Monday, August 18, 2014

"Silent Hills" and the Psychological Power of Video Games

If you haven't heard, Konami announced that Hideo Kojima (mostly known for the creator of the "Metal Gear" franchise) would be teaming up with filmmaker Guillermo Del Toro (of late known for "Pan's Labyrinth" and "Pacific Rim") and actor Norman Reedus (known for his acting work in "The Walking Dead" as Daryl) to make the next game in the "Silent Hill" franchise, dubbed "Silent Hills".

I had heard this news last week and it sounded great to me, but I was rather busy last week, so I missed the other more interesting part of the story.

As it turns out, this announcement was not made at a press conference or an exclusive report or anything like that.

It was made through an enigmatic playable demo called "P.T.", or "Playable Teaser". While the teaser itself was announced at Gamescom last week and then subsequently released for free on PS4, its connection to "Silent Hill", Kojima, Del Toro, or Reedus was held back until players reached the end of the demo, at which point the initial teaser trailer was revealed.

This is a rather ingenious bit of marketing on its own, but what made it better was that the very last puzzle of the game demo was so difficult (you had to find a bunch of impossibly-hidden pieces of a picture, have a headset plugged into your controller, wait for two audio cues, stop moving completely for a few seconds, and then a phone rang) that it pretty much FORCED people to communicate about it online, making its buzz strong in certain circles of the internet long before its connections were even made known.

But I don't really want to talk too much about the game's marketing, because when I finally got to sit down and play "P.T." for myself... well, let's say I was a bit surprised. I was expecting something very short, something very straightforward, something that felt more like marketing rather than an actual demo.

What I got was probably the scariest game I've played since "Amnesia: Dark Descent", and I'd actually say that this game was scarier.

And it's not even a full game. It's not even really a demo because the content in the game won't even be in "Silent Hills". This is Kojima and Del Toro basically saying, "This is what we did for fun."

The mind reels at what the final product will be like.

Here's the thing. I'm not really big on horror games usually. I'm not really big on the horror genre in general. It's not so much that I don't like being scared, I just don't find being scared to be fun. Some people like getting frightened, and I understand and respect that, even if I don't count myself among them.

The problem with the majority of games and films in the horror genre is that they operate on the assumption that their audience just wants to be scared and that as long as they accomplish that, they're good to go. It's the same kind of lazy thinking that leads to action films where the filmmakers are only interested in making stuff blow up, or films for children that only seek to stimulate rather than engage young viewers. In order for me to be interested in watching a horror film, it has to be a good movie. It has to use fear for something other than a cheap thrill. And similarly, a video game in the horror genre has to be a good game for me to even consider playing it.

"Silent Hill" has been one of the few horror franchises I've dipped my toe into because when it's done well, it understands that horror is about more than just sudden loud noises and things jumping out at you from around the corner. It's about getting inside the player's head. Making them feel something other than just a pounding heartbeat.

However, since "Silent Hill" has left Japan to be produced by Americans and Europeans in recent years, it has generally lacked the same subtlety and balance the original four games tried to have. I admit I haven't played a number of these games, but it's fairly clear that none of these games have quite hit the mark. The game I thought came closest was "Shattered Memories", but while it managed to have improved gameplay and actually tried to focus on psychological scares rather than random jump scares, it... well, it wasn't very scary. The monsters weren't very interesting and didn't really reflect any deep psychological issues being dealt with in the story, the transition to the Otherworld segments was too telegraphed to provide any significant stress during the rest of the game (if the walls aren't made of ice, you can relax), and while the story was interesting, it didn't really deal with anything particularly difficult. It was just about daddy issues, and while it was interesting, it didn't have the same emotional punch some of the more successful "Silent Hill" games have had.

So when I played through "P.T." and got a glimpse of what Kojima and Del Toro had in store for us... I definitely think they get it.

