During gamescom 2014, a playable teaser for the upcoming psychological horror game Silent Hills was released on the PlayStation 4. The project is a collaboration between Hideo Kojima and Guillermo del Toro. I finally had a chance to play through the demo this week and, while P.T. certainly nails key horror genre elements, it has a number of baffling design choices.
P.T. seems to take cues from games like Outlast and Amnesia: The Dark Descent. The majority of the interactions players have with the environment is simply walking around. Essentially, the player character is a passive observer to the disturbing scenes and sounds of the environment. Players are able to move and look at different objects with the camera. A cursory examination of the different buttons reveal that none of them seem to perform any function, with the exception of a slight zoom of the camera by pressing the right analogue stick. This is important because it turns out the only way to progress in P.T. is by looking at specific objects. The problem is that P.T. occasionally changes the rules.
There is one occasion in P.T. when players are supposed to intuitively know that they need to press a specific button while looking at an object. Unfortunately, the game has already established that the buttons serve no function, which makes it all the more frustrating that this is one of only two times in P.T. where players are required to press a button. At one point the demo requires players to find several scraps of a ripped up photograph. This would be fine if it was clear that the player should be looking for scraps. For a while I assumed that I was just supposed to be looking at unique objects in the hallway, because I found two by zooming in on a teddy bear and a potted plant. It wasn’t until I looked up a guide online that it was clear that I was looking for small, hidden pieces of that picture. Persistent players will eventually reach one of the most perplexing requirements of the demo; a part which has been commonly referred to as the “final puzzle.” To proceed, players must have a headset or microphone plugged into the PS4 controller. There is no indication for this; presumably players were just supposed to figure this out on their own. With the headset/mic in hand, players have to hear or compel a baby to laugh three times by looking at various objects or moving in certain ways. There are a variety of strategies that people say work, but all of them are pretty dang obscure (there are over eleven methods of unlocking the end of P.T. in this IGN walkthrough).
Kojima is known for keeping his projects a surprise until just the right time, and has even admitted that he thought it would take the internet longer to figure out the secret to unlocking the ending of the demo. To me, this seems like confusing design for the sake of being mysterious. Perhaps that was entirely the point and I am being hard on P.T. because I don’t understand it. But I think that there are some decisions here that need to be called out.
In particular, the ending of P.T. is not a puzzle, nor is any part of P.T. for that matter. Inconsistent controls and obscure requirements for what happens to be plugged into the PS4 controller aren’t puzzles. Good puzzles are like a Rubik’s cube. Most people understand how a Rubik’s cube works and what the goal is almost from the instant they pick it up. It is intuitive. The puzzle is figuring out how to use the simple mechanics of the cube in order to solve it. But what if there was occasionally a hidden rule to Rubik’s cubes? What if it was decided that at a very specific point in solving one you had to make a turn of the cube using only one hand? What if in order to officially have solved the cube you had to do your best impression of Freddie Mercury? Now imagine that you eliminate the Rubik’s cube and replace it with wandering around a creepy hallway. There is no puzzle there, just a weirdo having a hand around and occasionally acting like a terrible Freddie Mercury impersonator. That’s what trying to play through P.T. is like. Just because something is difficult to figure out doesn’t make it a puzzle.
One of the reasons I am hounding this issue is because genuinely ruins the experience of being freaked out. Being trapped in a haunted hallway is terrifying. Being trapped in a haunted hallway where nothing happens for twenty minutes while you are trying to figure out how to get a door to open is just frustrating. In video games, frustration trumps horror. This comic by artist Bryce Corbett (warning: harsh language) perfectly sums up how many people have experienced the teaser for Silent Hills. The design creates unintended frustration, and that seems to me like a fundamental flaw.
It might seem like I am being a bit hard on P.T. Like I said earlier, the atmosphere is electrifyingly uncomfortable. The environment consists of a hallway, a cement chamber, and a bathroom. Using that limited scope, it deftly manages to be unnerving, demonic, and horrifying without relying overly much on jump scares. Baby wails, guttural muttering, static-laced radio broadcasts regarding murder, bugs crawling on moldering walls, and piles of trash on the floor all work together to make the area uncomfortable. There are little details like bars on the windows, an abundance of abstract paintings, a swinging ceiling light that give the affair a sense of surreal dread.
Despite my concerns, I am optimistic about a new Silent Hill game. I am hoping that most of the design decisions in the teaser reflect Kojima’s penchant for dramatic reveals and secrecy, not his vision of the full game. Honestly, I call out Kojima as being the largest name attached to the project with a history of game design. It could be that these decisions came from Guillermo del Toro. Who knows? Either way, the atmosphere of an exceedingly terrifying experience is already in place, there just needs to be a competent game behind the visuals and sound to back it all up with something that doesn’t rely on guesswork, luck, and strategy guides.