Before I sat down with the Steam release of Paratopic tonight, I squeezed in half an hour of Destiny 2. If Paratopic is a forbidden briefcase sat atop a nicotine-stained mattress, then Destiny is a gift-wrapped toy, torn open with glee as your family showers you with enthusiastic praise. Open that present, champ, it gasps at you, as alien heads pop like confetti streamers and numbers rise and hits of serotonin burst along synapses like bullets from a chamber. Destiny is a game designed for the player. Sleek and compulsive as a slot machine. Every rough patch sanded. Every sharp point corked. Every road the path of least resistance to uncomplicated, feel-good fun. Paratopic could do the same thing if it wanted. It knows how you work, and it knows what you’re used to. And just like all the best psychological horror, it’s going to use that knowledge to fuck with you.
It all starts out simply enough, though. In a chair. You can look around, but you can’t move. This isn’t unique to Paratopic, but the sense of claustrophobia as both your interrogator and the controls pin you in place is rarely this pronounced. Remember when we started being able to move our heads around in cutscenes, and how freeing that felt? Here, that snapshot sensation is spliced out in favor of its own negative. This tiny scrap of agency somehow feels more constricting than the comforting oblivion of a purely passive incarceration. You’re made aware that you could have control, just to reinforce your lack of it.
Then there are the voices. Give me clear speech and jittering, warped subtitles, and I might grin at the cute UI tricks you’ve got going on. Give me legible, plain text to translate a garbled, glitching voice, recognizable only for its wordless animosity, and I’ll start doubting my own senses. Even Outlast and Amnesia keep their soundscapes clear and crisp for warning signs; roars and deranged glee and telltale string swells; terrifying but clearly defined exclamation marks. Paratopic’s glitches and distorted bass patches only offer questions. We’re fairly certain what the thing that’s salivating in the dark can do to us if it catches up. Less knowable are the whims of whatever it is that’s hiding between the static.
The game is filled with props just malleable enough to pass dream logic muster; just alive enough to singe their mark on the yellowing fabric of these frayed vignettes, without ever offering the familiar comfort of easy interaction. An elevator that seems to resist gravity like a squeamish guillotine blade. Sinks splutter to life then refuse to work again. A toilet door is locked, but, why is that so surprising? It’s a toilet door. People lock it behind them, or else lock it because it’s no longer usable. You’ve tried once, and it didn’t work. Why would you keep trying? Of course, there’s nothing useful to collect in the cardboard boxes stacked high in your threadbare room. It’s your room, friendo. If there was something useful here, you’d have taken it with you already. These spaces and objects exist, but not for your entertainment, and certainly not for your convenience.
Then, there’s the driving. It doesn’t end when it should. It doesn’t even end after you feel it should have made its point. And suddenly, your progress craving gamer brain, trained on sugary loot drop loops, is distraught. You might start inventing superstitious rituals, looking for ways to progress. What if I turn the radio on and off? What if build up speed then crash into the side? There’s no choice, ultimately, but to follow the road to its destination. Maybe you’re forced to confront your own thoughts, sitting alone on a night drive to nowhere.
In his book In the Dust of this Planet, horror philosopher Eugene Thacker differentiates the human-centric ‘world for-us’ from the essential ‘world-in-itself’. This world-in-itself is a paradoxical idea, says Thacker, for as soon as we recognize it, or exert our influence upon it, it disappears, replaced by the world-for-us. However intangible, it remains, manifesting in disasters and other malevolent acts of nature that remind us of our own precarious place on the earth. Although we can grasp the concept ephemerally, we can never truly imagine the world-in-itself. Only a third scenario: The world-without-us. Neither hostile or neutral, but “a nebulous zone that is at once impersonal and horrific.”
Paratopia, to use Thacker’s terms, is not a game world for us. But neither is it a game world in itself. Through antagonism and subversion, it accommodates our presence without ever welcoming us, negating our existence even as it requires it to function. A gameworld-without-us. One in which we do not belong, yet will still lead us by the hand into silent madness.
Under that napalm sunrise where you’ll photograph blackbirds, the leaves don’t sway so much as writhe. Bright, pensive synths — strained but hopeful — seem to keep the dread at bay for a while, until you force yourself along the path, and a grime-flecked lens returns to swallow everything.