Cough syrup makes you drowsy…
It’s 1996 and you’re fuzzing through the channels of your television receiver, trying to find something different and distant in the static. An image spasms into life through shrieks of broken sound glowing in the dark like a glass doorway to another world. A man is being detained – they want to know what’s on the tapes. A sudden feeling of paranoia engulfs your voyeuristic curiosity. Are you watching them or are they watching you? Scrambling to cut the power sustaining this glimpse into another dimension, you hesitate. The guard is trying to tell you something: ‘Looks like you’ve got an enemy, friendo’.
Paratopic is a strange video game. It’s like receiving a broadcast from another world half-glimpsed through a broken fever dream. It’s distinctly alien, yet carries this slightly unnerving whiff of familiarity about it. Somehow, the broken, low-poly reality it presents has a trace of human about it, like the faintest feelings of surrealism that belie a hallucination. Its horror is experienced through the unfamiliar shapes and sounds it projects onto your screen. The most terrifying thing of all is that somewhere, out there, alternate realities that look just like this might exist.
Projected as a half-remembered PS1-era experimental thriller, Paratopic’s grainy visuals only add to its feeling of familiarity. What you’re viewing is a world grasping at reality through blocky representations of existence accompanied by muffled, unusual sounds. Its aesthetic somehow combines the visually unnerving quality of surrealism with the abstract drug-induced experiences invoked by psychedelic art – albeit in a slightly less colourful fashion. It would be easy to make pop culture references to works like David Lynch’s Twin Peaks with Paratopic, as it takes the mundane and sharpens it with a surreal edge that cuts through reality splitting it in half.
Layered on top of this visually provocative game is a transient soundtrack that morphs throughout the jarring cutscenes. Its ambient qualities often verge on minimalism with clear sci-fi inspirations and a surreal mixture of obscure samples that further establish its dark themes. This is an intertwined and explorative experience of sound and visuals that tell an abstract story of discovery through the unconventional subversion of social norms.
Like a tourist in a parallel universe, you’ll want to soak in the atmosphere of the peculiar places you visit. Your only form of communication comes through the use of the numbered keys to answer questions directed at you from a selection of responses. The language spoken by the people you interact with appears alien, although at times it stumbles closer to something more understandably human. Analogies can be drawn with Half Life’s G-Man in your engagement with some of the game’s entities, as you get the distinct feeling that what you’re talking to is something otherworldly that has taken on human form.
Through the use of dynamic cuts, the narrative is presented in a purposely incomplete manner. This forms a collage-like picture of a story steeped in mystery and a world submerged in the paranormal. At the centre of this are the VHS tapes that you, illegally, distribute that offer people some kind of extrasensory experience. Bizarrely, for a video game at least, it has to be played through in one sitting. There is no option to save, but this makes sense in its desire to relate an experience to the player that must be digested as a whole package and not bite-size chunks.
The brilliance and horror of Paratopic are written between the lines in what it leaves unsaid or unexplained. It enlists the player’s own imagination against them to speculate on the true nature of the reality unfolding before them. It offers a fleeting glimpse into another world, an escapist pursuit into an immersive and atmospheric experience that will leave you questioning your own sanity. It’s undoubtedly not for everyone; this is a short and subversive video game that breaks away from the established traditions of the medium. But, if you do fancy a break from the norm, this fusion of creepypasta and interactive storytelling will leave you with a lasting impression.
Jon loves the experimental nature of indie games, and has written about them for the likes of Eurogamer, PCGamer and GameReactor. As editor of The Indie Game Website, Jon is responsible for the overall content direction of the website, and enjoys moving things around in our Google Calendar.