P.T., Cryptic Puzzles, and Small Spaces

A few weeks ago I was lucky enough to finally get to play the now-infamous “P.T.” – short for “Playable Teaser” – in person, rather than watching a YouTube video. The “game” had always intrigued me, but after being removed from the Playstation Store, and since it only functions if it has actually been downloaded, I needed to meet someone who had exactly this. Now this has finally happened, I spent a long evening exploring this very strange, very distinctive, and really rather good little puzzle-environmental-horror experience (with the emphasis, in my mind, clearly on the first two elements over the third). In the hope I would one day get to play it, I had remained totally unspoiled, and I didn’t have the slightest idea what it was about, what the puzzles were, or anything that was happening; however, in this entry I will be spoiling what takes place, so if you want to hold out in the hope of finding somebody with a downloaded copy, I suggest skipping this post and returning next week.

If you’re happy with some spoilers, however, I wanted to share some reflections on two elements of P.T., and how well they intertwine – the puzzles, and the environment – to create a very unique and very compelling game that is well worth experiencing, and does some fascinating things with a remarkably limited set of tools. The horror elements, although present, were not really at the forefront of my mind as I played through P.T.; whilst I’m sure they dominate the experience for some, I was far more interested in getting to know this unique and intricately-constructed virtual space, figuring out what I was meant to do, and trying to uncover what the core gameplay loop actually consisted of. Doing so led to an experience somewhat akin to the kind of “detective work” mental gameplay I love in games like Dark Souls, and that I want to emulate in Ultima Ratio Regum, so I’m sure long-time readers will quickly see the main reason for my strong interest in the piece.

In P.T. the player finds themselves exploring the same corridor in the same house over and over. The corridor is, at first glance, extremely spartan. The first half of the corridor contains an alarm clock, several paintings (many quite blurred and unclear), a phone off the hook, a range of tablets and alcohol bottles, and various photos of those who (presumably) inhabit this house. After turning a ninety-degree corner in the corridor, one can potentially explore a bathroom off to the side (dark, filled with cockroaches, and later with other things too), look up to a balcony, or examine several other paintings, a radio, a potted plant, a couple of extra photos, and a further selection of legal-drug paraphernalia. At the end of this second branch of the L-shaped corridor (each branch is no more than ten metres long) there is a door; entering that door leads to a staircase with only half a dozen steps, which leads to another door; passing through that door puts the player right back at the start of the corridor they just traversed. The entirety of the game takes place in this L-shaped corridor, the bathroom, and the small “lobby and staircase” area between loops of the corridor. The player also starts in a dull grey room with tallies of days (or years?) etched on the walls, and normally returns to that room later in the game, but that room is difficult to access and plays only a small role in the overall experience. The corridor is the crux of the P.T. experience, and everything revolves around what the player can do in this corridor and its minor adjoining rooms.

Firstly, it is remarkable how repeating this same area makes the player, immediately, start examining the corridor in great detail. Although there are clearly games I have played for far longer than P.T., I can think of few virtual environments that I can remember as much as this short L-shaped corridor. Once it becomes clear you are just looping the same corridor, it is apparent one has to perform some interaction with something in the corridor, and so the player starts seeking such an interaction out. The longer you go without finding anything, the closer you find yourself examining everything, and the more puzzled – and at least for me, entertained and amused – you become. I loved the feeling of being completely baffled, as so few games actually give you that experience in the present era. It never felt hopeless or arbitrary, because it was quickly clear that the entire game mechanic was figuring out what to do, and figuring out the game thinks, and what you’re actually able to interact with. I think this highlighted a core difference between games which are ordinarily transparent and then unexpectedly throw you a cryptic mystery – sometimes, even knowing that the mystery is there can be difficult. In this case, that bemusement is present from the start, and the longer it takes you to figure out the first step, the clearer and clearer it becomes that a large part of the gameplay here is simply figuring out what you’re meant to do, and what constraints that activity is within.

Before too long I discovered an incomplete picture, and that by zooming in on shreds of the painting distributed around the playing area, I could “collect” these shreds and fill the painting in. These were, to put it mildly, difficult to spot; and the more I found, and the more exhaustively I combed the corridor, the more puzzled I became about what nooks and crannies I might have missed. In hindsight, it strikes me as remarkable how much time I spent combing this corridor and how deeply I looked into every single portion of it; there were a few baffling moments when I was absolutely convinced I had checked everywhere, only to discover that I hadn’t. It is impressive how much puzzle they were able to cram into one corridor, even for something as “simple” as just finding pieces of a picture; it totally redefined how one normally looks at a level within a video game, causing me to spend an inordinate length of time checking out every possible angle and every possible part of the space, coming to discover much about the paintings, the precise colours of the alcohol bottles, the people shown on the photos, and much else that – even in a game like Dark Souls or Bloodborne, where so much is in the visual storytelling – one tends to overlook.

