Gaming history is defined by milestone titles. Each shapes the works that come after it. The Resident Evil franchise defined survival horror, Grand Theft Auto 3 is a prime example of the sandbox game, and Half Life inspired many other first-person shooters. The success and then tragedy that befell P.T can act as another major milestone, this time for horror games. There is pre-P.T. and post-P.T. Post P.T., more games are subtle, simple, stylized, and abstract, and don’t necessarily rely on gore and guns. Many of these new games are relatively small experiences, but large in impact.
To say we are living in a “post-P.T.” era could mean that we’re now seeing the age of the hallway. On the surface, games that purport to be spiritual successors to P.T. are aesthetically similar. Allison Road, which was looking to raise funds long before Silent Hills was canceled, and the recently-released “Layers of Fear” both look like P.T. While I can’t attest to Allison Road’s quality since it’s still currently production, it has the look down. The game takes place in one home, where you have to discover what happened to your family. There are dark hallways, buzzing radios, and creepy ghosts.
Layers of Fear looks a lot less like P.T. but still contains many of the same physical and thematic elements. There are the creepy hallways, the tension that comes with opening unknown doors, the uncertainty of an environment that is meant to be familiar to you. Layers of Fear isn’t always successful in its depiction of mental illness as an internal conflict for the character, but the horror isn’t necessarily monsters or ghosts.
P.T. contains these ghosts. Lisa lurks in the shadows around corners. Sometimes you can see her glaring at you through a window or following you. Sometimes the walls in your home look more like eyes, twitching as you run through the halls. The notorious baby in the sink looks like something straight out of David Lynch’s Eraserhead. You, the unnamed wanderer, have probably murdered your family, but the answers are unknown. It’s less about a haunted house, something typical and straight-forward, and more about what that house means in a psychological manner.
P.T. isn’t technically a game, at least not a fully-developed one. It’s a trailer for Silent Hills, a game which will never come to fruition. Yet, it became internationally popular thanks to its obtuse puzzles, its abstract storytelling, and its contribution to the terrifying hallways of horror history. The Internet latched onto it and spouted wild fan theories about Lisa, the baby in the sink, and the man on the radio. What did the numbers the speakers would repeat mean?
Its popularity also influenced how we construct horror games. We’re starting to move away from shotguns and guts. Instead, we are seeing more stories about the psyche and about personal experiences.
However, while triple-A horror games have been suffering, the indie sphere has been growing. Let’s plays of free horror games like Slender and SCP Containment Breach have garnered major audiences for people like Marikplier and Pewdiepie. Amnesia: The Dark Descent was another terrifying indie title that managed to scare without the use of combat. Instead, it emulated techniques used by Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem to make itself dynamic and physically responsive to the player’s failures.
It was around this time that P.T. emerged as a playable teaser on the Playstation 4 and became a breakout hit. It reads like a response to the stagnation surrounding horror games like Resident Evil, with basic controls, a confusing story, and an aura of tension that comes from an unknown psychology rather than an outside force.
Take the bathroom. Towards the start of the game, you come across a door that is locked. Over time, it swings open, granting you access. In the background, you can sometimes hear the screams of a child. At some point, you enter the room, which you see is a bathroom, and discover the aforementioned grotesque lump that is crying in the sink. You can’t touch it, nor console it. All you can do is leave it.
The abandoned child, coupled with a hole you find later that allow you to glare into the bathroom, presents a confusing and intriguing story that doesn’t rely on an obvious violence. The different iterations of the hallway all point to some crime that you committed, but what exactly it was is left unclear. The point is not about finding out what you did. Rather, the game is about how haunted you’ve become as a result.
To see games that are playing off of these elements, not necessarily invented by P.T. but popularized by it, sets that milestone. We will continue to see horror games that pit you against monsters and build up tension with difficult boss fights, but we will also see smaller, quieter titles made by experimental storytellers that focus on personal hardships and trauma. It’s something that will change how developers tell stories going forward, as widely popular products tend to do.
It’ll introduce diversity into a boring genre, paving the way for more P.T. spiritual successors, and, most importantly, maybe a new Silent Hills under a different name, Konami contractual obligations be damned.