Silent Hill: Exploring the Terror of the P.T. Demo

The P.T. demo was a horror experience unlike anything the gaming industry had ever seen. Terror hadn't spread like this since The Exorcist.

In many ways, I consider myself lucky to have grown up a horror film fan during the VHS/cable television era of entertainment. It was an arrangement that afforded many far too young individuals the opportunity to experience a sizeable chunk of horror history.

At the same time, I’ve always been jealous of the generation who experienced the revolutionary horror films of the 1960s and ‘70s at the theater. This forlorn feeling was instilled in me by my dad and others who lived through that era of horror.

While there was something annoying about their unprovoked rants about the good old days – who among us can’t say we haven’t fallen into that particular shameful pit of adulthood? – I will concede that they had a point.

If you didn’t know better, you’d swear that the footage of people watching The Exorcist in theaters for the first time was simply crafted by the studio as part of a marketing ploy. It wasn’t a ploy, though. People really did faint in the aisles. People really did run out of the theater screaming for help from their preferred deity. Adults left the screening physically shaking and crying while a line around the block consisting of eager viewers watched on with false confidence that they would not succumb to such madness.

For years, I bitterly conceded a point that I’d heard many times before. “There will never be another movie like The Exorcist.” I conceded that a combination of technological and cultural changes made it almost impossible for a film to have that same impact on modern theatergoers.

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Fortunately, not all is lost. While the modern theater scene may limit the potential of another Exorcist-like experience, we can thank video games for providing us with a champion of social experience horror that will no doubt live in infamy. One day, we will be telling a new generation of young horror fans that “there will never be another game like P.T.

The funny thing is that P.T. and The Exorcist are quite far apart in many practical respects. The Exorcist was a film adaptation of a bestselling novel. It rode into theaters on a respectable wave of hype.

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P.T. did not benefit from a similar approach. A trailer for the project was sandwiched between far more notable announcements at Gamescom 2014. The short teaser gave us little to go on: P.T. was a horror game made by a studio nobody had ever heard of (7780s Studio) that was available now for PlayStation 4. It was the first time anyone had ever heard of the project.

Those who gave the mysterious P.T. a shot that night were treated to a first-person horror game about walking down a hallway. We’d seen that trick before.

2010’s Amnesia and 2013’s Outlast made it especially clear that first-person horror games done can offer a kind of experience that really isn’t possible in any other format. By virtue of the contributions of a legion of shooters, we’re used to the first-person perspective making us feel empowered. However, the horror genre uses the limited peripheral vision of the first-person perspective to force players to stare their fears right in the eyes.

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From a sheer design perspective, few horror games have ever utilized that player disadvantage as brilliantly as P.T. Unlike similar titles that afford you the ability to run and hide, P.T. makes you wander down a restrictive and repetitive corridor. Amusingly, the game even anticipates that you might feel the need to turn away from the game’s scares. Doing so often results in you being greeted by an expertly crafted supernatural terror.

Of course, facing things head-on doesn’t exactly make the scares more bearable. If you feel like being critical, you could write-off P.T.’s creature design as “derivative.” Most of the game’s ghouls are of the “scary female ghost” design that we’ve seen many times before.

What truly matters, though, is the way the game delivers its scares. Alongside the classic turnaround scare, P.T. delivers such classic frights as a ghost slamming a doorway shut right as you approach it, an apparition standing in bright light directly ahead of you at the end of the hallway, and an ominous red light that slyly directs your attention to a mysterious figure looming above.

In short, P.T. utilizes a combination of choreographed and surprising scares to keep the player unhinged. Giving you no means of defense and nowhere to run are the most obvious ways the game makes the player feel helpless, but that feeling is truly achieved through the way the game makes all of its scares feel organically implemented. Repetitive play will reveal that isn’t the case (though some scares are slightly randomized), but your first playthrough may leave you weeping at the prospect of turning another corner. All the while, you’re somehow expected to solve a series of puzzles that exist entirely outside the realm of conventional logic.

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This is P.T.’s greatest design accomplishment. It utilizes the constrained nature of a funhouse-like setting for most of its scares but expands the walls of the funhouse just enough so as to not make players feel like they’re simply being led by the hand and forced to endure the primitive shock of being jumped at when they least expect it. It’s the perfect combination of environmental tension and jump scare payoffs. Indeed, P.T. forces you to be brave enough to seek its next big scare and treat it as a mile marker. 

