The Surreal Cognitive Dissonance of Paratopic
Paratopic opens with you being interrogated by a border patrol agent who caught you trying to smuggle contraband VHS tapes across the border, and it quickly gets stranger from there, giving way to a scene where you’re talking to the man who put you up to the smuggling job as some crows peck at a corpse outside. If you think something sounds off about that description, you’d be right, and indeed, the game largely thrives on that “off” feeling, making you feel like you’re playing in the real world if it wasn’t for all these little details that don’t quite scan and leading you to conflicting conclusions about the world of the game. Paratopic effectively leverages this cognitive dissonance to create a haunting surrealist work that succeeds by inverting the mundane and the uncanny.
In one way, Paratopic looks like your everyday noir story about smuggling contraband and murder in the Rust Belt. During your journey, you’ll encounter the neighbor woman who’s jonesing for more VHS tapes to consume, a talkative mini mart cashier who will tell you about the local attractions, and a verdant countryside dotted with rusting abandoned storage containers. No matter what scene in Paratopic you’re talking about, there’s something familiar to latch onto.
But very quickly, you realize that there’s something wrong with these very mundane, familiar things. The VHS tapes that your neighbor is itching for are talked about in the same vein as narcotics. Whenever you talk to anyone in the game, some text pops up accompanied by some very unpleasant garbled mouth sounds that almost – but not quite — sound like words. Even simple acts like driving down the highway become suspicious and weird thanks to some mysterious disappearing cargo. Paratopic uses your grip on reality and twists it until you can barely hang on anymore, regurgitating them back at you in new, alien forms.
The same can be said for the overall look of the game, which takes inspiration from the blurry polygons of the PS1 era. But instead of making everything look as good as it can within the limitations, Paratopic embraces the inherent ugliness in the aesthetic. Your meeting with your boss for the smuggling job should have been the usual criminal meetup with a tinge of danger, but something strange happens as he talks to you: The camera zooms in super close to his face and reveals every ugly texture that the graphical style incorporates, the odd proportions between his head and his body, and even the very robotic way he moves his head as he speaks. Everything about the familiar human form is twisted into something unfamiliar and vaguely threatening in unexpected ways.
At the same time, the unusual is treated as if it’s completely normal without anyone so much as batting an eye. The way the mini mart cashier describes some of the attractions is downright odd yet played completely straight, such as the milk store where you can buy milk from any kind of animal in existence. It brings to mind the similarly trippy Kentucky Route Zero, where odd vignettes played out as if they were completely normal even as you latch on to the very familiar and universal Americana themes.
Where Kentucky Route Zero is magical realism, though, Paratopic is a full-blown Lynchian surrealist fever dream. The cognitive dissonance works as well as it does because the game works so hard to keep you off balance in other ways, not the least of which is its non-linear, constantly switching point of view that encompasses multiple characters and doesn’t necessarily happen in chronological order. Thanks to the strangeness of the setting and the fluid way Paratopic treats place and time, you never quite know what to make of it.
The result is a story that pays vague lip service to what its plot is, but is much more interested in creating a weird mood and making you question everything you experience. When you hear about aliens from the mini mart cashier, you don’t know what the truth is. Everything you’ve seen so far feels grounded enough that aliens don’t exist in this universe, but then again, your boss looked very alien-like and made overtures to his omnipresence should you fail. The segments where you walk through a forest feel very realistic and lived-in, but then you come to some arcane-looking graffiti and a shadowy figure who murders you and impales you on a pole. And then when you think you’ve got everything figured out, Paratopic hits you with the TV head scene, where a humanoid with a TV for a head has its flesh dissolve right in front of you. Because of how Paratopic paces its scenes so that you question it at every turn, you never fully get a grasp on what exactly is going on in the game.
I say that as high praise, as Paratopic is an exercise in lo-fi surrealist game design that plays with your head like a cat batting at a piece of string. By inverting the normal and the strange, Paratopic defies the player’s expectations even as it works to purposefully establish them just to defy them again.