Wednesday, 17 September 2014

P.T. and How to Make Horror in Videogames

The best horror games require walkthroughs. By that I mean anything that's so straightforward you can blaze through it unimpeded isn't a horror game - it's an actioner. Horror is about confusion, disorientation, attrition. I'm thinking of Dallas crawling through the Nostromo's unending vents, Danny lost in the Overlook hedge maze. Monsters and jump scares don't make for good horror. You need to create a pervasive sense of wrongness, a kind of inaudible low hum of unease. A friend of mine said he always felt sick when watching The Shining but couldn't work out why until he saw this documentary on the film's set design. It's these kind of subtle abnormalities that really leave a lasting impression, that define a film, a book or a game that will get to its audience and stay with them. You don't throw it in their face. You leave it hanging there, quietly and unmentioned, like a portrait that seems to follow you around the room.

I've written about this before, specifically in regards to Resident Evil and Silent Hill (the games - not the piss poor movies.) The point I wanted to make is that modern horror, for all its spiky monsters, orchestral music and body shock (see Dead Space) is infinitely less effective than those PS1 survival titles. They have an internal puzzle logic that the player isn't familiar with. In Silent Hill's case, the environment physically shifts to confound and wrongfoot. You have an undercurrent of strangeness. Games are built on rules, and when those rules seem to organically and unceremoniously change as you play, that creates an enormous sense of dread.

That brings me to P.T., or Silent Hills, the upcoming game from Metal Gear disastermind Hideo Kojima and Pan's Labyrinth director Guillermo Del Toro. I just got finished playing the 40-minute teaser demo and, despite masses of reservations, particularly towards Koj, who wouldn't know subtlety if it broke character and started screaming and pissing in his face, I'm very intrigued. In fact, fuck it, I'm more than intrigued. Inside forty minutes P.T. has done more to advance horror in videogames than an entire decade of over-the-shoulder so-called action/horror games. This game was scary, properly fucking scary. I got an email at one point - some work thing - and it was like Christmas. I was relieved to have an excuse to put the controller down and do something else for a few minutes. That's not hyperbole. I promise I'm not exaggerating to make a statement. My sister was in the room with me as I played and she asked what I thought about it. I said I was dreading it being released, because it would mean playing the whole thing ahead of a review.

There are obvious things about P.T. that are scary, from the Lynchian, screaming, malformed fetus that lives in a sink to the sporadic appearances of "Lisa", a hulking, bloodied ghost figure that malevolently watches the player throughout the game's run time. But what's really important here is that P.T. all takes place in a single corridor. You walk into it, look around a little, perhaps solve one of the game's mind-mangling puzzles (more on those later) then walk out the other end, only to re-appear back where you started. Each time you loop in and out, the corridor changes, sometimes subtly, sometimes dramatically. Sometimes you'll go back through it and notice that, unlike before, the bathroom door is ajar. Other times you'll round the corner and see Lisa, stood still, gazing back at you. Furniture comes and goes. Writing appears and disappears from the walls. This is an environment that you intrinsically understand - it's a basic L-shape, it's in a fairly standard suburban home, you're forced to walk through it dozens of times - but constantly feel unsure about. P.T. hands the player a seemingly simple task - walk through this corridor - but continually wrongfoots them, not just by making them repeat the task over and over again but by slipping in new and terrifying elements each time.

It's a disorientating twist on videogame logic. The standard structure of a "mission" requires players to get from point A to point B, perhaps ticking off a few secondary objectives along the way. It's concrete and logical - like reaching the top of the Snakes 'n' Ladders board, it makes basic ludic sense. But P.T. casts that asunder. It not only disregards the rudimentary "start here, get here" videogame set-up, it refuses to let the player feel like they've learned something. Walking the same two halls over and over should make the player feel inveterate, bored even, like playing the most common map once again in a multiplayer shooter. Our most important tool in a videogame is knowledge - knowledge of enemy AI, knowledge of systems, knowledge of our own abilities. P.T. undercuts that dynamic, and makes a point of doing so. It asks you to repeat the same "mechanic," i.e. walking through the corridor, but changes that experience each time. It's as if you're playing Mario and every time you hit the jump button he does something different. By constantly changing, P.T. behaves less like a game, a rules-based, computational, decipherable game, and more like our own world, which behaves randomly and is affected by natural forces that aren't instantly obvious to us. That's why P.T. is scary. It doesn't seem to have rules or systems behind it. The logic is loose. Once you start to realise the surreal and myriad ways that these two corridors are changing, you begin to suspect that anything could happen.

And it does. I'm talking specifically about the puzzles here, which are designed on the most lateral, absurd, unlogic I've ever seen a game. One involves running around the corridors in an infinite loop until you find a minuscule hole in the wall, then peering into it and listening to some screams. Another, the last one, can only be solved by making the fetus thing in the sink laugh three times. The game doesn't tell you that that's the solution, nor does it tell you how to make it happen. There are no hints - none at all. It's only through pure coincidence and wandering back and forth for hours on end that the internet has finally come up with some answers, and they're bizarre.

I love this. I love how unapologetic and un-fun and fucking horrible it is. Again, it's anti-videogame. It belies the idea of an answer, a solution, a victory. Things just sort of happen in P.T. And truly, it's the closest I've seen anything come to faithfully depicting what it's like to have a nightmare. That's a trite compliment, often chucked at things like Inland Empire or Eraserhead, but it's really, really true here. In P.T. you're just lost. You're fucking lost. You have no idea how anything works, what to do, where you are. It's not an abstracted, black hole kind of world, it's something from your waking life, and that's what makes it powerful. That's what makes it like a nightmare. You're in this corridor, this formally laid out couple of hallways, but it's gone wrong. It doesn't work the way it should. Nothing works the way it should.

You're in a videogame. But it's gone wrong.

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