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Silent Hills 'pants soiling' scares won't measure up to P.T.

Warning: this piece contains spoilers for P.T. and Eraserhead.

It took 90 minutes for my friends and I to finish the playable teaser for the upcoming Silent Hills. There's no combat, no mechanics outside of walking around and looking at things, and the entire experience takes place in one environment. It's a self-contained "game" that only needs a single hallway to scare the shit out of you.

How did this collection of mundane elements become so much scarier than most full-length horror games?

Turning the familiar on its head

You walk through a messy, but more-or less mundane looking house in the opening moments of P.T. It's well-lit, there are familiar-looking family photos and boring framed art. This could be one of any number of houses you've visited in your life.

Things start to get strange.

The hallway is a loop, and you always end where you begin. Those happy family portraits begin to drift away from one another. The lighting and sound design shift towards the unreal and threatening. The picture of perfect domesticity is turned on its head.

It's the first moments that are the most unsettling — the terror of the boring and the familiar morphing into something more sinister — that rattle the player. Like a nightmare where your bloody nose drips up the side of your face, the most disturbing touches are the most surreal.

Setting a game in such a normal place tells the player "you are safe here," at first, then slowly, deliberately pulls the rug out from under them, with every pass through the hallway becoming more nightmarish than the last. P.T. does this subtly, without calling much attention to itself, using the lighting, sound design, subtle shifting of art assets, and architecture. It's a study in how to teach the player not to take anything for granted.

The subtler elements create the mood, the tone and the unsettling feeling that things aren't quite right, before they become so obviously and horribly wrong.

Silent Hill and two worlds

Two dominant themes from Silent Hill pervade P.T. family trauma and domestic violence, and the duality of reality and nightmares

Not everyone knew it the first time they were playing it, but P.T. is, ostensibly, a Silent Hill game. The series has been steeped in disturbing horror ever since its debut in 1999. Two dominant themes from Silent Hill pervade P.T.:  a sense of family trauma and domestic violence and the duality of the "real world" and the nightmare world.

In both of these elements, P.T. has strong thematic ties to Eraserhead, David Lynch's first feature film. Eraserhead features a constantly screaming, misshapen infant, much like the baby in P.T.'s sink, where protagonist Henry slips from reality into a nightmare world.

Everyone has a tenuous relationship with reality at times. We dream, we have nightmares and we have thoughts that disturb the hell out of us.

What we can call sanity is really a finger pressing at the thin film between what we understand and what we don't. Fear is when we find a tear and peek through. This short demo is a brilliant recreation of that experience.

That first-person perspective

P.T. is effective because it leverages two aspects of its own design: a first person perspective and mechanical/operational simplicity. The game takes place in your face, and there's nothing you can do about it. There's no third person camera giving you psychological distance between you and your player character. There is no combat, no mechanics that give you a means of defending yourself. If you choose to play P.T. then you must play helpless.

The only mechanic in the game, besides walking, is the ability to zoom in. You need to look closely at things in order to set off triggers that move the game forward. Sometimes, looking closely at things triggers a jump scare. This happens infrequently enough that the scares aren't cheapened, but the oppressive atmosphere and need to look at disturbing things, often when you don't want to, leads to a slow, simmering burn. You know something bad is going happen, but you have to suffer through it if you want to advance. You can't look away, the only way to escape is to look closer.

Experimental sensibility

P.T.'s creators could go as experimental as they wanted

P.T. was essentially a piece of marketing for a much bigger game, with huge names (Hideo Kojima and Guillermo Del Toro, specifically) behind it. The fact that P.T. was released for free, without explicit tie-ins to the franchise, meant that the creators had a bit more freedom to experiment with the game play.

This game didn't need to hit any marketing check boxes, nor even include combat. It could have a horrific, talking fetus be the only character with a speaking part. It could demand that players take hours of patiently trying to trigger the final event. It could be as weird and off-kilter as its creators wanted it to be.

That's freedom the game itself won't have, and it may suffer for it. For now though, we have one of the most effective, brutal horror games in the current generation of consoles ... and it's only a demo.

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