Paratopic: An Exploration of Sensory Horror
Paratopic is a pressure in the back of my skull.
We often describe aspects of horror by the auteurs who have gifted us the variations of the genre. Lovecraftian. Lynchian. Cronenbergian. While Paratopic certainly pulls from different aspects of the genre across its short run time, the major influence of the surreal horror game seems to be of sensory exploration: disgust, unease, anxiety, stress, pain.
While Paratopic released a few years ago, it has received a second life through sales on the Nintendo Switch and a re-examination of what exactly makes this small game so endearing and different. It doesn’t seem like much at first — the game itself costs only a few dollars and looks like a Nintendo 64 game. There’s little in the way of control, giving it the “walking simulator” feel of games such as Dear Esther and Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture. Paratopic seems uninterested in how it is viewed in terms of being a video game, and is instead a short, arresting experience that requires multiple plays to fully grasp, and even then only the edges of its shape might be understood to the player.
Everything in Paratopic feels wrong, from its rust-and-vomit color scheme to the garbled English spoken by its few characters. The music and sound effects (I highly recommend experiencing this game with headphones) are skin crawling, making the player feel on-edge at all times. The game has little in the way of jump scares and there’s no creature chasing you through dark hallways. It’s the ambience of Paratopic that gives it its scares, the sense of dread that you’ve just stepped into a world that’s both broken and decomposing, where society is an afterthought and the most basic questions are handled with utmost hostility.
The characters in Paratopic seem to be profoundly affected by whatever has undone the nature of reality, twisted by the nefarious effects of “The Power Company” and whatever exists on the tapes scattered throughout the rapidly darkening city. The choices presented to you as a player feel like they mean very little until you realize that the characters are probing at your psyche, prompting you to react to them with increasing hostility and unease. It is only on my second play through — when I purposefully chose answers that I would not typically choose — that I saw some of the more monstrous responses play out.
Paratopic desperately wants to burrow under your skin and fester there. It is filled with bizarre dialogue, nonsense questions and brutal violence. The city itself — and the forest on its outskirts — feels like it was borne of the nightmares of those who remain alive after the unknown events that the electric company spawned. The entire game is dreamlike. Movements feel as though they’re existing underwater, and there’s little to make the player feel as though they have much attachment to their physical body. While the settings are mostly plain and unambiguous, the color and use of the space make even the most peaceful moments feel absolutely wrong.
All Paratopic really wants from you is a reaction. It wants your stress, your apprehension, your fear. As the game reaches its final moments and the jump cuts further break down the barriers of reality, the horror that’s unveiled is something beyond understanding. As you play your mind is screaming at you that something awful is going to happen, that something or someone will be behind a door or a tree, that the most innocuous lines of dialogue will rapidly devolve into utter insanity and nonsense.
It doesn’t care if you understand it. It doesn’t care what you walk away with as the credits roll. Despite the short nature of the game, its world feels somehow complete and coherent and functional. It feels like I’ve been here for longer than I have, friendo.