When it comes to horror in video games, I believe it holds a power greater than horror in film. In a film, you can turn away, close your eyes, curl up, and wait for it to be over. You can't play a video game with your eyes closed (well, not typically anyway). In film, you holler at the protagonist to not open that door or to turn around and go home. In a video game, YOU are the one choosing to open the door and walk forward. Video games have all the visual and audible power of a film when it comes to horror, but they have the added benefit of making the player choose to keep going.

"P.T." does this beautifully.

First of all, the space in this game is incredibly small. You start in a room with a door. You walk through the door into a hallway. The hallway has a little nook with a clock and a plant. At the end of the hallway is a corner turning right. In that corner is a small counter with some pictures and food wrappers and other assorted junk strewn about. Then you turn to corner to another hallway. In this hallway, there's a door to your right leading to a bathroom. Further down the hallways is the foyer with another counter with more pictures and a radio and a door leading outside (that is, of course, locked) and another door further along the hallway. This door leads down a staircase to another door. Through that door... is the first hallway again with the clock and the plant.

This is the entire game space. A looping hallway. The hallway changes each time you go through it, of course. Sometimes you can't move on until you solve a puzzle, but in the end, you always just walk down the stairs and walk back out into the hallway for more.

The idea to use such limited space really evokes the original genius of the original "Silent Hill" games which utilized their limited budget and graphics capabilities by surrounding the entire town in fog. It's obvious that Kojima and company couldn't waste too much time and energy on a demo that wouldn't even be used for the final game. So they designed a simplistic scenario and turned it into an advantage.

The endlessly repeating hallway is incredibly unnerving because this game never gives you a moment to relax. You spend the entire game wanting to get out and to avoid the horrors you experience, but you just... can't. Even in some cases where you seemingly die and start over... it's just a continuation. Even death isn't an escape. It's torture, plain and simple. Your only option is to either stop playing (and forever wonder what awaited you) or simply force yourself to keep going, descending further and further down into bottomless repetition.

And that's kind of the point.

I don't want to spoil too much of the story in this game, but at the very beginning, you hear on the radio about a man who went crazy and slaughtered his family. While I don't think it's ever explicitly stated in the game, I think it's pretty damn clear that the character you play in "P.T." is the man himself. And this never-ending hallway and every single horror you face is his punishment for what he did.

But it's not enough that he be forced into a never-ending loop that he cannot escape. No, throughout the game, you can often only progress by directly confronting and acknowledging the horrible things he did, sometimes actively reenacting (at least symbolically) some of those acts. This is interesting because oftentimes, your instinct in a game like this is to avoid the scary stuff. Games like "Slender" are successful because they put the player at a conflict between wanting to find the pieces of the puzzle and wanting to avoid the horrible scary thing that they know is after them.

Part of what makes games like these work is the fact that the player goes in expecting to be scared. The choice to give this game a first-person perspective means that every corner is a potential scare. Every time you turn around, you don't know what could be lurking behind you. And even though you can get through this entire game and only experience one or two legitimate jump scares (although when I played it, I experienced five), you spend the entire time expecting them.

For example, through most of the beginning of the game, the bathroom door I mentioned is locked. After a few loops, you see it open a crack, but you can't go into it. However, the door to the stairwell is locked, so you have no choice but to explore, and that crack is all there is to explore. You can just barely make out the interior of the room. You can make out a sink... a toilet... maybe a mirror... but it's too dark. Then, without warning, a terrifying figure shows her face in the crack of the door and slams it shut. Then the door to the stairwell opens. When you loop around again, the bathroom door is still closed, but as you approach the stairwell (locked again, of course), you hear the bathroom door open behind you.

The terror this is meant to induce is transparently obvious. You know you saw SOMETHING in that bathroom. You know it was terrifying. You know you DON'T want to see it again. And yet... the stairwell is locked. You can't proceed. Sure, you could turn off the game, and I'm sure some people do, but... I couldn't. I had to know. And I knew that the only way to know would be to make the moronic decision to investigate the bathroom.

