What Happens When an Interactive Horror Experience Figures Out the Fourth Wall?

P.T. has the digital world bleeding out into the real, hands flailing in search of something to hold onto so it can pull itself out of the game and into your living room.

So there’s thing that floated around the gaming/digital space recently, and it’s utterly brilliant.

That thing is P.T., a free downloadable teaser for a game announced during the Sony press conference at this year’s Gamescom, a huge annual gaming trade show. The announcement was abrupt, quiet, and mysterious; at the drop, virtually no information about the project could be found online. All that could be verified was that the game was being developed by a studio with no discernible history, named 7780s Studios, and that Sony was involved with the project in some way. Beyond that, zilch.

Such mystery is fairly uncommon, as you would imagine, given the gaming community’s typically notorious attention to detail. Plus, it’s the Internet, man, and nothing escapes the Internet, right?

But yet, quite literally, this thing came out of nowhere. And it’s terrifying.

Spoilers Ahead

The premise of the teaser is this: through first-person view, you wake up in a small room with nothing but darkness through which all that can be seen is a door. You go through the door and find yourself in a cozy, suburban house that seems, on the surface, a little banal, but of course, you know that this is a game, so you know that the banality is a prelude to something… probably sinister. And so it is, as very quickly, environmental cues prompt you to realize that something is very, very off.

The house is empty, despite its active electronic fixtures, and the radio is telling you strange and remarkably violent things, and there’s a dreadful stillness to the air that fuels a sense of paranoia. Is something going to happen? Is somebody behind me? Is something going to jump through the window? Eventually, you find that even the physics of the world is not as it seems, and that you are, as the situation would have it, trapped in something of an endless loop in space and time.

And that’s when the truly scary shit starts happening, as you’re forced without explicit instruction to figure out an indirectly presented puzzle while bearing an adversarial relationship with a haunting specter that bothers you.

The game is thick with an atmosphere that’s single-mindedly designed to evoke palpable terror. Playing the game is a physiological experience: your chest fills up with suspense, it occasionally becomes hard to breathe, and you’re constantly battling with your heart rate that threatens to compromise your focus as you try to figure out what you’re supposed to do.

P.T. poses to your body a question that you’ve probably wondered before as you watched horror movies: would you be able to master your fear in order to do what needs to be done? Even the experience of watching other people play the teaser on YouTube or Twitch is terrifying — it’s not quite like watching a horror movie, but more like watching something horrific happen to you in a dream you can’t control.

P.T. is an immersive digital experience of the highest order. It isn’t technically perfect, but that’s besides the point. What is the point is that P.T. represents an almost perfectly executed vision of a very particular mind – every mechanic, every element of design, and every piece of digital detritus has the touch and holistic coherence of an auteur. Which begs the question: How could this be a small title from a small, unknown studio? How could this be anything remotely indie?

Which is, of course, a false question. Of course it isn’t an indie. Not by a long-shot.

The big reveal comes at the end of the vignette-length experience, triggered by solving a final puzzle that nobody at this writing has comprehensively figured out yet. Solving the final puzzle (however you do it) breaks the loop, which treats the player with a truly meaty cinematic reveal: that the teaser is plugging a new game in the famous and storied Silent Hill franchise, and this particular entry is to be helmed by gaming legend Hideo Kojima (known most popularly as the undecipherable auteur behind the Metal Gear Solid franchise), as well as the geek-legend filmmaker Guillermo Del Toro. This new Silent Hill game will also feature the likeness and performance of Walking Dead star Norman Reedus, which further adds to the nerd-awesomeness of the project and the general weirdness of the whole thing.

As a marketing campaign, P.T. is a stroke of genius. It’s novel, digestible, and effective in its presentation of the product… whatever it is. But most importantly, it generates gallons of interest to the point of obsession. The teaser enraptured sizable portions of the gaming press and community – as days passed, hundreds if not thousands struggled (over forums and public livestreams) to not just discern the specific mechanics behind the final puzzle, but to unearth the deeper subtextual meaning beneath the entire presented narrative.

