The Variation Principle: The Role of Repetition in P.T.
P.T., the playable teaser for the now legendarily defunct collaboration between Hideo Kojima and Guillermo del Toro that was Silent Hills, is still influential. The short game, which can be finished in less than an hour, so perfectly captured horror, fright and tension that it inspired the creative minds that played it. Over the past two years, narrative driven, first person haunted house simulators became more common, as players thirsted for the specific taste that Kojima and del Toro gave them in 2014.
For all of its imitators though, P.T. simply can’t be matched. The short spooky shot of it is like an ice-pick stabbed into your amygdala, it’s efficient and near surgical in its ability to create fear. And that's no mistake: the playable advertisement runs on a mechanical narrative element that never fails to dislodge the human mind from its places of comfort. P.T. is powered by the fear of the unknown as accessed through repetition and variation. The easiest way to observe this is by watching this short film tribute by YouTubers Oddest of the Odd:
The overwhelming feeling conjured by the short film adaptation of P.T. is one of horrific inevitability. The game is often criticized for being “on rails” – players have very little freedom in P.T. as they virtually walk through haunted halls, solving the puzzles either nearly by accident or by deliberately following instructions. The video fully embraces this criticism, removing all agency from the audience. Yet, it still scares. It still thrills. Just standing in that picture of imperfect domesticity, whether there’s a controller in my hand or not, can make my stomach tense up like a stress ball in the hand of a high stakes financial trader.
By taking away the immersion of the game the film allows us further distance from which to analyze actual content. We are safe when we watch the film, so we can see the working parts. The fear engine in P.T. is actually really simple. It runs of two modes – repetition and variation. The primary gameplay of P.T. is opening a door, walking through a hall, turning right, walking to the end of another hall, descending some steps into a basement, entering a door, and coming out where you started. You repeat this motion for about an hour, give or take fifteen minutes, and then the game is over.
Setting aside that the geography of the game’s environment is uncanny, giving players the feeling of a spiraling descent thanks to its nightmare logic, the effect of the constant walk is that it builds a baseline of normalcy. Open the door, walk, turn, walk, open the door, walk, turn, walk, open the door again, and so on ad infinitum. There are sections of the game in which you can repeat this pattern until your Playstation burns out or you die in real life. It won’t end. The walking loop is reality.
The horror of P.T. is produced when moments of variation are introduced to the pattern of lonely stumbling. A light is a different colour, there is a bit of writing on the wall, there’s a foetus in the bathroom sink, your dead wife is staring at you from the landing above the foyer – the variation marks progress in the otherwise unremarkable, eternally descending loop. Variation punctuates reality, which you inevitably return to, each time a little less sure of what is permanent, a little less sure of what is real.
This variation principle of horror is not unique to P.T. and can be quite effective when observed on film. Visual or sonic repetition builds an expectation of normalcy and sudden variation in the pattern becomes violent. The most distilled example of variation horror that I have seen in film is from the Japanese horror flick Kairo, directed by Kiyoshi Kurosawa. A movie about ghosts in the Internet, Kairo is underwhelming when it comes to scares over all, except for this single diamond of terror:
Essentially what you are watching in the above clip is a dance. A ghost slowly and unnaturally moves toward the camera, allowing you as a viewer to define rules about her. The repetition gives the scene a language. This is how a ghost walks. But when she collapses, breaking the rhythm, we experience a violation of the rules we built around the scene. In a single moment, everything we thought we knew about the ghost was wrong. In the language of horror, what it means is that we do not know even what we think we know. Once again we realize the deep futility of humanity. We are ignorant and we were not meant to venture far.
This principle of repetition and variation can even be applied on a meta level. The classic jump-scare has made us aware of a pattern in media, and that has given birth to the faux jump-scare: a variation in which the repetitive culture of jump-scares is subverted by replacing a dangerous entity (like an alien) with something non-threatening (like a cat). The point is this: repetition builds habits, habits build comfort, and we chose comfort as our baseline reality. Variation reveals that that comfort is an illusion. Chaos rules. Sure, the sun has risen every day of your life, but maybe it won’t tomorrow. Or maybe it will rise but instead of shining down delicious energy onto Earth it will be screaming at us.
By adapting the narrative of P.T. to a filmic medium, Oddest of the Odd’s video displays the variation principle on face value. Its protagonist walks in circles, and variation adds scares into his journey. But on a much deeper level it shows us a terrifying truth. The video itself is a variant. The symbols are the same as before, but the details are new. Somethings are slightly off. How many times have you walked these halls? How many more times will you have to? How many times have you woken up in the same place? Watch out. The gap in the door... it's a separate reality. The only me is me. Are you sure the only you is you?