Friday, October 28, 2022

Second Look - P.T.

Note: The following review contains spoilers for P.T. and other Silent Hill games.

When I first reviewed P.T., I didn’t have much experience with the Silent Hill games outside of itself and Silent Hill 2 (SH2), but I still went out of my way to thoroughly document it due to its history and unique legacy. After playing through every main Silent Hill title in a row, however, my viewpoint changed on P.T. and I better appreciated its connection with the rest of the series. As such, I wanted to take another look at this legendary delisted demo to document my new perspective on it, though without retreading everything I wrote in the first review. I will start off, however, by repeating that P.T., the Playable Teaser for the canceled Silent Hills project, still holds up well as an incredible horror experience and serves as a powerful testament to what could have been.

Since there’s still no official way for any prospective Silent Hill fan to play P.T. outside of already owning it on a PlayStation 4 console, I will still give a recap of what happens in the game. I’ll also mention here that as of now, Konami had it stricken from the PlayStation 5’s backwards compatibility list and the only other way to experience it is through exhaustive fan remakes.

P.T. opens with the nameless protagonist waking up in a dark room illuminated only by a single light above a door. After opening the door, they find themselves in an L-shaped hallway with some clutter, a number of black-and-white photos and a bathroom. The radio gives a news bulletin about a number of fathers killing their wives and children. Once the protagonist reaches the end of the hallway, they loop back to the beginning of the hallway and are forced to continue through until they can find a way out.

With each successive loop, the hallway changes in response to paranormal activity, with events like a crashing window or a fridge swinging from the ceiling and spilling blood. As it turns out, the hallway is haunted by the ghost of a woman named Lisa, who stalks the protagonist and can potentially kill them. Once the protagonist can access the bathroom, they can also find a living fetus that can talk to them during one loop where the hallway becomes endless and filled with red light.

One of the more memorable loops.

On the penultimate loop, the protagonist is unable to escape and the radio repeats the number 204863 until the screen glitches out and displays one of a few error messages. The demo then restarts, but this time the hallway is completely dark and the protagonist must solve one final puzzle. Once they do, we see a special cutscene where the protagonist, played by Norman Reedus, looks around and walks into the town of Silent Hill. The screen then fades to white and the Silent Hills logo fades in while “Silent Hill” by Akira Yamaoka plays and eventually fades out.

Despite its short length, about 20 minutes, P.T. still incorporates familiar elements from the Silent Hill series. More specifically, the player picks up a flashlight in the bathroom during an earlier loop, which illuminates the hallway during subsequent loops, and the radio is repurposed as an atmospheric tool, with cryptic broadcasts and unsettling messages. There’s one in particular that even sets the player up for a well-executed jump scare by Lisa by asking them to turn around, letting her strike only moments after the player thinks they’re safe. This time around, I noticed that P.T. had taken the basic elements of Silent Hill 4: The Room (SH4), especially the apartment segments, and tapped into more of its full potential. Those elements include the first-person perspective, an inescapable room, an invincible ghost and increasingly unsettling changes and radio broadcasts. Much like SH4, P.T. noticeably incorporates themes of childbirth and voyeurism into the narrative and gameplay, such as the fetus and a loop in which looking through a peephole is the only way to proceed.

Similar concepts...

...different execution.

P.T. also has its own share of puzzles of varying difficulty. They can be as simple as walking back and forth between a wall and the word “HELLO!” to finish a haunting sentence or more complex like finding six photo fragments hidden within the hallway. Should the player find these fragments, they become immune to Lisa’s attacks and a previously locked door will instead provide safe passage.

By far the most complicated puzzle, however, is the final one, where the player must perform certain actions to hear a baby laugh three times. While there are multiple approaches, including the one I listed in my original review, here’s the sequence that worked for me this time:

1) Wait for the clock to strike midnight and walk ten steps forward in the same direction, even if it’s up against a wall. If you’re successful, you’ll hear the first laugh.

