It can be difficult to find time to finish a video game, especially if you only have a few hours a week to play. In our biweekly column Short Play, we suggest video games that can be started and finished in a weekend.
My first experience with an exploratory “walking game” was the 2008 Half-Life 2 mod Dear Esther. Half-Life 2 was several years old when the mod was released, approaching the twilight realm of last-generation graphics: too old to impress, too new to inspire nostalgia. At the time, that made Dear Esther look dated. But today, its distinctive angularity looks almost intentional, intensifying the story’s stark loneliness.
The creepy exploration game Paratopic reaches a little further into the past for its style, but it’s another perfect fusion of just-retro aesthetic and gameplay-light narrative. Released last month by a tiny team of developers, it looks like a game from the late 1990s, back in the days when developers stretched detailed textures over low-polygon models to create “realistic”-looking objects. Faces are distorted masks, water is a solid, and the entire world is blurred and muddy. If you squint, this could be a long-lost Silent Hill game on the original PlayStation.
In a small but effective artistic choice, characters talk in crackling, subtitled glossolalia, punctuated only by the occasional intelligible word. Paratopic is worlds away from the wholesome blockiness of much modern low-poly art, and it doesn’t knowingly wink at its anachronistic looks. Instead, it uses them to create an atmosphere of disconcerting seediness, even before the real horror begins.
The game’s story unfolds through the perspectives of three nameless protagonists: a contract killer preparing a hit, a photographer exploring a forest, and a man smuggling mysterious VHS tapes across a border. While the connections between these characters are mostly implied, their fates are tied to the tapes, which are prized and feared for some kind of supernatural power.
Paratopic fits loosely into the walking game genre, and it presents forced choices with no apparent way to fail an interaction. In various scenes, it will ask you to drive a car, load a gun, take photographs, or talk to a handful of supporting characters. The game’s exact time period and setting are ambiguous, but the art style fuzzes everything into a vaguely late-20th century nightmare, set along desolate freeways and backed by a tense electronic score.
The game is less than an hour long and leaves many details unexplained, smash-cutting suddenly between scenes and characters. In these respects, it’s a lot like the avant-garde cinematic games Virginia and 30 Flights of Loving.
But where those games smoothed out or removed obvious mechanical interactions, Paratopic includes standard old-school conventions like awkward text-heavy dialogue trees, only to send them in ominous directions. You can ask a convenience store owner for interesting things to do in town, and they’ll tell you about places like a “ghost carnival” and a “milk store,” none of which you’ll ever visit. This might sound whimsical, but amid moments of startling violence and hints at the tapes’ frightening nature, nothing in Paratopic’s world seems safe.
Paratopic ends abruptly, but the plot doesn’t seem deliberately confounding, just underdrawn. I’d love a longer treatment of the story, not to spell out all its details, but to give its evocative vignettes more time to develop and interlock. And while Paratopic wouldn’t be better off as a straightforward adventure game, I kept wishing that I could feel the same high-stakes motivation my characters did, instead of mostly wandering through the story waiting for it to advance. Overall, though, Paratopic is an unsettling experience that’s so atmospheric it’s stifling — a staticky, nicotine-stained take on cinematic video games.