Alienation: Paratopic and The Journey

Note: The following article contains major spoilers for Goodfellas, The Little Mermaid, Paratopic, and Whiplash, and a minor spoiler for Deadly Premonition.

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In life, it's the destination, not the journey, right? If you have a fulfilling job, you shouldn't focus on the day it will end; you should be happy for the time in which you can still do it. If you go on a hike, the point isn't reaching the top of the hill; it's taking in the scenery and getting the exercise. There are parallels in fiction. For a lot of stories, maybe the majority of stories, the journies in them are about the characters acquiring information, a skill, or a bond with other people, and at their final destinations, that knowledge, expertise, or relationship is put to the ultimate test. Out of that trial, the protagonist either resolves the fundamental tension in the plot or doesn't. But we do not want the resolution to be immediate, and we value the process of acquisition: the journey.

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To pick a random example, the film Whiplash is about drumming protege Andrew Neiman honing his craft. When we watch it, we don't fast-forward to the scene of Andrew blowing an auditorium away with his percussion skills; we want to see the training, pain, and humiliation he goes through so he can pull it out of the bag at the end. In the game Deadly Premonition, we play a detective called Francis York Morgan who snoops around a small rural town, looking for the murderer of an 18-year-old. We'd be unimpressed if we immediately discovered who the killer is; we find meaning in Agent York getting to know the people of Greenvale and piecing together the clues. In media studies, there are names for the environments that the main characters make their journies through and the settings that serve as their destinations. To quote Martin's Key Terms in Semiotics:

"Paratopic space is space in which the qualifying test takes place, that is, in which competence is acquired. It is contrasted with utopic space, where the decisive test takes place and the performances are carried out".[1]

In Whiplash, the classrooms where Andrew practises serve as paratopic spaces, while the theatre in which he drums for a judgemental crowd is a utopic space. In Deadly Premonition, most of the village of Greenvale, in which Agent York interviews suspects and sniffs for evidence is a paratopic space, while the community centre in which he encounters the killer is a utopic one. Utopic spaces are destinations, and if it is journies that matter rather than destinations, then we should assume that utopic spaces have no utility in fiction and that we could do away with them without losing anything. Paratopic is a 2018 experimental narrative game from Arbitrary Metric that does just that. Paratopic has a story with no utopic spaces, only paratopic ones, and it plays host to many journies but few to no destinations. Its premise is that a driver is caught stealing from their employers, and those bosses assign them the task of delivering a case of illegal VHS tapes to a drop point across the border.

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What becomes immediately apparent is that when we lose our utopic spaces, following the plot is no trivial exercise. In narratives, characters grow, and exposition occurs in destination scenes, and without them, we're left starving for knowledge of who the characters are, where they've been, and where they're going. Imagine trying to watch Little Mermaid without the scene where Ariel gets her legs or Goodfellas without the beat where the Gambinos bury Billy Batts. Without similar contextualising moments, Paratopic smash cuts between time periods and character perspectives in a disorienting blur. A non-linear narrative and a lack of body awareness further confuse us and mean audience members can come away with conflicting understandings of the events. I have my own ideas about who the protagonists of Paratopic are and what the chronology of the narrative is, but to understand where interpretations might deviate, and to parse the plot for yourself, you need to know what we're interpreting. I'm going to give you a scene-by-scene record of the events of Paratopic, and then we'll talk about what we can infer from them.

Scene 1

We sit in the dimly lit corridor of a jail, an officer telling us that we were found crossing the border with undeclared goods. The goods in question were a set of VHS tapes which the official slinks off to inspect. From the room where he does so, we see flashes of white light and hear ear-splitting noise.

Scene 2

We take control of a female hiker who watches birds pick apart a dead body on the pavement outside. The hiker receives a phone call from an affectionate acquaintance who is insistent that they must bring them "every trace" of something.

Scene 3

This shot is taken from across a table at the diner. A camera sits on the other side of the booth, and we load a revolver.

