Poverty and Dread in Paratopic

As an experiment in shaking up the walking simulator formula, I found Paratopic extremely successful.

A little late for Halloween, I played a memorable indie horror game with friends this weekend. Released by a three-person team called Arbitrary Metric in March 2018, Paratopic got under my skin with its gritty, low-res aesthetic and jarring narrative pacing. It’s a beautifully focused game, tightly delivering a specific experience. I found it refreshing, in this era of miles-wide, millimeter-deep open world titles. In fact, Paratopic to me represents a thesis in independent game design. It is very clearly the product of few resources and an abundance of care. Every byte of graphics and sound is bent towards eliciting ambiguity. The narrative presentation invites the player to replay and interpret. It inspired some spirited discussion about what it all meant among the group I played it with.

I highly recommend playing Paratopic on Steam or Itch before proceeding. Spoilers from here on out. You’ve been warned, friendo.

If this border guard is right about The Smuggler having an enemy, who could it be?
Spoilers. Spoilers are the enemy.

Paratopic’s aesthetic is wonderfully uncomfortable. Chunky textures and low-poly models hearken back to a time where such approximate renderings were a necessity. But the game isn’t content to simply emulate retro graphics for indie cred. They are a tool with a purpose. Part of graphical and level design under these conditions is in using color, light, and shadow to effectively guide the player’s eye — a technique I find many modern games seem to ignore, to their detriment. Every scene in Paratopic allows the player some wiggle room, but the critical path is organically marked such that you never have to wonder where to go next. You can change lanes in the driving scenes, but never stop or turn around. You can walk freely around the forest snapping bird pics, but you’re contained and guided from landmark to landmark. This feels technically good, but it also might achieve a thematic goal as well.

The Birdwatcher can optionally photograph six crows, which is possibly a reference to Blendo Games' Gravity Bone.
Fans of Gravity Bone will love this segment, I think.

See, in an interview on USGamer, co-developer Doc Burford talked about how poverty became a central theme in the game:

“The more I wrote it, the more it became a game that dealt with poverty. One of the player characters lives in a single closet-sized room with a lamp, some boxes, and a mattress, and he’s suffering from crippling debt. Another character talks about the failing economy, and we see signs of that abandoned infrastructure hidden away in the woods. It’s a game that reflects my hometown’s slow death and the existential dread of people like me who were supposed to enter the job market right when the economy crashed.”

Like Burford says, The Smuggler's apartment is little more than a closet with a mattress.
Home, bitter home.

To say that economic depression is a weighty topic these days is a joke. It’s downright tectonic. You, dear reader, likely have your own icky feelings about the economy, your job, and the security of your future. Keep those in mind while we run down some of Paratopic’s choices in level design:

  • Annoyingly long elevator waits.
  • One sided confrontations with pushy employers and shifty neighbors.
  • Anxious car rides down vast stretches of empty highway with no turns or exits.
  • Uneasy hikes in the woods to abandoned facilities and industrial accident sites, railroaded by stream beds and literal train tracks.
  • Getting arrested by seemingly corrupt authorities for doing a job you could not refuse.
  • Awkward small talk with gas station attendants, stalling for time because someone is following you.

One might say that Paratopic is a game about having full control but virtually no options. You can’t just turn the car around and go home. You can’t avoid trespassing your way to an untimely demise. There are systems and forces in place preventing you from escaping utter ruin, and the feeling of smoldering distress and dread the game builds over its brief playtime perfectly captures how it feels to be forced down a track with nothing good at the end.

The car scenes feature long, empty stretches of highway and surreptitiously disappearing/reappearing cargo in the passenger's seat.
Keep an eye on your cargo.

There is little time for comfort in Paratopic. Whether in person, over the phone, on the radio, or one other odd case, every non-player character in the game speaks in garbled, jumbled mumbles where words are sometimes just barely discernible. Story threads that on the surface seem the most peaceful ultimately end the most horrifically. There are segments where I felt there was too little to do, nothing to look at, nowhere to go… and I think that’s exactly what was intended.

The narrative is presented out of order, from three different characters’ perspectives, and it is almost entirely left to the player to piece together the story. Who you are in a given scene is down to context clues, and sometimes you are fed seemingly conflicting information. It takes some patience and additional playthroughs to get every detail, but surprisingly, I think the game answers more questions than not.

The Smuggler's employer's face constantly shifts its UV mapping offset and resolution.
Not every Paratopic NPC has a case of The Warpface. Just old Warpface here.

It’s not all grime and anxiety in Paratopic, though. There are a few moments of peace, even levity. There’s a faint glimmer of Blendo-style quirkiness that’s visible in some of the mechanics and worldbuilding. The gas station scenes are a true rest stop. Catch your breath. Stretch your legs. Enjoy some witty dialog, like the clerk’s conspiracy theorizing, or the game’s insistence that anyone who prefers pancakes to waffles is a filthy liar.

The gas station attendant offers you some locally sourced deer jerky, but all you can think about is waffles. Definitely not pancakes.
“(filthy lie) I’d rather eat pancakes, honestly.”

The soundtrack by Chris I Brown, aka BeauChaotica (you can find it on BandCamp) does loads of heavy lifting for this game’s feeling. The Menu Theme creeps in with a sparse bass riff and ambient noise, giving way to more intense distortions and an alien-sounding synth, perfectly reflecting the game’s steady pace of descent into the weird. The choir of Open All Hours evokes a place of sanctuary, a brief respite from the oppressive atmosphere everywhere else. The Assassin’s Theme sounds like a combat track straight out of the original Deus Ex, with high-tempo bass, percussion and sweeping synths, perfect for the game’s fevered climax. I’m no music expert, but I could write a whole article about this soundtrack alone. Listening to it after the fact elevated my appreciation for the range of emotions Paratopic evokes. There’s way more in here than just a monotone of anxiety. There are highs and lows, crescendos and rests.

A windmill looms over a fork in The Birdwatcher's path, but one is a dead end.
Multiple paths, but only one way forward.

Catharsis from playing Paratopic, for me at least, came from replaying the game and trying to stitch the whole picture together with my friends. There is just enough information there that you can assemble a plausible timeline of events. And writing this article, I suppose, has also helped me bring my experience with this game to a satisfactory resolution.

As an experiment in shaking up the walking simulator formula, I found Paratopic extremely successful. If you haven’t already, please go play it on Steam or Itch.

Thanks for reading my first article here on Bonus Accessory. Catch me on Twitter at @AC_Marshy for more gaming discussion. Until then…

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