In my last article I mentioned a little old series called ‘Silent Hill’. What I didn’t mention is that the games in the series after the 4th instalment are largely considered to be rubbish. Now obviously this is just my opinion – but I kind of agree. They have good elements of design, the soundtrack is usually great but as games I didn’t enjoy them for reasons i’ll go into when I eventually muster the strength to do an entire post about Silent Hill. This time however I want to focus on something which was released in 2014, a small segment of demo game play, a playable teaser.
Take yourself back to 2014, any Silent Hill fan back then had lost all hope of ever seeing another successful sequel – and gamers worldwide were attending Gamescon. That was until they happened to play a freely downloadable demo called ‘PT’ by an unknown company called ‘7780s’ studios. As i’m sure it’s no longer a spoiler to say, and what those fans soon found out after reaching the of what was possibly the most terrifying half an hour of their life, was that there was no such thing ‘7780s’ studio, and PT was a playable teaser – for ‘Silent Hills’. Needless to say, everybody lost their minds. The game was to be created by Hideo Kojima (the critically acclaimed game designer and original director of ‘Team Silent’) and the Spanish horror legend Guillermo Del Toro. It was also to star Norman Reedus (aka Darryl from ‘The Walking Dead’ TV series.) Of course before anyone had time to finish speculating and biting their nails the project was cancelled and PT was taken of the stores. There’s various reasons why it was cancelled, mainly Kojima leaving his long-term employers Konami, but the point is ‘Silent Hills’ is never going to happen. Now there’s only YouTube videos of PT play-through videos to remind of us of what was. This first off is intriguing – it means that we’re left with this bizarre, stand-alone piece of media which lacks any explanation because there was no time to explain – like buying something and having the manual torn up. That’s why I want to look at PT – sure countless people have talked about it and this is probably old news for the majority of you, but to this day i’ve never been more frightened of a video-game, or more impressed by such a surreal tone. SUPER IMPORTANT NOTE THOUGH – i’d definitely watch a play-through before reading this, PT is one of those games where you’ll keep noticing different things with different play-through sessions but it’s honestly such an experience to see it when you have no idea what’s going to happen.
Now first off Kojima has stated before that much of the games (i’m just going to refer to it as a game from now) puzzles and intricacy’s don’t actually symbolise anything. That the majority of puzzles were there test or intrigue people. But even that excites me, I think as much as the surreal has the power to represent, it also has the power to make us feel based on raw images – and that’s what PT does. Indeed Kojima stated in a post-DICE interview with Polygon that…
“I would definitely like to explore horror and by horror I don’t mean horror as a genre, but more like the feeling of terror as a theme, as a topic…”
And I think this touches on an important point. I know that how I define surrealism isn’t necessarily how other people define it. I often look at it as originating in a specified cultural movement but progressing to influence a wider set of artists and designers so that it both crosses over into other genres while certain genres also owe a debt to it. I think surrealism often works well with horror – the strange and the undefinable is often the most unnerving thing. There are plenty of surrealist artists that actually scare me when I view their art, for no reason other than it strikes a cord that I didn’t know existed. Silent Hill is one of those horrors, it uses the surreal to reveal sub-conscious desire but also to lift the constraints of reality, as well as how we perceive it. PT embraces this especially.
So I guess the best way to do this is chronologically take you through my personal highlights. First off it’s a 1st person game, putting you right in there with the terror. Second of all you wake on a concrete floor seeing two cockroaches mate, as you get up you see a wooden door ahead of you and line marks on the concrete room. Immediately it reminded me of ‘Silent Hill: The Room’ with the oppressive atmosphere and feeling of dread whenever you see a door. Already the series has taken a normal object and forced me to associate it with fear and symbolic reference. You approach the door and find a well-lit, pleasant corridor that looks like a hallway of some kind of suburban house (more like American ones if you know what I mean.) You can hear a squeaking sound and as you walk by you see bottles, pill packets and sweet littered around the place. There’s your pot plants and your family photos but the place looks messy.It’s a thin corridor, or at least thin enough so that you don’t feel good about it. There are windows to the outside and as you turn right you pass a door to your left that’s shut. The corridor extends to a front hall and another door at the end of the room. Above that hall is a landing, a swinging lam and yet more pills, photos, bottles and a radio. You open the door and walk downstairs to what you presume is the basement. You open the door and you see a corridor. It’s the same bloody corridor.
I know you’re probably wondering why I just spent half a paragraph describing what is a typical house (although I hope without the pills and bottles) but the point is it feels weird. Everything is normal but there’s a dark undertone. It’s like walking through someone else’s house. The player doesn’t know what going on an you presume the protagonist doesn’t either. It’s a fantastic 4th wall breaker. The game essentially revolves around walking through copies of the same corridor, but in each cycle something will usually change, as the tension escalates and calms you begin to learn this and start to suspect every normal item or object – even though half the time nothing is going to happen. If you were to draw out the shape of the endless corridors though, you’d actually be spiralling downwards, which may be a reference to the descending circles of hell, playing off once more on punishing people for their sins. There again though, Kojima knows full well that people like us will be playing it and trying to find meanings in every little detail. Maybe there are, maybe there aren’t – we’re never going to know.
