Be Seeing You, Friendo: Paratopic

Paratopic - Steam Splash Screen

Paratopic is the first game produced by Arbitrary Metric, a three-person collab of Tangiers dev Jessica Harvey, freelance developer and critic GB “Doc” Buford, and Lazzie “BeauChaotica” Brown handling the audio and composing the soundtrack. I first played the game upon its initial release on in late April of 2018, and I played it again when an expanded version was released on Steam in September of the same year.

Paratopic is about…

The story of Paratopic is a…

Paratopic opens…

Well, that’s just it, isn’t it? You can describe what happens in Paratopic, and even theorize about connections, timelines, and events behind the scenes. But divining some sort of ultimate understanding from Paratopic is not possible. Indeed, the game has been explicitly designed to make such divination impossible.

The narratives of Paratopic are experienced through the viewpoints of three characters: a smuggler charged with moving contraband videotapes across the border, a hitwoman sent out to target the smuggling operation, and a birdwatcher who stumbles across something she shouldn’t have deep in the forest. Over the course of the game the three are taken through a sickly world of green and orange pixels, of crumbling tenements, distant gas stations, decaying industry, and endless ribbons of superhighway. Out of this borderland come hints of a great conspiracy involving “the Power Company” whose mysterious departure years back shattered the local economy, yet still maintains a connection to this world through the trade in illicit videotapes whose contents are capable of triggering grotesque physical transformations in those who view them.

All this, of course, is a riff on the images and themes of David Cronenberg’s 1983 classic Videodrome. And yet I find myself reluctant to dig for any deeper connection between the two, or for any other social/political/economic/gender/whatever themes, since in Paratopic the inability to understand the whole story is the point. It’s right in the name: “para-topic”, adjacent to the subject, but never actually connecting with it.

It’s actually rather impressive how the game is built to engage you, yet confound your attempts to fully understand it. While you play through the perspectives of three characters, their stories are told achronologically and are spliced together, having you swap between perspectives with a smash cut. It’s a film technique that indie games have been tinkering with since Blendo Games’ ten-minute experiment Thirty Flights of Loving back in 2012, but I’ve always felt was ill-placed in games. You watch a film as a passive observer, so it’s easy to process jumps in perspective the way you would process the shift from painting to painting in a gallery or between panels in a comic. By contrast, games – particularly first-person games like Paratopic – involve you in the story as a participant, making you more like an actor in a play. Because you perceive yourself as a part of the story unfolding as you play, techniques like the smash cut are more unnerving than in film since you interpret them as you would such a break in perspective in real life, namely as some sort of traumatic neurological event. However, Paratopic is a game about not seeing the bigger picture, so the technique works to distance and alienate the player. You’re not always sure who you are, you’re never quite sure when you’re going to become someone else, and the cuts and shifts pull you away from fully understanding what’s going on. It’s appropriate for the cast; a trio of low-level peons and innocent bystanders who participate in the activities of this enterprise but who are forever barred from getting that greater perspective.

Of course, you can’t swap perspectives all willy-nilly without wholly alienating your audience, and to its credit Paratopic plays fair. Each character is associated with a certain object – the smuggler’s transport case, the hitwoman’s revolver, the birdwatcher’s camera – and both the environments and dialogue with other characters are structured so you can quickly pick on cues and figure out who you are and what you’re supposed to be doing. (The game’s driving sequences are a pointed exception, being a sort of liminal space where all three characters seem to bleed into one another as the contents of the passenger seat change over the course of your journeys.) Indeed, for a game that is as narrative-centered as Paratopic there’s quite a bit to do; conversing with NPCs, poking and prodding at items, a little shooting, a lot of driving, and even some photography. Arbitrary Metric seem to have been designed the game as a rebuke to the sort of “walking simulators” where there is nothing to do but walk from place to place gawping at the scenery and listening to canned monologues. Gameplay in Paratopic serves as a way to engage the player to get them to interact with the game by performing small simple tasks to keep their minds engaged on the presentation and help them get “into character”.

Aside from its narrative tricks, Paratopic is a game that disorients and disturbs the player though the uncanny. The character models are case in point, being deliberately crude low-poly humanoid models with high-res scans of actual human faces pasted across their heads. (The devs have some fun with this in an early game sequence where they replicate the “vertex wobble” bug in the Quake II engine and intensify it to the point of having the character’s face textures appear to be slithering across his skull.) A similar type of estrangement is done with the voices in this game; all the dialogue has been distorted and processed into a sort of low electronic burble that retains enough of the pauses and modulation for you to recognize it as human speech, but not enough to recognize any words. It’s not what you hear when you’re half-asleep and are only paying the barest conscious attention to someone speaking, but it feels like what you hear.

Paratopic is a short game, clocking in at about an hour and change. As much as I enjoyed the game, I feel the techniques it plays with are the sort of thing that can wear out their welcome if dragged out over multiple hours. Still, Paratopic is an eerie little experiment at a reasonable price, and I would like to see where Arbitrary Metric go from here and what other developers take from Paratopic.

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