How Hideo Kojima’s notorious P.T. demo has shaped a new age of minimalist psychological horror…
Not before or since has there been a video game demo more analysed, dissected, and pored over than Hideo Kojima’s P.T. Short for “Playable Teaser”, the seemingly infinite corridor players must repeatedly navigate more than delivered on this eponymous promise, using an endless loop structure (alongside a plethora of other effective shock tactics) to give players a taste of something more expansive, intended to come later. Of course, Kojima’s unceremonious break away from Konami meant it never did. Seven years on, and Silent Hills is still nowhere to be found, merely leaving us to wonder what potentially could have been.
And yet it’s precisely because of P.T.’s standalone nature that it’s garnered such a legendary status among horror fans. The demo’s pared-back, defenceless, and downright unsettling approach to scares and abstract storytelling continues to inspire players and developers alike. To the extent that what Kojima Productions (operating under the guise of 7780s Studio) achieved using limited resources has almost certainly endured
for much longer than initially intended. It’s a shame, then, that P.T. is no longer accessible, forever locked away since it was pulled from the PSN storefront in April 2015 – less than a year after release.
Only those forward-thinking enough to keep it stored on their PS4 hard drive can ever revisit P.T. again in its original form. For everyone else, meanwhile, there are plenty of other claustrophobic horror experiences where P.T.’s influence runs rampant.
“P.T. revolutionised the psychological horror game genre, becoming a legacy that exceeds its short runtime.” So says Tomasz Gawlikowski, CMO of Bloober Team, a studio that knows a thing or two about crafting intense first-person frights, primarily through its work on the Layers of Fear games. “It has certainly influenced all of us in some way, and made us feel that there is still room for subtle stories with a mysterious atmosphere. There are players who love to play games that focus on the setting, rather than monsters or ghosts popping out of nowhere.”
The original Layers of Fear launched in early 2016 as one of the first prominent horror titles to deliberately channel the essence of P.T. and stretch it out into a full-scale game. The core narrative is far removed from the familicide themes at the centre of Kojima’s twisting tunnel, true, but similar design principles such as an ever-shifting domestic environment shrouded in mystery, the complete absence of combat, and near photorealistic visuals all combine to create an undeniably chilling horror story about a a tortured painter trying to complete their unfinished masterpiece.
“The house plays with you and messes with your head a lot, moving in and out of reality,” explains Gawlikowski. “The visuals are used to manipulate the player. It’s designed in a way to make you feel like you’re trapped in a maze which exists outside of any logic or dimension.” Taking a mundane environment and making it unpredictable was very much P.T.’s bread and butter too, so it’s unsurprising to see this element aped in a lot of psychological horror games hoping to follow in its stead. Relying on any kind of repetition, though, always requires a good level of balance. “Any technique used too often can bore the player or even make them dizzy by messing with their perception,” says Gawlikowski. “We’re always trying to create some sense of insanity, but without taking [away] control.”
Layers of Fear has since turned into its own beast, mining the theme of a doomed artist to provide players with frequent scares and chilling sights. The premise of a warping environment remains, however, as does telling a tightly contained personal tale set in one location and steeped in tragedy. The same is true of The Mortuary Assistant, a breakout hit amongst horror streamers from earlier this year, which advances the P.T. formula a tad by also having players complete tasks and puzzles. You play as a character spending long stretches of time at work alone, but it isn’t long before you’re paid a visit by demons and must unravel the reason behind these mysterious happenings.
In order to achieve an ever-present sense of dread, The Mortuary Assistant’s sole creator, Brian Clarke, felt it vital to do a lot with very little. “[P.T.] does a fantastic job with minimal setup, great sound design, fantastic lighting, and the concept of this spirit always just behind you making you feel uneasy,” he says. “I feel it brings the player into that scenario the same way I hope to have achieved.” Clarke’s game similarly lets players get familiar with one intimate environment rather than shooting
for a large scale, since he believes it to be much more effective and a cornerstone of this particular horror sub-genre. “I feel there’s a lot of power in a smaller environment used to its full potential as opposed to one long linear progression with changing locations.”
Grounding you within a singular place – typically infested by a dark presence – is a textbook hallmark of games made in the P.T. mould. That said, equally as important is a deep amount of lore to dig into. After all, what begins as a simple turn of the corridor in Kojima’s demo slowly reveals a dark backstory about a father murdering his family. The events that follow are mostly open to interpretation, sure, but they provide plenty for the player to chew on, and benefit from the same internet sleuthing that allows you to piece together the game’s mysteries and get to the ending.