Scene 4

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Still in the restaurant, but from a new perspective, a sallow man dressed for the office tells us that we must smuggle some of those contraband tapes across the border. They imply that the job went wrong last time and that they know we crossed them in some manner. They also tell us that they've dumped the box of tapes in our apartment, but that we shouldn't watch them.

Scene 5

Holding the gun, we kick open the door to the back room of the diner. A man on the other side reacts with surprise.

Scene 6

We return home to our flat where we find a crate of VHS cassettes with the symbol of an aerial stamped on top. Stacked high in our room are boxes of marbled meat. A neighbour comes by and makes it clear that we lent them a tape before, against the best wishes of our employer. Having worn the previous video down to static, they ask for another, longingly describing it the same way an addict would a drug. She may also comment that we don't want word about "Our friends" to get out. Our character is reluctant to fill their request, but if we do, we can peer into their apartment as they watch the video and see their head peel open like an orchid.

Scene 7

This is an extended sequence in which we're driving down a city highway, the buildings looping over and over. We can turn to the passenger seat as we go which, in different moments, is empty, has the crate on it, or has the handgun sitting in it.

Scene 8

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In a convenience store, we can browse products and shoot the breeze with a cashier who is happy to talk about food purchases and aliens, which he's sure exist just across the border. He seems to have been convinced of this by a book written by a man named "Erich".

Scene 9

It's nighttime, and we stand outside a truck. In the back is a case containing the camera from the diner.

Scene 10

Suddenly, it is daytime, and we walk through a forest taking pictures of birds. On our walk, we can find a log cabin and descend a spiral staircase inside to find a secret bunker. The bunker is spacious and circular with holes in the floor and ceiling. It contains an unusual sphere with a cavity in the front as well as enormous computers fitted with myriad screens. If we turn the electricity on, a tape plays. In it, a doctor representing "The Power Company", "Algernon Caine", welcomes employees, telling them they're working towards the future and thanking them for the sacrifices they've made. An unnerving face flashes on screen at the start and end of the video. We can also find nearby shipping containers with the aerial symbol on them. At the end of the scene, a brutalist building is viewable across a canyon, sitting in the middle of nowhere. To its right is a metal dome surrounded by towering pylons.

Scene 11

More uneventful driving, mostly past tall signs that likely advertise roadside stores and eateries. We pass one of those containers.

Scene 12

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We trek closer to the brutalist building where we find the motherload of the shipping containers and throngs of squawking birds. Around the building, tall metal poles with cameras on top jut out of the ground; their lenses follow us as we move. At the top of a hill, we find a domed structure with a black humanoid standing in it. They disappear when we get close. Inside its metal frame, we see a more detailed glyph of an antenna. The second we turn around, the creature appears behind us and knocks us to the ground.

Scene 13

Yet more driving. As our trip continues into the desert, we pass some bizarre architecture.

Scene 14

Back in the convenience store again, we can chat with the clerk about local attractions. He also tells us that the electrical company that once employed many local citizens had a mysterious accident that nobody quite knows the details of and went out of business. He comments that "our friend" has finished fuelling our car, but the protagonist only responds with "Huh?". If we look outside, we can see a white-grey humanoid standing by our vehicle.

Scene 15

We arrive back at the start of Scene 5. We kill the man in the back of the diner. The room has the same antenna drawing from the domed structure scrawled on a blackboard. The desks are spilling over with tapes which we can put into a player. Most of them cause us to loop back to the moment we shot the attendant in here, but one of them jumps us to the next scene.

Scene 16

This is the continuation of Scene 1. The officer stumbles back after watching the tapes with their head turned into a television. Their body shrivels up and disappears, leaving only the TV displaying the words "Be seeing you friendo".

Scene 17

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We carry a gun up to the hill by the brutalist building. A new camera tower has grown there, with human flesh twisted around it. Sitting on the forest floor in front of it is a camera. The protagonist calls the police, reporting a killing at the structure, but refuses to give their name.

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Let me describe the background as I see it. Paratopic has two protagonists; we'll call them The Hiker and The Smuggler.[2] We know there is a player character who is not The Hiker because we find The Hiker's dead body in one scene. And we can usually tell who we are at any one time by looking at the possessions we're holding. The Hiker carries around a camera, and The Smuggler has the gun or tapes on them at all times. We know the firearm and the cassettes must belong to the same individual because both appear in the car of the person smuggling them across the border.

