Slight confession to make; I’ve never played the “Silent Hill” series. Part of it was due to the lack of interest when it first came out; I was currently in my JRPG phase which included the deathly lethal combination of “Kingdom Hearts” and “Final Fantasy X,” with the occasional dose of “Madden” or “NBA Live.” As time went on, I got into other games like “Jade Empire,” “Halo,” and “Call of Duty.” It wasn’t before I picked up “BioShock” did I really take a stab at any games remotely resembling a horror game. Since then, I’ve grown to steadily enjoy playing a horror game every once in a while during the off chance I’m in the mood for getting my blood pumping. Out of the horror games I’ve gotten to play, I’ve noticed they rely on three “fool-proof” methods for scaring players: 1) oft-used, cliché-riddled jump scares, 2) fully lit rooms with random enemies jumping out at you attempting to scare you, and 3) anticipation build-up through atmospheric tension.
Normally, modern horror games heavily rely on jump scares to get the blood flowing. However, this reliance oftentimes does the opposite intended effect; scares become patterns that are predictable, and any scares are lost on the player. There’s very little to say about it, other than it’s an exercise in what not to do for building an effective horror game.
The second type is done with the belief that character and art design will be enough the scare the player – enemies sit in well-lit rooms waiting for the player to reach an invisible radius of awareness. Once the player is in that radius, the enemy charges towards the player with reckless abandon as they’re probably bullet-spraying to gun it down; if anything this is straying far from the concept of horror. To me personally, these games are more of a suspenseful thriller than a horror game, and sadly turns more into your standard run-of-the-mill shooter with some dark elements. What’s the point in being able to see the evil abomination that’s staring lifelessly into your eyes without any tension? Exactly, nothing; unfortunately this is what “Dead Space 3” felt like to me.
Finally, the third type of scare is what I would argue constitutes a horror game; atmospheric tension. That’s because of the game’s reliance forcing the player to psychologically build-up tension on their own. Games do this by using their environment, art and sound design to unnerve the player; from the lighting, to the decorations on the wall, to the way enemy characters move and twist, or the way it appears the corridors appear normal even though you know something is off. There are also musical or environmental sounds in the game that play on players’ expectations that the cues indicate something happening; something could be behind them and they don’t want to look, an enemy could be waiting at the end of the hallway and it’s the only way to progress etc. What makes these types of scares so effective is that even if a player can predict the sequence, it still gets you to jump. Or, it waits long after the anticipation is lost to catch you off-guard and get you to jump. Overall, a player can feel that the level design, action sequences, music and sound are all built purposefully to mess with you, and it’s done superbly.
P.T., aka “Playable Teaser” was an anonymous little demo that was found randomly on the PSN Store for the Playstation 4. No one knew what it was for, or had heard of the company that was publishing it. Then the ball was dropped faster than anyone anticipated; it was a reveal for the new “Silent Hills” game that was being created by the dream team of Hideo Kojima, Guillermo del Toro and Norman Reedus. The inner fan boy in me was excited to play the demo with that nugget of info in mind, anticipating being scared mercilessly by the overall experience. The demo itself is one of the scariest experiences I’ve had in a long time, deftly blending all the elements of a well-crafted horror game to create an experience that had me often wanting to take a break away from it in order to relax. The game is unnerving, creepy and mysterious.
P.T.’s greatest strength is to build up a tense, terrifying environment that makes you seriously ponder your next step. The overall concept is easy to execute; you enter in through a door from a dark, cement-like room into a hallway that appears to be a normal house hold. Players walk through the hallway into a main corridor that has another door open on the other side, a chandelier creakily swinging to-and-fro, a radio playing news of a story and a door leading to the outside. There are windows you can look through, but they’re barred up so no one can break through. Everything appears to just be normal, but the fact that it does is a little unnerving. When you go through the door that’s open, it leads to a dark flight of steps towards another door. Opening it reveals the same hallway you walked into, rinse and repeat. The difference? Each hallway is slowly changing into something dark and sinister.
Lights are out; alcohol bottles are littered among the floor along with cigarette butts and crumbled paper. Cockroaches are crawling around the hallways and you swear you’re not alone. Each loop around pushes the environment increasingly into being decrepit. There’s no music to calm you down, only the silence of the environment and the players thoughts going through their head. Deep down inside, it feels like you’re not alone and that you’re being watched. Something isn’t adding up.
You’re right, you’re not alone; this wouldn’t be “Silent Hill” if you were.
There’s an apparition flying around who will appear randomly in places with little to no warning. She might grab you and kill you, or might just be waiting for you to see her right around the corner, only to disappear in the next second. It adds an extra layer of tension with the apprehension you feel exploring the area to advance the demo. I can’t count how many times I felt like she was behind me watching, and how many times I didn’t look at places because I felt the moment I did, I’d jump. What aided this feeling was the constant reminder that there was no escape from these halls; the door leading outside would never open for me.
Also it wouldn’t be complete with the dirty, grimy, blood-soaked bathroom with a random fetus in the sink.
All of this is accentuated by the Fox Engine’s crisp, sharp graphics that show how good games can look on the Playstation 4. There are many intricate details players can see in the environment around them that previous consoles wouldn’t be able to handle. In an interview, Kojima claims he had to scale down the graphics to ensure no one knew it was a big reveal and looked like it was from an indie developer. If P.T. is a truly scaled down version of what the game is going to look like, then I can’t wait to see how it really looks fully realized. The game looked sharper to me than anything I’ve ever played, including the critically-darling console-exclusive “InFamous: Second Son.”
Lastly, but more importantly, the first person perspective you play the game in adds to the immersion. Normally, third person perspective allows you some little bit of detachment from characters so you’re not as fully immersed into the action in front of you. With first person perspective, you’re forced to be stuck to one perspective with a very limited field of vision. It further adds to the apprehension and wariness of each step down a corridor hoping not to see the lovely apparition that is haunting you.
If there’s any true criticism for this demo, it has to be found in the gameplay. Particularly, the frustration-inducing, bafflingly-obscure puzzles players are forced to solve. Normally, puzzles often give one or two clues to help point the character in the direction they need to go. It doesn’t take away from the immersion of the experience, and allows a the faux-natural pacing to continue on without detracting from the game. PT has a lot of puzzles that rely on obscure little clues that aren’t normally picked up in a playthrough. Some of them were tiny little details that seemed unimportant at first glance, but ended up being the most important.
Which leads to an issue I, along with my friend Marshall, have experienced; being stuck on the last puzzle. Supposedly, there are four or five “sure-fire” ways of completing it. However, when Marshall and I worked on each method individually, nothing happened. We did it for five hours, and got nothing from it. Kojima also said his intention was for the final puzzle to take at least a week to solve; I don’t know many people who’d want to take a week to solve a puzzle for the “Silent Hills” reveal, especially considering how quickly the news of that reveal spread.
Regardless, this demo is worth the frustration just for the sake of experiencing it. To its core, it’s a downright frightening sojourn that keeps players consistently tense and apprehensive. While the full game might be completely revamped into something different altogether, it’s indicative that the teaming of Hideo Kojima, Guillermo del Toro and Norman Reedus is going to be one hell of an experience. PT has me excited for “Silent Hills”; I’m looking forward to picking it up when it’s available.