Raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens: just a few of the things you will not find in Funcom’s The Park.
Let’s get it out of the way immediately: The Park is a short game. It took me an hour and a half to finish, and that included cooking and eating my lunch, and attempting to see and do every little thing. I think you could easily knock it over in half an hour if you don’t mind skipping most of the content and sprinting through it with no thought for enjoying the atmosphere.
If the thought of paying $13 for an experience of that length offends you, do not do it. End of discussion! Let’s shake hands and go home happy.
Funcom cites games like Dear Esther and Gone Home to help you place The Park in a neat little genre slot. It might also have mentioned PT, the increasingly ephemeral Silent Hills teaser; there’s a section that takes a leaf straight out of Hideo Kojima’s book of tricks. But PT is designed to be deeply, affectively and effectively terrifying, whereas The Park doesn’t quite have those ambitions: it’s a story first, and scary second.
That’s not to say it’s not scary, and not just because the core premise of a child in danger is likely to push a few buttons. While jump scares are few (there’s only one I can think of outside of the House of Horrors, where such things naturally belong), there are a handful of deeply creepy moments I did not enjoy at all. Well, I mean: I enjoyed them, but I enjoyed them while muttering “no, no, no, no,” to myself and attempting to dig a hole in my chair back with my shoulder blades.
The subtle things add up and weigh upon you so that when something goes more seriously off-key it’s almost a relief. Sometimes a pants-shitting relief, of course.
Horror fans will be disappointed if they go in hoping for something really terrifying – but then they always are. We’ve had this argument many a time, but once more, for the record: I believe you need to willingly engage with horror instead of sitting around testing your machismo against it, or you’re just wasting everybody’s time.
It is worthwhile letting the atmosphere of The Park suck you in. Right from the get-go, something is obviously wrong – and it’s interesting how effectively this wrongness works across multiple escalations. The subtle things, like hissing loudspeakers and too-cheerful music, add up and weigh upon you so that when something goes more seriously off-key it’s almost a relief. Sometimes a pants-shitting relief, of course.
I was actually a little disappointed when the pieces started to come together towards the end of the game, as it began to feel heavy-handed. It’s hard to talk about this without spoilers, but the effectiveness of the game’s atmosphere broke down when the horror elements began escalating. At one point I was creeping around corridors feeling more than a little uneasy, only to open a door and find broken baby dolls hanging from the ceiling. I started to laugh. Dolls like that are such a commonly-used horror prop – especially in stories involving children – that it was like putting up a sign saying “this is creepy; you should be scared now”.
That said, I’m not sure this wasn’t deliberate. Maybe Funcom was lulling me into a sense of security and familiarity – broken dolls, blood stains, ho hum – so that when it did something quite unusual and terrifying moments later, I nearly threw up. I don’t want to spoil that, but let’s just say it broke the rules of what games are supposed to do, and thereby very effectively evoked a feeling of great unease.
There’s a lot going on in the story. The Secret World fans can enjoy a little geek out over the background story of Atlantic Island Park, which is nice, but the core plot is Lorraine’s journey. It’s not straightforward; the player is left questioning how much of what they see is real, what happened and when it all happened.
This lends a bit of welcome texture in a medium where stories usually come pre-chewed for easy digestion. Lorraine seems to have multiple voices, perhaps speaking from different times in her life, and reconciling them with the Lorraine you’re playing as is a pleasant bit of mental mastication. A fairytale motif runs parallel to your journey and Lorraine’s history, swimming closer together until the stories are overtly joined and dance about each other for the latter third. (Partway through my trek around the grounds, I realised this motif is embedded in the landscape and the gameplay in a way I hadn’t consciously noticed until then. Pretty cool.)
Video games in general are not massively good at subtlety – probably because as a medium it is generally fearful of letting anybody feel lost and confused – and The Park doesn’t quite manage to avoid tropes in tackling some pretty delicate subject matter. The vague ending helps sidestep this a bit, though.
Anyway. I have one more thing to say about The Park, and it is something I said aloud to the screen at least three times: fuck you, Chad. I’m looking forward to talking to other people who also hate Chad.
The Park launches on Steam today for Mac and PC. It’s going for $10 during its launch window and will be $13 thereafter.