Aliens commission the VHS tapes that The Smuggler carries and they function as the narcotics of Paratopic's world as we know from our neighbour's reactions. The gas station clerk posited the aliens' existence, and the "Erich" from his book must be Erich von Däniken, the Swiss author famous for writing on extraterrestrials influencing human culture. We see one by the petrol pumps and another outside the concrete structure. When The Smuggler's neighbour talks about the "friends" they don't want anyone to find out about, and when the cashier mentions our "friend" outside the convenience store, they're probably referring to these invaders monitoring The Smuggler as they carry out their shipment job. The aerial glyph from the alien's lean-to is highly similar to the one we see on our case of cassettes, and that area is surrounded by cameras which are, ultimately, where tapes come from. We also hear a cacophony of birds there suggesting something unnatural is happening and cosmic meddling would explain how the tapes can have supernatural effects.

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The production of the VHSs is possible through the co-operation of The Power Company. A trail of shipping containers with the antenna icon surround both the camera-specked hillside and The Power Company bunker. The Power Company are also the only large-scale industrial operation that we learn of during the game. The inhuman face at the start and end of the organisation's video is likely a visitor from the stars, and the bizarre sphere in their subterranean lair is a probable spacecraft. All the audiovisual equipment in the building could be used to manufacture tapes, and Algernon Caine's name is a clue that the organisation are experimenting on people. It's referencing Flowers for Algernon, Daniel Keyes's novel about neurologists experimenting on a man with an atypically low IQ. The mysterious shutdown of The Power Company must have been the alien takeover.

Now, we can chart the line of distribution for the tapes: They're made at The Power Company building, possibly by the cameras. The abandoned shipping containers suggest that the extraterrestrials do or did previously attempt to disseminate these tapes by putting them on seafaring vessels. Now, they either have a different or additional distribution channel through The Smuggler. As we find the office at the diner littered with tapes, and see the aerial drawing on the blackboard there, we know that business is part of their distribution network, and the man who talks to The Smuggler about carrying the VHSs is either in league with the aliens or an alien themselves. It would explain why their features shift in that unnatural manner.

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With the background details, we can describe a plot for Paratopic: On one attempt to push these VHSs across the border, the police catch The Smuggler. The Smuggler escapes after the tapes kill the guard, perhaps through deliberate intervention by the celestial visitors. This protagonist then meets the alien ambassador in the diner who tells them not to get caught again. The Smuggler picks up the tapes from their apartment and drives them across the border. Simultaneously, someone tasks The Hiker with bringing back all evidence of the aliens that she can get her hands on. This is how, even in a vast woodland, she knows where to stumble upon the bunker. The extraterrestrials murder her for her intrusion, and she becomes a camera tower herself. That's why there's a new surveillance pole not far from where she died, and why there's her model of camera in front of it.

The Smuggler visits the base of operations for the aliens and finds The Hiker dead, reporting the incident to the police. They don't give their name because it would implicate them in the smuggling operation and in the murder they are about to commit. The pictures from The Hiker's camera inform The Smuggler of the sordid nature of the tape production, and they return to the diner with said camera which is why it sits on the other side of the table as they load their revolver. They kick open the door of the back room, and in the final scene, kill their boss, looking to put the greys' noxious operation to an end.

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There are alternate orderings for the events. For example, the scene in the jail, instead of happening at the start of the plot, may occur at the end of The Smuggler's run across the border. It could be that the prison guard's gory death is what convinces The Smuggler that the tapes actively hurt people and that they need to put a stop to their creation. It may also be that The Smuggler kills their employer before finding The Hiker and their camera. The camera could appear in The Smuggler's possession without The Hiker yet having died, and it could be The Smuggler watching one of the tapes in the back room that tells them that the aliens kill people and where to find the lean-to. Maybe they're even the one who informs The Hiker of the greys' operation and puts them to work investigating it. Either way, we can interpret the "Be seeing you friendo" message on the guard's TV to be from these beings. It could be an intimation that they know that they'll meet The Smuggler when they climb the hill with the handgun or a missive that says that even though The Smuggler has tried to cripple their supply lines, that they're still out there somewhere. In any case, it reinforces that where the term "friend" is used in the script, it likely refers to the aliens. The colloquialism "friendo" may also be playing the aliens up as murderers; it is notably used by the serial killer Chigurh in the Coen Brothers' No Country for Old Men.

