So, I did contemplate throwing up the Slant 2014 GOTY post I contributed to as a separate thing, but didn't because I can't lay claim to it alone, and I'm not sure how I feel about Persona Q (which is, supposedly, good, but what I've seen of it doesn't translate to Top 5 material). Still, here's that if you're curious.
And I contemplated throwing up a traditional list of 10 to write about, but everyone's got that going, and my top 10 leaves out some real gold that I'd be compelled go on about at length, and I've personally reviewed 7 out of the 10. So, in aid of holiday lazy, here's the rest of my quick ranked list that I actually sent in as my ballot for Slant, followed by the remaining pool of honorable mentions that I dug a hell of a lot.
2. Bayonetta 2
3. The Walking Dead: Season 2
4. The Last of Us: Remastered
5. The Wolf Among Us: Season 1
6. South Park: The Stick of Truth
7. Never Alone
8. A Bird Story
9. Shadow of Mordor
10. Mario Kart 8
Infamous: Second Son
Infamous: First Light
Diablo III: Ultimate Evil Edition
This War of Mine
Child of Light
Assassin's Creed Rogue
Five Nights At Freddys
I will mention as a sidenote that going off pure quality, GTA V would've been in the top 5, easily, but the lack of anything new besides first person mode kept it off the list. The Last of Us made it by virtue of being a game I was sorta non-plussed by the first time around, but the Remaster turned me around in a big way, and in no small way was that due to Left Behind being a vital, amazing addition. By the by, I also guested on the Cult Spark podcast earlier this week to yap about the list in more detail in case you wanna hear that.
So, with that out of the way, let's talk about why P.T. utterly destroys every single one of those games I just mentioned.
When we think about horror in video game form, fear is rarely the emotion that we get, because fear doesn't translate well to a medium where you actually have control over the world, where the search for a weapon, an exit, a means to an end are often not far away. When we often think of the scariest games ever made, what we're talking about are the most surprising or disturbing.
P.T. may be the first game that actually succeeds at interactive fear. Yes, there's a few well executed jumps, and the infamous Lisa scare is some dirty, but effective, pool. But take those jumps out, and it would still be the most frightening thing ever to happen to games on the simple principle of making the world we are stuck in 100% wrong somehow.
Playing P.T. I got the same sense of horror that I got from the best horror novel I've ever read, which is Mark Danielewski's House of Leaves. The core premise, as nutshelled as I can make it and not counting the dual framing devices, is a family moving into a house, and in the process of starting to make the place their own, they discover a room that, at first, is just throwing off measurements, because it's a few inches deeper than the house measures outside of it. Steadily, each time they open the door, the room expands, turning into a pitch black hallway, then a full on labyrinth, a massive empty room (I always envisioned a version of Dwarrowdelf from Lord of the Rings, except the walls and floor don't reflect light), and, eventually, extending out into pure, silent, black, freezing oblivion, which is the scariest shit ever. Now, all the bigger stuff is fascinating, and creepy, but for me, the dread always started right at the beginning, where the guy working on the house discovers the house is somehow bigger on the inside than it measures outside. Something about the very physics we know about being just OFF always drives me up a wall.
P.T. is a living embodiment of that feeling, the second you walk through the first door. You walk through a door, and it's a halllway. Poorly lit, a little derelict and cluttered, and rather beautifully photoreal, but, a hallway. The only thing off is the radio broadcast, reporting a gruesome, awful murder-suicide where a husband kills his wife, daughter, and unborn child. It's awful, and grisly, but you can ignore it. Before the next door. Where the hallway repeats.
So follows an hour of heart-pounding dread, the likes of which never experienced. While there's occasional ambient score, most often, your walk through each hallway is only punctuated by the squeak of a swinging chandelier, which just raises the anxiety in general, not being able to make it stop. but the door at the end only opens when you can figure out what's different. You figure out what's different when you explore, when you observe. You have no weapons, and the only item you get is a flashlight that stops being nearly as much use as you need it to be within two cycles of the hallway. And all the while, the world itself is actively fucking with you. A bathroom door creaks open just enough to see a woman with a rictus grin before it slams in your face. When it finally opens, the door locks behind you, trapping you with a mewling, overgrown fetus in a sink. A catatonic woman stands and laughs a shuddering, broken laugh at you before she disappears. The radio broadcast cuts out in the middle to chant a cycle of numbers or distorted indecipherable words in not-English. Figuring out the minute changes in the mess at your feet shows you text in Italian. Sometimes, nothing is different, except for the fact that you hear the sink baby screaming. Writing on the wall starts appearing out of nowhere, and changing each time you read it. The climax is a red hallway, where your vision's distorted, all the pictures are lazy, rolling eyeballs, and the only difference is a single black dot, where you just hear--not see, hear--the family from the radio broadcast being murdered, while the radio announcer cheers it on.
There is no escaping that world. There are no ways back. There are no weapons. There's no survival and dying, because even if you let Lisa, the rictus grin woman, kill you, you're returned to the hallway. The hallway is Hell itself. It is the idea of eternal torment itself, and your only escape is to observe, and get closer to whatever's changed, and getting closer is never to your benefit. It is puzzle solving in its most basic form, where there's no chests or dials to spin, or switches, only what the game puts in front of you, that MIGHT let you go free if you figure out what's wrong with it. In addition, everything seems to have some meaning, a reason its there, and there are now legions of message board threads of people dedicated to deciphering the secrets. A lot of it is related to the very making of the teaser to begin with, with some of the references just being playful nods to a species of tree with PT as part of its Latin name, some in reference to the developer's studio location in Japan, and some is just plain nightmare fuel, like a message in Italian, seemingly from the dead wife, describing her murderous husband's hands as being "cold as marble". The game is never explicit as to what any of it means, and yet the text of this seemingly plotless game is EVERYWHERE, explicitly for the player to figure out and interpret, which all leads to the final hallfway in total darkness, the solution of which literally had to be crowdsourced by the people who stumbled onto the Silent Hills promo by sheer accident.
And yet, that right there is possibly the greatest achievement of the game. For all the attempts this year of making a game's players into a community, the fact that hundreds of gamers could solve a puzzle, and have to come up with the solution only by comparing notes, by interacting with other explorers, by piecing together the strange unlocking dance that ends the game is brilliant in its scarcity. To solve P.T., you essentially must consult the world, the ones fearless enough to even make it that far. And solving it this summer never made gamers feel more connected, if only for a brief moment. By comparison, I spent most of Destiny's multiplayer feeling like I was whittling away time with co-workers, not friends. This felt collaborative.
There is literally nothing else this year that provided that feeling that I was playing something entirely new, unique, and nothing I've ever had to experience using a controller has ever kept me this frightened of what could be hiding just by interacting with the world itself. Alien Isolation comes close, and the stress of that kept me from completing it, but the stress of survival was familiar, albeit extremely heightened, in that game. To win that, or a typical horror game is to avoid the horror. P.T. is scary in that escaping meant experiencing EVERY horror it had to offer. Whether it's an hour long or eight hours long, a new experience is a rarity in this medium, and P.T. delivered it.
It is the best game I played this year. By a wide, ungodly margin.
Your move, 2015.