Games

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.

Silent Hill

Publisher: Sony
Developer: Hideo Kojima

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.

Culture

Spawning Ground

David Antrobus

In this ancient place of giant ferns and cedars, it seems the dead outnumber the living; the living fall away too quietly, too easily, taken away by stealth. There is tremendous natural beauty here, but its hold is tenuous, like moss clinging to rotting bark that will ultimately break and sink into the forest floor.

If I were to choose a visual symbol of my adopted home of Mission, an average-size town in the impossibly green western Canadian province of British Columbia, I would probably come up with a rotting carcass in a verdant pasture, a vision of death amid life. If this sounds harsh, hear me out and I'll tell my own truth about this place.

Clinging to the swift-scoured, salmon-haunted northern bank of the mighty Fraser River like an ailing lamprey to the deadly smooth flank of a Great White, this town, situated about 70 kilometers east of Vancouver, owes its entire existence to the water of its rivers and lakes, and to the wood harvested from the dense, surrounding forest. Settled in the mid-19th century, Mission has managed to survive despite two serious floods, a bridge collapse, the ominous early signs of malaise in the natural resource sector (did we really think the salmon and the great conifers were infinitely, magically renewable?), and a general reputation for unfocussed, redneck belligerence.

It all comes down to the Fraser River. The river has brought both food and trade; it provides a thoroughfare upon which the people of Mission (among others) float the great log booms that are the defeated renderings we humans fashion from the vast tracts of coastal rainforest (cedar, spruce, fir, hemlock) in our seemingly inexhaustible compulsion to exploit her resources and bring Mother Nature to her matronly knees — in part because (we believe) we can.

But the details about life in this town — the jeweler murdered in a robbery, the pretty high school graduate killed by a drunk driver, the 14-year-old suicide — in fact, all the jostling narratives crowding like paparazzi, each insisting on exclusive front page drama, bubble and coalesce and ultimately conspire to reveal the hidden Mission. There is a dark vortex lurking beneath the seemingly placid surface; the ominous shadow of something ancient beneath sun-dappled waters. Even the countless apparent banalities playing out on the town's rural borders disguise something deeper, more clandestine: the hobby farmer up in MacConnell Creek bemoaning his exhausted well; the entrepreneur hungry for an investment opportunity, eager to transform the hillsides of quiet, bucolic Silverdale into sudden, lockstep suburbia; the hiker mauled by a black bear in the mountains north of Steelhead. And always, the numerous lives derailed by marijuana grow-op busts. For all the gradual liberalisation of laws at the consumer end of this local economic rival to wood and water, those who supply the celebrated crop usually feel the full force of Canadian justice, anyway. There are times when nothing in Mission seems devoid of some kind of meaning.

A monastery sits above this town, a Benedictine haven of alternating silence and the evocative clatter of Sunday Matins bells. Its tower is phallic and disproportionately defiant, rising above the landscape like a giant darning needle, casting its intrusive shadow over the patchwork quilt of human settlement as if to stitch a final tableaux, symbolically and definitively, of the history of the original inhabitants and their mistreatment at the hands of the white settlers. Said inhabitants were (and are) the Stó:lo people (their language, Halq'eméylem, was an exclusively oral tradition, so the words are spelled phonetically nowadays). Stó:lo territory stretched along the river valley from present-day Vancouver to Yale in the Fraser Canyon, a 170 kilometer swath of virgin, fecund land, teeming with such totemic creatures as salmon, ancient sturgeon, deer, black bear, cougar, coyote, beaver, and wolf.

The Stó:lo, a Native American (or First Nations) people belonging to the larger group of Central Coast Salish, settled this area around 10,000 years ago. Europeans, attracted by rumours of gold, arrived in the 1850s. The resulting clash of cultures did not work out well for the indigenous people, and today they are still recovering from the trickle-down effects of at least one generation having been torn from its extended family. Residential schools, for which the monastery in Mission is a present-day symbol, were sites of a particularly virulent form of cultural genocide. First Nations children across Canada were taken from their homes, often exposed to physical and sexual abuse and occasionally murder, their mouths scoured with soap if they even dared to utter their own languages. St. Mary's in Mission, founded in 1861 and relinquished in 1984, was the last residential school in Canada to close.

There are 82 Indian Reserves in the Fraser Valley. There are eight correctional institutions, two in Mission alone (Aboriginal people represent around four percent of the Canadian population, yet account for 18 percent of the federally incarcerated population). Somebody — something? — really likes to control and segregate people, around here.

