Warning: Spoilers for the plot and puzzles of P.T. ahead.
When the free download P.T. appeared in the Playstation Store last month, it wasn’t announced as a trailer for a new Silent Hill game from Hideo Kojima and Guillermo del Toro. The “playable teaser” is listed with little information and you have to solve a convoluted, obtuse final puzzle to unlock a mere taste of the upcoming Silent Hills. That solution is mystifying, and the whole project is far outside the realm of what most would have expected out of a game that was ostensibly an ad for another.
As far as we know, the solution to this puzzle requires the use of a microphone, knowledge of multiple languages and keywords that act as decoding mechanisms—and that’s if the solution posited by TheGreatDebate in their video is indeed correct. Looking at forum members trying to hash it out, the video seems like only one of a few possible solutions. The keyword the video mentions, “Tree”, could also be “Hill,” which, combined the with s at the end of the fake developer name, makes for yet another sly hint at P.T.’s true nature.
Very little is certain about what you have to do to progress, even after the hivemind of the internet has had a chance to get their deductive claws on it. There’s a solid outline, but no concrete path to follow for guaranteed success. Players not into code breaking but eager to see the teaser for themselves are left with the choice of following someone else’s solution online (which seems to be as much of a crapshoot as it is a guarantee), watching the actual trailer on Youtube (a solution bereaved of satisfaction), or not seeing the teaser at all (likely a frustration-induced protest at not being able to get the right answer), which may be counterproductive to Konami’s goal of getting people excited about their new game. I imagine that for most players, jumping through the arcane hoops required won’t be worth the effort.
And this is exactly what the horror genre needs.
Now, I’m as much of a party pooper as you’re likely to find when it comes to horror. It’s a genre that you have to buy into, and I simply can’t do it. Sure, a younger me was freaked out by my first underage exposure to Resident Evil to the point where I couldn’t be in the room when someone was playing it. I’m still as startled by jump scares as anyone since they more or less work on a primal level. Nowadays, though, I roll my eyes at jump scares even as my heart skips a beat. I suppose I don’t mesh well with the kind of manipulation horror needs to pull off in order to invoke true fear. For example, I tested my mettle against the monster in Amnesia: The Dark Descent (a game I absolutely adore) by running right at it several times in a row, getting a good look at the hideous face that most tried to avoid and losing much of the “fear” the game had build up to that point. I found Outlast, a game many have been too afraid of to finish, an absolute bore.
Yet P.T., with its unabashed Samara antagonist, infinitely looping hallway and ridiculous final puzzle, got its hooks into me. I downloaded it primarily because I was curious to see what Kojima could do with the horror genre, but that wasn’t what got me. Yes, the big jump scare hit me (if you’ve played it, you know the one); no, at no point did I ever feel the need to stop playing to avoid a heart attack. Yes, I did give my TV the middle finger when I couldn’t figure out the final puzzle. But I eventually got something I did to work, and the entire experience has stuck with me more than several full-fledged games this year have.
Before I got the trailer to unlock I reached my breaking point and swore to never play P.T. again. That insipid puzzle drove me crazy, but I couldn’t get it out of my head. Damned if I was gonna let some puzzle beat me. Who did Kojima think he was, putting together some bullshit scavenger hunt and making me go into the drawer with all my cables in it to look for the stupid headset that came bundled with my PS4? (Most phone headsets work just fine, by the way). I’d already seen the trailer. This wasn’t about that. I wanted to see what it was like to experience that magical phone call. I wanted to expunge the uncertainty of that hallway and understand what a successful run was like. I wanted to know.
What Kojima and crew did with the ambiguity of this puzzle’s solution is why P.T. feels like such a second wind for the horror genre. Many of us don’t experience games in a vacuum, and to be honest, they’re really not that hard. If you’re ever stuck to the point where you need help, it’s there for you. Ask a friend. Look it up. There’s a definite answer to your problem and as long as you keep at it or ask around, you will come an undeniable solution. There’s really no mystery or even a semblance of it when you think about it.
That’s perhaps why horror games don’t do it for me. It’s hard to be scared of puzzles with definite solutions. I can’t be afraid of certainties. Outlast, Amnesia, Silent Hill (though I love the latter two for atmospheric and tonal reasons) struggle to scare me because I know that nothing their designers have cooked up for me is insurmountable. No matter what horrid-looking monster is or isn’t chasing me, no matter how little I can see in front of me, I know that the puppet master on the other side is pulling the strings in such a way that they want me to overcome whatever I’m facing. I have no doubt that I will eventually get out of whatever nightmare scenario I’m in. So there’s no reason to be afraid.
As aesthetically interesting as horror games can be, most of the time they’re little more than conventional game design with a bloody wrapper. Sometimes they’re built on lock-and-key adventure game puzzles. Other times it’s a conventional third or first-person shooting framework that may or may not involve an emphasis on resource management. Sometimes it’s simply walking from one jump scare to the next. Films at least manage to have you fear for someone else, and though it’s certain that you’ll get to the end of the movie no matter what you do (unless you turn it off in a panic), you’re afraid for what might happen to someone before then rather than how you’re going to survive.
P.T.’s final puzzle throws a wrench into the conventions of horror game design by introducing actual uncertainty. Like the urban legends that spawned many of the horror archetypes it cribs from, P.T. turns its puzzle into a myth of its own by driving people to talk to each other about what the final solution might be, to disseminate possible solutions along with misinformation. Creating a true enigma in gaming is noteworthy in and of itself (Fez did this with its black monolith puzzle and a few others, and the result communal zeitgeist has become its most notable aspect), but it’s all the more significant in the realm of horror games. We’re generally more afraid of what we don’t know, and act less rationally when faced with uncertainty—perfect for an experience that needs to unsettle you before dropping the hammer.
Being unsure of what to do next happens in all games with puzzles in them, but you know there’s a solution. With P.T. you know that there might not be an answer readily available, that there might not be anyone who could help you further synchronize the player’s situation with that of their avatar. So when I expressed frustration at not having a solution easily within my grasp, it was more in line with what the protagonist of a horror film would express if faced with the same situation. I was, perhaps, playing along with the design of the game more than I may have thought. It certainly fits Kojima’s wheelhouse to screw with players like this.
Of course, one genius puzzle does not a masterpiece make. But the rest of P.T. leading up to that finale holds up well enough that even a horror detractor like me enjoyed running through its hallway countless times. It uses more conventional tricks for much of its run time, but most of them do show a bit of creativity in making the most out of the limited resources of the hallway. The limited scope of the teaser also ends up working in its favor, since it allows for not only the game’s incredible graphical fidelity, but also a more selective batch of ideas to be crammed into one shorter experience.
In looking at P.T. for clues as to what Silent Hills might be, we should be wary: A disclaimer at the end makes it clear that the teaser is not representative of what the final product will be. And as much as I would love for Kojima to unleash more of his Da Vinci Code-flavored madness on players with puzzles like P.T.’s final one, I can’t imagine that players looking for a scare would gel with the kind of legwork necessary to solve these kinds of puzzles for the length of a full game. But if Kojima (or whoever else may be taking the lead on Silent Hills) is looking to shake up the horror genre, P.T.’s enigmatic final puzzle is absolutely a step in the right direction. After all, nothing’s scarier than not knowing if you’re actually going to make it out alive this time.
Suriel Vazquez is a freelance writer who was reminded of David Lynch’s Rabbits short film during one part of P.T. and realized he needed to go back and make sense of that damn thing. You can follow him @SurielVazquez.