I move into the bathroom and can't really make anything out. I can tell that the woman isn't in there with me. I also see a flickering light on the floor. It's a flashlight. I don't want to pick it up. I don't want to see what's inside this bathroom. I don't want to limit my field of view to the floor, allowing something to jump up on me as I try to pick up the flashlight. So I leave the bathroom, just to make ABSOLUTELY CERTAIN that the stairwell is still locked and that picking up the flashlight is unavoidable. Of course it is, so I go back, clench my teeth, and pick up the flashlight.

The bathroom door shuts behind me. It's locked. At this point it becomes apparent... there's something in the bathroom sink. And the only way... the ONLY way I would be let out of the bathroom to continue descending deeper into the character's personal Hell is if I make him look directly at it with the flashlight. Bring it into focus so that it can't be avoided. Only once you face it will the door (slowly) open and let you proceed.

I won't tell you what it is. If you're curious, go ahead and watch a playthrough, or if you have a PS4, give the game a download.

The main reason I don't want to talk about it isn't necessarily because I want to keep it a surprise, but because some of the content of this game is PROFOUNDLY upsetting and the game has no qualms with rubbing your face in it.

The game surrounds you with upsetting and terrifying imagery and sounds and tells you that you have to solve puzzles to see more. WHO CAN SOLVE PUZZLES LIKE THIS!?!?

When you're frightened, the last thing you want to do is think logically. In this type of exploration-based puzzle game, the typical strategy is to just look around until you find the thing that's out of place, but this is exactly the kind of environment where you DON'T want to look around and explore. You just want to get to the end.

And that's the worst part. You have no idea how close you are to the end. How can you know when there's nothing to clue you in? I assumed it would be a short demo. Something minimalistic and simple that I could breeze through in about 15 minutes. It took me over an hour. Maybe two hours, I'm not sure. Each time it got worse, I thought, "It has to be over soon. How could it possibly get worse than this?" Then it kept going. It kept getting worse.

Once I got stuck in the red hallways (if you've played, you probably know what I'm talking about), I finally decided to find a walkthrough to figure out how to get through it, CONVINCED that I was in the last section of the game. NOPE. I still had about three more puzzles to solve first. At that point, I was just about ready to quit the game. "FUCK IT!" I thought. "I'm not putting myself through more of this. I'm done." But I couldn't let it go. I had to know. I knew that if I gave up, it would haunt me. That my imagination would probably be worse than the actual ending. So I forced myself to the end. And honestly, I'm glad I did, because the very last part is actually not that scary so long as you have a walkthrough handy (seriously, don't feel ashamed, you'll never figure out some of this stuff without help). Or at least, it's not as scary as what I would have imagined in my sleep that night. Once you get through it, the whole story comes together and you feel a certain sense of closure. Or at least I did.

I walked away from this game feeling like this man was paying for his crimes. The fact that I shared in his hellish torture for a few hours was certainly not an uplifting experience, but it's an experience I don't regret having. And while I certainly BELIEVE that the character I played as was the man who killed his own family getting what he deserved... since the game chooses to make this somewhat ambiguous and never truly confirms it means that I have to CHOOSE to believe that this Hell was meant for him. I don't want to believe that he merely escaped facing the horrors of his actions and left them for me to experience in his stead. And the idea that this is simply a belief tells me that how I choose to process the horrors of the world, both real and imagined, is in fact nothing more or less than a choice. And while our choices and beliefs affect the way we perceive reality, they do not, in fact, change it.

This game frightens me, but right now, what frightens me more is the realization that at some point, there will be an ENTIRE GAME made by the same people who created this little stroll through a certain pocket of Hell. I nearly lost myself trying to play through THIS. My girlfriend and I went to bed with the doors locked and knots in our stomachs. I don't know if I could handle a full-length game with this kind of intensity.

But I know that I want to. I want to see what this team is capable of when they aren't forced to constrain themselves to just one hallway.

I feel like they understand the potential of horror in games. They understand the power they can wield with it. And that is simultaneously exciting and mortifying.

"Silent Hills" could very well be the most frightening video game ever created.