I’m a few months late to the grimy, discordant world of Paratopic, which has already been (deservedly) covered by the gaming press fairly extensively, considering its relatively modest scope. There’s a simple reason for my lateness. Despite any pretensions I may harbour towards being a corduroy-clad sophisticate who only consumes artisantally-prepared indies imported from distribution platforms that haven’t been invented yet, I’m actually a manchild with a palette slightly less adventurous than the cookie monster on edibles. I saw a David Lynch film, once. I liked it a lot. I’m going to talk about it later, in fact. But I’ve also seen Starship Troopers about fifty times. Similarly, the reason it took me so long to get round to Paratopic is probably because I was busy throwing my axe at seagulls in God of War.
A screenshot of Paratopic might not immediately evoke wholesomeness, but I’d compare the experience of readying myself to play it, and games like it, to preparing a big ol’ bowl of veggies. I know that as soon as I start eating them, they’re going to taste amazing and I’m going to feel nourished as fuck for a few hours afterwards (in this metaphor, the nourishment stands for nourishment of the MIND). But in concept, they’re never as appealing as just squirting the first condiment I can find on a toaster-warmed slice of bread, shoving it in my fat face, and getting on with my day. Anyway, I played Paratopic, finally, and I liked it a lot, so here’s a bunch of thoughts I have on why I found it to be so effective, and why you should probably play it too.
That one David Lynch film I watched and liked a lot and said I was going to talk about later meaning now is Eraserhead. When I bring Eraserhead up around people, they usually respond with some variation of “Yeah I love it it’s so weird what a weird film crazy huh acid acid acid”, which tells me two things:
- They’ve never taken hallucinogens
- They’ve overlooked how deeply, fearlessly, and accurately Eraserhead portrays certain aspects of the human condition.
The words ‘abstract’ and ‘dissonant’ get bandied around a lot when talking about Lynch. As a postmodern degenerate, I’m hesitant to begin any sentence by asserting what ‘Life is’, but here goes: Life is dissonant. Most of what we count as reality is us filling in the blanks in our limited perception. Thus, what we normally consider to be regular, cohesive depictions of a single consensus reality are, in fact, highly artificial. The interactions we have with others are imperfect, fragmented, and often incoherent. Any media that attempts to portray them otherwise is an abstraction.
These portrayals are not falsehoods, necessarily. They don’t aim to deceive, but rather sit inconspicuously within a widely established, palatable set of aesthetic and narrative norms. They are artifice, but an artifice so deeply ingrained in public consciousness that they no longer register as artifice. Thus, something like Eraserhead – with all it’s long, awkward pauses and nervous, twitching lens and landscapes and soundscapes that aim to recreate an individual’s emotional spectrum, rather than a supposedly objective reality – is infinitely more honest and human than most visions committed to film.
I feel that Paratopic both understands and reflects this. This is not to suggest that Paratopic is free from artifice, more that it is conscious enough of its own artifice – and trusts the player to be conscious of it – that the end product bleeds honesty from every pore.
I’m going to potentially spoil a couple of things now, so if you’re looking for any sort of buyers recommendation or value judgement, then yes, buy it. It’s under an hour, but it’s also about the price of a McDonald’s value meal except no moo-moos died making it and also it may make you think about games differently. So, in lieu of any sort of actual thesis — which are for nerds and people who haven’t messed up their ability to progress logically from point to point by eating too many Class A’s — here’s an assemblage of some cool shit Paratopic does that I liked a lot:
XL stuffed-crust Spoilers ahead
Early into Paratopic, you pick up a six shooter revolver. You are instructed to load the gun, manually, by pressing R six times — once for each bullet. As you slide the individual bullets into the chamber, the camera lingers on each one for a brief moment. This way, each bullet is imbued with weight and significance. It is necessary to use this gun precisely once. It will protect you from nothing. Still, I felt a lot safer holding it, and I think the game knew this.Paratopic is masterful at using player expectations of how interactable objects are supposed to function to build directorial tension. It knows you’re dying to see what’s inside the strange case it’s just presented you with. But clicking on this case doesn’t open it straight away, instead opening one of two latches. It takes three attempts in all, each building expectation, and manages to paradoxically make the player feel both more and less in control of their environment. More, because the minutiae of the action plays out in full, extending a temperamental invitation to command ownership over the game’s artificial physicality. Less, because it’s painfully apparent that the game is fucking with you, and enjoying every second of it.
Progression criteria in Paratropic are all invisible, unclear, or otherwise obscure, sometimes maddeningly so. I was constantly asking myself what I was ‘supposed to do’, and because of this, I was in a permanent state of unease. It’s that nice, warm starchy toast vs. nutritious but time consuming vegetables paradigm again. Most games are terrified to let the player be anything less than entertained for more than a few moments. Doc Burford — one third of the team behind Paratopic — has said in Gamasutra that he and programmer Jess Harvey “enjoy making antagonistic mechanics’, and this willingness to frustrate the player elevates Paratopic immensely. Most of what I could say about gaming’s prioritisation of user-friendliness over meaningful discordance has already been said better by Lana Polansky, whose excellent ‘Against Flow’ I’m loathe to paraphrase, but in Polansky’s own words:
“Where flow has become a shorthand for numbed subjectivity—particularly in the act of playing—and where this numbed subjectivity is elevated as an ideal player response, we have a crisis. It means those intrepid developers who are crafting provocative, dissonant, emotionally challenging games are classified not only as less marketable, but as fundamentally irreligious to the prevailing wisdom of what a good game is supposed to be.”
So, yeah, to stop what was supposed to be a short piece getting even longer — that thing that Lana Polansky says is bad and I also agree is bad? Paratopic does not do that, which is good.
Sense of Place, or lack thereof.
I cannot speak to the developers intentions in regards to portraying mental illness in Paratopic, but as someone who suffers from anxiety and depression, and has previously suffered from hellish bouts of psychosis and paranoia, the familiar feeling of being a terrified observer of one’s own actions seems palpably woven into the core of the game. There’s a disconcertingly real sense of subverted dramatic irony in Paratopic, wherein a permanently unsettled player with little or no information controls purposeful, driven characters. The camera doesn’t so much offer you a window into the lives of these people, but cages you inside their heads, trapping you in a fixed viewpoint as both observer and guilty participant. This is a good design choice and whoever came up with deserves a nice chocolate biscuit.
I mean, yeah, like I said, you should probably buy it.
Paratopic is available from itch.io