The real phantom game: P.T., one year later

“Released” might not be quite the right verb to describe what P.T. did on August 12, 2014. When you consider the mystery that surrounded its debut – the timing, structure, authorship, form (was it a demo? a teaser? a game?) – the critical acclaim that followed it, and the problems that eventually signaled its end, it’s more like the short-lived short horror experience just happened.

As a PlayStation Network-exclusive title making a surprise debut just before GamesCom, P.T.’s only fanfare came from players post-launch. Initially marketed as a standalone experience from an independent team, the game gained overnight infamy for its subversive horror tactics, unique gameplay loop, and impressive visuals. But despite being a product cherished by players, it was still a product, which made it easy for Konami to discard when the time came.

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The company reached just that point when designer  Hideo Kojima’s Metal Gear swan song, The Phantom Pain, began running a development budget that would grow beyond $80 million. Konami tightened its purse strings before that game’s completion, and thus the seeds of creator/publisher discontent were laid well before P.T.’s advent and demise.

Tensions grew between publisher and developer (partly because of Kojima’s literal expenses and partly because of the creatively stifling nature of Konami’s publishing culture, which saw diminishing returns in big-budget console releases), coming to a head with the highly public saga of the auteur’s spiteful departure from the company between March and October 2015.

Like the cricket you don’t notice in the corner of your bedroom until the lights are off, P.T. was a quiet thing that turned out to be capable of making a lot of noise

Among these flare-ups, the April 29th cancellation and unceremonious removal of P.T. holds a place of pivotal significance: Kojima’s passion for the project (as well as film fellow/collaborator Guillermo del Toro’s), its association with a legendary horror franchise and potential for its revival, its universal praise from consumers, and the talent attached to it all made P.T.’s snuffing a loss for Konami, Kojima, and the gaming audience at large.

Directing Silent Hill was a dream project of Kojima’s going back to at least 2012; Konami had supported the effort prior to the Metal Gear Solid V feud; it was meant to breathe new life into a listless series and possibly pave the way for Kojima’s post-Metal Gear career. (Had Silent Hills seen the light of day, it would’ve been Kojima’s first non-Metal Gear game directing credit since 1999’s Tokimeki Memorial Drama Series Vol. 3: Tabidachi no Uta, a Japan-only dating simulator.)

Video game cancellations are commonplace, as is silent exile to development hell. But once P.T. and Silent Hills became the focus of a feud between a creator and the people holding the key to his coffers, their discontinuation became a statement – a reminder of the fragility of a creative vision, especially that of an industry giant trying to command a king’s budget, under the weight of a changing subculture.

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Which brings us back to Konami. It’s important to focus on the company’s role in this: as concerned bankroller, as distributor, as legacy publisher facing falling profits and decade-long cash sinkholes. Some of their movements during 2015 could be called strategic, even reasonable, dictated by a concern for the well-being of a company in need of rebranding. The fate of Kojima Productions, which seemed in flux, was positioned as a restructuring in preparation for the future of Metal Gear and Kojima’s other projects at the company.

But as the story unfolded and the curtain was drawn – with the help of P.T. – things at Konami began to seem more and more suspect until the company’s motion had achieved critical momentum in the direction opposite “reason.”

This effect would have carried less water with the public were the games industry to publicly report development costs, which is another can of worms entirely. A few half-hearted utterances that apologized for recent turbulence without directly addressing the central conflict were all that Konami had to say for itself before feeding the public lines about Kojima’s extended holidays.

That’s how the P.T. arc became an instrumental turning point in public perception of Konami, directing attention to its present practices and future intent. Kojima’s name disappearing from the covers of his own games in March; the official cancellation of Silent Hills and yanking of P.T. in April; a new focus on mobile gaming, including the appointment of a new president to guide the company into the phone-based future, in May; reports of a surveillance culture dominating Konami corporate headquarters cropped up in June.

Like the cricket you don’t notice in the corner of your bedroom until the lights are off, P.T. was a quiet thing that turned out to be capable of making a lot of noise.

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The game embodied the fiasco even after death. Echoes of the conflict, from cryptic messages to P.T.‘s radio monologue, can be found in The Phantom Pain and its prequel, Ground Zeroes. In a way, P.T. became the ghost in Konami’s machine, subverting the very product at the source of the conflict that sealed both P.T.‘s and Kojima’s fate.

It was Konami’s silence, broken only with clumsy attempts at misinformation, that made a clearer statement than they ever could have with words. Meanwhile, P.T. gave consumers a lens to see through the poor PR; it’s a reminder of the shifting priorities in the games industry and the roles creators, financiers, and audiences have in the production cycle. Its very title is synecdochic for one of the most tabloid-worthy corporate affairs in the recent history of the video game industry.

P.T. is, even moreso than the incomplete Metal Gear Solid V, a phantom game.

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