P.T. is pure video-game marketing genius

Only just announced at the company's Gamescom briefing, P.T. or "playable teaser" is a horrifying and brilliantly ambitious effort to promote the relaunch of a classic horror franchise.

Jeff Bakalar Editor at Large
Jeff is CNET Editor at Large and a host for CNET video. He's regularly featured on CBS and CBSN. He founded the site's longest-running podcast, The 404 Show, which ran for 10 years. He's currently featured on Giant Bomb's Giant Beastcast podcast and has an unhealthy obsession with ice hockey and pinball.
Jeff Bakalar
6 min read

Jeff Bakalar/CBS Interactive

Innocently placed into the Sony Gamescom briefing was a teaser for a brand new title from a completely unknown studio. Pitched as a horror game for PlayStation 4, P.T. from developer 7780s Studio was quickly followed by a dark and grisly trailer peppered with night-mode camera reactions from terrified real-life players.

As a bonus, a first-ever "interactive teaser" for P.T. was immediately available in the PSN store for free.

A self-proclaimed sucker for horror games, I had no choice but to race to download the 1.3GB file and unwrap the mystery behind this new franchise. The only accompanying information to go along with the demo was a small warning: "Avoid playing if you have a heart condition."

I jumped into the demo and was immediately shocked as to how realistic a rendering it was. Ahead of me was the run-down ground floor of a house -- its hallways molded over with water damage and peeling paint. Garbage and empty bottles had piled up in the grimy corners and nooks. I passed a lonely clock that read "23:59" and glanced over some black and white photos of what appeared to be a happily married couple.

As I made my way further down the hall, a radio news report began to fade in. The events described were horrific, detailing various gruesome murders. But that was only the beginning.

As I made my way past the radio I could hear an eerie static and then the echoed cries of a baby. The game played tricks on my surround sound setup, forcing me to spin the camera 180 degrees around to be sure no one was lurking. The tension only thickened as I made my way down some stairs through a door, only to have it warp me back where I had started. Beside me, my wife could barely stand to keep her eyes on the screen, as the brooding sounds and photo-realistic light and shadow renderings of the home emanated a sense of uneasiness, a looming feeling that anything could leap out at us at any moment.

Jeff Bakalar/CBS Interactive

The warp looping didn't end. Each time I went through the hallway door I was presented with changes in the environment, all encouraging me to interact with or stare at certain items to figure out a way to progress. These tasks weren't without a few clichéd "screamer" moments any horror veteran would expect, but something about P.T. still haunts me well after my PS4 had been powered off.

The demo makes some clever use of pre-programmed glitches -- visual and audio effects designed to make the player think the game may have broke or crashed. It's not unlike the cult-classic Gamecube game Eternal Darkness: Sanity's Requiem which implemented similar ideas.

I've been playing games for over 25 years and I've never been as frightened as I was during "P.T." Whatever this game was, I wanted more of it, even if I had yet to uncover the most intriguing notion of it all.

After nearly three hours of game time, I found myself essentially stuck in an endlessly looping scene. My wife and I simply could not figure out what to do next. We examined everything and could not decipher the game's cryptic instructions. Where there even any? "Is this demo broken?!" I frustratingly screamed out. I'd soon find out we weren't alone.

Jeff Bakalar/CBS Interactive

It turns out my gameplay experience was not atypical. A quick scouring of the Internet led me to a gaming forum I often browse, only to find a 60-plus page thread with over 384,000 views (as of this writing). It was filled with players in the same situation as me: stuck, scared and desperately seeking answers that explained just what the hell was going on.

Theories were plentiful, though no one was able to reliably finish the scene that was stumping thousands of gamers and caused a six-hour GameSpot marathon to end without any resolution.

That's when I found a link to a video from Twitch user SoapyWarPig. She gets credit for broadcasting the elusive ending first. Where everyone else was getting stuck, SoapyWarPig was able to find a way, as befuddling as it seems, to unlock the demo's ending. In her stream, a phone begins to ring at which point you find out just what it all means.

