Indie Horror Month continues this week with the still-in-development-but-still-really-good beta of Paranormal.
Paranormal is the gaming equivalent of Paranormal Activity: a found-footage ghost story. The two works actually complement each other quite well since the slow burn tension of the movie is the perfect primer for the game, which jumps right into the freaky stuff. You play as a man who suspects that his house is haunted, so he takes it upon himself to wander around at night to record the various weird things that happen. There are multiple pre-ordained hauntings that can happen in a room, but what you see at any given time is random. The fridge might burst open during one game but stay closed during another.
The conceit is handled nicely. There’s an added “camera shake” that mimics the motion of a handheld camera, causing the screen to drift and dip even when you’re standing still. It’s unsettling since it feels like you’re constantly out of control, and thankfully it’s an option that can be turned off. It’s a nice atmospheric touch, but it’s even nicer that the developer recognizes its limited appeal.
The camera has a battery, and once it runs out of charge, the game ends. Thus, it’s in your interest to explore and record as many things as possible in the time allowed (there are collectibles that display at the end, giving you an idea of how much of the game you just experienced). You recharge the battery by going to bed, thereby giving the camera time to charge, and then you return to the job the next night. Although given some of the horrible things you see, it’s beyond me why anyone would want to sleep in that house, but that kind of story detail is beside the point. Paranormal is about recreating the haunted house experience, and it does that exceptionally well.
The rougelike structure is a great idea. The game is quite short — about 15 minutes per playthrough — and this encourages you to play multiple times. The better you come to know the house, the scarier the game becomes because you’ll notice all the little changes around you. This can lead to some bizarre moments of delayed scares. The first time I played, I saw a statue in the yard outside my bedroom window and thought nothing of it; the second time I played, I saw that statue in my art studio and realized it had been moved to the yard. The effect was the same: tension generated by seeing inanimate objects move on their own. However, in this cause I saw it moving in reverse thanks to the “time loop” that is replaying a game. For Paranormal, this time loop enhances the horror, especially when a haunting that you’ve seen before doesn’t happen. Then all bets are off.
There’s very little story beyond the initial conceit. You can find pages of a journal at random locations that explain the origins of the ghost, but they take time to read, and I’d rather investigate the flickering lights, personally. This is as it should be. Too much story would ruin the personal nature that makes this game so scary. It’s a very intimate piece of horror; you’re the only real character. There are no additional family members, no significant other, no priest, no gypsy, no medium, no exorcist. It’s just you and the ghost.
It feels like you’re being taunted and hunted by something evil, and as more and more violent stuff happens around you, it’s hard not to take it personally. When paintings fly at you and chairs flip over in your direction, you get the sense that this entity takes personal offense to your mere presence.
Playing Paranormal is the first time I’ve ever felt hated in a game. I’ve played as lots of anti-heroes and jerks, but no other characters hate these protagonists. Disliked, yes — but never hated. I’ve played lots of horror games based on disturbing personal revelations. The town of Silent Hill is meant to be a unique personal hell for anyone who enters, but the town does this to everyone. I’m usually just some unlucky sap who stumbles into its borders. Its torture is impersonal. Not so in Paranormal. This thing just flat out fucking hates me.
Which again begs the question, why stay and record it? This is certainly a valid question, and the answer is one of the most compelling things about the game: I want to see what happens next. Story motivation isn’t necessary because the rougelike structure itself provides a kind of meta-motivation. I want to see all the hauntings, find the collectables, and explore each corner. The same ludic motivations that drive me to put 100 hours into Skyrim or to collect all the flags in Assassin’s Creed also drive me to keep reentering this house of hate. When I first realized there was an attic I was terrified to go up there, but it was empty. Now I’m both anxious and excited to go back there because I know something has to happen there, and I want to see it.
Paranormal isn’t actually released yet, but you can buy and play the beta through the digital distribution service Desura. The structure is all there in fine form, even if some animations and graphics are a little rough (though the sound is already very effective). The most interesting thing about it, though, is that I am this character. I’m motivated to record the ghost for personal reasons and that adds to personal fear Paranormal evokes. I already have undeniable proof of its existence, but I want to see what it’s capable of. I don’t care if it hates me. I want to push it further.