P.T.P.T.S.D., Silent Hills, and the Future of Horror

Most people that know me well know that I love horror. Movies, games, haunted houses, I love it all. They may also know that I only believe there is a single genuinely good horror movie, 2012’s Cabin in the Woods, and that I don’t find that movie particularly terrifying. I am relatively confident in my belief that, even in the scariest of horror movies, there is an undeniable lack of writing, acting, and directing acumen.

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The last movie to really mess with my head was 2009’s Orphan, a widely forgotten film about a fucked-up adopted child during which I continually turned to my brother and whispered, “There’s something wrong with Esther,” while I was filled with genuine anxiety and apprehension. Even in Orphan, though, I wasn’t as scared as I was tense, and this is generally the problem I have with horror movies of late - they rely very heavily on making me nervous about the next thing to jump out from behind a door, while robbing me of genuine terrors that should keep me from sleeping when the movie is over. Occasionally a horror movie will hire a (relatively) big actor, but this normally serves as a disguise for underwhelming plot or other unsavory elements of the film, like Ethan Hawke in 2012’s very stupid Sinister. (It’s worth noting that, in googling “big name actors horror movies,” the top choices often included Ghostbusters, which, come on.)

When Eternal Darkness came out for the GameCube in 2002, it was the first time I could remember genuinely not being able to sleep because I was afraid of waking up. The game opens with Alexandra Roivas (voiced by an early-career Jennifer Hale) waking up inside a nightmare, surrounded by skeletons attacking her, foretelling some unseen event that was about to change her life. This was a nightmare that my subconscious decided to put me through myself, therefore, in my 11-year-old mind, setting into motion the entirety of Eternal Darkness’ plot in my own life.

It’s this kind of eminently relatable mindfuckery that I feel has made modern horror games my go-to for terror. Amnesia: The Dark Descent nailed horror by robbing the player of power, Lone Survivor’s disquieting use of stealth and atmosphere made clear the range of art styles in which horror could be effective. Even Gone Home, one of my favorite games in the past few years, played upon horror tropes to deliver its narrative more effectively. And now P.T. has happened.

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I refuse to spoil P.T. in this post, but I will spoil the nature of the game’s existence because it is wholly unimportant to the experience: it’s an interactive teaser trailer for a new Silent Hill game called Silent Hills. It’s also one of the scariest fucking things I’ve experienced. I sat down with P.T. about a week ago, eager to test my mettle. I turned all the lights in an entire floor of a building off, hooked the sound up to a massively loud overhead speaker system, and played the game for about eight minutes before I decided I needed to stop. I finished it a day ago alongside fellow game designers Mikhail Favorov and Zeke Virant, and screamed out loud at least half a dozen times. That is not something I generally do. For the most part I play horror games tensely but quietly, occasionally jumping and infrequently pausing. During the course of playing P.T., I found myself more than once actually screaming the word fuck over and over.

The purpose of saying all this isn’t, however, to praise an interactive teaser that’s already getting more than its fair share of praise. More than anything else, this gameplay experience made me cautiously optimistic and very nervous about a new Silent Hill game.

Despite my love of horror games, and my claim of having played and beaten every single iteration of Resident Evil in existence, I’ve played a total of maybe one and a half Silent Hill games. This sin is the result of another, which is that my first attempt at playing a Silent Hill game was with 2012’s Silent Hill: Downpour, which hardly left a good impression. Subsequent exploration into earlier iterations were marred by the (understandable) lack of modern conveniences and a complete lack of social and technological context, and so the series remains largely unexplored for me. The concept of the game, so far as I understand it from researching and watching the two abysmal-but-also-great movies, seems ripe for the genre.

Those few experiences I had, though, seemed antithetical to modern horror. See, Amnesia, Outlast, Slender, and myriad games of late seem to have “figured out” that combat in horror games is detrimental to atmosphere. Lone Survivor’s combat is limited, and the Dead Space series might as well be a case study in how combat is inversely proportional to fear. There are examples, of course, that combat in horror games can be done very well - early Resident Evils, for example - but my experience with combat in the Silent Hill series made the whole thing just seem goofy, not terrifying.

To see that P.T. has eschewed combat - and, in fact, almost all form of interaction - and maintained a genuinely terrifying atmosphere for more than an hour is thrilling. There’s no doubt that, mechanically, there will be much more to whatever Silent Hills is than what we see in P.T. In fact, knowing that the main character is in the likeness of a celebrity, there’s a good chance the game won’t be first-person, either. What makes me nervous, though, is that there are so many decisions at this point that could drag Silent Hills down.

Will we be swinging golf clubs at nurses without faces? Can that be terrifying in the same way this Playable Teaser is? Will I be picking up specific locks for specific doors, or emblems, or turning on generators in buildings across the foggy town? Will I be guarding a vulnerable little girl? Does any of that sound fun?

 Gardening tools are, to me, just about the least scary thing.

Gardening tools are, to me, just about the least scary thing.

Silent Hill as a franchise needs a kick in the pants. With the exception of Shattered Memories, Silent Hill games have continually been critical and commercial failures. Yet the franchise still means something to people who play games. Even I, someone who has never had a great experience with the franchise before P.T., get excited by the idea of a good Silent Hill game. The premise and the monster designs are just too good to exist only in mediocre games. So Kojima and del Toro have to inject life into a franchise that was never fully alive to begin with.

Take out the combat. Abstract the puzzles. And scare the shit out of us.