There is a real question with video games: can they be terrifying? Those that have played know that yes, they really can. Such an experience is not central to the video game world. Practically all major releases have nothing to do with “fear” per say, an adrenaline rush from simulated combat is not the same as a truly dread-inducing experience. Video games, like films and stories, relay on simulating the senses. This goes against the normal adjectives one associates with gaming. Words like freeing, relaxing, and in-control cannot be applicable (at least to a large extent) in successfully scary games. To scare the player, a developer needs to remove the sense of freedom, keep a tension-filled environment, and make the player feel anything but in full control. The playable teaser to the upcoming Silent Hills accomplishes all of this… by making the player walk down an unending hallway.
I’m not joking. It is terrifying.
Like all of the best scares, the Silent Hills P.T. (short for playable teaser) goes for a simple concept. The most successful horror films have done this. Think of Jaws making people afraid of what could be in the water, and Paranormal Activity asking “what happens after you go to sleep?” The Playable Teaser asks this question: “what happens when you’re helpless in a very hostile and creepy environment?” But let’s break it down further. Here is the introduction to the hallway in question:
I am not sure if you can tell just by looking but there is a turn at the far end of the corridor. This is essential and comes into play later. First things first though… does it look at all familiar to another famous horror hallway?
Yes, the good folks over at Kojima Productions have invoked the spirit of Stanley Kubrick it seems, at least as far as visual setting is concerned. As Silent Hills is one of the more famous game series in the horror genre (only Resident Evil has more immediate recognition), it is to be expected that most of its hardcore fans would be familiar with The Shining. The use of an already famous horror setting aside, there is something much more important about the look of the game. Take a look at the difference in these two shots. One features an actor, a conduit for the audience. The other… is just you.
The Playable Teaser breaks from a long tradition in previous entries and goes first-person. There is no conduit, nothing between the player and the experiences. This helps greatly for two reasons. One: everything is seen without a player character standing in the way. Two: this use of first-person greatly restricts the freedom of the camera. Remember that turn at the end of the corridor? There is no way to see around it without taking those terrifying steps.
Well, just a few steps – what’s the big deal?
The player is not as alone in this hallway as they would like. Throughout every walk down the happy hallway, players see things. Some, like the above image, are directly in front of you. That said, the vast majority of jarring sequences occur off to the side. This is a corridor full of many doors and many odd little angles to look around.
Now obviously, visuals can only do so much with horror. Many would actually argue that sound actually plays a greater role in creating fear. Personally, I agree with this, and it is clear the developers felt that sound was essential as well. While the music in the Playable Teaser is not particularly memorable, another use of sound is: the radio. While walking down the endless wonder of the corridor, the player hears different snippets of a radio broadcast.
But none so directly engaging as:
“I said look behind you” might be the most creepy line to ever come out of a video game radio. ever. As you no doubt heard, the weird distorted guttural cries of the creature(s) in the hallway are also audible and numerous points during the game.
This visual and audio construction are two of three key blocks that allow the Playable Teaser to be effectively scary. The last comes in terms of the player’s ability to interact. In short – they cannot. The player is only able to move and zoom the camera in to more closely examine objects. There are no weapons, no ability to attack at all. The lack of options takes away any real feeling of control. The only defiance the player can do against the game is to stop moving, but even then – that hallway is still creepy as hell.
The Silent Hills P.T. creates dread. The dread of environment, the dread of enemies, the dread of vulnerability. It is a perfect exercise in simulated scares. Not since Silent Hill 2 has the series so immediately created an impact like that. Hopefully the full game can measure up to the Playable Teaser. I’ll let you know… assuming I am feeling brave enough to play it.