Is P.T. even a game? This was an actual debate at Polygon — the same outlet that selected "it's not a game" classics The Walking Dead and Gone Home for its top game of the year picks, two years running.
The Walking Dead was short on action, so some argued it wasn't a game. But P.T.'s primary mechanic — walking down the same hallway over and over — makes The Walking Dead look like a twitch shooter. Gone Home features the simplest of puzzles to solve, and while P.T.'s many puzzles are mechanically simple, its very existence is itself a puzzle, its entire raison d'etre a carefully hidden treasure only to be revealed upon completing a comically obtuse sequence of events (I subscribe to the "Jareth" solution, personally).
So why is it not a game? Because it's a commercial?
P.T. stands for "playable teaser," and it's the latest in creator Hideo Kojima's parallel efforts to 1) subvert player expectations in the face of increasing pre-release hype weariness and 2) rethink the entire idea of the video game demo. Previous efforts include the incredible oil tanker prologue for Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty, bundled for free with Konami's Zone of the Enders, and this year's disappointing Metal Gear Solid 5: Ground Zeroes, a poorly received $30 demo.
Kojima's new high point is P.T.
Stealthily released during Sony's August Gamescom press conference by the mysterious 7780s Studios (see aforementioned "Jareth" solution), P.T. was billed as a demo for a new horror game ... and that's true. Sort of. It didn't take long for one player to finish the game's final loop — a feat that would take the entire collective internet weeks to reproduce with any consistency — and that she happened to do it while livestreaming? This was an entirely new level of teaser.
Streamer Soapy Warpig's exuberant narration perfectly accentuates the reveal's quadruple threat. First, Hideo Kojima's name fills the screen. A scream. Then horror impresario Guillermo del Toro's. Another scream. Then star Norman Reedus. "Oh my fucking God." And finally the reveal … Silent Hills, the latest installment of the classic franchise, now under the care of Kojima and collaborators del Toro and Reedus. Her stream was quickly moved to YouTube and made the rounds (it's accrued an impressive half a million views since August), but even with a template caught on video, players had difficulty reproducing the steps needed to trigger the phone call — "You've been chosen" — which unlocks the door that finishes the game.
for the incredible price of $0.00, players can download something that feels entirely new
I've compared P.T. to the animated shorts before a Pixar movie. Regardless of whatever Silent Hills is — and we have reason to believe it won't be anything like P.T. — P.T. stands on its own. It's a novella or a short story, not a chapter out of a longer work. It's a form that hasn't really existed in video games before.
How could you sell a game that has exactly one environment, and that environment is a hallway? It has no action. It defies logic. "It's not a game." But if you give it away, how can you justify the production values needed to make the experience pants-shitting scary? (Seriously, still screenshots from the game alone are enough to freak me out).
The solution: A demo. Or, in this case — since Silent Hills is still some years from release, and it seems clear that P.T.'s presumably $60 AAA big brother won't share its spartan mechanics — a playable teaser.
So for the incredible price of $0.00, players can download something that feels entirely new. This isn't a mobile game. This isn't a free-to-play game. But it's also not AAA. It's experimental. Avant-garde, even. It's accessible, while being really difficult to play alone. That's not only because, again, it's really scary (pro tip: play in the middle of the afternoon), but because it's really difficult. Good luck unraveling P.T.'s bizarre logic alone. Even with a solution mostly agreed upon, months later we still can't explain some things. (Why does the color of the flashlight change?)
If we're lucky, P.T. represents a kind of compromise. In an increasingly risk-averse market, where franchises shine and new ideas struggle to breathe, maybe there's a way to do both? And if we're not lucky, P.T. remains an anomaly. A canted look at an alternate reality where AAA video games are free to be experimental.
This piece is part of Polygon's 2014 in Review series. Throughout December we'll be exploring the games, people and events that shaped gaming in the past year. You can check out more 2014 in Review stories in our StoryStream.