As if P.T. couldn't use yet another twist, it turns out the demo stands for "playable teaser," and is the work of none other than Hideo Kojima, vice president of Konami and director of Kojima Productions. You know him as the creator of the "Metal Gear" series.

After you answer the ringing phone a voice says that you are "chosen" and a trailer begins to play. It reveals that the demo is actually a teaser for a new "Silent Hill" game, called Silent Hills. The game is a collaboration between Hideo Kojima and hollywood director Guillermo del Toro, what would seem like an all-star duo to tackle the next generation of "Silent Hill."

Even with the cat out of the bag, players still want to experience the end for themselves, and rightfully so. But even emulating the actions of SoapyWarPig's play-through doesn't allow others to trigger the ending.

More videos of the demo being completed have popped up online and there's still no discernible connection amongst them. If there is a solution, players are only stumbling upon it by chance. It's an unsolved mystery that's already been solved. Sort of.

But maybe that's the point? Perhaps P.T. is only able to be completed by a "chosen" few, designed to spark a miniature conspiracy amongst the devoted gamers who pledged hours of their time to see things through. It's the mysterious Wonka-esque reward that seems to incentivize players to stay the course.

Although as much of an impressive piece of interactive software P.T. is, it's not perfect. The fact that reaching the demo's end is apparently random (or extraordinarily difficult) is quite the anticlimactic fizzling out that has sent some gamers into an disorienting rage. Others, including myself, chalk it up as a love-hate experience. I don't regret having played it, but the incomplete feeling I have is frustrating. The disproportionate amount of time I spent trying to figure out the ending ultimately detached myself from the overarching theme. For something that was brimming with such impressive production value, it's enigmatic ending is uneven and eventually forced me to give up.

Great! A yellow flashlight. Now what do I do? Jeff Bakalar/CBS Interactive

Say what you will, but there's really never been anything quite like P.T. and the organic buzz that's reverberated through the core gaming community over it is invaluable. You simply cannot buy this kind of genuine interest. Of course, it's probably the point of this experiment -- the deliberate creation of a mysterious and seemingly incomplete experience to create lore and intrigue.

Today at Gamescom, Kojima poured more fuel on top of the fire with some remarks about the demo. Said Kojima, "I personally expected this to take at least a week to be solved, and I was really surprised it was less than half a day...I wanted people to get together, cooperate...There are cryptic messages in different languages."

If horror fans are concerned Silent Hills won't be as terrifying as P.T., Kojima's remarks do a convincing job of squashing any doubt: "There's a limit on how scary you can make a game, but in this case we're ignoring that. If you don't want to keep playing through the game, so be it, we don't care. That's the game we're aiming for. We're aiming for a game that will make you shit your pants."
Mission accomplished.

P.T. is available for free in the PlayStation Store. That disclaimer isn't joking around -- this demo is not for the faint of heart. Tune into the beginning of "="" mystery,="" iphone="" backplate,="" galaxy="" alpha,="" salmon="" cannon="" (podcast)"="" shortcode="link" asset-type="article" uuid="7b945251-d841-4328-bc6a-ae589c4cfa82" slug="the-404-show-1536-the-p-t-mystery-iphone-6-backplate-galaxy-alpha-salmon-cannon-podcast" link-text="today's episode of The 404 Show" section="news" title="The 404 Show 1,536: The " edition="us" data-key="link_bulk_key" api="{"id":"1e2a7bd7-c2f8-4584-bddc-4630da108db2","slug":"heres-everything-sony-just-announced-at-gamescom","contentType":null,"edition":"us","topic":{"slug":"gaming-hardware"},"metaData":{"typeTitle":null,"hubTopicPathString":"Tech^Computing^Gaming Hardware","reviewType":null},"section":"news"}"> for more video and an extended explanation of my experience with the demo.

Updated on 8/14/14 at 11:35 a.m. for better accuracy with Kojima's quotes from Gamescom.