Okay this is a bit of a throwback so bear with me, but hindsight helps in these things.
Two months ago there was a little free to play thing released over PSN for PS4. You might have heard of it – it was called P.T.
P.T. was the interactive playable teaser. It was made by a pair of guys, Hideo Kojima and Guillermo Del Toro – you might have heard of them.
Announced and sent out into the wild mysteriously at Gamescom, P.T. was a first person horror experience that saw a nameless protagonist walking down a mysterious hallway where a variety of bizarre and spooky things happened. At first this seemed random. Eventually patterns emerged.
After a not inconsequential amount of time of crowdsourced puzzling about, it was eventually revealed that P.T. was a teaser of sorts for the newest incarnation of the seminal horror series Silent Hill, dubbed Silent Hills.
While YouTube videos of the unlocked trailer were on the interwebs within a day of the demo being released, a lot of other people – myself included – found unlocking the ending of the game somewhat more arduous than would have been preferred.
This was down to an overall obtuseness of puzzle design. The triggers for the ending were unexplained, and even when they were discovered (three baby laughs), their method of triggering themselves were unclear. No method was found to reliably trigger each of the baby laughs in all instances, something that lead to a whole lot of frustration.
While P.T. was an unmitigated horror success, browning the pants of countless people, two things it clearly lacked were fairness and longevity. There was only so many times a person could walk down the same corridor, find the same ghost in one of its handful of spawn points, and then give in and reset the cycle. That, coupled with the seemingly random nature of the final puzzle made the terror go stale very quickly.
Basically, P.T. went on for way too long to keep up the horror act, and soon devolved into base repetitive trial and error lacking internal consistency and logic.
And, for a teaser ARG experience, that gets old.
Remember a few years ago the potato.
Valve’s ARG to tease and release Portal 2 harnessed a whole bunch of brain power. A dedicated team of worldwide geniuses decoded hidden messages in images and sound-bytes, puzzling through a massive amount of data. And then, once the puzzle was solved, we got… potatoes.
The end-game of the potato ARG was to make games generate potatoes to make Portal 2 unlock early. Except maths dictated that the earliest it would unlock would be about four hours before official release. It devolved from intricate logic puzzles and hidden clues to spammy grinding, and it was rubbish.
And now we have P.T. An ARG of sorts that turned from tense, suspenseful, scarily focused horror game to, after about an hour, a spammy random grind. And it was rubbish.
Of course P.T. is one of the most terrifying experiences in games. Of late, and possibly of all time. It’s terrifying. That it devolved into repetitive randomness that completely killed any tension was… sad.
The point is, ARGs need to be enjoyable in and of themselves. They need to be fair. And they need to be logical. If they aren’t, people tend to remember them for their frustrations, rather than their triumphs.
If anything, P.T. showed us that Del Toro and Kojima could create a horror environment. And that it could be gorgeous. And that it could be terrifying. What they didn’t show was that they could sustain it. If their teaser couldn’t prove that then, as a teaser, it can’t be considered a complete success.
P.T. will be a hard act to follow, and a difficult thing to improve on. If Silent Hills manages to fulfil its promise then I will be a happy man. If, however, it misjudges longevity or randomness even slightly, like P.T. did, then Silent Hills will be a massive disappointment.