Fear and Learning in Silent Hills
Silent Hills, the re-invigoration of the seminal horror franchise by Director Guillermo Del Toro and noted lunatic Hideo Kojima, will likely never happen. Between what seems like bad blood between Kojima and Konami and the overall expectations people have of the series, it is rather wishful to think the game will come back resembling the shape or form that we were hoping for.
It is not uncommon for a game, even a top grossing franchise title, to get canceled or to sit in development hell for an unreasonable amount of time. Duke Nukem Forever sat in development for 15 years before they finally finished (ruined) it, Star Wars 1313 was canceled with little fanfare, and The Last Guardian’s fate is still questionable even though Sony swears it is still going to happen. Konami has stated that the Silent Hill franchise will still have published games, but what is to come will always remind us us of what could have been.
So why even write about what seems like a typical game cancellation, just like so many others? While Silent Hills may always wind up just being a question of what could have been, what did happen was the announcement and release of P.T., and it was all but unprecedented in the game space.
P.T., or Playable Trailer, was released with very little warning. It was touted as the worlds first playable game trailer, but we did not know what the trailer was for other than it was to be horror themed. And while the internet spoiled the big reveal at the end within hours of release, it didn’t matter because the trailer was more about the play though experience than it was what it was announcing.
Game demos are something we have had since the dawn of cheaply printable media. Game demos are not special, P.T. was. It was a carefully crafted stand alone experience. It told a story, albeit a god damn obtuse one. They could have released it as a full stand alone title for $5-10 dollars and I probably would have paid it, I have paid more for some far less substantial indie titles that did not have the level of polish that this “trailer” does.
The tragedy of Silent Hills being canceled, the real sad news, is that with it goes this wonderful experiment and trailblazing marketing experience. P.T. has been pulled from the Sony store, I would assume not only because it is now promoting a game that will not exist, but also potentially for legal reasons. While users who downloaded it while it was out can keep it and re-download it (for now,) new players who missed it will likely have to find a Playstation 4 though eBay for an absurd amount of money to get it or hack it onto their machine some other way.
We as a community and an industry can learn from this, as there are many lessons to take away from the events surrounding Silent Hills.
Videogame preservation is an impossible task
The concern with preserving our videogame heritage used to be one of limited stock. There were only so many copies of a game printed and they had a limited life span via wear and tear. Finding boxed copies of some titles is quite literally impossible in this day and age.
As we moved on to digital distribution the nature of the issue changed into something totally different. The game itself, what was once the artifact that you collected as a means to preserve the title, changed into a multi-faceted, living thing. You cannot collect an MMO, because the games morph over time. Servers get shut off, and games literally die. They are more than the sum of their parts and their parts were a constantly shifting target.
With P.T. we now have a new challenge. P.T. is a fixed game with no external parts excluding the PS4’s PSN connectivity, but the core game does stand alone with no need to make external calls, so it can be collected as an encapsulated experience. But no disk will ever be published with P.T. on it, no artifact for collectors to have on a shelf. It only lives in the digital space, and likely if it has a life it will only be because of people storing it and distributing a method to play it.
I believe that even if Konami wanted to re-release it either digitally or as a physical item they would have issues, because of licencing rights to use Norman Reedus’s likeness. They would have to fundamentally alter the game, which means that parts of it would be saved, but never the title as it stands now.
Trailers and demos are coming out far to early
I was joking recently about Star Wars Battlefront 3 having a trailer out in April warning users to pre-order the game now, even though it was not out until November. Certainly they are not going to run out of digital copies. But then I realized that joking aside, P.T., a title which may or may not have even been the same style game play as what Silent Hills was going to be, came out likely before any initial development work went into Silent Hills. All they really knew is it would seem is that the project would include Norman Reedus, Kojima, and Del Toro.
The current rush to market that seems to happen in the videogame industry is nothing new, but it’s only gotten worse as more and more resources and money go into modern AAA games. So much more can go wrong and so much more is being invested up front to fuel the hype train that companies are risking a lot of money when it comes to new franchises. This is part of the reason why you see so many sequels and not a whole lot of new franchises, and when you do see a new franchise it’s typically not diverging very far from the status quo.
This is not the first time that a project Del Toro was attached to was announced and subsequently killed. He really does seem to want to make a title though, so I wonder if he will try for the hat trick. My recommendation to him is to consider a game company that has a low bar for success because of a low initial investment to make the games. Telltale, I am looking at you.
Horror games can still be scary
This game was terrifying. Through a combination of adult themes, jump scares, and sink fetuses there are very few games out there that really scare people on the level I think this one did. I will grant you that a few of the scare were cheap jump scares, but in contrast to the whole experience they were necessary and effective. There were no weapons, your character didn’t eventually get a spirit amulet that let him see the baddies, and the game was never about reflexes. The game was in effect one step up for a walking simulator, but it’s scares were so strong that it was harder for me to get through that most modern scary movies. If it teaches us anything at all, it shows us that there is more than one way to approach scary in videogames, and I think we should apply that thinking to some more genres that have become stale over the years.
Kojima loves to hide shit
The fact that he was able to do some real 4th wall shattering stuff in this title, not even a “full game,” shows that he is willing to take risks and defy conventions. There are not to many other games that require you to translate a bunch of ciphers from Swedish to finish the final puzzle. There are not to many other titles that hide mandatory puzzle pieces in the menu screens. It is some real 4th wall stuff that would likely alienate a lot of people if done incorrectly.
That being said it is also symptomatic of the type of prima dona “rock star” attitude that makes it difficult to work with a person. One can only imagine that Kojimas ego is not a small one, and with the internet constantly calling him the second coming it is not a hard conclusion to jump to that it may be part of the reason his relationship with Konami came to such a abrupt halt.
What is game?
We joke about this, the indie community practically wears it like a badge of honor, and the rabble scoff at it, but it is a real and pervasive question. Just what constitutes a game? Is it play? Is it convention? Is it intent? All of these questions are valid and none have a universally right answer. So what is P.T.?
It is a playable trailer, but more so it was an interactive trailer. I think calling it I.T. was probably something they wanted to avoid. But what makes it more of a trailer than just a demo. Other games have released demos that had divergent content from the main title (Stanley Parable did this exceptionally well, also a free title so go get it) and they were still demos.
It was a demo of sorts, but we will never know if it was actually a demo of the game it was supposed to be because it may have had game play totally separate from the final product it was to be a demo for.
It was a game, in that you played it. It was a rewarding experience you played though, but it did not follow many of the conventions that games tend to follow. If it was just a regular game the level of difficulty and esoteric puzzles you had to solve would have jaded many people, and the cryptic story line would have seemed disconnected to most.
What is behind that next door?
As a community I think it is important that we embrace P.T. and the remarkable things that it did. This is what real marketing looks like, not who puts together the most elaborate pre-rendered cinematic for E3. Not the most impressive jumping off a destructible terrain building while wearing a jet pack though a barrage of missiles scene. This game/trailer/demo was lightning in a bottle for the gaming community and made people really care about a flagging franchise and interested in purchasing a title they knew very little about. We may be losing P.T. for now, but we can hope that its spirit(s) live on in our future gaming endeavors.