You go through the corridor a few times and by this point you’re starting to wonder what’s going on. Then on one of the cycles you find the door at the end is shut. Even at this early stage you start to questions what might happen and if you’re safe. It suddenly opens of it’s own accord and you pass through again, but on the next cycle the door shuts as you look at it. Then you hear a baby cry. It’s a moment with so much tension, but with so little actually happening. My description most likely doesn’t do it justice but the point is PT plays off your expectations, is relies on your sense of fear and panic to make assume things that aren’t there. Saying that though, this time there definitely is something there. You look behind you and see that the door earlier on in the corridor is now open, it leads to a bathroom but you can’t see properly, there’s only a small gap. Cockroaches crawl out of it and eventually the player realises which button to press to zoom in on the view (again no exposition whatsoever.) After zooming for a few seconds, the terrifying face of the game’s antagonist, Lisa, appears and shuts the door from the inside, as if you were disturbing her time alone. This moment is terrifying. It’s a fraction of a second long and yet you see her face long enough to be frightened. Obviously this is the other thing about PT, the ghost Lisa.
I’l just go ahead and talk about her rather than doing a step by step narration of the whole thing. Lisa is an unusually tall, slender woman with one leg longer than the other. One her eyes has been gouged out and her pale grin is hauntingly visceral. She is animated to move erratically, her head shakes and her limbs twitch. No part of her existence seems natural. Her surrealism lies within this, she appears like a distorted vision of the human form – something recognisable and yet completely different. This encounter is the first of many, and not all of them are easy to spot, Kojima can be very subtle with her appearances so that some people don;t even notice all of them. The more subtle ones are when she appears outside the window crying in pain quietly, when she appears in the bathroom mirror shaking, and (my personal favourite) when she’s standing on the balcony looking down at you. This only occurs if you happen, for no reason at all, to look up at the landing. Then you see her face staring at you, then she walks away. Oh my god.
Her more notable appearances are when she rushes you in a corridor, when she’s standing in the gloom shortly after the initial scare, or when she actually grabs the character and pulls him towards her , wrenching something from him and, what looks like, breaking his neck. Again this sequence is muffled which brings about a sense of confusion. The whole thing is terrifying but weird. Before she appears you hear the same radio report but this time a man aggressively saying what appear to be random phrases like “You can’t trust the tap water”, “Look behind you” and “Don’t touch that dial now we’re just getting started”. You get the impression that the whole game is an ever increasing spiral into madness, a torturous journey to some king of immorality that lies in our centre. You feel hunted.
There’s other random bits too that help to cement the surreal edge of this game. For example a section towards the end allows a player to run fast (considering the most they’ve been able to do up until this point is walk) around the corridor except now it’s continuous hallway curving in on itself. Around the picture frames are eyes twirling and a pulsating red filter – this can only be stopped by looking through a peephole in the wall and hearing someone being murdered. Again it’s a sequence which relies on you inferring things. You don’t see anyone being murdered, and you don’t know that anything’s going to jump out at you – but you expect it. It’s noteworthy that Kojima tweeted that he’d met with acclaimed surrealist/horror manga writer Junji Ito, author of notable horror works including ‘Uzumaki’ which contained the very same artwork with spinning eyes and distorted form. Another section has you find letters on one wall near the phone saying “Hello!” and another the other side of the room saying “I hear them calling to me from…”. As you switch between these two sides, the letters gradually begin to swap until they say “O!” and “I hear them calling to me from Hell…”. Perhaps not the most original statement, but the way it’s executed is quiet and creepy. My final example is that of the aborted fetus. At one point you find yourself in the bathroom and in the sink is a bloody fetus, except it kind of looks alien – in fact it’s very similar to the one in David Lynch’s ‘Eraserhead’. The baby cries and you end up being locked in the room with it, as you hear Lisa outside pacing towards you and frantically trying to open the door as the babies cry gets louder. In one cycle, under a certain set of conditions, the baby even begins to talk in a deep voice, about how you (the character, although the lines blur at this point) and your drinking problem caused your wife’s life to descend into squalor. All these moments, the obvious ones and the quiet ones form an experience that makes you question everything. It subverts not only the reality of the world, but of the game too, as different sections have the game pretending to crash sometimes reading ‘This game is a work of fiction. It cannot harm you in any way.’
Now there’s a number of other puzzles and Easter eggs you ca carry out, including talking to Lisa on the phone, collecting pictures of a photograph and even making the clock strike midnight to ensue an acid trip of colour and dark lights. This is as well as the notorious 204863 sequence, a number which is repeated throughout the game. The thing is I won’t go into those because you essentially get the picture. With a lot of these Kojima made the solutions ridiculously hard, but he knew no matter how nonsensical he made them there would be people to decipher and find meaning. He didn’t have to do the exposition, he got the audience to instead. Some even claim that 204863 is a code which just forms Kojima’s birthday.
Perhaps this article is biased because I loved PT so much. But the thing is I wasn’t the only one. It’s a perfect example of surrealism blending with horror to create an atmosphere which is utterly electric. Everything from the voice of the radio, to Lisa, to the bit where you stumble across a refrigerator swinging from the ceiling with blood leaking out of it – it’s there not just to scare you, but to totally subvert you. It both relies on your expectations, and ignores them. It’s like a team of architects have designed a nightmare to specifically send you over the image, and it provides imagery that stay with you for a long time.
Like I said, i’d definitely give a PT video a watch (preferably without commentary) just to see a great example of surrealism with horror. Maybe even watch a few play through vids, to see the different angles and different experiences people have with it. See what you think. But if you come away from this not having the image of Lisa’s twisted face trapped in your head for the next week – then you’re braver person than I am.