The Silent Hills That Almost Were

I based my decision to buy a PlayStation 4 partly on the fact that P.T. was on it exclusively. Mere months after I bought my new system and played the much-discussed demo for Silent Hills, P.T. was removed from the PSN store forever. In retrospect, this was without a doubt the smartest video game console purchase decision I ever made. P.T. is now, effectively, a rare game. And unlike other collector’s items, this one can’t be easily resold. eBay listings for PS4s with P.T. appeared for thousands of dollars (although I highly doubt anyone paid that much for a free demo that lasts half an hour once you know how to beat it).

Mr. Reedus is even delightful in digital form

Mr. Reedus is even delightful in digital form

For me and many others, Konami’s choice to cancel Silent Hills was a gut punch, with the permanent removal of P.T. adding insult to injury. This project had seemed too good to be true. It was like something from a mega fan’s wishlist: Hideo Kojima, renowned for constantly subverting player expectation, Guillermo del Toro, a highly respected horror film director, and Norman Reedus in the lead role as the man-crush cherry on top. The Silent Hill series is well-respected, but lately had suffered a few underwhelming entries and this project could have reinvented the series. Instead, all that remains is the mystery of walking down one narrow hallway over and over again. 

The thing that puzzles me the most is whether the full version of Silent Hills would have actually resembled P.T. in any way. There were some basic story elements and characters, but were they actually intended to be canon to the series, or was P.T. more of a tech demo/viral marketing piece? It wasn’t until the closing cut scene played that anyone even knew they had been playing a Silent Hill game. Elements of the demo suggested alternate realities, a constant theme in the franchise (typically there is the Fog World and the Nightmare World). Quoth the talking bloody paper bag, “I walked. I could do nothing but walk. And then I saw me walking in front of myself. But it wasn’t really me. Watch out. The gap in the door…is a separate reality. The only me is me. Are you sure the only you is you?” My best guess is that the presence of multiple towns was the reasoning behind the plural “Silent Hills.”

The surreal atmosphere and constant suspense were what made P.T. a sensation. You wake up on the floor of a dark cellar. You walk through a door and into a remarkably photorealistic hallway, filled with framed pictures, decorations, and various clutter. A voice on the radio describes a series of grisly murders, each involving different families but sharing the connection of a father killing his family. At the end of the hallway, you open a door and emerge right at the beginning of the very same hallway. Confusion leads to a sense of tension as each time you exit only to return to the start of the hallway. Then things start changing. You hear a few bumps coming from the bathroom, then the same door you’ve been going through each time closes on its own. The bathroom door creaks open and bugs start crawling out. You peak through and catch a glimpse of a dead woman as she slams the door shut. The exit is open again and you go through yet another time. Then there she is, just standing under the light in the center of the hallway. And then the lights go out.

Take a few steps forward, and that light goes out. You then have to move forward in total darkness.

Take a few steps forward, and that light goes out. You then have to move forward in total darkness.

So many moments like this play out with cinematic flair. Every change in the hallway invites the player to investigate and then, when you’re focused on one thing, something else changes suddenly. I played P.T. even after watching a complete playthrough and reading all about it and I still felt tense the entire time. The moment I dreaded was the one big jump scare. It can be triggered by a few different actions and not knowing the exact causes made me terrified. The most common scenario happens when the voice over the radio says “Turn around.” “I said TURN AROUND,” it practically yells at you. If you do, the dead woman, her name is assumed to be Lisa, grabs you and breaks your neck, twitching in the most disturbingly inhuman way the whole time. As you lie on the floor, you hear what sounds like your pants being unzipped followed by a knife plunging into…somewhere.

P.T. is filled with disturbing images just like that one. A deformed, bloody baby cries from the bathroom sink, an obvious nod to the film Eraserhead. At one point, the chandelier is replaced by a fridge suspended from the ceiling, dripping blood out of the door. Later on, the hallway starts glowing red and its layout completely changes shape into an almost mazelike, endless corridor. The pictures on the walls turn into frames with spinning eyeballs and your movement is greatly accelerated. The way to advance past this part of the game is to peek into a hole in the wall and listen in on a murder that took place in the bathroom, the same radio voice instructing someone “Now’s the time! Do it!”

This thing has far more insight into your personal life than is comfortable. Not that this is comfortable to begin with...

This thing has far more insight into your personal life than is comfortable. Not that this is comfortable to begin with...

These are the moments that are absolutely unforgettable; the scenes that make you wonder how disturbing a full game could have been. 

As great as it is, P.T. is not without issues. The biggest annoyance is undoubtedly the pure lack of direction. Your only method of interaction is to zoom by clicking in the analog stick. Without an FAQ, you will spend way too much time wandering around carefully examining the same objects until you find the right one needed to advance. At one point, the game will prompt you to press the X button (the hint being a giant X over a framed picture), while at another time you actually have to put the controller down and not press anything while it rumbles for ten seconds. The most contentious puzzle involves plugging in a microphone and either saying the name “Jarith” or just screaming. The solution to this one is so vague that people still don’t know exactly what works. If you search for it online, you will find multiple methods that all claim they have been tested 100%. The “Jarith” solution has been justified by a convoluted number/letter substitution that, if I had to guess, was not actually intended. More likely than not, someone accidentally stumbled into this solution and it ended up working (voice detection for such an exact name is just not that reliable). The numbers 204863 are repeated many times. They’re kind of close to Mr. Kojima’s birthday (8/24/1963) but again, no one knows what they mean for sure. The YouTube channel TheGrateDebate posited a number substitution puzzle where they believed the final answer was “Jarith.” It seems way too bizarre and specific to be true, but then again, this is a consistent and commonly used method to get to the ending. 

The hidden secrets are even more vague. In the era of examining screenshots and searching wikis for secrets (I like to think of it as a post-Lost phenomenon), this game appears to have been designed with the Internet in mind. You can collect six torn pieces of a picture scattered throughout the hallway, but this obscure scavenger hunt isn’t necessary to beat the demo. You are also guaranteed at least once during your game to have sort of a glitched out “reset” screen that starts you back in the cellar you woke up in. These screens have writing in different languages, and more writing flashes across the screen as you collect each individual picture fragment. It seems like this was intended to be solved by an international online effort as if it were an Alternate Reality Game in a marketing campaign. When translated, these lines actually provide cryptic clues on how to finish the demo. 

The fact that these mysteries, both in terms of narrative and design, will never have answers is beyond frustrating. At the same time, the lack of closure permanently changes the experience of P.T. Unlike say, a TV series being cancelled midseason, this piece can stand on its own. The murders described over the radio did seem like a potential setup for a larger story, but the notion of this remaining unsolved becomes unsettling in an entirely different way. Gaming has had its fair share of abandoned or controversial projects, but I’d love to someday hear the behind-the-scenes story from P.T. most of all. Until then, replay P.T. if you were lucky enough to download it, watch a video of someone else playing it, check out the theories and analysis surrounding it, and wonder what might have been.