(Contains P.T. Spoilers)
When GameSpot named P.T. as its Game of the Month in August, the most frequent response in the comments section went along the lines of: Seriously? It's not even a game.
"Demo" turned out to be the prevalent description for P.T., among others such as "marketing ploy" and (per the acronym) "Playable Teaser," because people appeared unwilling to bestow Kojima Productions' grand experiment with that four-letter word that draws us all together here.
There's an irony to this, because P.T. would not have been a dazzlingly inventive, bold, and haunting creation had it been bound by the conventions of a modern “game." It is a journey of overbearing anxiety and overbearing paranoia, and uniquely so, because it doesn't follow the trajectory that its peers take.
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P.T. would not have been a dazzlingly inventive, bold, and haunting creation had it been bound by the conventions of a modern game
While many established developers seem obliged, for example, to stretch a game's landmass out as far as possible, P.T. goes the other way, confining itself to two corridors running through an archetypal suburban home. Aside from the bathroom joined at the intersection, there is little else to explore, a point made abundantly clear when players exit through the door at the furthest end only to find they have curiously entered back to the spot they started at.
Mild claustrophobia is one outcome of this, but what really begins to build as you loop around this L-shaped limbo is a familiarity with your surroundings--a sense that you are becoming as acquainted with this place as much as you would with, say, your own home. Kojima Productions seizes on this, making subtle changes each time you emerge back at the start, and on other occasions, less so subtle changes. On one trip, the corridor’s lights dim to the extent that the furthest end is shrouded in darkness. On another, a looping news report on the radio will break from its routine to tell you something that you'll not likely forget in a while. On some occasions when you expect a major alteration, nothing will happen, and at times when you aren't sure what's changed, the difference will be standing behind you.
Nothing I’ve encountered before replicates with such accuracy the distinct anxiety of hearing a strange noise from somewhere inside your own home; that distressing confusion where what you recall bleeds into what you fear. P.T.’s floor plan will show little more than a narrow hallway, but the world it creates from your own imagination has acres of story and possibility. Shadows dance at the periphery of your view, footsteps echo twice, and figures flash across the dark void between a door and its frame. It is your own fears, not Kojima Productions’, that fills into these gaps.
(An aside: It’s also purposefully constructed so that the first corridor is the longest, maximising the tension as you approach the intersection. Meanwhile, the second corridor is flanked by several entry points--a balcony above, a front door to your left, a bathroom to your right--to ensure you cannot keep everything in your field of view, and thus feel more exposed.)
It's worth noting that, had his been a "game" that stretched across twenty hours and three DLC packs, P.T.'s expertly crafted horror chamber would gradually lose its grip on the player (a fate, it hurts to say, that Alien: Isolation could not avoid). P.T.'s moments of piercing, blood-rushing dread can be counted on one hand, and the total screen-time for Lisa (the ghoul who lives with you, whose gritted smile and guttural sobs will linger in the memory for years) is perhaps less than a hundred seconds. You will have seen most of it within an hour or two. By contrast, a triple-A game is duty-bound to offer at least several hours of content, in a crude-yet-understandable way of justifying its price tag. P.T. is available for free, however, and thus it is free to do things how it wants.
While many games offer glorious fantasies of empowerment, P.T. is a nightmare of disempowerment.
Or perhaps the better description is that it’s free to not do things. Many games, by habit, introduce opportunities to upgrade arsenals, collect perks and forge alliances to ultimately overcome the core challenge. These are glorious fantasies of empowerment. P.T. is a nightmare of disempowerment; its sole commands are move and look with the analogue sticks, and gaze at a specific object with the R3 button (pro-tip: never press the R3 button). The stark absence of inputs and actions leaves you with dreadful sense of vulnerability--a kind of nakedness--which jolts into raw terror once the game is ready to pounce on you.
Some will say the jump scares are a little basic, a little unsophisticated, and that’s absolutely true. Although P.T. toys with our imaginations with refined cruelty, it also demonstrates that nothing sends thunderbolts through the nervous system quite as effectively as the word “boo." Basic isn’t the right word; these are primal scares. It is no coincidence that the first lingering shot of Lisa depicts her so freakishly tall that she towers above a door frame. It’s a fascinating tactic that taps into our inherited evolutionary fear of predators who outsize us.
The argument of whether this pure distillation of unbearable horror is a game or not is, by now, purely academic. Today, Konami will remove it from the PlayStation Store and it will be neither game nor demo nor teaser nor advert. It will be nothing--a haunted space in a digital library, its memory slowly fading like an awful dream.
Gifs: Digital Spy