Sometimes video games aren’t meant to empower or immerse, but for something much more primal: to scare the crap out of you. Playboy’s Fear and Loading series peers down dark hallways and checks under gaming’s bed to find the games that terrify us, and delves into how and why they work.
Allison Road opens with the player looking through the eyes of a man waking up in a suburban house with a pounding headache. The man looks around the living room, checking out the hyper-realistic setting by picking up one of a scattered bunch of magazines, and looking over a series of loosely organized bookshelves and framed family portraits.
It isn’t long before things get creepy. Thunder rumbles in the distance, a grandfather clock tolls two o’clock, and strange noises come from the floor above as the player explores the seemingly empty house. Moments later, cryptic messages unexpectedly appear on the bathroom walls, the lights begin to flicker on and off, the walls bleed, and, when the fear can’t climax any further, a corpse-like girl appears in the hallway to rush at the camera.
Allison Road has only been shown through 14 minutes of footage, but it’s already attracted a lot of attention, partially for its incredibly detailed visuals and partially because the gameplay displayed in its prototype seems instantly familiar. Its mundane, suburban setting, disembodied first-person perspective, and slow-burning sense of dread recall Kojima Productions’ P.T.—a “playable teaser” used last year to announce a Silent Hill revival (called Silent Hills, naturally) helmed by Metal Gear Solid designer Hideo Kojima and film director Guillermo del Toro.
Christian Kesler, Allison Road’s Project Lead and Lilith Ltd. founder, has been working on the game since the end of August, 2014, shortly after P.T.’s surprise release during that year’s Gamescom expo. The two games have a lot in common. Both take place in ordinary houses, empty but for the player character and some malevolent spirits; both use garbled radio broadcasts to set the mood; both encourage exploration through the apparently random opening of previously locked doors. One crucial difference, though, is that while Silent Hills was unceremoniously cancelled this year by Kojima Productions’ publisher Konami, Allison Road is very much alive and well. And that’s an important distinction.
Kesler’s background isn’t in video games, but in film post-production, where, for the past eight years, he’s worked as a concept/environment artist and matte painter. “I was toying with the idea of making my own game for a long time,” he tells me. “The problem is that I’m the type of person who likes to do one thing—but do it from A to Z instead of doing many different things half-heartedly. I knew [that] once I really got into it, I’d be occupied for the next couple of years at least, and this sort of commitment is a bit scary.”
Playing P.T. pushed Kesler to go for it anyway. The developer cited the game’s impressive graphics and success at “[staging] an intriguing experience in a tiny environment” as motivations for beginning work on Allison Road, a horror title whose prototype video is clearly indebted to P.T’s claustrophobic suburban setting. And after starting the project alone, Kesler says “it became apparent that, if I ever wanted to finish the game, I’d need some help.” Since February, Lilith Ltd. has expanded to 10 people. The studio now includes six more developers, as well as team members dedicated to writing the plot and handling marketing, business, and general production duties.
Allison Road’s debut footage was met with plenty of excitement from Silent Hill fans who’d been disappointed by the cancellation of Silent Hills. P.T. wasn’t necessarily meant to be a demo for what that game would have ultimately looked like, but it certainly showed that Kojima and del Toro, both auteurs in their respective fields, could make something compelling together. The first glimpses of Lilith Ltd.’s project seem tailor-made for those who had given up hope that P.T.’s promise would ever be expanded into a full game.
Kesler doesn’t shy from the comparisons between his and Kojima Productions’ work, but is quick to point out that the similarities between Allison Road and P.T./Silent Hills are only skin deep. “We’re, of course, honored to be compared with such a massively popular and iconic franchise,” he says. “At the same time, though, it is indeed a bit tiring. Allison Road doesn’t really have anything to do with [P.T.] and once we put out more footage, [that will] become quite apparent.”
The fact that the prototype footage contains outright nods to the cancelled game—like a flyer where the line “Dad was such a drag” is scrawled in direct reference to an iconic bit of dialogue from P.T.—is only meant to serve as “a little wink to fans of Silent Hill/P.T.” who had already drawn comparisons between the two games. Otherwise, as Kesler points out, work on *Allison Road was already underway when there was “no sign whatsoever that Silent Hills was going to be cancelled” and the games press’s description of it as a “spiritual successor” was only a happy coincidence (that the developer points out “undoubtedly helped a lot with marketing”).
It’s a bit of good fortune that helped garner attention for a first-time developer, though Kesler does admit that the buzz “sometimes makes me wonder how people will react once they realize [Allison Road isn’t] related to Silent Hills.”
SHADOWS ALL AROUND
Once these comparisons are swept aside, Kesler’s background in film marks the strongest differentiator. This is evident in the careful composition of many of the prototype’s environments. There’s the way refractions from a star-shaped light fixture cast crossed bars of shadow over the locked door leading to the source of the ominous noises. There’s the casual clutter and light grime introducing a sense of unease in an environment designed to replicate the coziness of an upper middle-class suburban home. “My research for the game focused on ‘what makes for good horror?’ rather than ‘what did P.T. do?” Kesler says.
True to this he lists inspiration ranging from directors like Stanley Kubrick and del Toro and writers like Michel Houellebecq to artists Eiko Ishioka and Damien Hirst. Kesler also mentions “the whole atmosphere” of Gone Home, the “storytelling of The Last of Us,” and calls himself “a huge Silent Hill fan.” It’s evident that he’s eager to move out from under the series’ shadow, though—to have Allison Road scare players on its own merits.
“A lot of people feel P.T. is something that you’ve never seen before and consequently feel that Allison Road is copying from [it],” he says. When asked what he took away from playing Kojima Productions’ game, Kesler responds: “The more interesting question would be, ‘Who did the makers of P.T. learn from?’”
Allison Road should be out by the end of 2016, when players will find out then just how far from P.T.’s shadow the game will be able to crawl. In the meantime, Kesler announced recently that he’ll soon launch a Kickstarter for the game, so watch out for that if you just can’t wait to give him your money.
Reid McCarter is a writer and editor based in Toronto. His work has appeared in Kill Screen, Pixels or Death, Paste, VICE, and The Escapist. He is also co-editor of SHOOTER, runs Digital Love Child, and tweets @reidmccarter.
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