Visage made waves way back when it was announced, partly thanks to comparisons with P.T. The so-called “Playable Teaser” is a bit of a cultural artifact at this point — especially as publisher Konami does everything in its power to make the demo for a Silent Hill reboot unplayable, even on next-gen hardware. Many have sought a successor or replacement to the legendary horror advertisement (or a workaround to keep the genuine article running). Results have been mixed.
Visage is probably the best stab yet. It has a lot of superficial similarities to P.T., as it takes place in a spooky old house full of spooky old dead people that want to eat my brains. Joke’s on them! My brain’s too small to solve most of the puzzles Visage throws my way…
The more concrete comparisons are in those mental challenges. Visage is full of these suckers. They’re mostly pretty clever, too, giving you context clues and very little direction to discover solutions. One early brainteaser puts you in a room with a ghostly TV, for instance. I say “ghostly” because there was literally a blurry ghost flickering in a doorway on the set. It quickly became clear that the game wanted me to find this fuzzy location and go through that door — never actually saying why, but pointing me towards the next in-game event. Other times I realized that I could follow glitchy lightbulbs towards supernatural happenings when no other signposts were present.
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This pushes you to explore the suburban home in which the game takes place. In that way, Visage captures another important aspect of P.T.: the uncomfortable, oppressive danger of the mundane. A house much like the one I grew up in should seem like a haven. A lot of media presents them that way. But it’s no more special than any four walls and a roof. Particularly where the supernatural is concerned.
Other horror media, like Halloween and Fuan no Tane, have understood this for years. The crucial distinction is that it’s not an invasion of the unknown into our safe spaces. Michael Myers was born and raised in Haddonfield. The twisted urban legends of Masaaki Nakayama originate in the towns where they take place. These isolated bulwarks bottle fear within — give it space to breed — rather than defend against it.
Visage and P.T. both start with that same pressure cooker. Creepy radio shows offer one-sided mirrors into the greater world, but no protection, only serving to remind you how alone you really are. Windows looking into cul-de-sacs or apartment complexes just highlight how far you’d have to run, and how few places you’d have to hide, should something or another come chasing after you.
Where the two games diverge is how they want you to explore. P.T. was just that: a playable teaser. It was a heavily scripted and intentionally obtuse experience. It was short. Visage is not. Instead it runs you through multiple chapters in an honestly enormous haunted house.
Resource management becomes a factor. You need to regulate your stress (here called “sanity”) by staying out of the dark. But only quickly burning candles really protect you on the move. Hunting through drawers for them, as well as lighters, keys, and restorative pills is much more of a classic survival horror element than something out of the narrative-driven demo. Similarly, flashing an old camera to stop invisible enemies feels like an homage to Fatal Frame. Whereas toothlessly retreating from invincible foes smacks of Amnesia: The Dark Descent. It’s the early parts of Resident Evil 7 (and that’s a good thing).
I suck at those games about as much as I suck at Visage. Not because it’s too scary, though. With unscripted encounters and jump scares comes the same problem so many horror titles face. Namely that getting killed and reloading a checkpoint boils off the kettle. The fear escapes when you remember, oh yeah, there’s really no consequence for failure but a reload.
P.T. more-or-less removed consequences from the equation. Visage does not. Therein lies the chief philosophical difference between the two. The tension of managing materials against knowable threats replaces the dread of never knowing what the fuck is about to warp your comfortable routine next.
While not as densely nestled into the core of the game, Visage does still feature a good number of scripted scares, though. And when they do occur, they’re almost always inventive and effective. They punch above the weight class indie scare ’em ups built for YouTube have set as a recent precedent. Visage just feels more polished and complete than those skeleton scares.
As a tense survival-puzzler, Visage is also pretty darn effective. I’d even call it one of the best horror games in its field right now. It’s just not the thing it was constantly compared to, and rightfully so, given how closely it borrows a certain aesthetic. But P.T. didn’t invent that, either. It simply used the twisting familiar to deliver condensed, custom scares. Visage tries to blend that with a more common (but still totally valid) sort of horror game. It usually succeeds.