I spend too much time making games and not enough playing them, so I’ve decided to start writing a semi-regular piece on games that I’ve recently played. Hopefully they will force me to think about them and encourage me to play more! See previous ones here.
Paratopic is an excellent low-fi indie horror game that lasts around 40 minutes. It’s exactly the kind of game that fits in well with my routine right now- something I can complete easily in one sitting, impactful and interesting. The following will contain some mild spoilers. For such a short game, I consider almost anything a spoiler, so I’d highly recommend you go buy and play it before reading!
I’m not a great fan of horror games or even many films, but I do like some classic horror staples like The Shining or Rosemary’s Baby. I can appreciate a creeping sense of dread or atmospheric uneasiness much more than I can jump scares or gore. Paratopic fits in the former category perfectly.
Continuing cinematic comparisons, the game uses jump cuts to break up its scenes- something I’m a huge fan of for this type of game and is done nicely elsewhere in games such as ‘Thirty Flights of Loving’ or ‘Virginia’. It also melds perfectly with the horror theme- it takes some control away from the player in a way that doesn’t feel unnatural or forced and also lets the game designers control the pacing. It also means you (usually) don’t have to worry about getting stuck, and thankfully Paratopic doesn’t over-rely on sudden jump cuts for cheap scares.
It also breaks up its story of 3 different characters with them, with not much in the way of explanation. At first, it feels like a collection of scenes mashed together and can be confusing for even most of the game, but the more you experience the more the pieces fit together. It’s non-linear narrative design with roots in cinema that also works to great effect here.
The low-fidelity look and feel of the game is also perfect for the genre. It’s so effective here because it so firmly lodges itself in the trough of the uncanny valley: The characters are visibly human but jumbled up enough to spark a strong sense of uneasiness. The resolution on one character’s face even angrily changes right before your eyes. Haunting.
The game’s environments match its characters: A delightfully dingy mix of run-down buildings, apartments, and industrial sites. Smokey, echo-y rooms with chequered floors and high ceilings: Apartments with hints of a long-faded glory, now completely dilapidated. Dodgy, dimly-lit gas station convenience stores, with dodgier attendents. Everywhere feels lonely, forgotten and broken. Everything is pea soup green.
The sound design is as low-fi as the visuals in all the best ways. Voices are garbled and slightly robotic, just about recognizably human but equally nonsensical. Sometimes they’ll skip like your computer’s about to blue screen. Even the subtitles pulsate and alter shape like they’re going to contort into something sinister. The music is also another high point- I get some strong retro horror vibes from it- Twin Peaks especially.
The car driving sequences stretch on a little long. They do a good job of immersing you into the world, and with that turquoise lighting and blood sky are maybe even the prettiest parts of the game. I also think they’re important for communicating the journey the characters take. Trouble is, first time around at least, they leave you wondering if you’re missing something: ‘Am I supposed to be ‘triggering’ the next scene somehow? Is there something I’ve missed?’ It appears you simply have to wait them out. There is a cool subtle thing the game does with them that I’ll avoid spoiling here, but ultimately I think they could do with being a bit shorter. When the next scene does arrive though, it almost makes you jump- reminding you that the pacing of the game is out of your hands. I can imagine enjoying them more second time around, knowing that they are passive.
I hope I get to return to the world of Paratopic one day, as it’s firmly lodged itself in my memory. It’s a young sub-genre of indie game that’s really found its feet over the last few years: An experience rather than a game, that’s arguably closer to film. We shouldn’t have to find a box to put these experiences in though- they are their own thing. I just wish we had a better name for them than ‘walking simulator’. Paratopic is a memorable example of whatever you want to call it, and one I would highly recommend. More than anything though, it’s made me want to create my own short experience.