Clapping echoes from your footsteps disturb the night and the silence. With each footstep, the moist dirty sidewalk crunches beneath your soles. You glance back. There’s nothing there. You glance back again. This time you are unsure if there is someone or something in the shadows. Two distant silhouettes saunter out into dim street light. Maybe it’s not a good idea to stay outside this late in the evening. You decide to casually increase your pace, but the echoes intensify as do your footsteps, giving away your panic. But then, you’re inside somewhere with a crowd, you feel safer. For a moment the pounding echoes remain, but it’s not your feet, it’s your heart. Something spooked you, got your heart racing, your mind overplayed the situation.
Can you relate? Numerous pieces are put into play at that moment: the night, bad lighting, figures obscured in darkness, your sudden realization of how vulnerable you are. The combination of elements melding together produce that frantic reaction. At times I have come down on a game release or two for being devoid of substance, atmosphere, choices, plot, and length. These games claimed to be “thrillers” or “horrors” and felt nothing of the sort. To produce a frantic or panicked reaction in game fans you need more factors than a real life perilous scenario. Sitting in your plush leather office chair, wearing fuzzy Wolverine pajamas, and sipping cocoa in front of our computer is an obvious safe environment. A deliberate approach to building tension, a focus on pacing, and developing a logical (or illogical and surreal) story are some of the keys needed to draw your fears to the surface.
The Park releases today on Steam and it comes to gamers with a full understanding of what it takes to make you uneasy and nervous. Some may even find the ending subject matter disturbing and difficult to deal with. I love to jab my adrenal glands on occasion and plunge myself into hair raising moments. If you are the same type of person, then grab your tickets and your candy corn (and an axe), let’s go for a ride in The Park. (The Secret World fans take note, The Park is a subset of that user acclaimed MMO.)
You play someone named Lorraine, hair in a bun and a major case of high water jeans. Her child mischievously runs into a theme park after hours. “Somehow it all comes back to Atlantic Island Park” she says. “People lose things all the time,” says the park attendant, with uncanny serenity. Callum, your son, has impetuously run ahead of you into the park to find his lost teddy bear. As you enter behind him, things start to distort, night falls rapidly upon you. Pressing the right mouse button allows you to call for Callum (call ’em.. get it?) and you’ll be doing this often. Shouting for your son gives you audio clues as to which direction he is off to, and marks items you can interact with on your screen. Callum runs through the park and jumps on rides urging you to follow. Animatronics turn to stare at you, eyes beam with an intense crimson. Blood trails lead into dead ends. There’s a park report, it documents how many people committed suicide at Atlantic Island Park. Plunging off the top of the ferris wheel for no clear reason. In another report, Chad the Chipmunk the park’s mascot, lost his mind one day in a crowd of teens stabbing many of them to death. Every note, letter, and newspaper clipping reveals more tragedy and death. You see strange figures in the dark, something darts in the shadows. Are you having hallucinations? There is a man with a tall hat grining at you, jagged knives for teeth, at the controls of the ride you are sitting in. Before you know it, your skin is crawling.
Lorraine’s ordeals are a nightmare, and to properly convey her twisted dilemmas you need great art design. Developer Funcom, has done a good job of modeling and designing Atlantic Island Park. They make even better use of lighting and reflective surfaces to bring to life theme park attractions; areas like the Fun House and the Fairy Tale boat ride would not have been as effective without it. While there are obvious menaces that pop out and say “boo“, typical jumpscares are sparse- and spread out during your cautious exploration of this dark and sinister park. Not overusing any one scare tactic creates a slow mounting tension, like tiny breaths into a balloon. Not once was I ever at ease. At no time did it escape my mind something was going to happen. Halfway through The Park, without experiencing any real harm I was in constant expectation of something worse. Visual elements expertly parallel the story, intensifying the surreal and horrible moods towards its impacting conclusion.
The graphics while excellent, are not the only standout element in shaping your experience. The audio work in The Park is superb. I found myself reacting to unseen perils. While my eyes were darting around looking for sinister Hat Man in the shadows, I was intent and listening for dangers. That tentative anticipation, and foreboding dread is enhanced further with quality headphones. Mysterious sounds of rocks falling, who knocked those over? Callum’s carefree laughs, amidst the confines of the park, felt as if they were mocking you. A jolting faint scream out of nowhere interrupts a serene monologue. The contorted screeching mechanical grinding of old unmaintained carnival rides, remind you of how abandoned Atlantic Island Park is- and how vulnerable you are. Sound envelopes you, sinking you into the madness.
The game littered with details that will be delicious for avid fans of good writing, thanks to subtle clues scattered around. Decisive control on pacing, figures into the climax becoming intense. A creepy mascot, a grotesque Mr. Hat, or an adult size chimpunk staring at you, elements like these are comical if not dressed properly in enough mystery. Surreal flashback scenes intermix with Lorraine’s imbalanced monologues create a worrisome uncertainty within the story. At one point, a sharp metal sound rang out, I whirled around panicked- was someone there? I stepped back both in game, and in real life (well more like sat back). Until I realized two things, the first was that it was just Lorraine’s reflection in a mirror which I didn’t recognize; the other thought was that this game might be getting to me. That fantastic snippet may be reminiscent of something out of a well designed movie script, but it was not. I was caught in the spur of the moment jumping at sounds and shadows, the constant dread that something sinister was about to befall.
There are shortcomings, even with a casual pace the game only takes about three hours to complete. While you constantly feel as if you are in danger, there is little for you to do to change course or alter any outcome. There is no combat or avoidance, while you are not on rails- in a sense you are. You will only continue if you get on the next ride, and search for Callum with little room to ever think outside the box. True sandbox feel would have been interesting, but control of the story was more important for FunCom. While extra exploration does lead to more clues about the past, and unlocks achievements, there is little incentive to return to Atlantic Island Park. The slow pacing is going to be unappreciated by the type of gamers who expect Five Night’s at Freddy’s monsters leaping at your screen screeching and roaring at your throat. The Park is trying to cut over common horror, and instill disturbing thoughts, but there was room for more. There are no seamless first person transitions from walking to sitting on rides, these black screen loading moments remove you from the very immersion the developers tried to create for a moment. Puzzling design decision to say the least.
While short, each and every hour you spend inside The Park has meaning. High visual and audio immersion and engaging thrilling moments are incrementally packed into each subsequent game hour. None more brilliant than your last hour in the game. Many things come to a head, converging at one horrifying apex. I highly recommend you observe and interact with everything in the last moments in the game as they are full of subtle details. Judging from Steam user reviews and comments, much of it is being missed. That moment of realization, that everything which has happened is tied together down to the moment you stepped foot into the park, is provocative. The psychological intensity increases as you near the climax, as does the gruesome nature of this story- those who are squeamish, don’t bother jumping in. Yet The Park might be casual enough to get your girlfriends, wives, or less game oriented friends in for a try. Highly recommend you take up Funcom on their instructions for playing this game. Turn off the lights. Use a pair of 7.1 gamer headsets. Get comfortable, and don’t let Mr. Hat get you.