P.T., TV and how I learned to love the ghost story.

by August 26th, 2014

If you haven’t played P.T. (Silent Hill Playable Teaser) yet, be warned that this article contains some spolierific content. If you haven’t had a gander at the Silent Hills teaser, don’t worry. This is an area of nil judgement. We won’t look down on you, it’s genuinely pretty frightening. I’m pretty sure some aren’t buying a PS4 simply because they’re worried the game would possess their consoles.  Needless to say, I wuv it, but that’s not just because it’s a teaser for the return of a franchise led by a trifecta of awesome. It’s because, as a standalone title, it’s something pretty special.

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Doors. At their worst, they hide gruesome secrets. At their best, they lead to another bloody locked door.

In truth, I didn’t truly tick all the boxes on the ‘How to play P.T.’ checklist. It was midnight when I booted it up, with lights turned off and volume turned up. I made an effort to block out as many sources of light as I could, the only glazes of ‘safety’ emanating from the television screen and the annoying fly flirting light from the Dualshock 4. My fiancé decided to sit on the sofa and simply watch proceedings play out. No, I didn’t want to be alone. I knew I was in for something that hadn’t been deemed ‘fun’. I wanted someone to at least talk to in the games’ most unnerving moments. It didn’t matter anyway.

If you’ll allow me to pull some shoddy A Level Film Studies on you (B grade), P.T. gets a tremendous amount right when it comes to mise en scene. Its lighting manages to strike a jarring balance between grisly and comforting, but never both at the same time. The sounds echo in your ears, cupping your brains in dirty hands and gently crushing it. Whilst the entire game is obviously interactive, it knows exactly how to draw your attention to specific set-pieces, all the while not feeling like its revoking what little control you have. It’s a technical marvel. You can cut the tension with a knife. In fact, thanks to the complete ambiguity of the game’s entire structure, attempting to cut tension with a knife probably would have been a means to progress.

It tells you nothing. It took me 10 minutes to figure out I could zoom in, and zooming in is bloody important here. There’s no riddles, and yet it still manages to be puzzling. Sometimes there’s literally no sense as to what’s going on. Doors will simply randomly open at some intervals, whilst some open when doing seemingly random things. Yes, its peculiarity often made me want to refer to a walkthrough of some kind, but I knew that would stump the experience. Uncertainty in absolutely every facet of P.T., from exactly how it’s going to frighten you next to…well, what exactly is meant to happen drives the entire thing forward, not at a blistering pace…and not an enjoyable pace where my heart is concerned…but one completely fitting to the genre.

Having been fortunate enough to not become a talking head on one of these ‘I Should’ve Died’ shows through encountering a murderer, this is the first time my heart has truly experienced palpatations that could rival anything Travis Barker could drum out. The desk in the corner coated in pain killers became my camp. With each alteration to the corridor, I would crawl into the corner and spend a few minutes allowing my peripheral vision to register any threats. Even when a monolithic shadow stood in my way, I stayed true to my corner camp, simply gazing in panic. I thought some degree of humour would help me out. I’d guffaw and state that the game could sod off. That I wouldn’t go on. Occasionally I’d scream ‘YOU’RE TEARING ME APART, LISA!’ in (dare I say) a pretty convincing Tommy Wiseau tone in a bid to ease the tension. It never helped.

What truly fascinates me about this game is how bloody unimpressive it seems on the surface.  It’s nothing but a corridor sewn together with other corridor variants, tied up in an intestine of a bow that is a pretty unremarkable story of a man seemingly possessed killing his entire family. It’s ‘ghost story round the campfire’ type stuff. But there’s a reason why such things are a cliché.

Yes, the story around a campfire thing sounds almost twee, but if you get a storyteller just as cracking as the kindling, then ANY entity they put in your mind could feel like they’re breathing on your shoulder if the air weren’t so cold. The prospect of swallowing toothpaste takes on a darker meaning when somebody tells you every pea sized pellet contains nano Freddy Kruegers when claimed in the right environment. When storytelling mediums take advantage of the way they’re being told, they can be ridiculously rattling tales, and dwelling on the lingering pains caused by P.T. reminded me of another rather good, rather bloody distressing horror story.

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Fun fact: In 1992, Michael Parkinson freaked out an entire nation.

