It’s been five years, to the day, since P.T. was released. The ‘playable teaser’ was intended to stoke the fears of fans, but it wasn’t clear just which fans they might be. To find out, you had to solve a puzzle so obscure that anyone watching would assume that the game had succeeded in its dark mission and sundered you from the grip of sanity. If you did solve the thing then you were treated to a trailer for a game that has now acquired the mists of legend: Silent Hills. I didn’t play the thing then, in 2014, because I didn’t have a PlayStation 4 until 2016, by which time, after Hideo Kojima and Konami painfully parted ways, the game had vanished – exorcised from the PSN store like a demon child of divorce.
I played P.T. for the first time on Friday, which put me, I think, in an advantageous position: I was immune to nostalgia, and to the hazy influence of hype. I approached it as if arriving at Woodstock (which celebrates its 50th anniversary this Thursday) on the Monday morning, sifting soberly through the gathered wasted and honing in on Hendrix – marvelling not at the sheer star-spangled spectacle of it all but making sure he hit his notes. However, before I could play P.T. I had to find it. (By ‘I’ I mean my editor, Colm – whose name is pronounced ‘cull-um’ and not ‘column,’ as perhaps it should be, given his knack for bearing the weight of most of the work that happens on a given day.) The search is like trying to authenticate a fragment of the True Cross.
There is a trove of versions of the game to consider, all fastidiously recreated by the obsessed and the talented, and some better than others. The delightfully named PuniTy – which was made by Farhan Qureshi and coded, of course, in Unity – came out in 2015, shortly after P.T. was pulled down; it contains no working doors and thus no looping corridors, forcing you to pace back and forth. Recently, there was a warmly lit mock-up in Dreams, Media Molecule’s upcoming… thing. It looks, with its soft focus and fuzzed textures, like P.T. by Pixar. In January this year, developer Radius Gordello unveiled Unreal PT; its accuracy, in re-rendering a still-vivid nightmare in Unreal Engine 4, is pinpoint and painstaking. This was the first thing I played. I didn’t like it. It felt, for want of a better word, unreal.
But I wouldn’t understand why – wouldn’t grasp the precise calibrations of the feeling in my gut – until I played P.T., which, in fairness, had an unfair advantage from the off. In order to get it, you have to download a program whose name escapes me but which sounded like an incantation; then, you need another program to spew up a proxy server; finally, you require a PS4 account that downloaded the game all those years ago. The process felt akin to gathering about the paraphernalia necessary to commune with something from a separate reality – to widen the gap in the door, as it were. Whilst it would be irresponsible not to lament the problem of preservation that video games are plagued with, it’s difficult to resist the romance of the situation – the feeling of inviting something in to haunt the machine.
Quite why P.T. worked while Unreal PT left me cold wasn’t clear straight away, because it was everywhere. The Fox Engine, which powers P.T. and which was built with a simple, modest brief – to make the ‘best engine in the world’ – provides the glittering detail that makes that corridor so unnerving. The soft warp of the wood grain on the doors, the scratches on the mirror and the scum in the sink, and the specific splash of the blood from a swaying fridge. And cockroaches! Whose endless scuttling was absent in Unreal PT. In a larger sense, of course, P.T. is advantaged by the presence of Kojima, who infests it with films; the nauseating swell of the soundtrack and the blood-red lighting both dig up The Evil Dead, and then, of course, there is David Lynch.
There is the fetus in the bathroom, naturally – which was, to its credit, also present in Unreal PT – but also the talking paper bag. Such a quirk has that Lynchian blend of the horrific and the domestic – something that would be funny or absurd were it not strained, drip by drip, through a thick filter of fear. Credit must go to Radius Gordello for such strenuous efforts at honouring its subject, but it was only after playing the real thing that I realised what Unreal PT was: it felt like a first-person horror game from the last five years – Layers of Fear, for instance, or Resident Evil 7. Or, in a more unabashed vein, Allison Road, which now lies shrouded in a veil of unavailability, in a sort of fashionable cancellation limbo. All of which are in thrall to Konami’s fleeting demo. (In fact, when the Beginning Hour teaser, for Resident Evil 7, was released, I half expected Capcom to aim for the same cult infamy and cancel the full game.)
What these games took aim for was P.T.’s sense of space and its lack of logic. There was already a craving for games that prized vulnerability over all else – Amnesia, say, or Outlast. But what Konami did was cram the horror genre into a cramped hallway and demand that we rethink our habits. There wasn’t just an absence of combat; there was an absence of rules. Sometimes you could approach the woman who waits in the corridor; other times she shuddered towards you. P.T. downsized exploration from being done room to room to having you search every square foot. Is it any wonder that the puzzles in Beginning Hour were more obtuse than those in Resident Evil 7? Or that it played with your perceptions, moving those mannequins around behind your back? But neither Capcom nor Bloober Team, the studio behind Layers of Fear, have the power to make me think of nothing else for days afterwards.
Ultimately, I think the perverse strength of P.T. is in its sad and sorry end: the story of Silent Hills. For the horror game fan, is there anything as dreamy? The proposed game had not just Kojima but Guillermo del Toro involved, along with horror manga artist Junji Ito. It’s the horror video game equivalent to Them Crooked Vultures. We’ll never know if it would have dissolved into self-indulgence, as is the peril of the supergroup. For me, though, it's P.T.’s relation, more widely, to Silent Hill that stirs more than anything else. For posterity, I played Silent Hill 2 over the weekend, and what’s that if not a playable teaser? Each area – an apartment block, a hospital, a bar – is cocooned and cut-off from the last, and each requires us to tease out the details and ideas ghosting through the fog.
As I hopped from the Real World to the Fog World, and down to the rusty Otherworld, it hit me: there was never one Silent Hill. Hence Silent Hills, a title so perfect it seems plucked from another place. And at the message that greets us at the close of P.T. – that it ‘has no direct relation to the main title.’ – we can’t help but wonder at all the indirect relations, to the cancelled game and to the Silent Hill games of old. The radio, blasting out bursts of static; the cockroaches, waving their antennae as though trying to tune in; and the sinking geography – those stairs at the end of the hall morphing your journey from a flat line to a looping descent. It’s all there in P.T., which despite its name is an exquisite game in its own right – now as it was then.