If you’re a gamer like me, you’ve started to see targeted ads for the upcoming “Slender Man” movie pop up in your news feed. Set to release on May 18, 2018, the film follows the story of a young girl who goes missing after summoning Slender Man in a ritual with three of her friends.
While many fans fear the film will tank due to performance history of video games-turned-movies, the character is actually based off the creepypasta meme of the same name, rendering that point completely moot. Yet the game’s importance can’t be ignored, as Slender Man didn’t truly become popular until indie game studio Parsec Productions created “Slender: The Eight Pages“. It received a lot of media attention from gaming publications, lauding the title and praising it on the same level as other big names in the genre such as “Amnesia: The Dark Descent“.
Don’t get me wrong — I understand that “Slender: The Eight Pages”, for its time and the fact that it was made by one guy, is pretty solid, and I can see how beloved it’s become. But when it comes to horror, well…I’m with Conan O’Brien on this one: enh.
If you’re a jumpy person, you’ll get scared, but when it comes down to it, a tall, lanky figure randomly appearing from time to time doesn’t honestly do it for me. Plus, my motivation — gathering eight pages that tell me more about the mythological being — really isn’t…motivating. What’s stopping me from leaving the forest? Why don’t I just go home? I literally don’t care to know about something I have to traipse through the woods in the middle of the night to find while some guy with a high metabolism chases me.
Truthfully, most horror video games rely heavily on this mechanic: a creepy setting with “enemies” who pop out at random to startle the player. These can be fun, but they lack core proponents that are required to make a game legitimately scary. Slender Man can be defeated by avoiding him or collecting the manuscripts. Other horror games have you fighting off zombies a la the “Resident Evil” series. Through avoidance or gunfight, the enemies are defeated, and through simply playing the game, objectives and patterns are easily learned. With pattern-recognition comes familiarity, and with familiarity comes confidence; the edge is taken off as the player acquires a sense of purpose — and most importantly, control — so, fear is diminished.
Hideo Kojima‘s “P.T.” discarded those tired mechanics and revolutionized the entire genre by continuously keeping the player in a state of unsettled confusion, with gamers almost accidentally solving the title by pushing through fear instead of avoiding or fighting it.
The entire game takes place in one L-shaped hallway with a door at either end. There’s a clock on a small table that rests at a minute before midnight. Photos sitting atop a built-in cabinet likely depict the owners of the home. A radio can be heard detailing the grisly murders of families killed by the father. Empty bottles, old food, and what appear to be pills are scattered throughout.
As players traverse from one end of the hallway to the other, they descend down a small flight of stairs and make their exit — only to appear right back where they started.
At first, players are confused. “Did I just…wasn’t I just here?” they whisper to themselves. But then, they notice small differences — the door, once open, is now firmly shut. Retracing their steps, players stumble upon a seemingly invisible “switch” that opens the door again. “Was that…open before?” players mutter aloud. Perplexed, they head through the door, only to return again to the beginning, yet again.
At this point, players begin to understand that each time they exit one door, they emerge at the beginning through a continuous loop. With each loop brings new changes: sometimes, it’s cockroaches; others, doors slam shut; baby cries; pained sobs; a silhouette; an otherworldly being.
This is where “P.T.” truly becomes frightening, as players, already experiencing an elevated sense of anxiety, are now baffled and panicked. Depending on the player’s choices, the being — a short-haired woman with one eye gouged out and a blood-stained gown — may leave you alone altogether or may end up following you, eventually snapping your neck and crudely removing something from your body as your consciousness fades to black.
Aside from keeping players in a jumpy state, the creepy ambiance and confounding objectives only add to what Kojima hoped would be a “pants-shitting experience“. Often, players progress through each loop without understanding why — an intentional design to leave players utterly confused. The “puzzles” don’t seem to make any sense, and differences between levels offer little in the way of enlightenment. Who is writing the cryptic messages on the walls? What does the haunted Swedish radio broadcast say? And can someone please explain what the screaming fridge swinging wildly from the ceiling is supposed to mean?