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Beating the game, as you may now know, reveals that P.T. is simply a teaser. A clever way to promote the then-upcoming Silent Hills game co-created by famed developer Hideo Kojima and filmmaker Guillermo del Toro. In the hours that followed P.T.’s release, that bit of information became the biggest story.

I’d love to tell you that I was among the first gamers to download P.T. Alas, that is not the case. In a way, I envy those brave gamers that immediately jumped on this curiosity and were able to experience it with the freshest eyes. How wonderful it must have been to not be aware of the game’s pedigree, its scares, or its true intent.

However, something equally wonderful happened in the days that followed P.T.’s initial release. Many other gamers like myself, who had no idea of the game’s significance, slowly became aware that P.T. was a horror game that everyone needed to experience. How did that happen? Well, for the most part, word of the game spread through the screams of those who had already experienced it.

P.T. was not the first horror game that was largely promoted through the word of mouth of streamers, YouTubers, and offline friends. Amnesia certainly benefited from that effect, as did Five Nights at Freddy’s, which came out about a week before P.T.

What separates P.T. is the scope and nature of its impact. Amnesia sold well over a long period of time, but there are several considerable time gaps between its release, its popularity among online entertainers, and its eventual sales success. It took two years for the game to break one million sales. The story is similar to Five Nights at Freddy’s, but that game’s reputation hindered by the popular perception that it’s little more than a series of cheap jump scares.

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Meanwhile, P.T. was downloaded one million times in just two weeks. Unlike Amnesia, P.T. was a free game that was just accessible enough to be enjoyed by people who would not typically consider playing a true horror title. Unlike Five Nights at Freddy’s, P.T. was still enough of a “game” as to ensure that its machinations were analyzed and respected by even the most dissenting of genre purists. All of these factors helped P.T. reach a wide audience who soon uploaded their reactions to the game online or otherwise slyly forced their friends to experience it as well.

That’s when the real magic happened. For a brief period of time, P.T. was the talk of the industry. If you were truly lucky, you played it right after its announcement trailer, without watching videos or reading articles beforehand. Even if you did indulge in proxy playthroughs, though, you no doubt still found yourself at P.T.’s mercy. Its brand of scares translated so well to video form that it wasn’t uncommon for people to swear the game off before ever playing it.

Much like The Exorcist, though, the most notable reactions to P.T. were also the most extreme. As popular as it is to call out YouTubers for their over-the-top “digital clickbait” reactions, their jumps and streams of curse words felt genuine in the case of P.T. Even the most over-the-top reactions were easy to empathize with. Even jaded gamers took pleasure in laughing at how others were so very scared by that which they bravely soldiered through.

It is the nature of P.T.’s communal experience which makes it such a historically special piece of horror entertainment. Like The Exorcist and other event horror films before it, P.T.’s appeal was bolstered by the fact that we were experiencing it together. But unlike movies such as The Exorcist, P.T. didn’t foster that communal experience by simply putting viewers into the same room. The game’s intensity and the nature of its stealth release inspired gamers to pass it on to one another.

Sadly, P.T.’s legacy will forever be sealed by the fact that the very game it was designed to promote – Silent Hills – will never happen. Kojima and the game’s publisher, Konami, had a falling out that sealed the project’s fate. Cruelly, Konami even pulled P.T. from the PlayStation Store.

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In doing so, the publisher ensured that those mythical few weeks that followed the release of P.T. would be stretched to eternity. When those who never had the privilege of playing the game upon its release speak to those who did, the conversation is appropriately similar to the talks I used to have with adults regarding the impact of major horror movie releases. There’s nothing but admiration in the eyes of the listener who can’t believe such a thing once happened and quite a bit of regret in the voice of the speaker who wishes he could pass on the experience.

Inevitably, something will come along that will replicate the essence of that experience in some new way that the current generation can’t quite anticipate. Truth be told, something always does. That does nothing to diminish the legacy of P.T., though. It was a marketing ploy that cut through thick layers of consumer cynicism and delivered an injection of pure terror to the heart which spread globally at a rate that would qualify it as an epidemic.

There never will be anything quite like P.T. again.

Matthew Byrd is a staff writer for Den of Geek. He spends most of his days trying to pitch deep-dive analytical pieces about Killer Klowns From Outer Space to an increasingly perturbed series of editors. You can read more of his work here or find him on Twitter at @SilverTuna014

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