The last person I expected to give video game horror a kick in the ass was Hideo Kojima.
When it comes to promotion, there is no one quite like Kojima. His success with the Metal Gear series may have chained him to the franchise years longer than he wanted, but it's also given him the freedom to go batshit crazy.
In case you missed it, at Sony's Gamescom press conference, it revealed a playable demo for a new and mysterious game, P.T., which was available to download on the PlayStation Store. Nothing else was said about P.T., but Sony employees on Twitter immediately began prodding players to discover its secrets. Later in the day, we discovered P.T., which stands for Playable Teaser, is viral marketing for Silent Hills, a new entry in Konami's horror franchise from Kojima and genre filmmaker Guillermo del Toro.
In other words, Kojima asked Sony, a platform holder at one of the year's biggest events, to lie on stage, avoiding a huge reveal, in service of a surprise. Kojima asked Konami to let him develop a viral game demo that's purposely obtuse, in the hopes that most players will never, ever see what P.T. is hiding inside.
Game unveilings are so boring and predictable these days. A Game Informer cover here, a CG parade there. Then, we prepare for two years of weekly trailers. (I'm looking at you, Ubisoft.) There's no magic, no spectacle. Even if I have problems with Kojima's recent character and plotting choices, I always anticipate his next PR move, knowing that Kojima is the closest we have to J.J. Abrams: creatives who respect the art of mystery.
(Let me cut some Abrams haters off at the pass, too. We're talking about mystery, not answers, and a dedication to playing with audience expectation. Watch his TED talk about the "mystery box" for details.)
Kojima didn't even tease his involvement: his name was a surprise. It's unclear how hands-on Kojima will be with this new Silent Hill, given he was distant from Castlevania: Lords of Shadow. But if attaching his name means the team is given the resources to give Silent Hill the revival it deserves, that's good enough for me.
Because lemme tell you, P.T. is remarkable. It might consist of walking the same hallway over and over again, but I haven't been this shaken by a game in years. Only my experiments with hastily made Oculus Rift experiments come close. I measure how well a horror game is working by how quickly I begin backing my face away from the screen, as though just a few more inches will save me from whatever is around the corner. With P.T., one sequence involved me walking down the hallway with my arm nearly covering my face. Real cool, bro.
It's unlikely Silent Hills will actually be structured like P.T. The gameplay mostly involves shuffling through two doors and a hallway. (They are very detailed hallways, however!) There are signs things aren't right, and it's clear this house has seen some evil recently. Each time, the hallway changes. The changes are, at first, subtle, but it doesn't take long before it ramps up. Sound design is critical in any horror experience, and P.T. had me itching to take one of my headphones off--anything to touch the outside world. Just as it feels P.T. will end, the hallway returns to normal, and the player feels safe. Inevitably, that safety is violated. Boo.
The cycle of safety and violation is key to horror. Players need moments to let their guard down, which gives them a breather, and provides an opportunity for the creator to surprise them. P.T.'s repetitive nature actively pulses between these two extremes, often coming right to the edge...before backing off. A shadow in the distance, a face in the window, a footstep around the corner. Most horror cannot resist the temptation to reveal its evil (hi, jump scares!), and P.T. succeeds because it thoughtfully, methodically, painfully waits to try and truly frighten.
Silent Hill deserves this, damnit. We're talking about the groundbreaking series that helped define gaming horror beyond the jump scare. I've slogged through Silent Hill: Homecoming, Downpour, and Shattered Memories. Only Shattered Memories showed any signs of life. Sorry, but I refuse to believe anyone defending Homecoming or Downpour is doing anything but reconciling the hours we've collectively wasted hoping Konami would get it right this time. It's been so long since a Silent Hill game shook us to the core that we're happy with scraps. We go back to the well over and over because we're reminded of what Silent Hill could be.
Horror is dead, long live horror.
At least, that's how I've felt lately. Amnesia: The Dark Descent and Slender: The Eight Pages suggested the independent scene would carry the torch, as Konami looked at Silent Hill with confused indifference and Capcom chased mainstream audiences with Resident Evil. For whatever reason, big budget games had largely given up on horror, even if the genre continues to expand elsewhere. These days, horror is big business on TV (The Strain, The Walking Dead), and has even hung out with summer blockbusters (The Conjuring).
The big test is coming in the next few years, and it'd only take a few failures to send everyone packing.
The Evil Within, the return of Shinji Mikami, arrives in October. In Mikami We Trust, but what I've seen of The Evil Within hasn't inspired much confidence. I can't quite put my finger on it. It looks like Resident Evil 4 transplanted to 2014 with lots of gore, which, on paper, sounds great, but it's mostly left me feeling uninspired.
That same month, we'll be treated to Alien: Isolation, which is essentially Creative Assembly taking lessons from Amnesia with gobs of money. The demo I played at GDC was scary as hell, but I worry the game will become trial-and-error. Death makes sense when running from creatures of the night, but in the ideal scenario, players just barely make it out alive, and never actually die. I'm curious how the game strikes that balance.
Next year, Capcom will release an updated version of its Resident Evil remake, a high point in the series. Is Capcom subtly hinting a return to its roots? After Resident Evil 6, one can only hope for change--any change.
P.T. demonstrates a development team that knows what's possible when the horror genre is paired with the best technology has to offer. Can you imagine what it'd be like with Morpheus? Actually, I don't really want to.
Either way, Silent Hill is back.
Silent Hill is dead, long live Silent Hill.