2) Make sure you have a microphone plugged into the controller. After you hear the first laugh, say the letter “J” (or a word with a “J” sound like “Jack” or “Kojima”) in three-second intervals until you hear the second laugh.

3) After you hear the second laugh, stay still and don’t move the camera. You’ll feel the controller vibrate for ten seconds, after which you’ll hear the third laugh. The phone will ring. Stare at the phone with R3 until you hear a voice say “You’ve been chosen.” You can now exit the hallway and finish the demo.

Even the graphics still impress for a PS4 demo from 2014. Considering official word from Hideo Kojima that they toned down the graphics to make it look more like an indie developer had created P.T., it still looks very realistic. Something about the combination of the visuals and sound design also manages to make it still feel very tense, even after knowing all of the loops and scares and even after knowing Lisa couldn’t jump scare me. If the demo can still do that after all of these years, I can only imagine what Silent Hills could have done without the self-imposed restrictions. Even without that, the fact that the saving and loading symbol is a minimalist version of the Halo of the Sun symbol, which signifies The Order, should have been an early tip-off that P.T. was related to Silent Hill.

Traditional Halo of the Sun.

The same symbol as seen in P.T.

As for an analysis of P.T., its vague narrative leaves it completely up to speculation, especially since no one knows exactly how Silent Hills would have played or how any of its elements would have turned out. However, since I played every main Silent Hill game back-to-back, my own personal interpretation has since changed, so here’s how I see it now.

Based on some scant details provided by the radio broadcasts and the talking fetus, it’s clear that there’s been a string of familicides due to economic hardships. When looking through a peephole, you can even hear the familicide that occurred in the haunted house you walk through. The fetus also suggests that the father was a drunk and the mother was impregnated by her boss, though it’s unclear if this tied into the father’s motive.

Through visual evidence, it’s also clear that the father and the player character are separate people. There’s one loop where you have to gouge an eye out of a woman in a photo, matching Lisa’s physical appearance after the familicide. The man in the photo would be the husband, who also appears in another photo in the same hallway. Although Lisa can possess and then kill the protagonist, and the fetus addresses the protagonist directly, they can’t be the personal demons of the protagonist. For one thing, the husband and protagonist have different appearances, as evidenced by the likeness of Norman Reedus compared to the images we see of the husband. Silent Hill also has a history of the player characters encountering personal demons meant for someone else. For example, Harry Mason encountered the personal demons of Alessa in the original Silent Hill and James Sunderland fought one of Angela’s in SH2.

This photo alone shows that the protagonist can't be the husband.

From all this, we can reason that Lisa was seeking revenge on her husband, though anyone who wound up in the hallway loop would suffice. That said, the nature of the effects of the Otherworld on the hallway is still up in the air. One could easily interpret the paranormal events in the hallway as either one complex Otherworld or multiple Otherworlds colliding into each other. Alternatively, the events serve a similar purpose to the Hauntings in SH4.

As for how Silent Hills might have turned out, it’s hard to say, since the project was canceled before development could really get underway. What we do know for sure is that the demo itself and an interview with someone close to the project make it clear that P.T. would not have represented the final product. I can only guess, however, that the game would have been in third person, as evidenced by the perspective shift during the ending cutscene, and that it would have tried to stay faithful to the spirit of the games because members of Team Silent were involved. Beyond that, I don’t know how Hideo Kojima’s style of storytelling would have affected the narrative, but Guillermo del Toro could have helped rein him in and the monster designs by horror mangaka Junji Ito could have effectively tapped into the psychology of the protagonist and the player. Based on the final speech at the end of the demo, it’s also possible that Silent Hills may have taken the games in a bold new direction, but again, we’ll never know.

The most we may ever see of Silent Hills.

If someone were to play P.T. with knowledge of the Silent Hill franchise, they might better appreciate the connections to the series and how the demo managed to take the best elements of SH4 and bring them up to a whole new level. Even without that knowledge, however, P.T. still works as an incredible standalone experience that continues to inspire developers to this day. Hopefully, this experience can one day finally be preserved in its original form for all to see.

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