For years, the games industry has been using the tools of another medium to announce its finest offerings. A well-made trailer can get tongues wagging and keyboards tapping more successfully than the game in question might have any right to do, and that trailer might well bear about as much resemblance to the final product as a lemon. But we like shiny things, here in the games industry. We get hyped up at the drop of a hat, eager to devour whatever comes next, amped for CG trailers with pulsating backing tracks and just the right amount of slo-mo.
Cinema has taught us well. Besides, it's easier to sling a few frames of judiciously edited footage together and pander to our eyes and ears rather than leveraging the interactive qualities that lie at the heart of gaming.
But there's no excuse now.
I've discussed P.T., the playable teaser that served to announced the Kojima/Del Toro Silent Hills project on the horizon, with a number of people over the past week. Some thought it was excellent, others wondered how much of it would actually be reflected in the upcoming game, and a handful discarded it as an advergame -- a little marketing gimmick that was pure promotion and little else. Unsurprisingly, most of that latter group hadn't actually played the damn thing.
From a personal perspective, I thought it was absolute genius. Hold that, actually. Regardless of personal preference, I thought it might go down as one of the best game/project reveals of all time.
I don't say that lightly, but I'm struggling to think of another situation where a development project has been unveiled with such devilish, daring aplomb. The fact is that after initial playthroughs, none of us were actually any the wiser, until Soapwarpig and a handful of others began to post up videos of the teaser's final scenes. There wasn't even disappointment at that revelation having come to me via someone else's gameplay. It was actually more of a forehead-slapping "of course it's a sodding Silent Hill game!" still shaking from another attempted run a few minutes earlier.
You could argue that P.T. is the interactive equivalent of the Dead Island trailer from a few years back -- pretty, effective, thematically-sound, but not necessarily indicative of the gameplay to be had in Silent Hills itself. But you'd be wrong, and you would have missed the point of the most important word in that statement: interactive.
See, P.T. is one of the most brutally haunting games I've played recently in its own right.
In many ways, it probably shouldn't work. It's a piece of viral marketing at its core, it takes place in one L-shaped corridor with three doors, it has a really generous autosave mechanism that means there's no risk of losing progression or having to painstakingly redo the last hour of gameplay. There are no real in-game risks, the only limit is with you and I -- the players. P.T. leverages the comfort and the understanding of the familiar to mess with our minds. It makes a mockery of double and triple takes, and channelling one of the Silent Hill series' core considerations: what is real?
We're taught in games to feel out environments with our eyes and ears, but P.T. sniggers evilly in the face of such things, ruining the player's calm with howling winds, the soft patter of rain against the window pane, and then the piercing cries of a (monstrous) infant, the ever-changing crackle and chatter of the radio, the banging of a door that was still when you passed it earlier, the creak of another as it swings shut without any impetus, and now there's a disgustingly wet scrabbling sound, and now there's slurping and moaning and shit where did the sounds go and OHMYFRIGGINGODDIDTHEPHONEJUSTRING?!
I don't get freaked out by horror films these days, I never really have, but this is different even if it does use relatively well-worn horror conventions to create chilling sense of unease. The first-person perspective counts for an enormous amount., aided by a level of photorealism and visual detail that is simply staggering. This where interactive experiences shine, juxtaposing excellent cinematography and visual framing with direct control, the loping, slightly bouncy camera lurching with step, the controls just imprecise enough to make the occasional twitchy, involuntary movement if you're not careful. There's no detachment in first-person view, no avatar between you and the action, no shield to lessen the impact of whatever horrors might be around the next corner.
Of course, P.T. is pretty scary if you're a backseat gamer too. But with the controller in hand, it's deeply unsettling.
The visual detail is important because the limits of the game space mean you start looking closely at things very quickly, scouring the limited fixtures and items for clues. Again, the visual and aural aesthetics do a fantastic job of making this tiny space feel even more claustrophobic, making your journey through the corridor feel unnervingly different each time -- that radio was on last time, that wailing is new, who the f@#! are you? -- but then forcing you, against your will, to look more closely, to inspect things more carefully, knowing full well that at any moment, during any repetition, something awful could happen. Simple, but very effective.
The puzzles aren't anything to write home about in P.T., and several of them are maddeningly obscure. But it's hard not to even admire that to a certain extent, tapping into old playground nostalgia when we'd feverishly trade tips and hints , when knowledge was power. To be honest, though, P.T. isn't even really about getting to the end, it's about the burgeoning feeling of dread the longer you're wandering around hunting for the next clue. As a solo player, it's a gaming experience that can become frustrating eventually. But as a collaborative effort, it's much more of an event, and the obscure puzzles become rather less frustrating with friends around.
I just thought everything about it was near-perfect, from the tiny tease in the Sony press briefing at Gamescom to the immediate release on the PSN, to the immediate accounts of being scared shitless whatever this thing was, to the way that secret reveal eventually dribbled out after a day. Silent Hill has been a series in decline for some time, but P.T. brought back the questioning of your surroundings, the horror in detailed environments, the terrifying potential of spoiling and subverting the familiar.
It's so much more than just an advert. It's frankly one of the best ways of introducing a new gaming project I've ever witnessed, because it's a cracking little game in its own right.