The June 2019 Humble Monthly graced me with a plethora of obscure titles which had yet make their way into my Steam library (which currently sits at 511 unique titles), including “Red Faction Guerrilla”, “Duskers”, and “Paratopic”. As a side note, June’s bundle also included the 4th iteration of Treyach’s “Black Ops” series which just so happens fall just short of “911 Operator” in terms of appeal.
Typically these titles will reside in limbo until I happen upon them months (or years) later, but Paratopic in particular sparked my interest due to its unique visual style; an early-90's aesthetic paired with a first-person perspective which brought back trepidatious memories of playing “Alien: Resurrection” and “Medal of Honor: Underground” on the PlayStation 1. These titles represented a period in my life where tonality and emotion were invoked by the most rudimentary of means, where a simple dimly-lit corridor could cause the hair on my neck to stand on end. A decade later and these titles are moreso silly than they are terrifying, and I hoped that Paratopic could revive the same sentiment which had been torn from me by adolescence.
Video gaming as a medium has matured alongside its player base, which is no longer content with the cheap jump scares and booming action-movie bass which has been imposed upon them over the past decade. Instead they long for engaging, thought provoking, and psychological thrillers which don’t sacrifice the mechanics or fluidity of modern AAA titles. This movement has yielded dozens of spectacular cinematic experiences which leverage cutting edge technology to fully immerse its player, including “Resident Evil 7”, “The Evil Within”, “Alien Isolation”, “Layers of Fear”, and many more. Paratopic doesn’t fit into this mold; it isn’t a hyper-realistic survival horror which tests its player’s stamina and spatial awareness as they are pursued by an unrelenting threat, or a stealth focused thriller which pushes the technical limits of graphic design with impeccably detailed and terrifying monsters. Rather, Arbitrary Metric chooses to disorient the player to the point of insanity, balancing jarring perspective changes and unsettling pace shifts with beautiful environments and charming dialogue.
Paratopic’s narrative shows obvious influence from David Lynch, whose claim to fame is his singularly dark and disturbing view of reality, a nightmare world punctuated by defining moments of extreme violence, bizarre comedy, and strange beauty. Much like how Lynch refuses to attribute an immediate temporal, spatial, or dimensional setting to his films, Paratopic doesn’t offer the player any background for which its story, or world, takes place. Following the start screen, the player is immediately thrust into a police interrogation. A feeling of helplessness is bestowed upon them, as they frantically try to piece together context via dialogue options as ambiguous as “...”, all whilst spine-chilling reverberations resonate off the walls of the sewer. The only information that can be gathered is that there are tapes of some sort which have been confiscated from you. Despite your pleas the officer stubbornly chooses to watch them, and with a flash of the screen, he’s gone, and you’re now staring out the window of a diner gazing outwards at a corpse whose innards are being picked away by a crow (this all occurs within 2 minutes of starting the game...yeah).
This is the first of about a dozen perspective shifts that occur within the story, each of which is equally disjointed and unsettling. Spoilers omitted (it wouldn’t take a lot to do so considering the runtime), it appears that the game follows the story of three protagonists, each of whom remains nameless for their respective 15-minutes of screen time. From what I can gather, there’s the assassin; a gun-for-hire contracted to attain a specific tape before its effects can be felt, the smuggler; tasked with delivering contraband tapes across the border to Mexico, and the photographer; whose unfortunate discovery in the woods will lead to major consequences. Unfortunately, none of Paratopic’s characters are allotted enough screen time to develop a personality or really contribute anything to the weight of the story, and despite that branching dialogue is the primary mechanic here, there simply isn’t enough content to provide ample time for character development. In fact, dialogue is mainly used to provide confounding variables to the narrative rather than to push it towards a conclusion. While certain branches of dialogue show flashes of brilliance, such as the segments bantering with the clerk at the gas station, they are few and far between.
Amidst the dialogue the player takes part in concise but captivating segments of both exploration and action. As the photographer, you find yourself lost in a sprawling forest, armed with a camera and a delightfully peaceful soundtrack at your side, you're invited to explore to your hearts content. As the assassin you’re dropped into an apparent robbery armed with a 6-shooter and a single unarmed target, while you aren’t sure why you’re here or who this man is, your first inclination is to murder him (what does this say about how first-person games have conditioned you?). These are far and away the most fun portions of the game, and each has its own unique pace and tone which keeps the player on the edge of their seat.
It’s unfortunate, however, that the third character brings about the drabbest sequences that I’ve ever experienced in a video game; the driving sequences. I understand what the developers were trying to do here; to emulate the boring and tedious task the smuggler is undergoing, to showcase the solidarity and mundanity of the drive across the border, to create questions of what it really means to exist (am I stretching here?), and to literally drive you insane. But the execution falls completely flat, and the culmination of the three driving segments take up a THIRD OF THE GAMES RUNTIME. I’m not exaggerating either; these segments drop the player into the driver’s seat of a car which is incapable of crashing, turning around, or stopping, with nothing to do but change the radio to one of two stations (a classical music station or talk radio which is presented in the glitchy dialogue of the rest of the game), or look out at the drab, repetitious environments until they run out of fuel. Each segment may only last about five minutes each, but I genuinely almost fell asleep the third time through as they simply draaaaaaaaag on. I genuinely think the value proposition of Paratopic was severely diminished with the addition of these sequences, and one would have surely sufficed to push the point across.
Paratopic tries to be a narrative 4 course meal presented under the guise of a 40-minute appetizer. My reaction to its brevity was a verbal “you’ve got to be kidding me” as I stared in disbelief at the hilltop so eloquently depicted in the credits sequence. This isn’t to say that I was disappointed by what I had experienced. In fact, the terse nature of Paratopic’s narrative harmonizes perfectly with its tone, together giving the player a feeling of uneasiness as they try to piece together the shattered fragments of what they just experienced. It’s unfortunate that there is next to nothing to do but speculate after the initial shock and awe of the story’s climax subsides. There’s an attempt at adding replay value through an achievements system, but I can’t imagine anyone but the most hardcore completionists subjecting themselves to another playthrough. The achievements are more appropriately admired from the Steam page to reflect on the choices the player made during their stay in Paratopic’s purgatory-esque world, to think about what they could have done to avoid the final outcome. Which, by the way, is extremely compelling and well-executed.
I don’t like giving ratings to games like this; they aren’t “games” in the traditional sense, it’s a narrative experience, and I really admire that something like this exists in the current climate of gaming. There’s genuine value here if you’re willing to put forth the effort to unpack it, but the peaks are just as high as it’s valleys are low. Paratopic’s mundane and flat-out boring driving sequences in culmination with a runtime of less than an hour with little replay value have left me slightly bitter. That being said, I think Paratopic is worthy of a 4/10 score.
Tamper your expectations with this one and you may be surprised, but don’t let the obvious appeal to your nostolgia influence a full-price purchase unless you’re the most earnest of cinema enthusiasts.
(As an obligatory note, my ratings will be much lower than those of traditional game review platforms. I believe average to be around a 5/10. Therefore, most titles fall between the 3-7 range. Majora’s Mask is genuinely the only game I’ve ever played worth a full 10/10 score, a review of which is in the works.)