This indie horror game managed to surface a fearful real-life experience, and I loved it.
CONTENT NOTE: this article contains discussion of dangerous driving
Paratopic, a short but engrossing first-person horror game from the crew at ArbitraryMetric, kept me up last night. This isn’t unusual; many of us can probably recall a time when some spooky piece of media drove away sleep, forcing us to watch the darkest corners of the room or jump at the smallest sound.
But I wasn’t scared in the traditional sense. Instead, playing Paratopic dredged up a memory of driving home from college, sleep-deprived and caffeine-addled, that easily could have ended in my death.
In the game, you play through three related narratives: a young woman who finds a secret deep in the woods; another with a deadly job ahead of her; and someone forced to smuggle illegal videotapes across the border. They intersperse to provide the player with a stilted and sometimes jarring experience, where a scene can suddenly jump from standing in a decrepit apartment lobby to slowly creeping among trees to staring at a bag of chips in a too-dark convenience store.
In one scene the player must drive a car down an empty highway. That’s it. You can look around, turn the wheel, speed up, and operate the radio (which has two stations: talk radio and what I can only assume is a local DJ playing obscure tunes and elevator music). The first time, I expected to reach a destination and watch more of the story play out. I did have a black case of contraband in the seat next to me, ostensibly being delivered… somewhere over the border.
Instead, the car kept chugging down a seemingly endless road flanked by dark, nondescript buildings looming from the near-dusk like slats in a concrete fence. After a few unchanging minutes the first shivers of a familiar feeling began to creep up my spine, electric and unsettling. The limited visibility, the oppressive backdrop, the monotonous and oddly lulling sound of the road – I had been here before.
It was 2010, and I was driving home from college for the Thanksgiving holiday. It actually didn’t start until the next day, but I didn’t want to waste part of it driving the four hours back to my hometown. One of my more sadistic professors had planned a test for the same day, and I was woefully unprepared to take it. So, I did what any desperate and cornered college student would: pull all-night cram session.
When I finally threw my bag in the backseat and entered my car, I hadn’t slept in nearly 30 hours. But I had chugged one extra-strength 5-Hour Energy in the middle of my cramming and another as I packed. My logic at the time was that the caffeine high would stave off sleep long enough to get me home. That thinking was, of course, immensely stupid and just plain wrong, but I had the conviction of a young man with nobody to tell him otherwise. And so I began what would be a truly harrowing drive home.
The first sign that things with me were not even remotely okay was my attention. I couldn’t focus on the road ahead of me, and my eyes kept darting around in frustration. Distracted, I’d begin to drift off the road and hit those jarringly loud divots meant to keep dangerous idiots like me awake. At no point did I think about pulling over for a rest or stopping at a hotel.
Next were the hallucinations. Small, dark things would move in my peripherals and cause me to jerk the wheel in anticipation of someone merging into me or cutting me off. At one point a trio of traffic cones threw themselves bodily from the shoulder in front of my car, and I slammed my brakes to avoid crushing them. Except, when I blinked they popped back into place and disappeared into the darkness behind me.
Worst of all, though, was the highway amnesia. This phenomenon often occurs late at night along vast stretches of highway, where the lack of landmarks can make you feel like stretches of time pass in a heartbeat. The final hour and a half of my trip was a patchwork of 10-minute skips and jumps, and I was left wondering how I’d stayed on the road in the forgotten interims.
Paratopic managed to effectively replicate that experience. Try as you might, the car and the winding highway will keep you adjusting the vehicle as it drunkenly sways between lanes. The horizon is dark, empty and bland, forcing you to focus on anything but the point ahead of you, which only exacerbates the difficulty of driving straight. After a while, you will resign yourself to flipping the binary radio knob back and forth between gibbering hosts in a futile effort to add meaning to your task.
I think it was that feeling of being trapped in the car that cemented it for me. Just like when I was driving home from college, these sections in Paratopic made it seem like the end would either come in the very next moment… or two hours from now. You could only continue forward, minutely focused on keeping the vehicle centered as shadowy constructions emerged on either side, outlined enough by the headlights to tease you with their true nature before melting back into the night.
The immense idiocy of what I’d undertaken didn’t strike me until I told the story to a friend a couple of days later. I was jovial in my telling, smiling as I recanted the suicidal traffic cones. Their face only darkened, and at the end they put as much scorn as possible in telling me I should probably be dead. That same buzzing at the base of my spine trickled upward, flushing my body with belated endorphins, and my arms prickled into goosebumps. They were right, of course. And the memory of that realization still strikes me on occasion, fresh and visceral.
There are many ways to scare someone. You can elicit a pure reaction, a jump-scare firing of the synapses. You can twist common sensibilities with grotesque and bizarre imagery. Or you can do what Paratopic does so well: craft an atmosphere of dread and discomfort that sneaks into the hidden places of your mind and whispers about fears you thought forgotten or locked away. Turn off the lights, grab your headphones, and discover what personal horrors this game will set free.