This article contains spoilers for Paratopic and some David Lynch and David Cronenberg films
Long night drives along deserted highways. Shadowy figures deep in the woods. The lure of fatal technology that twists bodies into unrecognisable shapes. And you, in a state of chronic confusion. If this sounds like a delirious nightmare spawned by an ill-considered all-night binge of Lynch and Cronenberg films, you’re not that far off. This is Paratopic, an evil fever dream of a game that, for the most part, wears its influences on its sleeve.
In its use of body horror, cathode ray tube TV screens and the proliferation of dangerous VHS tapes, it openly quotes David Cronenberg’s classic Videodrome, a surreal horror film about a snuff video show that twists the minds and bodies of anyone who watches it. Its protagonist, sleazy TV-channel president Max Renn, makes out with a TV screen at one time and eventually develops a very suggestive gash in his abdomen into which VHS tapes can be inserted. In Paratopic, we’re never shown what’s on the tapes we come across, but their effects are perhaps even more extreme, if less overtly sexual.
David Lynch’s influence is less easy to pinpoint, but arguably more pervasive. Paratopic contains a wealth of motifs that echo Lynch’s work. As in many of his films, there’s a hired assassin. Like the robins of Blue Velvet or the owls of Twin Peaks, birds have a special significance in Paratopic. One particular bird guides you through an ominous forest which conceals a dark secret, another motif familiar from Twin Peaks. And most importantly, it shares an obsession with the highway at night, long and silent drives, and all it entails (cars, gas stations, etc.), a theme that we can already glean from the titles of some of Lynch’s films, like Lost Highway or Mulholland Drive. Beyond motifs there’s Paratopic’s disturbing technical playfulness, as in audio-visual distortions of faces or voices, as well as its rejection of traditional pacing and narrative structures.
Part of Paratopic’s appeal, however, lies in the ways in which it diverges from these inspirations. While Videodrome, despite its bizarre imagery of pulsating, fleshy VHS tapes and the like, is a largely coherent satire of mass media, Paratopic doesn’t offer anything resembling an obvious 'message' or commentary. Describing it as Lynchian seems like a misnomer, too. Lynch’s stories are about exposing the dark side of an idealised world, whether it’s the glamour of Hollywood in Mulholland Drive, the wholesomeness of suburbia in Blue Velvet, or the idyll of small-town life in Twin Peaks. The horrors of Lynch’s films are in the shadows thrown by normalcy under a spotlight. Even as they’re deconstructing these myths and laying bare perverse hypocrisies, however, they never lack empathy or humanity.
Twin Peaks: The Return
Paratopic doesn’t know the meaning of the word sentimentality, and neither does it anchor its nightmare visions in normalcy. Paratopic is all shadows, and we’re always in the dark as to what threw it in the first place. It’s a cold and alienating game, even more reluctant to be understood than most of Lynch’s work. It feels defiant and hostile rather than dreamy and mysterious, perhaps less Lynchian than Lynch-punk.
The game's focused efforts to disconcert and disorient its player do have roots in Lynch and Cronenberg's work, but these are translated to a medium that shares only the surface with film. Videodrome’s paranoia of media makes the jump remarkably well: the pixelated, distinctively PS1-era visuals draw attention to itself as a piece of software, its outdatedness additionally resonating with the motif of the dangerous VHS tapes. If Paratopic looks back, then appropriately Videodrome looked forward to future tech like the internet and even VR; in one scene, we are presented with a pixelated point of view shot from within a VR headset, which then seamlessly transitions into a lurid hallucination that melds technology, torture and sex. In one of Paratopic’s particularly interesting moments, we uncover a stash of VHS tapes right after murdering a man. To progress, we must pick up one tape after another and insert them into the VCR. Every time we do that, we relive the short and nasty moment of the murder as if it were happening again, the thrill of videogame violence slowly devolving into confusion and distaste with each viewing.
In Lynch’s films the camera often lingers far longer than necessary, capturing an awkward silence in all its drawn-out glory or the hypnotic boredom of a long drive on an empty road. At other times, hard cuts suddenly transport us to scenes that seem to have little to do with what came before as we scramble to process the transition. This push and pull between lingering and jumping is also at the core of Paratopic but, given the interactive nature, the tensions created can be even more jarring and disorienting than in film. Towards the beginning of the game, we press an elevator button and have to wait as it descends. Later, there are several driving sections that manage to be both dull and tense at once as we wait for the inevitable cut that will teleport us who-knows-where. Forcing the player to wait with little or nothing to do is a gleeful subversion of game design wisdom, one that feels so 'wrong' that a player cannot help but feel claustrophobic, disempowered and uncomfortable.
The sudden cuts are another feature that most games try to avoid so as not to overwhelm or confuse the player. Paratopic cuts liberally, almost violently, often as the player is in the middle of an action. One moment you’re holding a gun, the next you’re driving a car. The game drops you into an unfamiliar situation in medias res, giving you little indication of what to do next. It also has a habit of changing the way the player is supposed to interact with the game after each cut. Early on, you’d be forgiven for thinking it might turn out to be some sort of shooter. After all, we pick up a revolver, reload it (by pressing ‘R’ according to FPS tradition) and finally shoot someone; the first and last moment the game asks us to fire a gun. All of this is made even more jarring by the fact that we can never be sure where, when, or even who we are as the game jumps back-and-forth between different events, locations and perspectives. The first-person perspective, such a comfortable fit in most games, is here put in the service of obfuscation and alienation: it’s hard to tell who you are if you don't know your own face.
Paratopic seems comfortable to dwell in that spot where the shadows of Lynch and Cronenberg overlap, and create a particularly dark black. It feels like an homage in parts, or at least an attempt to translate some of the unease and mindfuckery of those films to another medium — but in stirring its influences together in a different bowl, Paratopic creates its own flavour. One that leaves a weird and fulfilling aftertaste.