It can be hard to find time to finish a video game, especially if you only have a few hours a week to play. In our biweekly column Short Play we suggest videogames that can be started and ended in a weekend.
My first experience with an exploratory "walking game" was 2008 Half-Life 2 mod Dear Esther . Half-Life 2 was several years old when the mod was released, approaching the twilight realm of the latest generation graphics: too old to impress, too new to inspire nostalgia. At that time, that made Dear Esther look old-fashioned. But today, its distinctive angularity seems almost intentional, intensifying the harsh loneliness of history.
The spooky exploration game Paratópico reaches a bit more past for its style, but it's another perfect fusion of just -threre aesthetic retro and light play narrative. Launched last month by a small team of developers, it looks like a game from the late 1990s, in the days when developers stretched detailed textures on low polygon models to create "realistic" looking objects. The faces are distorted masks, the water is solid and everyone is blurred and muddy. If you squint, this could be a long lost game Silent Hill on the original PlayStation.
In a small but effective artistic choice, the characters speak in crackling and subtitled glossolalia, punctuated only by the occasional word intelligibility. The paratopian is worlds of the complete blockage of many modern low poly art, and does not wink at its anachronistic aspect. Instead, he uses them to create an atmosphere of disconcerting bewilderment, even before the real horror begins.
The story of the game is developed through the perspectives of three unnamed protagonists, a photographer exploring a forest, and a man smuggling mysterious VHS tapes through of a border. While the connections between these characters are mostly implicit, their destinies are linked to the tapes, which are appreciated and feared by some kind of supernatural power.
Paratópico fits freely into the walking game genre, and presents forced choices with no apparent way to fail an interaction. In several scenes, you will be asked to drive a car, carry a gun, take pictures or talk to a handful of supporting characters. The exact time period and setting of the game are ambiguous, but the art style confuses everything in a vaguely late-twentieth-century nightmare, on desolate freeways and backed by a tense electronic scoreboard.
The game lasts less than an hour and goes many inexplicable details, breaking suddenly between scenes and characters. In these aspects, it is very similar to the avant-garde film games Virginia and 30 Flights of Loving.
But where those games softened or eliminated obvious mechanical interactions, Paratópico includes standard old-school conventions like heavy dialogue trees with heavy text, only to send them in ominous directions. You can ask the owner of a convenience store for interesting things to do in the city, and they will tell you about places like a "ghost carnival" and a "dairy", none of which you will ever visit. This may sound capricious, but in the midst of moments of surprising violence and allusions to the terrifying nature of the tapes, nothing in Paratópico the world seems certain.