Kojima’s terrifying world of the unknown

by

Staff Writer

Hideo Kojima’s “P.T.” isn’t even a full game, and it still might be the scariest video game experience of the year. It is atmospheric, unfailingly creepy, and in future years might be looked back on as the first step in the reimagining of the horror genre.

It’s exactly the type of game Kojima, the celebrated mind behind the “Metal Gear” franchise, might not be able to make it through himself.

“I don’t really play horror games because I get scared,” Kojima said, laughing at himself, during a sit-down with The Japan Times last week during the Tokyo Game Show (TGS). “Maybe ‘Biohazard’ (‘Resident Evil’ outside Japan), but even that I quit halfway because I was scared.”

Gamers are understandably excited about the direction Kojima may take the genre next. The 51-year-old is one of the most renowned names in gaming. He helped pioneer the stealth genre with the “Metal Gear” series, which launched in 1987 and will add its latest installment, “Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain,” next year. Kojima has also helmed titles such as “Boktai,” “Snatcher” and “Zone of the Enders,” to name a few. His new Fox Engine is a cross-platform game engine versatile enough to be used to make “Pro Evolution Soccer 2014,” Konami’s flagship sports series, “Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes” and even “P.T.”

With “P.T.,” Kojima sought to explore the horror genre in a way that didn’t just rely on violence and gore. He feels the industry has gone too far in that direction while shifting away from things that elicit a more genuine, thoughtful and permeating type of fear.

“There are a lot of scary forms of entertainment in the world,” Kojima said. “There are horror action games with zombies and grotesque things and so forth. The real fear isn’t from those things. It’s from standing in an empty place, where just to step forward or to turn around is scary.

“What people see depends on their experience or trauma. Even in the same scenery, some people may see a human shadow, while some people may see a rock as a human face.”

Judging by the terrified reactions on video-sharing sites such as YouTube and Twitch, Kojima’s experiment was a success. This sharing of the experience also means everyone by now knows the reward for braving “P.T.” is to see a trailer for “Silent Hills,” which teases involvement from Kojima, film director Guillermo del Toro and actor Norman Reedus of the “Walking Dead” fame.

Kojima has made it clear that “P.T.” and “Silent Hills” are not related. “P.T.” is a one-shot that allowed him to try to scare gamers in new ways while utilizing the Fox Engine. The idea to make it playable — “P.T.” stands for “Playable Teaser” — was born out of a desire to deliver the first-ever interactive teaser in lieu of the normal route of releasing a few pictures or videos.

Though he was deliberately vague, he suggested that “Silent Hills” will be enhanced by elements that were not in “P.T.”

“By putting those in, the main game is going to be even more scary,” he said. “People may play it with the preconceptions they have about ‘Silent Hill.’ I am going to break that, because if I just use same old ‘Silent Hill’ motif, it won’t be scary.”

Kojima based the concept of “P.T.” on the types of entertainment that he himself finds frightening. He famously watches a lot of films, but has a slight aversion to horror movies. He’ll watch them when he knows the director or actors involved, as their past work give him a clue of what to expect. Occassionally, however, after a long day, Kojima will be awake well past midnight, flipping through channels, and he’ll land on a scary movie featuring a director and actors whose work he doesn’t know. These are the films that scare him the most.

This is the experience he wanted to bring to “P.T.” So he deprived players, the first wave of them at least, of even the most basic knowledge about the game — save for an ominous trailer that was debuted at the Gamescom trade expo in August. The game features nothing in the way of prompts or information, and it’s only after the ending trailer that Kojima’s name appears and the picture becomes clear.

“It’s scary because there’s no information,” Kojima said. “Nowadays, when people don’t know something, they Google it. They ask on Twitter or Facebook and they get the answer right away. We live in an age of information. When that suddenly disappears, that’s the scariest thing.

“That’s why there was no information about who made ‘P.T.’ When people began to download it on PlayStation 4, they weren’t sure about the game design, and there wasn’t even an action button. There was no purpose or background and no explanation about the story, and that’s frightening. I did this on purpose. That’s why I hid my name and title and just let them play.”

