There are brief moments in Paratopic where things feel almost normal—driving down the highway at night, the radio playing. A conversation with a convenience store clerk, reminiscing about a fast food place that isn’t there anymore. The snippets of real life that, presumably, your brain mines material for your actual dreams—they appear, innocuous, in Paratopic. And they make the sinister elements all the scarier.
Paratopic is an indie horror game that looks like it came out on a corrupted (or maybe possessed) Playstation 1, but it sounds and feels like a waking nightmare. I’ve been meaning to play it for over a month now, but it’s only this week, where I’ve been sick in bed, that I’ve had a chance to experience it’s unsettling pleasures. That worked out pretty perfectly.
Paratopic brilliantly plays on horror imagery and freaky sound design to put you inside of a nightmare place. You explore worlds—and accomplish your mysterious objectives—in places hewn together by jagged, low-res 3D textures and clashing color schemes. There are dingy apartments. Haunted open roads. A narrative that sees you transporting illicit, precious cargo across time and space. The whole thing feels haunted and uncomfortable, as you travel its landscapes, which smash cut you from place to place with abandon.
Just like a dream, or an especially weird nightmare. There is always a sense of the uncanny, even in the more relatively peaceful settings—a forest, with birds flitting one way and another. There is always something ominous and probably unknowable around the corner, so you can never really settle in with Paratopic.
What sold me on this, beyond its imagery or its place-setting, was how Paratropic uses structure to make the nightmare feel real. That it is something happening to you, rather than a game you’re playing. That fully bridged the gap for me between fever dream and mere cool indie horror game, and it did so using that trick from Thirty Flights of Loving’s playbook: jump cuts.
In the Blendo game, the action cuts from one sequence to another in order to keep a manic pace up. It’s meant to make everything exciting and fresh, to keep you on your toes. Paratropic doesn’t care if you’re on your toes. It smash cuts you from an eerie forest to a pitch-black highway at midnight to a dirty diner in order to confuse you and unsettle you. You’re in the nightmare world here. There are some light puzzles to solve that basically revolve around you figuring out what to do to advance the game, but nothing feels “right,” exactly.
So, playing this game with a headache, with pressure in my skull and dulled sense of smell, was almost perfect. Feeling a little physical pain put me in the mood to explore hell even more than the soundtrack, which wavers from garbled radio transmissions to a sort of Fez-on-quaalude ambience.
I almost panicked, trying to find one objective, one colorful bird in the trees. It was easier to suspect disbelief, to be here in the nightmare, trying desperately to understand what the driving force wanted from me. What the game was asking of me made a kind of sense. But what the game wanted from me, really, was my attention. My fear.
“Surely, something terrible is about to happen,” my brain kept telling me, as I stumbled around.
That sense stayed with me throughout the game, and sure enough, my brain was correct.