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 in the sense that I don’t tend to seek out scary experiences. The shining (ha) examples of the genre I do actually really love though- Rosemary’s Baby is a personal favorite. I can appreciate a creeping sense of dread or atmospheric uneasiness much more than I can jump scares, gore, or anything that ventures too far into the supernatural. Paratopic fits in the former category perfectly.
Continuing the cinematic comparisons, Paratopic uses jump cuts to break up its scenes akin to ‘Thirty Flights of Loving’ or ‘Virginia’. It melds perfectly with the horror theme by taking some control away from the player in a way that doesn’t feel unnatural, while letting the game designers control pacing. It’s effective because instead of being frustrated with being forced into something you don’t choose as a player, you immediately want to engage with your new environment. There’s no cognitive downtime. It also means you (usually) don’t have to worry about finding the right path through a map, 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 and literature that works to great effect here.
The low-fidelity look and feel of the game is 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 of 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 attendants. 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 meets John Carpenter.
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 comes as a bit of a relief- 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. I just wish we had a better name for this 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.