How Silent Hills could have changed horror in gaming
After hearing the announcement of Silent Hills' cancellation in late April, gamers were absolutely crushed. The project was to be helmed by Hideo Kojima, of Metal Gear Solid fame, and visionary filmmaker Guillermo Del Toro. We were only presented with a small teaser. But it, coupled with the excitement of this awesome collaboration, was enough to have us waiting in anticipation for the next game in the Silent Hill franchise.
However, when news stories began rolling in regarding Kojima's fallout with game studio, Konami, the hopes of Silent Hills ever seeing completion slowly faded away. Although several news sources suspected that another publisher would buy the rights for Silent Hills, nothing ever surfaced. After confirmation from Guillermo Del Toro on the project's incredibly early phase of development, fans had to face the fact that the possibility of Silent Hills was no more.
So why was everyone so excited for this project that we knew very little of? That's easy, just two letters: P.T.
The short history of P.T.
P.T. title card from PlayStation store
Last August, a mysterious demo was uploaded to the PlayStation Network to promote a new horror title for Gamescom 2014. Under the guise of made-up studio, 7780s, Kojima and his development team put together a short demo which players had to unlock in order to uncover the truth behind the demo's purpose. In just a few hours, gamers had cracked the mystery behind P.T. revealing it to be Silent Hills. They were rewarded with a small teaser trailer, starring The Walking Dead's Norman Reedus, who was set to star as the game's lead.
Despite the popularity of P.T. and the hype for Silent Hills, Konami decided to pull P.T. from the PlayStation Network in May of this year. Gamers who kept P.T. on their PlayStation 4 hard drive were the only ones with access to the ill-fated demo. PlayStation 4 consoles with P.T. began springing up on eBay, with individuals asking for as much as $1,000 from gamers desperate to hold onto P.T.
Allison Road, spiritual successor to P.T.
With the Kojima controversy now dying down, why bother reminding gamers of what could have been with Silent Hills? Even though we've seen so little, P.T. undoubtedly influenced the gaming horror genre - as evidenced by indie title, Allison Road, which calls itself P.T.'s spiritual successor.
But what if Silent Hills had come to fruition? Could Silent Hills have shifted the gaming horror genre from simple jump scares back towards the psychological horror of the earlier Silent Hill titles? If we want to know the answer, we must look at what little we have of the cancelled project.
The horrors of the real world
"Radio? What's going on with that radio?"
Often, when we think of horror, the majority of us conjure up images of popular horror icons such as Freddy Krueger or Jason Vorhees, or perhaps the grotesque and creepy animatronics from Five Nights at Freddy's. However, P.T.'s approach to horror chose to focus more on psychological horror to unnerve us, while relying on the monster to deliver the final blow.
Although Lisa was the only "monster" in P.T. and, let's face it, she did scare us, P.T.'s atmosphere was centered around the horrors of reality. As we move through the hall of the house, we hear a radio broadcast. The broadcast is a news report detailing how a father brutally murdered his family. Over the duration of the broadcast we learn that similar murders have taken place in the area. Finally, the news caster gives insight into the cause of the murders:
"State police say the string of domestic homicides appears unrelated, though it could be part of a larger trend, such as employment, childcare, or other social issues facing the average family."
The mention of social issues as the cause behind the horrific brutality committed by the murderers is a running theme in the short demo. The state of the house symbolizes the disorder and chaos of everyday life. The old photographs sitting on the counter illustrate a sense of normalcy juxtaposed with the knocked over pill bottles illustrating disorder, both giving the impression of turmoil looming under the guise of normality.
With this notion, I present Lisa, the monster of P.T.
Who, or what, is Lisa?
Lisa is ready for her close-up.
Although Lisa is grotesque and genuinely horrifying, I think she is more than just something to scare YouTube LPers. Lisa is the personification of disorder residing in normalcy. More specifically, Lisa represents family, an aspect of everyone's lives that often brings the most disorder.
I know that sounds really negative, but let me explain. When we first see Lisa, she is peering at us through the crack of the bathroom door before she proceeds to slam it shut. Afterward, when the player is given access to the bathroom, we are treated to something very unusual in the sink.
The fetus from Eraserhead. It doesn't quite look the same, but carries a similar message.
Looking down, a deformed fetus, wailing and crying like a baby, lies in front of the player. Gamers have speculated as to what this could mean, if it does mean anything at all. When I first came upon this monstrosity, it instantly reminded me of David Lynch's odd film, Eraserhead. There is a scene in the film where the main character encounters a deformed fetus when he expects to see his newborn son. In the film, the monstrosity is represented as the main character's fear of fatherhood. The fetus in P.T. shares a similar representation, but is representative of the disorder brought on by fatherhood.
This notion is further amplified by Lisa's appearance.
Notice the bloodstain on Lisa's dress. From the bloodstain, I am presuming Lisa is the murdered wife from the radio broadcast. The report stated the wife was pregnant at the time she was shot by her husband. Although some could argue that the blood stain is from the gun shot, the stain seems to be coming from her crotch. The blood stain on Lisa's dress is likely from the loss of her unborn child. Therefore, Lisa is a symbolic apparition representing the disorder brought on by family. It is likely the husband blamed Lisa the most for the family's descent into disorder as the children were considered to be financial strains. In turn, when the husband lost his job, it was the inability to provide for Lisa and his children that turned him towards brutality.
A Return to Psychological Horror
P.T's story was reminiscent of Silent Hill 2's psychological horror.
The overall themes of P.T., in which atrocity arises from normality is a great use of psychological horror. Silent Hill was a series that defined psychological horror by constructing a hellish town and grotesque characters representative of the faults of the game's main protagonists. For instance, in Silent Hill 2, James' tormentor, Pyramid Head, is seen tormenting a sexualized mannequin creature which is representative of James' guilt for abandoning his wife, Mary, in favor of the sexualized character of Maria.
Psychological horror works so well because it is much more effective at creating atmosphere and longer-lasting suspense than jump scares. The theme of P.T. was particularly disturbing, as it dealt everyday life. Of course, there was a monster (Lisa), but the truly unnerving aspect was how brutality could be committed so easily and brought on through everyday social issues (losing a job or the financial strain of raising children).
Of course, Lisa was also utilized as a jump scare. However, her final scare was mostly effective due to the player's constant apprehension. The atmosphere, the sound design, and the haunting realistic themes already had the player filled with unease before Lisa comes to deliver the final blow.
As a fan of the horror genre, I am glad other games, such as Allison Road, are taking inspiration from P.T.
I was incredibly disappointed by the cancellation of Silent Hills, as I have been waiting for horror games to shift back towards the psychological horror of Silent Hill. Although, contrary to some of the points made in this article, I do enjoy jump scares. I believe they can be fun, but only if they are coupled with an effective atmosphere.
On a final note, I hope Konami does sell the Silent Hill license to another publisher. This series has suffered from bad games and could use a revival. Silent Hills was the answer for that, but is now no longer a viable option. P.T. resonated so well with gamers because of its ability to deliver effective horror, as accomplished by the earlier Silent Hill titles. A return to psychological horror based games could greatly reinvigorate the entire genre.