The demo for the recently canceled “Silent Hills” was a very intense product. At least to me it was. While I’m aware that not everyone seems to share my views, I believe it was one of the scariest games to be released in recent years, and it was only a demo. I shudder to think what the final product could have been.
Now I know what you’re thinking reading this review: “isn’t it a little late to be doing a review of P.T?” And the answer? Sure it is, the thing came out last August. However, with its recent cancelation, and after having reviewed Master Reboot, I wanted to do an in-depth analysis of what makes P.T so scary compared to a lot of the tripe that crowds the Steam store calling itself “survival horror.”
Now of course, why read about it when you can watch it in the second Ninja Live Review!
Now rather than review P.T as a game, because it’s been done already, I’m going to review what makes P.T so effective as a horror experience in this breakdown of all its elements.
P.T’s atmosphere is incredibly effective. You begin in a seemingly normal environment, a pretty nice looking house with not a lot going on. It’s very tight, being mostly long hallways and the only other room you can interact with is a bathroom. There’s a clock that reads 23:59 throughout most of the game, and there’s a very nice use of lighting and sound. The game takes full advantage of the PS4’s graphical capability, really giving you the sense that you’re in a house (it’s almost photo-realistic, honestly).
Another big part of the atmosphere comes from the first-person perspective. You see a lot of indie developers doing this now, since the advent of Amnesia, and it really has over-saturated the market, however I don’t think it’s a bad thing when done right. The FPP is the most effective way to immerse a player into your world, and P.T really drives it home.
The gentle sway of the camera as you move to create that sense of careful walking, the tight corridors giving the player that feeling of claustrophobia, and even the design of the house works incredibly well with the FPP. Its two long corridors separated by a 90 degree turn. As the tension rises, turning that corner becomes incredibly scary since you cannot predict what’s going to be on the other side.
And closer to the end, when all the lights are out and you just have a flashlight, the halls are a perfect distance, and the light is just bright enough to let you see what’s in front of you, even down the hall a bit but you’ll never see danger until it’s too late. All of these elements work together to create a simple atmosphere that immensely terrifying and never boring.
Effective Use of Quiet
P.T is a very rare breed of horror game not only in the “AAA” market but also the majority of the indie scene. While survival horror has mostly been treated like action games with horror elements in the “AAA” scene (see, Resident Evil 5&6, Dead Space 3, Dead Island, and pretty much every Silent Hill since 4), in the indie market, it’s been more or less the same.
This has been the biggest problem with “survival horror” as a genre because it’s removed all the subtlty that’s supposed to be associated with it. It’s very representative of “American Horror,” movies like “Friday the 13th,” or “Nightmare on Elm Street” films that horrifying imagery over subtle scares that resonate long after viewing.
This was the first thing I noticed about P.T. Just how quiet it is, almost all the time. There’s no shouting monsters, no screaming ghouls, just an eerie tension that builds slowly. Even when the ambiance does pick up, and Lisa’s sounds start becoming active, they’re not the aforementioned screams and wails. They’re the soft cries of a tortured woman.
Effective Use of Nothing to Create Tension
This is something P.T does very effectively, but in fairness Silent Hill did kind of start this. P.T has a pretty fair amount of nothing going on for the majority of its first act. However, that isn’t as boring as it sounds. P.T is very effective at using small changes so that things are happening, but it still feels like not much is really going on. You feel unsure, or unsafe because, coupled with the quiet and eerie atmosphere, there are these small indicators to let you know danger is afoot. But they are so small, that you don’t feel immediately unsafe until the very end. It’s an excellent way to throw the player off balance, and keep them guessing and tense the whole way through.
A lot of indie developers seem to try and replicate this as can be seen in Pineview Drive or Wooden Floors or even Master Reboot for that matter, but the problem they usually have is there’s just NOTHING happening for such a long time that you end up getting bored. They start out kind of tense because you don’t really know what’s going to happen, but once you figure out that nothing’s happening, or the attempts at scares from the lack of tension are so pathetic, you just lose interest.
Effective Use of the Changing Landscape
P.T is extremely clever in its use of only one single location. It’s something so small, yet has such an incredible effect. Only having one environment to explore allows the player to become familiar with his or her surroundings, however, P.T doesn’t just have you in the same corridor for the 30 minute experience, rather it has you doing laps through it, changing the landscape ever so slightly each time.
The initial moment when you exit at the end of the hall only to start at the beginning kicks off the feeling of disorientation, and it only gets more potent as you continuously walk through the halls, but in a room that’s not quite the same as the last. Something as simple as the door at the end of the hall being closed instead of open, the radio suddenly telling you to “look behind you” after being off for so many turns, the scrawling of spooky messages on the walls or the sudden shift in tone as the lights change color. All of these elements work well to create an excellent horror experience; where not only the ghost, or monsters are out to get you, but the very landscape itself is working against you.
Effective Use of Lisa as an Antagonist
Lisa is by far the scariest thing about P.T. The build up to her arrival, the way she just stands in certain areas, twitching and being horrible, and particularly, the way she teases you and never really comes out and gets you (except in some certain parts if you take too long solving the puzzle).
You see, a monster’s scariness in a horror game is directly related to how helpless a player feels towards them. In the early days of Resident Evil and the first few Silent Hill games, this was achieved by clunky controls, weird cameras and a general lack of equipment to fight them (although the clunky controls and camera were intentional to, as mentioned above, simulate the feeling that the game itself was working against you).
Too often now villains have very predictable behavior. I know a lot of people agree that Outlast was a pretty scary game, and I agree that it is, but I was a little taken out when I noticed a lot of the inmates follow set patrol paths. Lisa doesn’t do that.
She’s extremely unpredictable and even when it seems the game is trying to teach you hints about where she might be, it never really seems to follow. She never comes looking for you, she just stands in the dark, waiting for you to find her. Even when she “gets” you and lunges forward, nothing really happens. The game lets you wander about for a bit until that horrible moment you turn around and there she is. From the minute you see Lisa, you get the sense that she wants you to know she’s around. That she is very much in-control of the situation.
P.T is probably the best and worst thing I’ve experience in a game since my childhood. It’s been a very long time since I played a horror game and was so scared I tried to pass the controller off to a friend. Even though it may never see the light of day, and even though Konami is trying to bury all evidence of it ever existing, it remains to me a masterful creation of horror. It is perfectly tense, extremely unsettling and most of all, pants shittingly terrifying. I urge anyone looking to make a horror game to play it and see what makes a horror game so effective.