This article originally appeared on VICE UK
Of all the things I could have expected from the balmy nothingness of August—besides being coerced into muggy drinks cramped onto a pavement with all the dickheads from work—a free-to-play demo rocking the foundations of my gaming world was not one of them.
Yet as I sat hunched on my lunch break, watching as the screen filled up with increasingly hyperbolic accolades and gushing praise from members of the internet's once-voted second-bitchiest forum, I knew there'd be something pretty special waiting for me on PSN when I got home.
I made a conscious effort to avoid spoilers, and came away from the thread with three pieces of pertinent information.
One: It was only a teaser, not a full game, and was created by Metal Gear Solid creator Hideo Kojima and Pan's Labyrinth director Guillermo del Toro.
Two: It was called P.T. and was tangentially related to the Silent Hill franchise.
Three: At worst, this was going to scare me. At best, it was going to absolutely terrify me.
I began foaming at the mouth more or less immediately, set the game downloading ahead of time and waited until the sky had turned from Calippo-orange to very, very, very dark, before pulling up my manky old burgundy sofa bed, cranking up the volume, and letting the games begin.
It's worth noting at this point that, having played (and adored) Amnesia: The Dark Descent, Outlast, Condemned, and other so-called Scariest Games Ever, but been left disillusioned by recent entries in the Silent Hill canon, I went into my first P.T. experience feeling excited but ultimately skeptical: it couldn't possibly be that scary, right?
If only I fucking knew.
When the game loads, a black and white slide quietly appears and asks a cryptic, skin-prickling question: "Watch out. The gap in the door… it's a separate reality. The only me is me. Are you sure the only you is you?"
A cockroach scuttles across the cold concrete floor, a wooden door creaks open in front of you, your character gets up and you push the analog stick, moving towards a frighteningly lifelike and jaundiced domestic corridor. One of the first things to hit you is that the arms race for photorealism in video games is over—we're already there.
There are paintings on the walls, eerie photos of a frumpy newlywed couple on the dresser, a hanging lantern screeches back and forth, and a digital alarm clock has stopped at 11:59. Rain taps gently at the windows.
Besides this and your own weighty footsteps, the only other sound is a news broadcast playing through an old radio, echoing around the empty space.
Through crackles and static, the newsreader relays information pertaining to a brutal case of domestic homicide. A father apparently shot his pregnant wife and six-year-old daughter, and was found by the police in his car days later, chanting a sequence of numbers over and over again.
You enter the open door at the end of the L-shaped corridor and are right back where you started.
It's the same corridor. The same photos stare back at you from their frames. The rain still taps at the same windows. The same clock is stopped at the same fucking time, and the same lantern howls from the ceiling. This time, however, there's no radio broadcast playing and the "exit" door is closed firmly shut. You wander over and attempt to leave, and that's when shit starts to go down.
It's absolutely no exaggeration to say that what follows is one of the starkest, most surreal, feverish, and relentlessly terrifying 60 minutes of gaming I've ever experienced.
How to describe the horror of what followed? Think the Lady in the Radiator from Eraserhead, the dog-man scene in The Shining, the visions of Jacob Singer, liberate tuteme ex inferis, the Conet Project on a candlelit night, the Babadook's voice, or a fully interactive House of Leaves, and you're in the right neck of the woods. Besides one PewDiePie-baiting jump scare, Kojima and del Toro have created a sense of deranged, circling, disorientating hell that lasts for the entire duration.
At times, the game doesn't even feel like it was created by human beings, instead coming off like some demonic transmission from another plane of existence, goading you into taking one more trip through that horrible fucking door.
Why is that thing standing there? Why is there a low-pitch voice talking in Swedish on the radio, a talking paper bag, a fetus in the sink? Why is he telling me not to touch a dial? Which dial? Why does he keep repeating those numbers? Where even is this house? Why are the lights changing color? Do I really have to look behind me? P.T. invites a lot of questioning from players, but is just as stingy with the answers.
And you'll keep trying to find them, while a synthetic spirit voice sobs horribly and hopelessly into your headphones, a traumatized baby screams from the confines of a blood-soaked refrigerator, the deeply ominous silence of the balcony leers at you from above, and the constant threat of her appearing keeps your heart palpitating.
After ten or so increasingly demented variations on the L-shaped corridor, the game walks you into its biggest puzzle: an inescapable loop. You'll go round and round trying to find your way into the next "version," to no avail. At this point you'll inevitably chase down a walkthrough online, and it's there that you'll come into contact with the game's rabid community of theorists, all equally as clarity-famished as you are. When you finally solve the puzzle, a phone will ring, triggering a typically cryptic voice message that segues beautifully into the trailer for 2016's Silent Hills. It's over.
Now, P.T. is a remarkable achievement for three main reasons.
Firstly, it's totally bare-bones gameplay-wise. You just move around, occasionally clicking in the right thumbstick to zoom in on parts of the corridor.
Secondly, it's an exceptional piece of marketing. Word-of-mouth alone saw the download tally hit one million shortly after it hit PSN for free.
Finally, it's a serious contender for the scariest game ever made. When it finished I felt depressed, haunted, and genuinely rattled. Played in the dark with headphones up to full crank, it'll have your thumb quivering over the home button before you can say 204863. And if the truly horrifying TGS 2014 trailer is anything to go by, we're in for more of the same, only worse, when the full Silent Hills game makes its rumored appearance in 2016.
In a year that hosted sequels to both Dark Souls and Bayonetta, the fact that P.T. ended up claiming my 2014 top spot—and that of several other writers and gamers—is a miracle in itself. But it was impossible not to put it there—games have just never conjured up an atmosphere of dread like this before. Sure, Amnesia is pretty intense, but does it have a glitching, vomit-soaked, one-eyed apparition ogling you from the outside rain?
P.T. is an hour in the company of an omnipotent wickedness, conspiring to scramble your brain and leave you feeling alone, hunted, hopeless, lost in psychological turmoil, and whispering "please go away please go away" over and over again in your panicking, frightened little head.
Just like summer drinks with work, then.
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