Ultra-Indie Spotlight Sunday: Paratopic A Novel Nonlinear Nightmare

Paratopic is an exploration of a strange but similar world to our own. You play as three different characters. One is a smuggler, transporting dangerous and highly illegal VHS tapes. Another, a birdwatcher, snapping pictures of crows in the wrong place. Finally, an assassin, with a very very large revolver. 

Conceptual Meta-Wank:

Linear storytelling often makes the most sense in AAA horror games. After all, you generally want the player to have some idea of what chain of events they’re experiencing as they experience it. But as indie devs are showing, a nonlinear horror story told well can surpass even the biggest budget games. This brings us to one of the most compelling indie games I’ve played in recent memory, Paratopic.

I’ve never been one for thinking or processing thought, but the first playthrough Paratopic was nigh incomprehensible to me. For a game about three characters, it’s hard to discern who you’re actually playing as from a first-person game. It wasn’t until the second playthrough that I actually was getting a bit of a grasp on what was going on. And a few helpful explanatory Youtube videos later, I came to realize what a brilliant piece of art Paratopic is. 

Spoilers ahoy, though I’ll keep them to a minimum. Paratopic is about a smuggler, an anti-smuggler assassin, and an innocent bystander. The smuggler is transporting VHS tapes, which create a horrific reaction to those who watch it. The assassin, well. Their motive is obvious. But the bird-watching bystander, taking pictures in a forest straight out of Half-Life 2 illustrates that there was some kind of tremendous, almost apocalyptic, event that happened, and all that remains are these alien VHS tapes. 

Non-Wanky Game Recap:

Perspective shifts between different scenes. One minute you’re arguing with a border security agent, presumably after your character got caught in a bust. The next, taking photos of birds in a nice forest. New mechanics come and go. You may fire probably one bullet (unless your aim is bad) and you occasionally drive around listening to the radio. But for the most part, Paratopic is a game about talking to people and discovering more about the world. 

What Works:

The storytelling of Paratopic cuts quickly between three characters. But as this is a first-person game, you need to do some thinking to find out who it is you’re playing as. Using environmental clues and seemingly unimportant dialogue, you can parse out a vague outline of the chain of events leading to and during the Paratopic game. The disorientation from this first playthrough is fun enough but makes the dot-connecting during the second playthrough all the more enjoyable.

The other thing that works is the entire rest of the game. Paratopic is a beautifully grotesque collection of baffling vignettes. One of the first people you meet is the smuggler’s handler. His voice is gibberish and his face moves like jelly. You’re in a run-down diner with a body being eaten by a crow outside. The music is oppressive (in a good way) and the colors uncomfortable (also in a good way). The story, premise, and atmosphere are top-notch. 

What Doesn’t:

While you will likely need at least two playthroughs to get a good grasp of what’s going on, Paratopic is, unfortunately, very short. There’s not too much gameplay and not too much story content. Taking it slow, you could probably get through one playthrough within an hour. I’ve recommended shorter games before, and hardly think this is disqualifying, but it is worth mentioning for any game that is not free.

How To Fix It:

One low-effort way to buff the length of the game would be some additional lore objects. More people to talk to, some notes found in some areas, stuff of that nature. The downside of this is that it has the potential to reveal too much of the narrative, removing the mystique and interpretive aspects. Or on the other end, they could be even more baffling to the player. Either way, I don’t think Paratopic would benefit much from additional content. I believe it’s perfect as is. 

Wanky Musings:

Some non-chronological or nonlinear media are easier to digest than others. Movies, you certainly know who you’re looking at since the third-person perspective lets you see the actors. Books, divided into chapters. In video games, especially ones in the first person, this can be extremely tough. Paratopic told a nonlinear story that fascinates and bewilders, without the hold up of telling the audience directly “here is where you are.” Indeed, the lack thereof makes the experience all the more engaging. 

You can buy Paratopic from Steam by clicking here