Spiritual successors like Layers of Fear and The Mortuary Assistant never go quite this abstract, but there’s always much more to the story than simply what’s presented on the surface. Plus, it opens up many doors to experiment with the way the narrative unfolds. “Lore-wise, the demon is trying to basically prime [protagonist] Rebecca for possession, and one of the ways of doing that is digging into her past,” explains Clarke. “So I leaned into that by having fragments of her life come in and out of her experience in the mortuary. This vignette approach to her and other stories gives a lot of freedom to have it leak in and out of her embalming tasks and alter the environment. It’s not a traditional storytelling method, which makes it a bit of a gamble as it asks the player to piece things together as opposed to telling you outright.”
Hugely influential, P.T. has not only inspired existing horror developers but also up-and-coming ones, too. For proof, you only need to look at Shadows of Them, a short psychological horror experience set amongst the London Underground, developed by a group of game designers studying at the National Film and Television School (NFTS). The game was released for free on itch.io, being short-listed in Develop:Brighton’s Indie Showcase category.
“It’s fair to say that P.T. was our key inspiration,” says Shadows of Them’s co-narrative designer, Harvey Hayman. “I’m pretty sure the early pitch line was ‘P.T. but on a tube train’. [We] even drew out a map of every single corridor loop in P.T. to really inspect how it builds and maintains tension but also how each of the puzzle elements are designed. Our main takeaway from this was that P.T. is great from a horror environment perspective, but its puzzle design is obtuse – Kojima wanted players to take their time to try and solve it. In designing Shadows of Them, we wanted the puzzles to be both integral to the storytelling but fairly simple in their design and solution.”
Centred on a mother’s metaphorical grief after losing her family, Shadows of Them directly lifts the looping structure of P.T. but makes progression more linear. Players must still traverse an unquantifiable sense of place amidst a grim subject matter, but story pieces don’t need to be stitched together. The NFTS students wanted horror fans to walk away totally satisfied. “When I finished P.T., I wasn’t sad nor happy,” says lighting artist Thomas Porta. “It didn’t make me feel anything except, ‘Wow, that’s a well-made game’. In contrast, with Shadows of Them we [focused] on the player’s emotional experience.”
As is evident, just because the games discussed cite Kojima’s unfinished potential masterwork as an influence, it doesn’t mean that – much like the iconic corridor itself – there aren’t infinite avenues in which to take this new brand of psychological horror. Whether that takes the form of giving players a slightly more complex environment to explore, a less obtuse approach to storytelling, or a means to affect the final outcome, P.T.’s legacy now stretches much further beyond whatever Silent Hills would have been. Many have speculated whether the final product could have lived up to that initial demo at all.
One thing is for certain, though: P.T. is an individual oddity that still leaves developers and horror fans curious about Silent Hills’ untapped potential. “The fact that P.T. never became a full title contributed to its cult status,” says Gawlikowski. “Fuelled by fans’ imagination of what it could have been, it’s often mentioned as one of the best titles never made. Would it really be that if it had [become] a full game? We can only speculate, and I think this is why we still can’t forget about it.”
Porta concurs. “The success of P.T. was born out of its in-game atmosphere,” he explains. “Any group of developers capable of creating such a strong feeling of presence – using its visuals, sound design, and level design – is a group of developers whose games I want to play. Konami’s Silent Hills would’ve been all those things and perhaps more.”
Silent Hills’ unexpected cancellation adds further to the mystique. “Part of what keeps it as such a well-made piece is that everyone has taken the same fantastic base and developed thoughts of what it could have been,” says Clarke, “which means it’s always perfect to everyone that’s a fan of it.” That doesn’t mean he, too, is any less curious. “Obviously, I’d love to have seen it. However, I think it would have ultimately not lived up to some expectations while surpassing others, and that breaks its legacy.”
Kojima’s “Playable Teaser” continues to be examined by the dedicated. And while there’s no guarantee that the eventual Silent Hills would have reached similar heights, you’d struggle to find a demo anywhere near as influential on so many creators. “P.T. remaining this unrefined gem has allowed so many to be inspired by it and begin to explore some great horror concepts,” sums up Clarke. “Maybe that’s a good thing.”