A veritable scare was sent through the gaming community last week, after Sony released the first playable teaser for an unknown upcoming game.

Many pundits in the gaming industry have expressed concerns as to the viability of the horror genre. Triple A games, those published by major publishers and developers, have seen a dramatic shift into the action horror genre and leaving their survival roots behind. This led some to question if games could still retain a level of immersion that could allow players to experience horror in this particular medium.

Survival horror refers to the genre of game that deliberately disarms the player, giving them limited resources to traverse the environment and putting them against a seemingly endless horde of obstacles and horrifying situations. Capcom was the first to coin the term in its marketing for the new title that they released on the original PlayStation in 1996. Resident Evil (or Biohazard as it is known in Japan) was the game to redefine the horror genre.

It told the story of Racoon City’s police department members, as they try to uncover the cause behind grisly murders taking place on the outskirts of the city. To complete the game, the player must find a collect documents that provide exposition about the game’s narrative and the events taking place. The player is able to equip the character with weapons, but the ammunition is very sparse and must be conserved.

Silent Hill, released by Konami on the PlayStation in 1999, was another step forward in the evolution of the survival horror genre. Deciding to avoid characters with combat training, Silent Hill instead focused on the player assuming the role of an everyman, with particular emphasis on a psychological horror style of gameplay as opposed to combat, putting atmosphere as an essential element. As the protagonist is not a trained combatant, gameplay was altered so that he was not able to endure many attacks from the enemies before dying, he would tire after running, and his ability to aim weapons was greatly affected by his mental state.

The success of these new titles spawned many sequels to each respective franchise. Many of the original games however, were limited by the hardware of the time, and various artistic decisions were made to enable the games to run on the PlayStation.

The infamous fog that blanketed the town of Silent Hill is one such example as it was needed to allow the processing of the 3D graphics, rather than having long draw distances that would be too hard to run smoothly on the now old generation of systems. While the fog was implemented for this reason, it became synonymous with the claustrophobic atmosphere of the game.

As the 21st century began, the medium of video games started to expand quite quickly. Not only did the hardware become more powerful, video game audiences were starting to grow and evolve. As this expansion occurred, game publishers wanted to harness the new-found power of the consoles, and the expanded market to which they could sell. In turn, survival horror began to undergo a substantial change.

The fourth installment of the Resident Evil series saw the series take a new direction. Ammunition, while still limited, was much more abundant. The animations and movements of the characters were much more fluid, with added melee combat mechanics in case the player ran out of ammunition.

The game was very well received among reviewers and gamers alike, but this change in direction seemed to be the catalyst for the an industry-wide change in the survival horror genre. Many companies saw the success of Resident Evil 4 as a way to attract games who had previously been intimidated by the slower pacing and psychological scares, and so made the decision to follow this particular style of game.

Action horror is the new phrase that has been used to define the current horror games being produced. A greater emphasis on the mechanics that appear in third-person shooting games have steadily made their way into the horror genre, with many trying to one-up the next game by creating more elaborate set pieces, explosions and destruction typically associated with a Michael Bay film.

Independent developers, however, saw the immense desire of many gamers to return to the classic survival horror, and thus there was a rebirth of survival horror.

Games like, Slender: the Arrival (which focused on the player having control of the characters, but unable to defend themselves) stood in stark contrast of the triple A games that aimed to make the player feel like the hero of the narrative. Many people had resigned themselves to the fact that the survival horror genre of gaming was at an end, with the main franchises Silent Hill and Resident Evil no longer possessing the helplessness and scares that their earlier iterations once had.

Fast forward to 12 August 2014. After a lacklustre showing of titles at this year’s Electronic Entertainment Expo, many in the gaming world were looking forward to the possibility of new and unique titles being shown at Gamescom 2014 in Cologne, Germany. Jim Ryan, president and CEO of Sony Computer Entertainment Europe, showed a short trailer for a new game titled P.T., and gave little indication of what the game was and seemingly moved on to the next announcement. A small slice of the game was available to download from the PlayStation Store immediately after the conference, and left many scratching their heads as to what this new title could be. It only took players a day to discover that the demo was actually teasing the next Silent Hill installment, Silent Hills.
Not to give anything away, but the demo evokes a strong sense of fear and trepidation for the player using a very minimalistic approach, relying on sounds, lighting and the occasional jump scare. There are puzzles scattered throughout that require the player to overcome the atmospheric terror that is being built up around them. The final puzzle of the demo is still creating some debate, as the solution seems to be very ambiguous and possibly randomized for each person who plays the game. At the completion of the demo, a short trailer is played which reveals the names of those involved in the upcoming game: Hideo Kojima (creator of the Metal Gear Solid franchise), filmmaker Guillermo Del Toro, and The Walking Dead actor Norman Reedus.
While not a clear indication that major studios are looking to restore some of the original thrills associated with survival horror in a fully realised triple A game, the P.T. demo is a timely reminder of the powerful and immersive nature that video games are capable of creating.

Words by Matthew Bradford