Games can be magnificent storytelling devices. There’s no doubt there’s huge potential in using the interaction and immersion inherent in games to create more engaging and intense story experiences. Whilst many such games have been written off with the moniker ‘walking simulator’ to do so is to miss the point of the broad canon we enjoy today. There’s room for AAA Blockbusters, and there’s room for two hours lost, alone in a terrifying amusement park.
Amusement parks by day are vibrant, bustling places. At night, though, one imagines they are vastly different; silent, abandoned, eerie – just as any usually busy space can be when the people leave. What better setting, therefore, for developer Funcom’s first person psychological horror The Park, which tells the tale of a single mother and her search for her lost son.
You take the role of Lorraine, a young, widowed mother as she searches an abandoned amusement park for her son, Callum, who dashed through the gates as the park was closing in search of his lost teddy. Lorraine’s an intriguing, complex character; as the game progresses you learn of her strong feelings of self-doubt and inadequacy as a parent, and of the struggles she has endured.
Lorraine’s monologues explore these themes, and strengthen your bond with her, even as the tension mounts and the park takes on a sinister tone. Lorraine’s shouts for Callum become increasingly panicked and desperate – but they do more than just highlight her growing fragility. A shout may highlight a visual clue, or Callum may respond with some cryptic reply. There are, though, no puzzles to solve or monsters to fight – this is purely about the story.
What would an amusement park be, even one as abandoned and dilapidated at this game’s Atlantic Island Park, without some rides? Each attraction – and some gate your progress through the story, so you have to ride them – adds to the tale Funcom is trying to tell. These experiences and a number of other clues help Lorraine learn more about the park’s dark past. It’s in this backstory, doled out through newspaper clippings and other written material, that the true story is told. As with the rides, much of this exposition gates your progress, forcing you to learn of the tragic history of Atlantic Island Park and, in doing so, learn of some of the horrors you are yet to face.
In these moments the story is at its strongest, feeding not only Lorraine’s paranoia but your own growing sense of apprehension. You begin to look for shapes in the shadows, become hyper aware of anything out of place and any sound the source of which you can’t pinpoint immediately quickens the pulse.
Less successful is the reliance on more overt horror tropes – spooky carnival jump scares might keep you on the edge of your seat, but only serve to undo the eerie atmosphere that exploration of the dilapidated park and rides have conjured up.
The Park is a short game, just two to three hours long; Funcom’s aim is to tell a ghost story of sorts – a campfire tale, but one in which you are trapped behind Lorraine’s eyes. Her panic at losing Callum only compounds her existing feelings of inadequacy as a parent and before long her paranoia sets in. It’s in these subtle moments where The Park shines – delicate use of audio to misdirect attention, the glimpse of a shadowy figure lurking in the shadows before it’s gone. Visually, The Park does all it can to convery the strange otherworldliness of the abandoned park, with subtle lighting effects throughout. The occasional glitch did little to distract.
Funcom have done an outstanding job of making Lorraine a real person with depth and character progression; a mother who’s having a tough time dealing with the impossible stress that comes from being a parent, who is angry at herself, who has moments of bitterness but also real love. Filled with an impressive atmosphere, interesting themes, and spooky places to poke around (while some of the attractions are a bit long in the tooth) The Park provides enough tension and scares to warrant a play through from any horror fan.
The Park is available now from the Xbox Store priced £10.39 (currently discounted to £9.35).
This psychological horror is at its best when you are scaring yourself, and at its worst when it's trying to scare you.
The Park is a brave, bold experiment in psychological horror – we would urge anyone who likes a horror story to not be put off by the short runtime and instead give Funcom’s story a chance.
Wonderfully atmospheric with a truly strong and interesting story, The Park is let down by its payoffs – in the form of jump scares – that just don’t match the quality of the storytelling.