From my playthrough, at least, I felt the game – up to the final puzzle, which we’ll talk about in a minute – was well-paced. There was no point when I was stuck on a particular puzzle or a particular loop of the room for so long that I became exasperated, and whenever my mood began to even creep in that direction, I knew I just needed to shift my brain into a different gear and find something new. Sure enough, I would then find another piece, or discover a new trick, or a new way to trigger a different loop in the corridor when I next passed through the door. One of the picture pieces was, admittedly, hidden in a location that I would only have guessed eventually after a very long period, but with the real emphasis on eventually – knowing how Kojima thinks, and some of the tricks in some of his games, would have helped me out a lot there. (I have never played any Kojima games before). However, especially well-timed, I thought, was when the game shifted from presenting one corridor that loops each time you go through the door at the bottom, into a red-lit corridor that loops infinitely until a puzzle element is solved. It was just the right time to shake things up and startle the player out of what had become (until then) a fairly “regular” routine of solving one puzzle and then going through the door and trying to work out the next one. This puzzle also required quite a distinctive solution unlike most of the rest, and although I didn’t realise it until I’d solved it, clues about how to solve the infinite-red-loop sequence are everywhere… but you don’t necessarily realise it until you’ve already done it. Play it, and you’ll see what I mean.

After this sequence we returned to the standard corridor, but it was clear that one was approaching the end-game; a long time now passed without me making any progress, before it became apparent that I was at the final puzzle, and that this was a puzzle that had taken the internet as a whole a substantial length of time to establish the means for solving (although a few players had, I think by chance, solved it apparently within hours of release). This final puzzle… I have mixed feelings about. On the one hand, I have always loved the idea of puzzles that many people around the world have to get together to solve; I think it’s a tremendously compelling idea, one that a few other games have used to excellent purpose, and once which I plan to explore in the game I have planned after URR is complete in a few years. On the other hand, this puzzle was made far more challenging because of its implementation, rather than the deduction of puzzle itself. One needed to listen to audio cues, three of which cycled, and when each one played a particular action had to be taken. In principle, I think this could have worked extremely nicely; each of the sounds connected to an area of the game world, and which sound linked to which area made a certain degree of sense, once one had some idea of the game’s narrative. Equally, how many other puzzles can you think of that use sound? It would have continued the game’s sequence of making the player re-think everything they know, and could have worked extremely well.

However, all three of the sounds seem extremely similar to my ears – even once I had given up on the puzzle and gone to the internet for assistance, and I knew what to listen for, I still couldn’t distinguish between them! This was the one element of the game that I had to take issue with; making the sounds so closely related felt, to me, to serve only as an arbitrary addition of difficulty that doesn’t make solving the puzzle harder, but only affects how difficult it is to execute even when you know exactly what to do (or have an inkling about what to do). Knowing what the sounds were meant to represent, it made some sense where to go; but being unable to even hear what these were made this puzzle more infuriating. Equally, nothing triggered once one of the three elements was complete, leaving a player uncertain whether or not they were barking up the wrong tree. On the one hand, I recognise that giving the player some “acknowledgement trigger” might serve to make the puzzle vastly simpler and reduce the intended final challenge; on the other hand, having a whole sequence of events without any confirmation the player is on the right path reduces the chance that the puzzle will be solved through deliberate action, and raises the chance that a player will simply stumble upon the solution (which I think the first solvers did). It’s a difficult and interesting game design balance, and one that I think P.T. absolutely nailed, up until the final puzzle, when it perhaps drifted a little too much towards the likelihood of people solving it through chance, not deliberation. I do wonder, however, if this could have been resolved somehow whilst keeping the overall challenge of the final puzzle intact – and honestly, I’m not quite sure.

Ultimately, what appealed to me the most about P.T. was how much gameplay and how many puzzles were crammed into such a small space, and how the experience of repeating that space – with minor variations and new objectives each time – sent the problem-solving part of my mind down some (very interesting) wrong alleys, but also made the whole experience feel quite unlike the traditional computer game. It felt, if anything, more like playing an alternate reality game, or an online game like notpron; something where meaning might be located in the most banal of elements, most often overlooked, where the player’s observation and ability to stop changing things are tested, and where the ability to all but throw away what one had learned on the previous puzzles was required in order to figure out the next thing the game required. Equally, it also meant understanding that clues were actually everywhere in the game, but I didn’t necessarily understand that these were clues until afterwards; for some, though, I’m sure the experience was that these clues pushed them towards the correct solutions. P.T. showed how well interesting logic puzzles and understanding those puzzles can contribute to a long and fulfilling experience, even in a tiny space of actual gameplay; and how playing with and subverting the notion of the core gameplay loop can keep throw the player off their expected mental models of how a game should play out, and encourage you towards finding the kinds of solutions these puzzles actually call for. It’s a great text for people interested in games that reward exploration, discovery, and what one might define as – although cliched – “thinking outside the box” problem solving, and it has definitely given me some ideas for my own game design processes going forwards.

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