to the arguable freedom, presumably, of Silent Hill, a liminal locale to say the least and one of dubious existential definition. But the game itself slipped its leash as a virtual construction. Its release was so strange, what it was so difficult to nail down, and how we were meant to actually solve the house’s riddle so obtuse, that it quickly spawned its own urban mythology. In a weird way, conversations about “P.T.” reminded me of those about MissingNo., a supposed glitch in the very first generation of Pokemon games which yielded players who caught it a bizarre mutant almost-Pokemon and which required a highly specific ritual to conjure it into being. I could, as a kid, never determine if MissingNo. was real, nor could I account for how, in my pre-internet mid-90s life, I even knew of its possibility, but the idea had a hold on me. It was so eerie to think about games as having their own paranormal relics, their own ghosts, and it was even odder for me to consider what fascination this one pseudo-creature held for me and my friends. Like all the most disquieting urban legends, it was impossible to trace our knowledge of it. Evidently, there were a few different methods of beating “P.T.”, if beating it was really what we did, but those methods, from everything I’ve read, varied considerably from one another. It could be that there were a few viable solutions, but maybe not- maybe there was only one. How these enigmas were pieced together involved a lot of frenzied rumor and internet chatter, but unlike with so many other games which give up their secrets after tireless prodding and datamining, “P.T.” never lost its air of inviolate creepiness. It continues to reveal the depths of its oddities, showing us just how far its commitment to alarming us went, but its whole remains mysterious, self-contained. 

Since its release and subsequent, inglorious execution (part of Konami’s parting shot at Kojima resulted in yanking “P.T.” from the PlayStation store, leaving anyone who hadn’t downloaded it or who had deleted it from their consoles out of luck- it’s gone for good), many games have attempted to make the most out of what “P.T.” introduced. For indie developers especially, that looping environment trick is a godsend, as it is wildly cheap to program and even in the most obvious knock-offs still can cause of a tingle of that original trepidation. “P.T.” inspired such a wave of production of small-scale horror games that I was tempted to doubt its long-term potency- would the game still be as scary as it had been initially after five years of playing and watching its offspring? Yes- yes, it absolutely is. Perhaps because it did craft its own, boundary-defying identity, “P.T.” has a weight and power all its own. And it’s a game which, in a sly, uncanny way, acknowledges us as players- it’s aware that we’ve become involved in and  liable for whatever horror is unfolding around us, and that the easy way out (just stop playing, turn the damn thing off) no longer feels like genuine rescue. 

At one point in the game, a voice, one of the few we meet, tells us: “I walked. I could do nothing but walk. And then, I saw me walking in front of myself. But it wasn’t really me. Watch out. The gap in the door, it’s a separate reality. The only me is me. Are you sure the only you is you?” It’s far more than a wink-at-the-camera synopsis of what the game is doing- it’s a quietly chilling comment on what games can do, introducing us to a layering of consciousness we’re not likely to find anywhere else. In the best games, it’s impossible to feel as though the only you is you. We’re inhabiting ourselves and our own histories, identities, and consciousnesses. And we’re also inhabiting the character we play in the narrative before us. “P.T.” is a concentrated, disorienting exercise in polydimensionality, and there’s no better delivery system for such an experience than horror. 

I still don’t know what exactly we’re getting with “Death Stranding.” It might be best, actually, just to accept that it might be nothing exact at all, that the very murkiness of its nature will be part of its appeal and its strength. “P.T.”’s elastic, transcendental success had so much to do with how we as players were compelled to seek each other out as we attempted to unravel its secrets; “Death Stranding” seems to be about the debilitating nature of isolation and the critical importance of human connections, both to each other and to our environment. It’s hard not to see the evolution from the one, an intensely disquieting exercise in singular confinement, to the other, wherein our sole aim as players appears to be one of reaching out and reestablishing the ties that bind. It feels natural. After all, for horror to really do its trick, we need to be offered a way out of it.