CNET’s Jeff Bakalar said it the best when he wrote: “Say what you will, but there’s really ever been anything quite like P.T. and the organic buzz that’s reverberated through the core gaming community over it is invaluable. You simply cannot buy this kind of genuine interest. Of course, it’s probably the point of this experiment – the deliberate creation of a mysterious and seemingly incomplete experience to create lore and intrigue.”

And therein lies the magic. Creating lore and intrigue through an incomplete experience is one thing, but the really fascinating thing is precisely how P.T did it: through a combination of (1) blurring the technical fourth wall between the digital world and the physical world and (2) enforcing a sense of dominion over the player (and spectator) by using the tools of control against them.

In true Kojima fashion, P.T. constantly fiddles with the fourth wall. Previously, the most memorable instance of this in Kojima’s oeuvre was the neat trick required to master a boss fight in the original Metal Gear Solid – an antagonist character, a telekinetic who was narratively scripted to read your moves, could only be beaten if the player uses the second player controller. P.T. boasts a similar self-awareness of its true nature as a game and exhibits a sense of mischief about this fact.

You’ll find, for example, that a puzzle piece can only be found in the menu that pops up when you pause the game. You’ll experience subtle shifts in visual fidelity and breaks in the audio track. Certain hurdles in the game can only be negotiated with the use of a headset microphone. Some audio tracks change based on the country in which the game is being played, differing not just in language but in content.

At times, an error screen will pop up in-game, containing mysterious messages related to the overarching narrative mystery. In each separate instance, the player is jolted from the complacency of a previously ingrained assumption that the game is just a game, which previously exists as a security blanket suggestion that players could use the meta-elements of the game (like the pause screen or simple non-action) to emotionally and psychologically protect themselves from the possibly disturbing stimuli of the game.

Gaming is in a good part a relationship between the human self and the digital avatar as mediated through a conduit – typically the controller. The controller is the thing that (at this point in time, anyway) allows the medium to express its interactive essence, to give life to games scholar Ian Bogost’s quite that “unlike painting and sculpture (which forbid touch) and music (which cannot accommodate it), videogames require user participation.”

Typically, the conduit offers some sort of visceral wall in this relationship, unquantifiable and incommunicable, that quietly reinforces the player’s confidence of their place in the physical world. (This wall will soon be broken by Virtual Reality, but we’ll get to that some other day). By manipulating the fourth wall using the virtual constructs and infrastructures of the game itself against the player’s sense of control, P.T. colonizes more and more of the player’s dominion within this conceptual war of attrition between the avatar and the player.

It’s as if the digital world is bleeding out into the real, hands flailing in search of something to hold onto so it can pull itself out of the game and into your living room. The player can plug out and run, or she can choose to continue with the awareness that the terms of engagement are now different.

To some extent, these transgressions can well be signed off as some sort of parlor trick. A flamboyant technical flourish, perhaps, like the rampant CGI-fetishization of the Transformers film franchise. But this medium-based transgression perfectly resonates with the mechanics of the horror genre, utilizing its medium-specific abilities to take the genre to its next logical level. By craftily disturbing the boundary between the real and the digital, P.T. compels the users to blur the line between the real and the fictional, with the latter as a quiet psychological consequence of the former.

The consumption of horror (and roller coasters and fast rides in janky cars), after all, is the constant asking of the question: “How far into danger can I go without actually getting hurt/ ruined/ broken/ permanently damaged?” P.T. offers the answer: a little further, perhaps a lot.

Kojima’s play with P.T.’s mechanics also offers a larger and more politically interesting argument: in an infrastructural environment that allows for greater and greater simultaneous measures of surveillance, voyeurism, and mass participation (through live-streaming platforms like Twitch and sites of collaborative conversation like internet forums), what does it mean when an auteur-constructed mystery can still remain mysterious?

P.T. fundamentally contains a secret – one that isn’t just the Silent Hills trailer. It’s been weeks since the teaser dropped, and gamers across the world are still clamoring to find every Easter egg, if you will, and pull together what it all means. At this writing, we still can’t be certain that the central secret of the teaser has been discovered. And we may never really know what it is.

That’s the fundamental finding, here: even with these tools that allow for greater democratization of the user and of information, the power of the author still persists – if the author knows how to manipulate the tools. It’s not how well you play the game’s rules, it’s how well you play with the rules of the game.