Since you’re on a website called 25 Years Later, I’m going to assume that you know who David Lynch is and are familiar with his work. (And if you’re not, for some reason, hi, welcome to 25 Years Later. Enjoy your time here, read some articles, then go watch Eraserhead.) His body of work is entirely unique, unlike anything else other directors have done. Many of his films are like puzzles that are missing one key element, one thing that will give you, the viewer, a clear understanding of what’s going on. And I love him for it. His style is something that many have tried imitating, but few understand. So imagine my surprise when I came across a little game called Paratopic on Steam and walked away from it thinking it’s something Lynch would have done in his heyday.
Paratopic isn’t an easy game to describe, but if you put a gun to my head, I’d call it an atmospheric walking simulator with deliberately low res graphics. It’s rather short and a single play through should take no more than 45 minutes, maybe an hour if you’re super-slow playing it. But to call it a simple walking simulator does it a grand disservice, as it’s also a masterclass of atmospheric, surrealist storytelling.
Retro is in these days, and while everyone and their grandmother is doing pixel graphics, some developers are deliberately emulating the rather awful looking early days of fully 3D polygons. Paratopic is one such game. The character models are jagged as hell and rather stiff looking, kind of like the paper mache-esque models from the first two Thief games. However, this only serves the game as we’ll come to see, the visuals reflect the story and in many ways enhance it.
The story, such as it is, is about three different individuals. One is a bird watcher going for a stroll through the woods. One is an assassin who is plotting to kill someone in the back of a grimy diner. The last is a VHS smuggler, who has to get across the border with their contraband. After three different play throughs, here is what I can surmise about the world, without getting too spoilery: VHS tapes contain some kind of energy that humans react to, causing many to seek them out and watch them almost like a drug. However, people who are even just around the VHS tapes often suffer from hallucinations and those who watch too many eventually turn into a Cronenbergian monstrosity. The game doesn’t tell you any of this though. (Coincidentally, this is not the first time I’ve written about a game where prolonged drug use turns people into literal monsters.)
Much like Inland Empire or Eraserhead, the storytelling is entirely visual. The player is put into a very linear set of situations that are mere snippets of the larger world. In the very beginning, you play as the aforementioned assassin in the diner loading your weapon. In the next, you hard cut to the perspective of the smuggler as they are pressured into bringing the tapes across the border. It gives the game this feeling of being trapped in some kind of nightmare, where you’re never quite sure what to expect next.
The game smartly uses these situations to make the world feel lived in, though. The few environments in the game are detailed and feel like real, otherworldly places. Two of my favorite scenes involve the smuggler stopping for gas. The station’s shelves are filled with snacks and other items that can be interacted with. The cashier, working the midnight shift, is a lonely guy reading a book about how aliens are better than humans. You can divert conversation into the local history and chat it up about a few different things. The second time you talk to him, though, after presumably delivering the tapes, he keeps mentioning how “your friend” is gassing the car up. Looking out the window reveals a shadowy silhouette in the distance near your car. But you’re not traveling with anyone.
This is the kind of mood Paratopic goes for- a lonely, often creepy atmosphere that really gets under your skin. The ambiance and music go a long way towards this, as well. It’s the kind of music that really sets the mood in the moment but doesn’t stick in your brain because it is, to channel John Carpenter, “window dressing.” It simply compliments the scene and draws the player into the weird, disturbing world. There are even brief interludes where you’re simply driving down the highway and have the option of listening to a garbled radio station or some weird ass music. In a lesser game, this would be a dull waste of time, but in Paratopic, it becomes a weirdly calming, but also unnerving experience. Anyone who has driven in the dead of night while listening to background noise will immediately recognize the feeling of other worldliness it conjures. It calls to mind that infamous sweeping scene from The Return, because that was also more hypnotic than it had any right to be.
I have no idea where the events of Paratopic fit in its world as a whole. The conclusion is pretty open ended, with plenty of loose threads to follow in a potential sequel (which I would be totally on board with). And you could make the argument that its too short. The asking price of 6 bucks might be a bit much to ask for what amounts to an entirely linear walking simulator that lasts no more than an hour. But for that hour, the world, visuals, and sound all suck you in and refuse to let go. Much like Eraserhead, Lost Highway, or The Return, Paratopic feels like it’s constantly teasing the player with knowledge. Your first time through you’ll be left dumbfounded and perplexed. Your second time you’ll undoubtedly pick up on many of the game’s small details. The third gives you a greater understanding of the world as a whole. Even then, it feels like you’re missing that one piece of evidence that would help you completely understand the story and events. Really, though, that complete understanding would ruin it. Lynch’s movies and TV show are so beloved because of that lack of complete understanding, not in spite of it. To know everything would ruin the dream, so to speak.
Really, though, the best thing I can say about Paratopic is that playing it gave me the exact same feeling as when I was back in high school and a friend of mine introduced me to Eraserhead. Confusion, disbelief, awe, horror, and just a little bit of wonder all at once. The game’s developer, Arbitrary Medic, is one to watch- they understand what sets Lynch’s surrealism apart from all the imitators and hacks and have successfully emulated the feeling of his work here. I can’t think of higher praise than that.
Images courtesy of the game’s Steam Page.