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Wot I Think: The Park

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The Park [official site] is a short horror game, a spin-off from Funcom’s MMORPG The Secret World [official site]. For as long as people have been talking about the modern myths and conspiracies of The Secret World, there has been a desire for a singleplayer experience set among its mysteries and horrors. The Park will not satisfy that craving – it’s a brief visit to one small self-contained area of that world – but I found it be an oddly engaging experience, warts and all, and hope it’s the first in a library of singleplayer stories.

In 1971, the BBC began a short-lived (and recently revived) tradition of regularly broadcast ghost stories. Rather than landing in what might be considered the obvious season of the spooks, Halloween, this was a series of Ghost Stories For Christmas. There’s a grand history of December hauntings and as is often the case with our plagiarised festive occasions, we’ve separated the supernatural scares of Winter Solstice tales into their own costumed occasions of macabre merriment and overindulgence.

I’ve always enjoyed a good ghost story and while my favourite of the BBC run is still Whistle and I’ll Come To You, which was first broadcast in May rather than December, I wish there was more in the way of festive terror. In the cinema, you can always rely on a spate of (usually) terrible horror movies around Halloween but for games we’re often starved. Occasionally a release is timed to land around the end of October, but the week leading up to the 31st is usually marked by pumpkins ‘n’ candy in-game events or add-ons rather than new horrors.

This year, Funcom have stepped to the plate with precisely the kind of short, scary experience that I wish there were more of around this time of year. That’s not to say it’s a great game – and I’ll get into that in a moment – but I’d be delighted if large studios began a tradition of spending time and resources on smaller projects of this type. The Park may be far from perfect but if Funcom were to explore other corners of The Secret World’s backstories through similar short interactive tales of terror, I’d happily go along for the ride.

Having established that I am very much on board with this kind of short-form scare ’em up, let’s get down to brass tacks. The Park tells the story of a young mother wandering through the deserted Atlantic Island theme park, searching for her lost son. It’s more walking simulator than jumpscare gauntlet, and you’ll be exploring and reflecting rather than running and hiding. Or rather, Lorraine, the player character, will be reflecting while you watch and listen.

This is very much Lorraine’s story and you’re along for the trip, hitch-hiking somewhere inside her brain and looking out through her eyes. Control is limited to walking, running and very occasionally interacting with an object in the world. There are letters and accident reports to read, as well as notes that provide information about the park and the surrounding area. Pressing the right mouse button makes Lorraine call for her son (http://knowyourmeme.com/memes/press-x-to-jason sadly, I couldn’t help but think of pressing X to Jason), an act that also causes a bubble to emanate from interactive elements in the scenery.

For the majority of its running time (I clocked an hour and a half and am pretty sure I saw everything there is to see), The Park takes the form of a tour around the facilities. A smash-up on the Dodgems, a ride through the Tunnel of Tales, a whirl on the Octotron. Each ride takes the form of an on-rails setpiece, and they act as an opportunity for a quick scare as well as some monologuing from Lorraine. None of them are spectacular setpieces but I don’t think they’re intended to be – rather, they’re pieces of the puzzle that is the actual story, and I won’t be spoiling that.

What I will say is that this isn’t the kind of ghosts and goblins chiller that you’d read to the family around a roaring fire. There are bumps in the night, monsters and killers, but the scarred heart of the horror is that of a parent who has lost her child. That it takes at least half of the running time for The Park to concentrate all of its focus on the strongest aspects of its story means that the apparitions and detours of the first half feel somewhat inconsequential by the time you’re locked into the final circular series of hauntings.

The truth is that aspects of the earlier setpieces do filter through into the finale, but I was never convinced all of the build-up was necessary. Sure, strip away the actual rides and the already brief running time would be cut down even more dramatically, but The Park is at its best when it shakes off the park and finds a more fitting setting for its exploration of emotional terrain. It’s the kind of horror story that uses place as a metaphor for mind, but the theme park as a sort of pathetic fallacy never quite worked for me.

It’s a suitable place for scares, aye, but its connections to The Secret World seem more important than its connections to Lorraine and her son. If you were wondering how important a knowledge of Funcom’s modern mythology MMORPG is to your enjoyment of The Park, fear not. I got a kick out of seeing the locations rendered anew but this is a self-contained story. There are references for those in the know but missing out on their meaning won’t leave you confused.

And if you do play The Secret World, completing The Park will unlock a couple of bonus items, including a costume that seems somewhat in bad taste given how seriously this little slice of horror takes itself. That’s probably me just being a little oversensitive though and with good reason; for all my gripes, the final third of The Park did a number on me. It spooked me, upset me and made me want to call my mum.

There’s a lot to unpack in those final moments. Whether your tolerance for narrated on-rails sequences will pull you through to the bitter end, I can’t say. There’s a retelling of Hansel and Gretel that felt like it lasted longer than the entire game, and other than the Octotron, none of the rides actually gave me the shivers (I don’t even like looking at anything that resembles an octopus and there’s murky water underneath it and then UGH).

I’ll never play The Park again, not even to show a curious spectator. It’s a short journey but not eventful enough for a repeat trip. I’m glad I have played it though because I found the final destination troubling, and somewhat inventive in its environmental and textual breakdown. The entire game, appropriately – and perhaps intentionally – feels like a ghost train. You and Lorraine are spectators to horrors, taken on a guided journey from one to the next, stripped of agency.

For all of my complaints, I’d like to see more. More explorations of the weird places that we scrap, shoot and claw our way through as we play games. More short stories. More horror. If Funcom want to flesh out their Secret World with a few more side projects, I’ll be a the front of the queue, even if I’m not convinced I’ll enjoy the ride.

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