‘Ghostwatch’ was an extraordinary piece of telly that managed to make ‘Most Haunted’ look like an episode of Thunderbirds (well…an episode of Thunderbirds where the camera man runs away from ANYTHING that’s happening). It was a live television show, with Michael Parkinson hosting an investigation into some spooky goings on in a seemingly regular family household…from a studio in London. On location, Craig Charles had a bit of bants with a traumatised family, Saturday Superstore regular Sarah Greene was set to accompany the family throughout the night, documenting all oddities and the studio clan encouraged viewers to phone in if they spotted anything out of the ordinary. Then pipes started shaking in the house, indicating the presence of a ghost. Then scratches started randomly appearing on the children of the household, indicating the presence of an aggressive ghost. Then studio lights start detonating, indicting the presence of Hell on Earth. Unfortunately, it turned out that the television broadcast had caused some sort of weird nexus, channelling the power of the ghost into the studio itself and causing it to gain unimaginable paranormal strength, causing untold havoc as the powerless Parky sat in fear of what our new pipe rustling overlord would do to mankind.

As I’m writing this from West Sussex and not North Crapington-On-Hell, you can probably tell something’s not quite right with that paragraph.

It was a fraudulent piece of fiction. Everything had been pre-recorded and it simply took the guise of a live television show. On paper, this doesn’t sound like much, but when you watch it. My God, when you watch it…

As these pieces were pre-recorded, the show could screw with the viewers at home whilst remaining under the guise of live television. For example, in lingering shots, you can make out a slight figure. Pause it, and it just looks like a bald man wearing a curtain. But, with no way of pausing and only the briefest of glimpses to go on, it’s enough to play with your brain. A few minutes later, there’s a call from a ‘member of the public’. She confirms what some speculated, there’s something stalking the children of this house. Parkinson asks to play back the tape, and of course, a bunch of jerks pitch up pre-recorded footage that looks exactly the same, except there’s no curtain donning man. When remnants of the footage you saw turns up, they simply try and blow such suspicions out of the water with new found technology. How could Parky be wrong? He’s a national treasure. You’re just a lowly peasant viewer, you’re the one who’s wrong. Under the ruse, with Michael Parkinson gently dulling down speculation, it’s bewildering to watch. And of course, it’s not the last time you see/don’t see the possessive bastard.

I won’t spoil how it ends. Needless to say, it’s a jarring and bewildering finale (I’m pretty sure Craig Charles’ death is alluded to in it), but it’s not the tale that gives me the heebie jeebies or the gooey looies or the patinko chalinkos. It’s a ghost who rattles pipes and wants to kill, whatever. It’s the way that tale is told that gives me the shivers to this day when I think about it. And I’m a fully grown manchild. Sure, if you ACTUALLY phoned up, you would be told it was just a piece of fiction…but a lot of people didn’t phone up.  Yes, there were credits at the end of the show, but for those who had just involuntarily made their sofas a bit mucky, the psychological damage had already been done.

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This is actually the 6th most comforting thing you’ll see in the game. At least there’s still light.

‘Ghostwatch’ took advantage of people’s perceptions of television. It was very real stuff. So real there were…a lot of angry people in its aftermath. If I had watched it at the tender age of 2, I dread to think how unhinged I would be now (moreso). It took a tale that, honestly, wasn’t all that unfamiliar, but turned it on its head and screwed around with everything we thought we already knew. If something from the world of the dead decided to mess around in our own realm, it wouldn’t dabble with slamming closet doors or shifting mugs into stacks that would look befitting in BHS. It would find unthinkable, sanity crushing ways to destroy perceptions, and THEN find a way of screwing with crockery.

P.T. hits the same notes that show did. It kicks your perceptions of gaming norms in the nuts and even screws over your perceptions of how the game is playing out. Death has a certain safety to it in horror titles. It means you can come back prepared, knowing how to manipulate the world to your advantage. That means nothing here. Here, death is just a part of proceedings. Lisa. Dear God Lisa. She doesn’t follow patterns. She doesn’t waltz along the floor waiting for a chance to pounce. Her movement seems completely random. Even a supposed bug that restarts the game ends up being bloODY LISA RESTARTING THE GAME LEAVE ME ALONE IT’S NOT YOUR FAULT.

