This article previously appeared on Crossfader
For me, the defining trait of horror games is in the suspense. Jump scares can be effective, but the anticipation of what is to come is what can push a game from disturbing to actually horrifying. Not only does the anticipation of a scare keep me on edge, but it also continues to reel me in far more effectively than almost any other narrative device. In that vein, PARATOPIC had me anxious and slick-palmed throughout. I was so intrigued by the world and story that I couldn’t help but be glued to the screen, despite being a bundle of nerves for the entire runtime.
Developed by Beau Chaotica, Doc Burford, and Jessica Harvey, this horror short tosses you between the perspective of three characters: a man who has to deliver videotapes that have some strange side effects upon their viewers, a professional killer gearing up for an assassination, and a photographer who gets more than she bargained for on a scenic hike. Each tale is told through a series of vignettes that abruptly smash cut from one to another. Bashing in the door to the assassin’s target transports you to a scene where the man’s neighbor is harassing him for one of his forbidden tapes. This splicing together of initially incongruous scenes creates a found footage fever dream, instilling a sense of unease from the get-go that never relents. Because the majority of these happen without warning while you’re engrossed in action, the player is never allowed to let their guard down for a moment.
Is there a way I can get my cursed video on DVD or Blu-Ray?
Along with the jigsaw structure, PARATOPIC’s entire aesthetic is dedicated to getting under your skin. All dialogue is shown as onscreen text, but the actual voiceover is a weird, low jumble of sound bytes and unintelligible babble (think Evil Simlish). “Alienating” doesn’t do it justice, and you’d better believe I switched stations the moment a talk show came on my car’s radio. Chaotica’s creepy background tracks have a fantastic horror synth vibe, not unlike the score of IT FOLLOWS. Cues in the music had me constantly checking my periphery for unpleasantness.
Which bring me to the blocky, early PS1 graphics. The lo-fi visuals lend the scenes of horror a startlingly insidious quality. Instead of taking away from the atmosphere, the primitive resolution adds a layer of hard edges and harsh colors, a constant reminder that this perverted world is not our own. Additionally, the retro visuals lend an impressionistic quality that lets your mind do most of the work during the scares, turning what could have been laughably bad indie animations into genuinely harrowing sequences.
I admire the man’s authentic appreciation of twine
That being said, for every moment of horror, there are two or three of peace. Burford, posted on Twitter that a goal in writing was to make a “good” walking simulator utilizing first person verbs. In that sense, PARATOPIC is less a horror-themed walking simulator and more a horror-themed talking/walking/driving/photographing simulator. There are three excellent, drawn-out segments spent behind the wheel of a car that artificially induce the player’s mind to wander just as they would while alone in a car, and I audibly cursed a couple times during the photography section when a bird flew away right as I was centering in on the perfect shot. My favorite example of this mundanity is a conversation with a gas station attendant. Some of the information he tells you offers roundabout clues to PARATOPIC’s greater mystery, but most is just exactly what a bored small town clerk would say to a stranger. This parsing together of chilling revelations from superficially harmless text highlights the game’s knack for making the tedious terrifying.
PARATOPIC is not a game that lets you pick your fate. It’s also not a game that leaves you with all the answers. For the most part, the player is directed to walk here, shoot this, or steer that. It’s all pretty basic and there’s not much deviation one can take outside of the dialogue options. In that sense, the game feels far more cinematic in that the editorialization comes not just from the player interacting with the space, but the manner in which that space is presented. At some points it feels like a movie told through button prompts than an actual game, but the undeniable intrigue kept me invested throughout. This is definitely the sort of experience that isn’t for everyone, but I personally enjoyed my multiple playthroughs, even if I do now have a slight fear of videotapes.