The more one thinks about it, the less sense it ends up making; nothing appears to be completely connected. Were those murders overheard on the radio relevant? Who is the main character, and what is their relation to that terrifying figure? And why does each loop feel like a slow descent into a mind-melting madness? The only constant is the L-shaped hallway and the fact that something gruesome clearly happened inside it.
Of course, therein lies Kojima’s brilliance: this is the man who developed a boss that could read your every move until players physically removed their memory card and placed it in a different slot; who consistently broke the fourth wall to address the human behind the controller; who has multiple cameos in his games, even one as God, not hiding how he feels about his relationship to his creations. Where other designers see a formula, Kojima sees an opportunity to push the limits — to demolish the barrier between fantasy and reality.
“P.T.” attempts — and seamlessly achieves — what other horror games simply cannot: the blurred line between game and gamer, with the player eventually questioning their sanity. The more players try to unravel the mysteries behind Kojima’s game, the less they understand. Is the player a murderer, reliving the moment he killed his wife over and over again? Is he trapped in his mind? His wife’s mind? Hell? Or somewhere else entirely?
Perhaps the most ingenious aspect of the game is the level design — that wretched L-shaped hallway. While some bemoan the design’s simplicity, therein lies its beauty: the first portion of the hallway builds the anxiety, as players dreadfully tiptoe their way towards the bend. Peeking through their fingers covering their eyes, they turn, uncertain of the horror that awaits them. And where other games have players avoid an enemy or kill them with brute strength, Kojima forces gamers to confront their fear, to face those unspeakable horrors, in order to progress. Panic overcomes them, yet they press through, eventually reaching the end of the hallway and exiting through its door.
Relief washes over the player…
…only to feel the unsettling anxiety return as they’re dropped off at the beginning.
Again…and again…and again…that building of tension and anxiety followed by slight relief, then mounting again, repeating in perpetuity, mentally exhausts the player until they literally can’t take anymore.
After watching three full days worth of walkthroughs and Let’s Plays on YouTube, I’ve been itching to try out this masterpiece for myself; unfortunately, the game is no longer available to download. In what would only be discovered after “beating” the game, “P.T.”, which stands for “Playable Teaser”, was a demo for Konami’s “Silent Hills”, or what would have been the ninth game in the popular horror series. Kojima was slated to design it, with Guillermo Del Toro of Pan’s Labyrinth fame by his side, giving the world a taste of what they were capable of with “P.T.”. Sadly, Konami and Kojima had a massive falling-out, parting on unfriendly terms. “Silent Hills” was cancelled, and “P.T.” was pulled from the Playstation Store, disabling newcomers from downloading the free-to-play title, and adding an additional layer to its mysterious nature.
Although I’m disappointed that I’ll likely never play “P.T.”, I appreciate it so much more now that it’s mysteriously unavailable. For all my research, I still have more questions than answers. Was it even real? Clearly there exist YouTube videos of people playing it, and several friends have verified witnessing its horrors firsthand, but I remain skeptical.
Yet while I question its existence on a digital platform, I can’t shake this growing paranoia that tells me its dangers are real. Even though I’ve loosely memorized what happens on each loop (FYI, there’s anywhere from 14 to 50 depending on the play through), I’m just as frightened as the first time I watched someone else play.
The feeling doesn’t stop when the videos do; where small noises used to go by unnoticed, I jump at the slightest sound. Flickering lights make me uneasy. I fear turning around too quickly in the dark. Rounding a corner now fills me with dread. Seemingly unimportant changes to my predictable routine now put me on edge. Who knows what’s lurking nearby, waiting to be triggered by a wrong turn or a sudden movement?
“P.T.’s” impact on my psyche cannot be overstated: I’m a nervous wreck, preoccupied with the notion that fear, once something I ran away from, must now be confronted.
So while I wish “Slender Man” all the best in the box office this coming spring, it will never, and can never be the reality-bending terror that was Kojima’s “P.T.”