“P.T.” is played from a first-person perspective. It takes place within a loop that forces players to continuously traverse the same hallway. The atmosphere is subdued but alive. There is no music, but the game is awash with little noises, the repetitive creaking of a swinging light fixture, the sound of extra footsteps when walking, the wailing of whatever is occupying the space with you. The only dialog is emitted from a radio and, if found, something inside a small brown paper bag.

Kojima mixed in some traditional horror tropes, but didn’t rely heavily on them. “P.T.” allows the user’s mind to fill the gaps intentionally left in the narrative, a process that can invariably be more effective then the traditional monster in the closet.

The main character has no powers or special abilities, creating a much different user experience than, say, Kojima’s “Metal Gear” series, where Snake is strong enough to exert a certain amount of control on the environment.

“In the trailer for ‘Silent Hills,’ Norman Reedus is the main character, and in ‘The Walking Dead’ he appeared as a strong character. But in horror, if the character is strong, it’s not scary,” Kojima said. “Because the player and the game are synchronized, if a person is easily scared, and the main character is strong like Snake, then the fear factor is lowered. So (in ‘P.T.’) the main character was cast as an ordinary person to try to bring the game and the players in sync.”

It remains to be seen how, or even if, Kojima will further his exploration into the horror genre. Up next, however, is “Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain.”

Kojima gave gamers a taste of what to expect through the spring release of “Ground Zeroes,” which essentially serves as a prologue. The main game will pick up the story from there, and Kojima promises a much more far-reaching experience.

He used TGS to show off a stunning gameplay demo that also showed the character Quiet in action alongside Snake during the mission.

The game is testament to the intricacy of the Fox Engine, which allows level designers to get a lot of the heavy lifting done without a programmer. This in turn allows for a more ambitious project.

“Everything is going according to plan,” Kojima said. “The map is really wide open, so in ‘The Phantom Pain,’ there are a lot of really immense things we can do. I’m doing the most difficult things in Fox Engine. The open world, graphics, action and social elements are done there. It’s really hard, but ‘Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain’ has become a game with more depth than ever before.”

  • rossdorn

    Its hard to take an article like this seriously.

    What kind of person does one have to be to get scared by a video game? Is this simply advertising?

    • Jonathan Ingram

      Video games make for some of the most effective horror due to their inherent interactivity and sense of immersion they give the player. Don’t be so dismissive.

      • rossdorn

        Fine, but allow me to disagree.

        If someone gets so immersed into a video game, then that says something about that person, and not that video game.

      • Rick Sheahan

        Okay, but you could say that about any form of media, be it videogame or book or movie. If you’re not scared by anything, then you’re probably not going to be scared by this. Great. Sometimes a reviewer finds a movie very moving but if no form of media can stir emotions in you, then it wouldn’t effect you that way. Why does it matter? it’s subjective. Try to enjoy your media more.

      • Erick Estrada

        Like Rick Sheahan said, we could apply that to any form of entertainment, hobby, or pasttime.

        Person A likes sports? That says something about the person, and not the sport. Person B doesn’t like sports? That says something about that person, too! And the only thing we can “tell” about these people, without being assuming, is that Person A likes sports, and Person B does not. Simple!

        Without our perceptions and opinions, everything would objectively be “not fun” or “immersive” or “entertaining”, so it is pointless to attempt to downplay the fear videogames elicit by bringing up the fact things are only scary because certain people perceive them as so.

        TL;DR: All forms of fear (and a great deal of many other things) are subjective and require people to put context to them.

      • Michael Montoya

        Sometimes it is true that it says something about the person, but sometimes it says something about the story telling. Immersion is easy when the story is well written whether it be conveyed through a movie, book, or video game. Something not done well that someone gets immersed into easier just goes to say that maybe their likes run to the less sophisticated.

  • Jordan Michael Lopez

    Kojima mentions being scared the most by films created by unknown Directors and Actors, which is something I relate to myself. With saying this, it is a bit of a shame that Silent Hills already is solidified with the face of Norman Reedus who, albeit a pretty fine actor who will be probably be able to convey a wide array of emotions in the final version of the game, is ultimately a familiar face.