“It’s the scariest game ever made”: how game hacker Lance McDonald is uncovering P.T.’s hidden secrets

By James O'Connor, Wednesday, 2 October 2019 08:23 GMT


P.T. is already the scariest game ever made, but one hacker has made it their mission to uncover every last horror the game has to offer.

P.T., which stands for ‘Playable Teaser’, was meant to be a demo for Silent Hills, the Hideo Kojima/Guillermo del Toro/Junji Ito collaboration that Konami ultimately denied us. It was presented to us as a thin sliver of something new and exciting, but in the wake of the game’s cancellation it exists instead as a small, haunted, lost object, a glimpse into a larger world that will never exist.

P.T. itself has been erased into the digital ether: you can no longer download it onto your PlayStation 4, and consoles that still contain the demo are coveted.

So it’s no wonder that when Lance McDonald managed to fiddle with P.T.’s files enough to reveal that Lisa is behind you at all times, it went viral. Within a few days, McDonald’s Twitter following had jumped from around 8000 to over 16,000. His initial screenshot received over 16,000 retweets, too, including one from Kojima himself (although sadly there’s been no further contact with Kojima, who presumably has his hands full at the moment).

For my money, though, the video he posted of a camera hack that shows Lisa following the player, head juddering wildly, is far more terrifying.

Last week, McDonald launched the first of three videos he’s planning on making for P.T. onto his main YouTube channel. His channel is focused mostly on hacking into From Software’s games: things like introducing free camera controls into Dark Souls 3 to hunt down unseen secrets, discovering bosses that were cut from Bloodborne but left in the game’s files, and turning on Sekiro’s debug mode (this one he managed, impressively, from review code before the game even released).

His first P.T. video focuses on cut content and unseen moments; the next two will focus on the streets of Silent Hill (shown only very briefly in the demo) and a reverse engineering of the ending (“in the end I discovered that it’s impossible to complete the ending without a microphone, despite what anecdotes you’ll hear from hundreds of people online,” he tells me).

The video, P.T. Silent Hills – Cut Content and Unseen Details – PT Hacking and Hidden Moments, is a great examination of how the game actually works on a mechanical level, breaking down how the demo uses simple toggles to enhance its scares. “To me, this video is just ‘three tiny things padded out to seven minutes of talking’,” McDonald says. “But everyone loved it because of the framing and context provided. It’s not so much about new revelations all the time, just being able to help other appreciate the little things that would otherwise go unseen.”

For players who have desperately wanted more Silent Hills – which is, of course, what P.T. was ultimately promising – these morsels are significant. McDonald’s video, on some level, demystifies the game, letting his viewers look at character models that are just briefly glanced in the demo while explaining what causes them to trigger and then disappear. But it also gives us a glance at something entirely new – a scene that no one had seen before, of Lisa’s headless body in the bath.

“I was really curious if there was some legitimate way to see it in-game without hacks, and immediately just got to work on looking for more code relating to that asset,” McDonald says. As far as he can tell though, there isn’t. “I learned a lot about how objects are enabled and disabled, but there seems to be nothing of the sort for this.”

Part of the mystique of McDonald’s findings comes from the fact that P.T., a mysterious game to begin with, doesn’t have a hacking scene around it – few modern console exclusive games do. While McDonald can’t tell me the specifics of how he does all of this, but he says that P.T. was a tough one to crack. “The version of The Fox Engine used by P.T. is quite a way behind any version that made it to PC, where it powered Ground Zeroes and The Phantom Pain,” he says.

“Because those two titles are on PC they have flourishing modding communities that have managed to reverse engineer so much. Unfortunately, most of the tools used for that simply don’t work, or only half work for P.T., so I had to create a lot from scratch. Working with a PS4 exclusive game usually means you’re on your own a lot of the time.”

McDonald fondly remembers downloading P.T. at launch and being pulled into the mystery of it all along with everyone else. “I think it’s the scariest game ever made,” he says. “In the following years I showed it to a few friends, and still find it scary. I’ve transferred across all my PS4s – and I’ve had a lot, because of the work I do – so the game’s just always been available to me.” In a sense, his hacking into P.T. has been a long time coming – in fact, got his start with coding hacks on the original PlayStation.

McDonald used to play around with PlayStation cheat cartridges when he was growing up, testing the limits of what was possible on Sony’s first console. “I eventually learned how to make my own codes for them using the debugging software that was included with my Xplorer Cheat Cartridge,” he says. He’s developed his skills further, but most of what he learned back then, he says, is still relevant to the videos he produces today.

“I had no internet at those times, but just spent months randomly changing things until I started to understand what things are used for,” he recalls. “In the past two years, I’ve had to learn a lot more about machine code, which has come from just Googling certain commands and reading about what they do, and how to change them. A lot of time is spent just failing over and over until one small thing works, and then trying to figure out how to leverage that thing.”

McDonald started working on YouTube videos about game hacking around 2010, but he says that he “never really focused on it or found an audience” back then. In the years between, McDonald spent some time working on his own game, Black Annex, a stealth strategy game with a focus on corporate intrigue.

The game was shown at several Australian game conventions and was lauded by local games press (myself included) for two reasons: it was a lot of fun, and it was being developed in QBASIC, an antiquated programming language that elevated the game from being not only great, but also something of a miracle. For now, though, working on Black Annex is not a priority for McDonald. “Game development for me works so much better as just a hobby these days,” he says. “I haven’t worked on any other titles.”

Right now, McDonald is focused on using his skills to dig into how these games are made and sniffing out the secrets hidden in their code. In the past, McDonald’s viewers have balked when he has strayed away from the Soulsbourne games, but digging into P.T. seems to have struck a chord. “P.T. and Bloodborne are both built around mystery, and they spend so much time hiding things from the player,” McDonald says.

“With Bloodborne especially, the entire lore of the game is hidden in strange places and missed by most. Games like that usually have the best results when looking below the surface, especially when the game is so old that fans feel like they’ve seen everything there is to see.” McDonald says that his to-do list is extensive: “I just have huge lists of things I need to show in the future from many games, and I just work on framing them over time.”

If you’re keen for more P.T. insight, though, you can subscribe to Lance McDonald’s YouTube channel in anticipation for the next two videos. He can also be followed on Twitter, where he posts most of his findings, and you can support his work on Patreon.

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