P.T. is scary because it It keeps you vulnerable, it keeps you guessing, and it keeps you reliant on other people.
P.T. is one of the best horror games I’ve played. It doesn’t radically depart from genre conventions, but rather embraces them and rations them out in a way that preserve its own mysteries. The game’s strength comes from its limits. The control scheme is trimmed to the bare minimum, and I defy any single person to completely understand the plot or puzzles by themselves. P.T. is scary because it keeps you vulnerable, it keeps you guessing, and it keeps you reliant on other people.
The unknown is always a bit frightening, and P.T. capitalizes on this. On a meta level, the game just showed up in the PSN store from an unknown publisher without much description. The game offers no tutorial or instructions about what to do or how to play; it simply dumps you into a first person perspective and lets you wander through an eerie hallway. When you reach the end, you’re deposited back at the beginning, but each loop establishes a reality that is just a bit more off center than the last. Most of the time, I’ve already bucketed a game into a specific category before I’ve ever played it -- FPS, strategy, adventure, etc. I have an expectation that tends to define my interactions before I even make them. P.T. offers no way to prepare, which means you start out on shaky ground.
The hallway is soon revealed to be haunted by some sort of violent spirit. There are plenty of grotesque images and jump scares, but the feeling of being powerless makes things truly horrible. You’re trapped in an infinite loop of walking this hallway without any clearly safe places to seek comfort in. All you can do is cautiously walk around and peer closely at details in the environment. There aren’t any weapons or apparent ways to defend yourself. It’s an extreme version of what the early Resident Evil and Silent Hill games achieved. Slow moving control setups and weapons that didn’t immediately obliterate enemies mean that every room is a potential deathtrap. It’s the ultimate scare tactic in a medium usually focused on fulfilling power fantasies.
Despite its small floor plan, P.T. manages to preserve a sense of mystery. The game’s art is very impressive from a photo-realistic perspective, but the high level of detail serves a practical purpose. Tiny changes in how paintings are arranged or how bugs skitter across the floor are actually clues to unravelling the plot. Rather than make an attempt at letting you pick up and interact with every object, P.T.. takes the opposite tact and only allows you to look at the game’s details. It’s a clever way of addressing the way that most games ask players to accept that some parts of the environment are merely a part of the mise en scène while others are actual interactive elements. Through limiting the action, P.T. actually expands on the possibilities within the space. Suddenly, everything you can look at is a potential puzzle piece.
Stare intently all you want: I defy any one person to fully comprehend P.T. by themselves. It’s a single player game but trying to piece together its secrets is an inherently communal experience. Forum posts and YouTube walkthroughs have slowly aggregated a mixture of known facts, suspicions, and coincidences into something resembling a cohesive theory about what the game suggests. Of course, there is still a huge amount of speculation around the symbolism, numerology, and double-meaning in the dialogue. For example (as of this writing), we still don’t know why the flashlight sometimes changes colors. In a time when puzzles are routinely solved within hours of a game’s release, having a game that brings people together yet still leaves them stumped is special.
Getting to the end of P.T. helps put the game into perspective. It is revealed to be a “Playable Teaser” for a new Silent Hill game called (wait for it) Silent Hills. Hideo Kojima and Guillermo del Toro are both connected to the project, which helps explain the meta-textual elements and the gruesome horror imagery. Perhaps it also explains the relatively cinematic length. The entire experience lasts a bit less than two hours assuming you use a moderate number of hints from other folks. It’s the right length for horror: emotionally exhausting without crossing the threshold into familiarity. Once you get used to them and internalize the rules, even the scariest games can get dull. P.T. ends before you can see the strings that control the monster.
Who knows how long it will take to understand what makesP.T.tick? It’s taken weeks just to figure out how to finish the game, and there are still major parts that remain unexplained. There’s no defense against the evil in P.T., and there is almost no way to survive and solve the mystery without help. P.T. renders us essentially powerless, groping about in the literal and metaphorical dark for something that will guide us out. In this case, that “something” is the great collection of other people all frantically looking for the same exit in a fit of gleeful terror.