Hideo Kojima and Guillermo Del Toro’s P.T. is something of an anomaly. Billed as a “playable teaser” (hence “P.T.”), it is a kind of interactive trailer for the upcoming Silent Hill reboot, Silent Hills. This description does not do it justice—in this guise it seems little more than an overblown trailer, a marketing ploy pretending to be art. In reality, the game is a tightly woven experiment, an ornately constructed puzzle box and a case study in architectural minimalism so distinct that it might actually be one of the most exciting things you’ll play all year. In essence, the game offers nothing more than a corridor to walk down; get to the end of this corridor and you head through a door. On the other side of the door? The same corridor. It’s a simple conceit, a deceptively simple loop that quickly establishes a repetitive rhythm. It’s an idea that anyone playing understands implicitly—all it takes is one or two journeys through the same corridor to understand the surreal rules on which P.T. is built. Yet, the beauty of P.T. is not in its basic looping structure, but they way in which it plays and experiments within that structure.
In the early parts of David Lynch’s 2001 film Mullholland Drive, there is a bizarre scene that appears and disappears without a trace. In this scene, a young man has invited an older man to a diner with something in mind. He has had a dream, he says, which takes place in this exact diner, where he and the older man are having breakfast. In the dream, the young man says, there is a third man, out behind the diner, who is doing something. We are never told what that something is, but we see the fear in the young man’s face as he says, “He’s the one doing it.”
It seems the young man has invited the older man to the diner to try to recreate the dream, to try to see if the man from the dream, the man “doing it,” is really there. So they go out of the door of the diner, onto the street where the early morning traffic rumbles past, and turn the corner. They walk down the side of the building, passing a phone box and an entrance sign. The young man looks at these objects in disbelief, as if he has seen them before. Then they go down a short set of stairs into the dusty car park, the sound of the traffic fading, screened by the building behind. It is while they are going down the stairs that we first see the corner. It is two breeze black walls, painted white, that join at a right angle, marking the far side of the car park. The two walls form an edge, beyond which we cannot see. It is this corner that the young man is drawn towards, as if unable to resist. The corner looms in our view as he walks towards it, its sharp edge clearly defined against the dull wall beyond. We draw closer and closer, step by step, until we are a single step away from turning, from seeing what lies around the corner. And then …
P.T. may be an impossible game to describe without mentioning the word “corridor,” but this isn’t the game’s defining architectural feature. Instead, at its literal and structural centre is the corner. The game’s tiny world is not L-shaped by accident. The game’s central corner is what allows its trick—a corridor that loops back on itself—to function so effectively. It’s the corner that means you are never able to see one end of the corridor from the other, and it is this same corner that you must walk towards over and over, unsure of what might lie around it.
In semantic terms, the game’s corner is analogous to the classic ghost-story phrase “and then.” It is the architectural equivalent of the shock reveal, articulated through a 90-degree turn. It’s an ancient story-telling trick, holding information back until the last possible second, but P.T.’s twist on it is to do so without speaking a word, performing its repeated reveals through the clever manipulation of space. Sometimes these reveals are red-herrings, showing you the corridor you expect to see, but in the world of P.T. even this is a cause for concern—if the corridor hasn’t changed, then something else has. It’s worth nothing that almost everything that happens, from bloody fridges to generic horror graffiti, happens on the other side of that corner. After every repetition the first task is clear—walk. This is the way the storyteller has you in her grip. “She entered the corridor,” P.T.’s storyteller says, “walking cautiously, unsure of what might be waiting for her. As she reached the familiar corner she paused … and then …”
“Once, as I was walking through the deserted streets of a provincial town in Italy which was strange to me, on a hot summer afternoon, I found myself in a quarter the character of which could not long remain in doubt. Nothing but painted women were to be seen at the windows of the small houses, and I hastened to leave the narrow street at the next turning. But after having wandered about for a while without being directed, I suddenly found myself back in the same street where my presence was now beginning to excite attention. I hurried away once more, but only to arrive yet a third time by devious paths in the same place. Now, however, a feeling overcame me which I can only describe as uncanny, and I was glad enough to abandon my exploratory walk and get straight back to the piazza I had left a short while before.”