This fragmentation is reflected in the odd demographics of the town in general. Leaving their multicultural mark have been, at various times, Italians in Silverdale, Swedes in Silverhill, the French in Durieu, the Japanese in the early years of the fruit industry (as in the US, the Japanese were rewarded for their labours by being sent to internment camps in 1942), and immigrants from India in the early days of the shake and shingle mills. (The Western Red Cedar, with its straight grain, durability, and imperviousness to the incessant rain, while inspiring Native culture with the quixotic grandeur of totem poles, grabbed more prosaic European imaginations in the form of the shake and shingle industry, which provides reliable roofing and siding components for homes.)

In some ways, Mission is a vibrantly conflicted example of Canada's multicultural mosaic. With just over 30,000 residents (of which 3,000 are First Nations) mostly crammed into a relatively small area, bordered by the river to the south and the mountains to the north, mill workers and biker gangs, artists and Mennonites, muscle car boys and summer folkies, soccer moms and Sikh Temple-goers, merchants and pagans, Freemasons and caffeine addicts, street people and Renaissance Faire anachronisms all rub shoulders with varying degrees of friction, occasionally achieving harmony in spite of themselves. Perhaps the relative accord is due to the overall youth of the population (73 percent are under 35-years-old).

Earlier, I mentioned the presence of death. Why? Because it is everywhere here, its proximity eerily palpable. It inhabits the sly rustle of the towering conifers. It taints the air with the swampy pungency of skunk cabbage in springtime. It hums incessantly in the sub-woofer buzz of the hydroelectric dams. It shuffles along in the downcast, scuff-shoed limp of a lone child returning to a chilly home. From a distance, even the monks in their dark cassocks, knit-browed and bound by their vows of silence, seem eerily close to the Reaper caricature. For actual evidence of its pervasiveness, though, one need not go far back in time.

The bodies of three women were dumped between here and neighbouring Agassiz back in '95. Suicides and the furtive aftermath of murder, barely registering in the town at all, have spattered Burma Road, a potholed strip of rocks and dirt skirting the shore of Stave Lake. In 1997, Doug Holtam of Silverdale (a small community west of Mission) bludgeoned his pregnant wife and six-year-old daughter to death with a hammer. Against all odds, his young son Cody survived the attack. In 1995, a drunk driver, leaving in his wake not only the proverbial outpouring of community grief but also a devastated twin sister, killed 18-year-old Cindy Verhulst during the week she and her peers were busy celebrating their high school graduation. There was the little boy who slipped away from his day care centre and drowned in the swollen Fraser River. The 12-year-old boy found hanging from a school washroom towel dispenser. The elderly pilot whose body was discovered in dense forest a full two years after he had gone missing. And there was Dawn-Marie Wesley, a 14-year-old Native girl who took her own life in the basement of her home after enduring relentless bullying at school; barely noticed in life, Oprah material in death.

As disturbing and tragic as these stories are, however, there was little precedent for the breaking news in the summer of 2003. This one will need a little background.

Since the mid-'80s, women have been disappearing from Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, Canada's poorest postal code. Partly due to the initial incompetence of the Vancouver Police Department and jurisdictional issues with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), partly due to the amorphous (read: investigative nightmare) nature of the disappearances, and partly because so few people cared about missing hookers and addicts, more and more women went missing, with nary a ripple in the public consciousness (or conscience). In fact, as of this writing, a horrifying total of 65 individuals are currently on the Missing Women list. For years, law enforcement didn't even refer to their disappearance as crimes, and it wasn't until 1998 that an official task force was even assigned to investigate.

Finally, in February 2002, Robert William Pickton, a pig farmer from the Vancouver suburb of Port Coquitlam (approximately half way between Vancouver and Mission), was charged with two counts of first-degree murder of two of the missing women. More charges followed in the months ahead. Pickton currently faces 15 counts of first-degree murder with seven more expected. DNA samples of 31 women have been linked to his 10-acre farm. In short, potentially the largest serial murder case in Canadian history is now underway just 35 kilometers from Mission.

Given the frequent intrusion of death into the area, I suppose it should have surprised no one when, on 20 July 2003, the missing women's joint task force announced they would be searching an area of wetlands near Mission. Just south of Highway 7 (aka the Lougheed Highway) and the man-made body of water known as Silvermere (itself the subject of a delightfully creepy urban legend or two), the area is basically marshland bisected by a meandering slough. Immediately following the announcement of the search, the site was fenced off with temporary chain link, and the highway's wide shoulders — traditionally home to roadside fruit and flower vendors hawking their locally grown products — were suddenly and unequivocally off-limits.

Driving this formerly innocuous stretch of blacktop, especially under the after-dusk arc lights, with their swirling bug armadas and liquid island oases in the dark, now touched off an indescribably eerie feeling. It was a relief when, on 8 August, the entire ensemble of law enforcement personnel (numerous forensic investigators plus 52 anthropologists) took up their tools again and vanished. They gave no word of what they had uncovered or even whether anything had been found at all, leaving our community to its familiar, fitful dreams once more. Mission's part in this unfolding story, as it relates to the wider world, remains amorphous and indistinct, with its usual chilly glints of barely suppressed horror flickering amid the overall grey.

