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Why we can't stop talking about P.T.

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P.T. is a demo for a game that doesn't even have a release date. Really, it's a piece of viral marketing: it was released as a free "gameplay experience" after Sony's press event at Gamescom in August, and "beating" it unlocks a trailer for Silent Hills, Hideo Kojima's upcoming take on the Silent Hill horror franchise. It's just a teaser, but this tiny game is still inspiring and scaring people nearly three months after its release.

People are still playing P.T., analyzing its mysteries, finding new details in its twisting, creepily repeating hallways. YouTube users like Marszie and TheGrateDebate are still posting videos about the game. Folks are making fan films, analysis videos, and lets-plays.

So, why are people still talking about it?

It's a mystery

"The nature of P.T. and its series of mysteries definitely lends itself plenty of lasting power," said Bob, one half of TheGrateDebate, and a fellow who has put in more than 60 hours unraveling the teaser's mysteries. "Hideo Kojima has said that P.T. was not made for a single person to solve, that it required people who spoke different languages to come together to figure out the game's final puzzle. Because of this, the game has at its core a social element that allows it to linger in the public mindset.

"In addition to that is the fact that P.T. is a horror game, and a pretty damn good one at that," he continued. "We've seen the viral success of small, effective horror titles before: games like Slender, Amnesia: The Dark Descent and Among the Sleep come to mind. For one reason or another, horror games have a tendency to become viral, possibly due to our fascination with watching others get scared. P.T. is also very visually impressive, showing off a level of photorealism and detail that is simply stunning.

"The greatest reason P.T. is still being discussed is due to the way it tells its story through clues and hints."

"But of all these things, probably the greatest reason P.T. is still being discussed is due to the way it tells its story through clues and hints, as well as the possibility, however slight, that there's something in the game that has yet to be discovered. After all, no one has figured out what's going on with the blue, red, green and yellow flashlight colors that appear at the end of the game."

Voidburger, the other half of the TheGrateDebate team, saw lasting appeal in P.T.'s genuine, earnest approach to horror. "Even though it was made to be as viral as possible, we somehow don't mind because there seems to be honest intentions behind it," she said. "When a game is filled to the brim with small details and interesting secrets, you can sense the enthusiasm and care the developers put into the project; it wasn’t just a cash-in to them. Having such love for little details is also something that I think is a main draw to the original Silent Hill series, and it's very exciting to see that spirit represented in P.T."

Mystery also offers the possibility of an enticing reward for those who are willing to put the effort in.

"It's somewhat rare that a game makes you really think about what's going on by obscuring the big picture and providing only little breadcrumbs to follow," said Voidburger. "It heightens curiosity, which goes hand-in-hand with horror, in my opinion. If you weren't curious about the plot, you might not subject yourself to the generally unpleasant experience of being scared, right? It’s an interesting psychological punishment/reward system going on in the background.

P.T. Head gif

"Audiences usually don’t like to be confused when being told a story, whether they’re watching a movie, reading a book, or playing a game. With horror, however, it’s beneficial to keep the audience confused, because it amplifies their fear. And nothing destroys fear like knowledge, so it makes sense to keep the facts few and far between in the horror genre, and make the player work for their plot fix.

Just a little bit off

Some of the scariest and most unsettling horror in the world takes place in the most mundane settings. What's the easiest way to freak people out? To change things in a "normal" environment so that they're slightly off. P.T. takes place in what first appears to be a boring, normal-looking house. But importantly, it takes place in one hallway in that house, over and over again. And things get subtly more hellish as the player moves through the space.

"The story's reluctance to reveal itself certainly contributes to the teaser's perseverance," YouTube user Marszie told me via email. "But if P.T. were not so compelling from the outset I don't think all the story exclusions in the world could have inspired so much discussion. The ambiguities facilitate discussion — they give us something to talk about — but the reason we want to talk about them is because we enjoyed the game.

"P.T.'s greatest asset is its looping hallway."

"And we enjoyed the game for plenty of reasons, but P.T.'s greatest asset is its looping hallway. Not only does it invoke terror to traverse the same space over and over, knowing each time that something about it is going to be different, but it also invokes curiosity, or a desire to know what will happen next. It's a perfect example of how limitations bolster creativity; with unlimited funds and development time, I doubt anyone at Kojima Productions would've thought to set a whole demo in a single hallway."

Over the Hills

P.T. has clearly captured the imagination (and the sleep) of a critical mass of players. I've stated here that I fully believe P.T. will end up being a scarier, tighter experience than Silent Hills, the game that it's supposed to be teasing. I asked the YouTubers what they think P.T. will ultimately mean for the game — and the Silent Hill franchise as a whole.

"I am looking forward to Silent Hills, but I'm also a little skeptical," Marszie told me. "Every aspect of P.T. that might be perceived as a flaw in any other game works because P.T. is short... What's more, the horror genre is cursed with diminishing returns. A horror movie is never as frightening in its third act as it was in its first, and that deceleration is only more dramatic in a video game, which can stretch onwards for ten hours or more.

"I don't doubt that the team will be able to achieve a similar level of atmosphere in the opening moments of Silent Hills, but is it even possible to maintain it? Would you even want to? I don't think so. I think the development team should focus on writing a very interesting narrative, supported by very interesting characters, so that when the player inevitably becomes acclimated to the game and ceases to be scared by it, he or she has incentive to keep playing."

Lisa Balcony smile photo

Voidburger wants to see more, smaller games in the series.

"There's some talk of Silent Hills being episodic," She said. "My biggest hope for the game — and this is something I've been craving for years — is that it's episodic [the way] The Twilight Zone was. Different writers with different stories being told in the same format, in the same weird universe, tied together by a sense of creepy wrongness. That'd be a nightmare come true!"

I can't think of a better approach than a bunch of small, weird games — in the vein of P.T., made by different teams. A sort of Masters of Horror for the Silent Hill series. That's a perfect way to honor the spirit of P.T. on the scale of Silent Hills.