We distract ourselves to overcome mundanity. We go on road trips. We listen to talk shows. We ramble on in conversations. We watch movies and videos. We take drugs. We deteriorate with intent. We can’t distract ourselves from what scares us.
We fear mundanity. We fear living without a purpose. We fear being idle without any motivation to strive for something. We fear not feeling something all the time. We fear what all the substances we take are doing to our bodies and our minds. We don’t fear them strongly enough to quit taking them.
Paratopic is mostly a road trip down a deserted highway leading to God (aliens?) knows where for reasons unknown. The journey begins in silence, careening down the road back and forth between the lanes without much care. Or maybe you do care. Maybe you try to remain in the same lane perfectly for the entirety of the trip like me. Maybe you eventually get bored and give up like me.
Maybe you flip on the radio and listen to the ethereal music track a mumbling DJ broadcasts. Maybe you crave something resembling human contact and switch over to the talk show channel. Everyone in Paratopic talks in garbled English, like a tape recorded message being filtered through a walkie talkie from miles away. The inhabitants of the game’s world are junkies for polygons, craving nostalgia and finding the future staring them down menacingly, asking them what the fuck they’re doing wasting away.
The tapes are falling apart.
Walking simulators have become inherently a determined deviance from norms. They take away most control players often take for granted, which is part of why they immediately shock those unaware.
I stop by the side of the road and take a walk into the nearby woods. It is a serene, lovely area of fluttering birds and flowing rivers. An abandoned shack and looming windmill are the only evidence of human occupants, besides myself. I walk carefree, enjoying the lush scenery and wonderful musical score accompanying my side like a shadow.
I wake up in a diner, sitting at a table, staring outside at a dead man on the ground. A revolver sits in front of me, I grasp it in my hand almost naturally, and begin loading the six bullets into its revolving cylinder. Out of habit. The second I saw that gun. I knew I had to have it.
I take six shots of the birds flying around among the trees. Each flick of the camera’s flash spooks them away, and another empty box in the left hand corner of the screen checks itself off. This is why I’m out here with a camera. I need to take pictures of six birds and the objective will be complete. Why else would I be here? Why else would I be playing this game?
I bust down the door to the back of the diner and fire. The manager flies back as a flurry of red spills from his chest and sprays all over. I assume it paints me crimson. I don’t check. The tapes distract me from the body lying before me. I pick one up and slide it into the VCR. The TV set comes to Life in a flurry of static motion. The tape skips, prompting me to try again. His body goes reeling once again. The tapes must be disintegrating. They look worn. Has he been watching me this whole time?
The camera spots me and takes me back to the severed railroad track. I sneak around its sights and head up the canyon, dodging more cameras. Gun in hand, I am eager to kill the thing, whatever it is. Black, naked, stuttering in time. Its shape is familiar yet alien, a transforming figure stuck halfway between human and monster. It needs to die. I have a gun. I need to shoot it. Why else would I be here?
I tire of the garbled voices attempting to communicate over the radio. I tire of their lack of communication. I can’t communicate with them. I can’t keep myself awake. I am completely alone on this neverending road, but something, somebody will surely appear at any moment. I watch outside to keep myself distracted from this horrific isolation. Oppressive, looming skyscrapers march backwards on my right. Long-forgotten valleys and pit stops disappear along my left. The dim sunset — or is it the sunrise? — is my only companion. Surely something has to happen? Why else would I be driving?
SOMETHING DOES HAPPEN.
Her eyes follow me as I stroll past her. I can’t give her another tape, I won’t. She tells me her last one is faulty now from overuse. But how is that my problem? She reminds me I do owe her a favor. I reluctantly agree. But she’ll never get that tape. Not from my bloody, malformed hands lying dead as a power outage. I was tasked to keep anyone away from those tapes. They need to be delivered. Why else would I have them?
Paratopic is a fever dream of nostalgic horrors. It shudders at the thought of moving backwards for the sake of retreating to some sort of comfort zone to escape an unknown future. The low-fi, PSX polygons collide with a smooth operating engine to illustrate an environment both familiar and stupendously off-kilter, the lack of graphical complexity mirroring its subtle narrative ambitions and lack of player agency.
Humanity is obsessed with feeling. Feeling nostalgia, feeling high, feeling comfortable. Paratopic explores Soma as the tragic undermining of all living men, constantly pushing us towards utter disintegration of the mind and body. Like a body collapsing in on itself, leaving nothing but a boxed mind full of static. It is at once a cinematic rupture a la Thirty Flights of Loving, and quickly loosens itself into an exploratory meditation simulator. It begs the question, Why am I here? Not only for the sake of Paratopic as an experience, but for games in general.
It is a meta-commentary without ever sacrificing ambiguity for shock value. The most accurate and commendable comparison it deserves is a Lynchian manifesto disguised as old-school machismo nightmare. A living fraud, a wandering horror game complete with a lone, single ‘scare.’
Paratopic wants the player to feel uncertain of everything. Is a shadow following you? Will taking pictures affect anything? Did this gas station clerk really see an alien? Its horrors lie in the unknown, but more effectively in what could very well possibly happen, but likely will not. By granting players control, then stripping it away, then offering a new mode of progression, it forces a bewildering cycle of uncertainty, matched by its grim facade and recurring haunting imagery.
There are secrets hidden throughout, or perhaps there are not. It certainly feels like there are at every turn. The developers want players to question their motivations in every scenario they find themselves facing. What power does a gun grant you if you don’t know what to do with it? What horrors await when we are actively seeking for something to shoot?
Wandering through the woods with a gun, I start blindly firing at every object in front of me. A camera spots me, forcing me to try again. I shoot the camera, naturally, only it does not appear affected. I continue on, firing at the trees, the birds, never running out of bullets, even after expending the six shots in the cylinder.
Is this necessary? Is there a ‘point’ to waving this revolver around? Am I doing something wrong? Am I being followed? I look behind me. Nothing there but the woods. Paratopic never answers these questions. It inspires questions and nothing further, through an inversion of gameplay tropes quite unlike any other game I’ve ever played. And that is the scariest aspect of all. Not the violent imagery on display throughout; but the sheer ambivalence of its gore. Why am I staring at a raven pecking at a corpse lying in the street? Because I can’t look away.
Paratopic is available now on itch.io for $5.49.