Paratopic – Why Are Retro Graphics So Frightening?

I just keep getting older. I cannot stifle the process of age. The days pass and I am weaker, more wrinkled, more defined, taller, more articulate. I will eventually begin to crumble. But these are only physical changes. The most devastating changes are psychological.

A crumbling body implies a crumbling mind. My sight grows weaker as the years pass by; my reality becomes distorted, and thus the repercussions of age involve a deteriorating sense of place in the world. Is this home what it once was? Is this city the same one I fell in love with so long ago? Where does that highway go to?

I look to the past for comfort. Something to ease my mind as I drift into and out of realised consciousness. Dreaming is now an act of remembrance; the images in my head are spawned by key words that have stuck with me throughout the day. A cat goes missing in my neighborhood, and I later dream of chasing after it down the street I grew up on.

But there is no relief, no satisfaction upon awakening. The dream does not conclude definitively, it is cut short. Like a last gasp of breath before eternal rest. Empty blackness invaded by pictures and words with no meaning. Only Freudian dilemmas. The dream fades away as my reality fades back in. I leave the state of one consciousness and enter another.

But which is the more comforting? Which will provide a more opportune reality to exist within? Nightmares and dreamscapes often collide into a menage of emotional experiences, much like Life — or so it is referred to. But dreams allow me to escape back into the past from which I have come. To walk with ease down paths laid out. To sit back and watch as the events unfurl before me, often waving my hand in a direction I would like to take the events towards. Always seeking a finale, or some sort of epiphany, and likely never finding such release.

.          .          .

Paratopic is a 2018 game developed by Paratopic Team, in which players manipulate three separate stories which are interconnected through theme and mood. It is a waking dreamscape constantly in flux, a sort of Lynchian tale delivered through interactive stream-of-consciousness storytelling, and there is really nothing else quite like it. Rather, there is nothing else quite as accomplished as this short, tightly-focused indie game; nothing as brave or humbly ambitious. It is a game for the ages, a determined masterpiece. It is also terrifying.

Why is it terrifying? What about its PSX-style imagery, with its blocky polygonal figures and strictly morbid color palette allows Paratopic to so fervently excel at perturbing its audience? The grimy aesthetics of its cityscapes, matched with the brown feverish walk through the woods, shooting birds with a camera, and eventually diner owners with a revolver, playing it back again and again on VHS tapes which distort the very definition of the game’s so-called Reality — well, it all hearkens back to the horror games of previous console generations.

One of Paratopic’s most accomplished feats lies in the developer’s ability to weave the old with the new in bewildering fashion. The semi-metanarrative establishes a direct relationship with the player through their computer screen, positing media/film/information/imagery as a vile form of addictive substance which the player constantly abuses mindlessly. A timeless antidote to endless thirst: nostalgia. Comfort resides in the decaying archives of a VHS tape begging to be played, only for the world itself to begin ripping apart at the seams around them.

.          .          .

When I was a child, I used to watch certain movies so much I would wear the tape out. Not even just the tape, but the case as well, bending and mashing the white plastic every time I squeezed open its jowls. I wonder now if the tapes ever felt pain, and whether or not they enjoyed it.

Perhaps that gradual decimation was an inherently pleasurable act for the tapes. Maybe they got off on it. Maybe every time I inserted a tape into the VHS player it would squirm in ecstatic bliss, engorged in bloody orgasmic terror, knowing it can’t quit this sickening function in which it was designed to participate.

Or maybe the inanimate objects felt nothing at all.

.          .          .

The original Silent Hill remains a definitive classic horror experience in large part thanks to its aged interface. The clunky mechanics, foggy atmosphere, and blocky visuals are undeniably archaic products of its era. But the game has since indeed improved with time as an effective artifact of dread, which further proves the horrific impact of disproportionate figures.

The monsters in Silent Hill lack definitive features, which in turn makes them far more compelling catalysts for fear. Fear often stems from the unknown, the unidentifiable, and the disproportionate. Silent Hill’s locales and locals feature these design elements in spades, offering a hazy, incoherent trip through a hellscape ravaged by sickening masses of polygonal bodies looking to harm.

Paratopic refrains from monotonously forcing the player through waves of similar combat scenarios, instead offering a single confrontation with a mass of a black, distorted antagonist. But it pulls the rug out from beneath the players feet, disallowing defensive action. The game’s single jump scare acts as the central climax, a situation in which the player’s defenselessness itself argues the dreadful repercussions of escapism.

Dreamscapes are often idyllic passages into the comforts of the past, like a pleasant walk through the woods or a lonely night drive. Until a psychological turn of events flips the script, and the monsters come out to play.  The retro graphics of Paratopic and Silent Hill inspire an existential dread, something that cannot be overcome through fantasy or dreaming, because the two realities we are constantly imprisoned within never offer relief outside of our own individual selves.  But games do, or they have the ability to do so.  But the best horror games hold up a mirror, reminding us who we are even as they plunge us further and further into their own distinct nightmarish worlds.  And the reflection is often a blocky mess of polygons and grime.

.          .          .

I still watch those old tapes sometimes. I have a box of them in my basement. Curiosity occasionally inspires me to dig them out of their dark shelter and look at them, feel them in my hands, hear their cries for attention. The VHS player is long gone, but those tapes sit there in silence, hoping for one day to be used once again.

Staring at them as they wither and squeal, I long for their capitulation. What is a VHS without a tape player? What is a needle without a fix? A gun without bullets? A body without mind?

Perhaps one day the longing will need relief. I will find a player to watch them with, and their images will flicker and distort in ecstasy, and my mind will be sufficed. The only way to cure a habit is to maintain it, to enjoy its riding high until the wave evaporates and another fix is necessary.

I can see those images now when I close my eyes. Sometimes I dream in distortion. Sometimes I see white noise and hear its calming reverberation as I enter my unconscious state of reality. And it keeps begging me to turn it off.

Andrew Gerdes

Gamer, musician, writer, film buff, 'foodie,' aspiring baker, critic, intellectual self-reliant, optimist, health-obsessed kid who only wants to explore the infinite possibilities of artistic expression. Also, people tend to think I'm an all-around awesome guy

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