As we’re sociopaths, we fired up P.T. again the other day and paced ourselves through it. Every time we attempted to trigger one of the points where we absolutely had to meet her…she didn’t appear. She toyed with us, despite…knowing that we were doing everything we needed to in order to make her appear. Of course, she then decided to do it when we were losing our patience. I don’t trust this game anymore. She appeared on the balcony in that playthrough. I’m sure she didn’t before.

My brain started shutting down on occasions. The games constant manipulation started to make me jump at everything. I jumped at the odd random scuffle. I jumped when I started thinking the walls were closing in. I jumped when I accidentally moved my finger over the blue light on my Dualshock 4 and the shadow scuttled across my wall. I hate that thing.

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SHE’S EVEN APPEARING IN THIS BLOODY ARTICLE LEAVE ME ALONE

Part of me is very sad I can’t play this for the first time again. This is one of the few times I’ve seen a game truly take advantage of a medium, and encompassed it into a genre that thrills the human psyche. But part of me is excited. I realised I wanted to work in this industry when I was 12 and started playing Silent Hill 2. When it came out, I felt like an investigator, psychologist and philosopher rolled into one. This was a time before wikias, where I’d gather with people in forums and discuss exactly what the hell is going on in this absurd American town, and the people seemingly magnetised to it. The town bled mystery, mystery it didn’t want to be solved, and that made it all the more tantalising. But when you entered, you’d walk away with more questions. Its oddities lingered in the mind. Even the most simplest of things would tap away at my lobes, potentially drawing on the most basic of mini stories, and potentially be connected to something else. It wasn’t conventionally ‘scary’, just unsettling, but to uncover these minimalistic tales in your own pace certainly took bravery. Getting lost was part of what made the town frightening. Getting lost was simply a way of being told that you’re not having your hand held for you anymore. If we can learn anything from this, it’s how we can rekindle familiar stories under an entirely new guise and reinvigorate them. The original Silent Hill titles managed to find a way to creep into your psyche. P.T. manages to creep its way into your brain, and question exactly how reality works in a world of fiction.

You can’t tell the story in a film, much like I’m pretty sure you can’t make a decent video game based around ‘She’s The Man’. You can’t do a film version of P.T. It would be a low, low, LOW budget version of the placid ‘Paranormal Activity’ films. Every medium has its own benefits when it comes to telling stories, and none of these will overtake the other. People outside of video games have scoffed when I’ve said this, claiming one form of media to be greater than another. But now there’s solid proof that they’re spewing forth nonsense, and it comes in the form of the video games take on the classic ghost story. It excites me.

And it scares me.

People are asking for this to be a multi-platform teaser. Honestly, I think it should stay where it is. Because once the nerve rattling experience is over, there’s no greater relief to walk away from Lisa’s home and straight into the warm embrace of the PS4 menu ambiance music.

Seriously, press the home button and watch some puppies to that. It’s bliss.

A swift Google for Ghostwatch to see if I got my facts straight uncovered the full episode on Youtube. If you have a spare 90 minutes tonight, I encourage you to give it a gander. Craig Charles is only in it for a bit, I swear. Pipes the ghost also appears at random intervals. Try and ease the tension at home by seeing if you can beat your pals at spotting him.

 

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Ben Taylor

Well, after 4 years lurking in the darkest corners of YARS, it's probably about time I updated this profile. I'm Ben, one of the senior editors here, and outside of scribbling on here, editing and finding pwetty pics to put in reviews, I'm studying 'Game Cultures' at uni. That's...that's game development in simpler terms, I don't spend my time analysing pixelated toes to determine whether they're 'art' or not. Anyway, I generally write to either save people money on utter crud or at least make them smile in some wry way with my bitterness and general disdain. If you're not laughing with me, you're laughing at me, and hey, that's progress in my books. 🙂

About Ben Taylor

Well, after 4 years lurking in the darkest corners of YARS, it's probably about time I updated this profile. I'm Ben, one of the senior editors here, and outside of scribbling on here, editing and finding pwetty pics to put in reviews, I'm studying 'Game Cultures' at uni. That's...that's game development in simpler terms, I don't spend my time analysing pixelated toes to determine whether they're 'art' or not. Anyway, I generally write to either save people money on utter crud or at least make them smile in some wry way with my bitterness and general disdain. If you're not laughing with me, you're laughing at me, and hey, that's progress in my books. :)