I'm walking through a damp, dingy corridor and somewhere a woman is crying. The sound makes me nervous but I can't quite figure out why. And then she appears — a female figure, disfigured and indistinct, twitching in a way no human being moves. I stare for one second too long and then she has me — she's in my face, attacking, ripping and tearing my flesh as the screen fades to black. But I'm not playing P.T.
Instead, this was a scene I encountered in Layers of Fear, a psychological horror that was quietly pushed to Steam's Early Access last August. It got its full release last week and now its creepy icon sits nicely on my PSN dashboard next to my increasingly rare copy of P.T. — which feels fitting, as Layers of Fear is the first P.T.-inspired game to get a release.
P.T. was a revitalisation for the horror genre — you could even go so far as to say it shook up the entire gaming industry. This was a teaser (albeit a playable teaser) that routinely found itself in both critics' and fans' lists of the top games of 2014. This was essentially a demo — but so much more than a demo — that was far more memorable than most of the AAA games of that year. And now we're seeing its legacy.
A separate reality — it sounds like what we're experiencing now, with so many alternate P.T.-style games coming to the fore. They let us glimpse at what Silent Hills may have been, if we were living in a reality when it hadn't been cancelled. Are you sure the only you is you?
Just before the cancellation of Silent Hills became an inevitable truth, the hype was still going strong, with the game looking to be one of the most anticipated releases in recent history. I had a thought — how could Silent Hills live up to the hype generated by P.T.?
It wouldn't be the same game at all — there was no way that Silent Hills as a full game could be so perfectly contained in a single impossible corridor. There's no guarantee even the controls and core concepts would be the same, as the Silent Hill series has almost always given the players weapons and an inventory system, for one. After the success of P.T., would Silent Hills leave people disappointed? And then the question became moot the minute it was cancelled, and P.T. was wiped from PSN in an effort to pretend it never even existed.
Gone, yes, but not forgotten. Allison Road was in production even before Silent Hills was cancelled — a project started by an avid fan of P.T. who wanted to capture the feeling of the teaser in a full-length game, regardless of whether Silent Hills lived up to its promises or not. The Facebook page is the quintessential chronicle of a passion project, made by someone who is not a games industry professional, but still has an idea that they feel the need to express at any cost.
After Silent Hills was cancelled, people latched on to Allison Road in a big way. The page shot from less than 2000 likes to over 50,000, and the yet not all of the attention was positive. This was addressed in a post by the creator, a post which was at once naive and inspiring and heart-warming in the same way as Unravel and Martin Sahlin's shaking hands were at last year's E3:
For me Silent Hill (the first two games) and P.T. are more of an idea.. like this is the way I want to see horror stories told. The dark and twisted atmosphere, the feeling that you can't escape, things that are stalking you in the dark (oh that dreaded radio!) Horror happens in your head, rather than really on-screen. This is what I want to get across with Allison Road. I was surprised by some of these comments, really. Like how can you rip-off something that has never been released? Sorry, maybe someone needs to refresh my memory on what exactly the story of P.T. was. or Silent Hills for that matter. Back when P.T. was release Kojima said the Fox Engine is made for open world games. and I couldn't agree more; it looks nothing short of spectacular. So I thought: OK, I have to work full-time; I have next to no budget, no crew; but I always loved games and I LOVE horror.... Christ, my grandfather let me watch 'Alien' when I was like 10. Or I saw 'Chucky' with my older cousin when I was like uh.. 8? Needless to say I had a few sleepless nights after that. What could I, as an individual, do to pay homage to these golden days of horror (which are.. kinda over. horror ain't the same no more)?
After Allison Road came Layers Of Fear — a game that never marketed itself on being an homage to P.T., though the inspiration is undeniable. For an early access game, its Steam rating was phenomenal, sitting on 96% positive reviews. In an era where any and every attempt at a game can easily be published on Steam (and a great deal of the worst rated games are classified as horror) this is quite an accomplishment.
In fact, that seems to be a trend with all the P.T.-inspired games released so far. They've all been astoundingly successful. While Amnesia inspired a spate of physics-based castle exploration games and Slender did the same for the 'walking simulator' brand of horror, the imitations by-and-large have been critically panned and swept under the carpet. The same is not true for P.T.'s children.
Allison Road's sudden surge of popularity led the developers to cancel their Kickstarter — thanks to finding a publisher to fund the game in the traditional way. It even has cosplayers. Layers of Fear's Steam rating speaks for itself, especially having come from the highly criticised Early Access system. The most recently announced P.T.-esque horror is Visage, a game in which the protagonist has to escape a house haunted by its previous inhabitants.
Having recently launched a Kickstarter, Visage blitzed its funding goal in under two weeks and is now pushing for their third stretch goal (after reaching already the ones for a console release and VR support). Is it because people are so keen for a replacement for the doomed Silent Hills? Or have P.T. and all its children stumbled upon the perfect formula for a pants-wetting horror game?
Remember a time just over five years ago, when the horror genre was languishing? All the mainstream horror releases were feeling more and more like conventional first-person shooters, touting only darker environments, zombies of some kind and a handful of overworked jump scares to hint at the genre. That was when Amnesia: The Dark Descent came along.
It stripped the player's weapons away, stole any martial prowess and removed that essential ability to defend yourself. All you could do was run and hide. It was an epiphany moment for horror, and successful games in that genre are still borrowing from Frictional's masterpiece today.
P.T. goes even further. You can't interact, can't search drawers or pick up objects, can't crouch or run. All you can do is walk, and look. Yet even with these limitations P.T. is an intensely interactive game. It doesn't guide you through any of its trials, you can only use what limited actions are allowed to try and solve the obtuse puzzles.
The puzzles themselves are one of its most memorable features, especially in an era where games have an increasing tendency to hold your hand through anything even remotely difficult. There are no tips and hints, there are very few clues to follow to the eventual end. Most people who solved P.T. seemed to do it by accident, and those who couldn't were haunted for weeks by the absence of that baby's third laugh.
Of course, puzzles like P.T.'s with its almost nonsensical solutions aren't viable for games with commercial interests, but that doesn't mean we won't be seeing similar features cropping up in horror games soon enough.
"Oh no", my friend mutters as he turns down the same corridor in Layers of Fear's Victorian mansion for the fourth time. Round and round and round again, there's even a telephone ringing somewhere in the distance. We look at each other. We know this corridor — we've run through its red hellscape before in P.T., eyes in their portaits rolling endlessly.
We remember the solution to that puzzle in P.T. and there's a solution to the version of it in that traps us in Layers of Fear as well. But it's a different one. It's not a clone, it's an homage — a game that has become bigger than its catalyst.