Sigmund Freud, The Uncanny
P.T., it would seem, is the perfect example of Freud’s “uncanny”—the idea that repetitions, patterns and coincidences incite in us a sudden unnerving belief in the supernatural. This idea is a hugely influential one, clearly visible in the work of Alfred Hitchcock, Stanley Kubrick and Stephen King. Hell, the Final Destination films could be read as textbook examples of Freud’s uncanny, with the characters and the audience interpreting a series of accidents and coincidences as being testament to the existence of fate.
P.T., with its repeating corridors engendering in the player a creeping feeling of dread, is an easy match to this piece of psychoanalytic theory, and yet, something about it doesn’t fit. Perhaps this is because P.T., for all of its repetitions, operates without a world where the player is explicitly aware that there is a systemic basis for its reality. When we see a pattern in a game, we don’t freak out—we use it, exploit it. Patterns are a key communication between designer and player; they are the ways in which we are able to understand game worlds, and get repeatable results from the same actions. So when we head down P.T.’s corridor for the third, fourth, fifth time, we are entering into a playful dialogue with the designer.
This is where P.T. stops being a nightmare, and starts being a game. If you stave off the panic and fear of weird mutated fetuses for a minute or two, P.T. starts to look like an academic exercise in manipulation. The clock, the phone and the radio, all three sources of information, are carefully spread, each given its own alcove. The front door is the only door that never opens, an escape to an outside world hinted at but never allowed. At the end of the corridor lies a short set of steps, meaning that for each loop you must descend a little further down. This descent is carefully offset by the balcony that hides in the darkness above the entryway, imbuing in the player the distinct feeling of being watched. These precise architectural features, twisted through an elegant play of light and shadow, are laid out with precise intelligence. Its easy to imagine P.T.’s ground plan sketched out over and over again in its designer’s notebook. Like Samuel Beckett’s annotated diagrams that precede many of his short plays, this is a space that feels like an expression of something essential but ambiguous—a symbol you can get to know intimately, even walk around it, but never fully understand. Like Beckett’s work, P.T.’s tiny world is one surrounded by darkness, a dream sliced out of life and set to repeat again and again, futility tempered by an unsteady end.
Good-evening. Mine is a faint voice. Kindly tune accordingly. [Pause.] Good-evening. Mine is a faint voice. Kindly tune accordingly. [Pause.] It will not be raised, nor lowered, whatever happens. [Pause.] Look [Long pause.] the familiar chamber. [Pause.] at the far end a window. [Pause.] On the right the indispensable door. [Pause.]
Ghost Trio—Samuel Beckett
Yet P.T., for all of its sophistication, is a horror game through and through. Its set-ups are elegant and understated, but its reveals are straight out of the horror rulebook. A lank-haired woman makes an appearance—this is Japanese horror, after all—as do haunted paintings, red lighting and the aforementioned mutant fetus and bloody fridge. Freud and Beckett have to share space with scares that reference everything from Paranormal Activity to The Orphanage, if P.T. is to be accurately analysed.
But once again, as with its architectural tricks, P.T.’s scares feel as much like playful experiments as they do commitments to a well-established genre. In one notable sequence the player is welcomed into the game’s dingy bathroom through one of the oldest horror tropes conceivable—the creaky possessed door. Once inside, the door promptly shuts and the player begins to hear footsteps in the corridor outside. They reach the door and the handle begins to turn, the door rattling as it is forced. Then the rattling stops, a few seconds pass and the door swings open once more, revealing … an empty corridor. As a ghost story, this is a campfire classic, but within interactivity it becomes a careful game of presence and absence. The horror lies in where the player is not. It’s worth noting that earlier, when coming to the bathroom door ajar, it is slammed shut in the player’s face, followed by the sounds of someone moving around inside. And so entering the bathroom feels unsettling, but after the door-handle scare, returning to the corridor suddenly takes on the unsettling effect.
In P.T. the frequency with which this manipulation works is perhaps the most unsettling thing. Agency is non-existent—instead, choreography reigns supreme. P.T.’s scares may follow well-worn horror iconography, but they don’t require it to function. Instead they rely on the corner and the corridor, the room and doorway, the bright and the dark. This—the idea that horror exists as little more than a series of spatial arrangements, presences and absences—is truly P.T.’s greatest trick.