The Calculated Unease of Paratopic
You have a job to do. Luckily the lobby is empty. You tap the elevator call button. Nothing happens for a bit, but soon you realize that the elevator is indeed moving. Slowly. Deliberately. It’s as if the elevator itself is making you wait, like it revels in your impatience. You’re not sure how much time passes as you wait, but it feels like an eternity. Somebody left a lit cigarette in the ashtray, so you snuff it out. You get a sense of being watched despite your solitude.
By the time the elevator reaches your floor, minutes have passed.
This stretch of highway is empty of other cars. Buildings and light posts pass by with relentless monotony. You fiddle with the radio but there’s nothing worth listening to. It’s just you, the road and the package in the seat next to you. The only thing you can do is concentrate on staying in your lane. And yet there is something odd about the drive. A sense of…sentience that makes you feel like you’re not alone, like the road itself is lulling you into a false sense of isolation.
Paratopic is a disjointed and muddy game that feels like it wants to tell a meaningful story, but stumbles over an inflated sense of inscrutability. Instead, what the small three-person development team achieves is a confusing scene-hopping narrative with no satisfying conclusion. What the experience lacks in cohesive storytelling, however, it more than makes up for with an expertly-crafted sense of tension.
Paratopic’s best scenes are the ones that take an ordinary activity–waiting for an elevator, driving down an empty freeway–and stretches it out to an uncomfortably long and tense experience. There’s no inherent suspense in waiting for an elevator, but because it’s so drawn out here you can’t help but feel uneasy. We know that elevators don’t move that slowly. Why is this one so slow?
Interactive objects are uncommon in Paratopic, and most of them serve to move the story forward. For this reason, a smoking cigarette in the apartment lobby that can be snuffed out by the player feels important. And yet, nothing of significance comes of it. Was someone there moments ago, waiting for us perhaps? Maybe they left in a hurry because they knew something dangerous approached. It doesn’t matter. What does matter, though, is the bewilderment that tiny object introduces into the world.
The driving sequences feel equally uneasy. Lasting several minutes each, the only thing the player can do is steer the car and turn the knobs on the radio. The road keeps going and going until you start to wonder if you’re missing the point. You’re not, though, because Paratopic thrives on your questioning. It wants to disorient you. That’s why all the speech is mumbled and impossible to understand. That’s why the visuals are blocky and primitive. And perhaps that’s why there is no cohesive end to the story; it’s just another variable in the equation built to get under your skin. It successful, too, because it’s been days since I’ve played Paratopic and still can’t stop thinking about it.