Here, it seems, empirical proof takes a back seat to rumour and anecdote every time.

Sometimes, while hiking alone in the tree-bejeweled mountains west of Steelhead, east of the dams, I have suddenly felt the fetid breath of graves, a harsh raven-shadow lurking behind the abundant emerald and olive greens of this sodden paradise. Inexplicable noises in the deep tangled brush; distant rending, gnashing. Something skulking and hungry. With all the assured rationality of the white male immigrant, I've been known to smirk at the idea of ghosts, and yet stumbling along a jade-tunnel trail bristling with old man's beard and devil's club, I've occasionally recoiled from something, the skin of my arms prickling with gooseflesh. There are spirits here, all right, something not too far removed from the capricious tricksters who inhabit indigenous myth. Spectres of a kind, nursing some nameless, hollow ache of unrequited need rendered manifest, paradoxically, by a landscape dripping with life.

The closest we Europeans get to perceiving this (however inadvertently) can be heard in the low extended rumble of the nighttime freight trains as they call out in the dark, hunching parallel to Railway Avenue long after most residents are asleep, lonely as a buffalo herd that's somehow seen and almost comprehended its own approaching ruin.

Of course, my telling is by no means the complete, illustrated history of Mission, a town that can barely hold onto its own name (since 1884, take your pick: St. Mary's Mission, Mission Junction, Mission City, Village of Mission, Town of Mission, and currently the District of Mission). Not by a long shot; this lurid splash portrays but a small corner of the canvas. How can any one person paint the full picture of a community, after all? No, despite my perverse zeal to stir the viscous mud below the bright surface, great deeds and happy memories adorn the history of this place, too, adding the sparkle and lustre of life above and hopefully beyond the stillness and silence. And yet, no matter how much joie de vivre this community may exhibit on its special days, like a red-carpet celebrity when the cameras start rolling — whether it be the laughing children with their maple leaf flags and pancake stacks celebrating Canada Day up at Heritage Park, or the benevolently stoned crowd at the annual Folk Festival, or even the choked air and sharp adrenaline at the Raceway — surely one thing cannot go unremarked: nearly half of those missing-presumed-dead women were of Aboriginal descent. This adds one more layer of indifference to a jaded populace apparently caught somewhere between the small town rural cruelties of its past and the uneasy suburban shrugs of its gathering future.

I know this. I worked with the street kid population here for years, witnessed their hardscrabble resilience. Few people ever gave a genuine damn about the plight of these children, even though some of the throwaways had not yet reached puberty. Two-thirds of street-involved youth in Mission are Aboriginal. Many are sexually exploited by family members, neighbors, pimps and selected citizens, but few speak of it. Some of these kids head west to Vancouver for a date with misery, stretching already tenuous community ties to the breaking point. My job as a street worker was to speak for these lost children, to ensure some semblance of the child welfare system would kick in through advocacy with social workers or teachers or families or counselors or probation officers. In a world in which the so-called "bottom line" — money and the politics of money — has become drawn too garishly, these already marginalized youth were, and continue to be, largely abandoned by a system designed to protect them. Sometimes I stand beside the town's failing heart, its run down main drag (1st Avenue), taking in the pawnshops and thrift outlets and dollar stores, and I'm convinced I truly hate this place... but only because I've loved it so deeply. In life: death. In death: life. The great inscrutable cycle.

In this way, the perennially troubled summer Pow Wow, always skirting the edge of ruin (corrupt, inept politics and sporadic funding, take a bow), yet often prevailing regardless, seems to me a far more accurate symbol of the clutching, ragged breaths that secretly haunt the sleep of this community. The fleeting vibrant colours of traditional dancers whirling in bright regalia — poignant as the plumage of endangered birds, flying amongst the high wailing melismas of the Northern-style singing and the vital, aorta-punching drums of the circles — somehow speaks more of an unavenged wound in time and place, set amid the cruelty that underlies so much beauty, than anything else this conflicted human settlement seems capable of offering.

An absurd contrast, really — this vibrant gathering and the judgmental silence of all those surrounding stories of the dead — the whole place holding its breath waiting for these mortal sorrows to purge themselves before the pristine lawns and asphalt and vinyl sidings are allowed to spread and eventually suffocate every fucking thing that ever felt like something here.

For here, tenacious as the town itself alongside relentless churning waters, the living will no doubt cling to hope and the perpetual dream of life until the muscled river — unnoticed, stealthy, taken for granted — wrestles away everything (horror, joy, splintered wood and the final word) at long last, sending it all tumbling toward the planet's dark and pitiless seas for good.

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