On August 12th, 2014, a free teaser for a mysterious game by unknown developer 7780s Studio popped up in the PlayStation Store. Ambiguously titled P.T., it appeared to be a regular horror game from an indie developer. The first users playing it, however, were confounded: rather than traditional horror, they were faced with a repeated loop of the same hallway over and over again, puzzles that seemingly had no solution, all the while being stalked by a ghostly apparition (afterwards lovingly nicknamed ‘Lisa’) who seemed to not only provide the occasional jump scare, but seemed to affect the system of the game itself. So what was P.T? What made this a horror game that is still being discussed today? And how did it transform the horror video game genre?
The way the game is set up is simple enough: players find themselves in a deceptively regular and very realistically rendered hallway. Other than some piled-up garbage littering the edges of the floor and some water-damage visible on the ceilings and walls, it could have been any hallway. Walk through it, however, and cracks start showing: an eerie radio transmission describes gruesome events in the background, intermittently interrupted by static noise. The player can hear a baby crying in the distance; the game uses the surround sound and the hyper-realistic light and shadow effects to slowly build the tension until the player reaches the end of the hallway, only to be faced with the beginning of that same hallway once again. The player is thus forced to endure loop after loop, each slightly different than the one before, all the while building the feeling of being stalked by something supernatural without offering any of the traditional horror game solutions – either giving the player a means to defend themselves or a place to hide. In this game, the only interaction the player can have with their surroundings is ‘zooming in’, bringing into focus small details of the very realistic and yet unnatural environment that still gives me goose bumps.
What is truly unique, however, is how the game employs its awareness of its own existence as a game to create a sense of horror and dread that transcends that already implicit in the gameplay (apparent in the occasional jump scare). There are pre-programmed glitches, such as video static, audio cutting out and even a complete red-screened error message littered with ambiguous changing sentences in a handful of languages. There is the fact that none of the puzzles have a traditional solution, requiring players to zoom in on part of the menu to solve it, walk a specific number of paces, or even use a plugged in microphone to communicate with the ghostly apparition. But mostly, this transcending horror is created by the fact that nobody has exactly the same playthrough; solutions to puzzles that seem to work for one player, do not work for another. The ghost can appear at random and can even appear to kill a player, where the player is put back at the beginning of the loop only to realise that things have changed subtly once again. Whereas some experience certain sequences of events (such as the aforementioned error message), others miss these entirely. Even the events themselves are forever changing, so that for example the text on the error message is different for every player, or that the radio seems to broadcast a medley of messages, from the accounts of several gruesome murders, a personal message spoken by a dead person, a sequence of random numbers, a Scandinavian phrase to the simply terrifying request to “turn around” (which scared the pants off me when I first heard it).
After suffering through the perpetual stress and terror inherent in any P.T. playthrough, one would expect the ending to be a rewarding conclusion, albeit one that no-one really knows what to expect of. After all, only bits and pieces of story are randomly fed to the player and even then seem to make no sense or be in no way connected to one another. I mean, why even the loop? Is it all in the protagonist’s head, is it due to some supernatural occurrence, or is it even in the player’s head (as the games’ self-awareness suggests)? Most, however, never find out. This is P.T., a game that plays with expectations like it plays with its players. Almost everyone seems to get stumped by the seemingly unsolvable final puzzle, leading to 600 page threads on forums, live streamed marathons of the game as well as many YouTube conspiracy videos, all with the same question: what does it mean?
Although the precise steps required to trigger the end sequence are still being debated today (as the solution that worked for one player does, once again, not work for another), eventually, some were able to finish the game. As it turned out, P.T., the preview of an unreleased horror game by an indie developer, actually was a Playable Teaser (get it? P.T.?) for a new entry in the hugely successful Silent Hill franchise, developed by none other than Hideo Kojima (a hugely successful game developer responsible for titles such as Metal Gear) and Guillermo del Toro (the now Oscar-winning Hollywood director). The game ends when the phone rings, and the player hears the message that “you have been chosen”. They walk out that infernal door and end up (finally) outside that endless hallway, where a trailer for the game plays. Even after the ending was broadcast and publicised, however, the legend of P.T. lived on (much like a never-ending hallway). The game it was supposed to market ended up never being made, only adding to the mystery of its playable teaser. Even now, many are still unable to fully complete it; the teaser has since been removed from the PlayStation Store, meaning that only those who already downloaded it are still able to play. In other words, only those that had been “chosen” were able to unlock its reward. Its extreme realism and utter randomness, combined with the helplessness of the player whose interactions are limited to ‘zooming’ and walking, as well as its supernatural scares, its transcendental horror and its unfinished state, make P.T. the ultimate horror game. If you ever thought there was a limit to how scary a game can be, this game throws all your pre-conceived notions out the window. But then again, maybe you have been chosen.