A common justification for the concept that we should live for the journey and not the destination is that it lets us avoid fatalism and exist for the moment. In Paratopic, we make journies without destinations, but we don't receive either of those benefits. Worse, Paratopic's characters feel unmoored from purpose and sense, nomads living without a cause. Because even if existing in the utopic space should not be our only goal, it's the existence of utopic spaces which makes paratopic ones possible. Destinations contextualise journies, and it's only through having a goal to progress towards that progress becomes possible. In Whiplash, Miles sharpening his drumming abilities like a fine knife is entertaining to watch because we know it has the chance to lead to some showstopping thrashfest. In the Deadly Premonition scenes where York follows the clues, the idea that he could solve the mystery and confront the villain gives us a sense of hope and vicarious intelligence. Take away the possibility of the stage performance or the unmasking of the killer, and we wring meaning out of the drum training or detective work.

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In Paratopic, there's no suggestion of a purposeful finishing line for the characters to race towards, and so they can never grow personally or professionally; they can only wander aimlessly and exist for the sake of it. Arguably, the spaces of Paratopic are not paratopic spaces as much as they are non-places. Anthropologist Marc Augé coined the term non-place in his 1995 book of the same name. In the text, Augé uses the phrase "place" or "anthropological place" to refer to spaces in societies that are "relational, historical and concerned with identity". That is, they express who certain human beings are, facilitate communication between people, or else, reflect the history of a group of people. Examples of anthropological places include houses of worship, homes, and memorial areas. If a location does not fulfil these functions, then it is, in Augé's terminology, a non-place. Augé believes we are living in countries increasingly populated with non-places and describes:

"A world where people are born in the clinic and die in hospital, where transit points and temporary abodes are proliferating under luxurious or inhuman conditions (hotel chains and squats, holiday clubs and refugee camps, shantytowns threatened with demolition or doomed to festering longevity); where a dense network of means of transport which are also inhabited spaces is developing; where the habitue of supermarkets, slot machines and credit cards communicates wordlessly, through gestures, with an abstract, unmediated commerce; a world thus surrendered to solitary individuality, to the fleeting, the temporary and ephemeral".[3]

It sounds like Paratopic's carousel of diners, cars, highways, service stations, power plants, and jails. None of these places gives us any more information about the people who inhabit them, save for the aliens, nor do they let the characters express any more about themselves. Most of the places we go and conversations we have pertain to our work, from the diner where The Hiker and The Smuggler receive their mission briefings, to the forest where The Hiker must collect evidence. Even The Smuggler's home is not an anthropological space or a refuge from their job. There are no personal effects in this protagonist's apartment, it doesn't look big enough for a person to live in, and their bosses can let themselves in as they please. The two actions The Smuggler takes in their home are collecting the commodity they have to ship for their employer and talking to someone about stealing that commodity. It's because these spaces don't facilitate interaction between people, beyond making work possible, that they feel so lonely: a feature of many non-places. The Hiker is also reduced to an industrial implement. She starts as a shutterbug, taking pictures partly for evidence-gathering and partly for her hobby of birdwatching, but then the beings from space turn her into a surveillance unit, and all she can do is use her camera to churn out more goods for them.

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This is one reason why it's hard to tell who the protagonist we're playing at any one time is; each is alienated from their own identity, and by being an audience member struggling to put together character histories, we mimic people trying desperately to hang on to some barely attainable sense of self. The final lines in the game are about one of the protagonists being unable to express who they are; the 911 operator asks for their name, and they just hang up. The potential victory of The Smuggler and The Hiker is not only that they combat the VHS tape operation but that they manage to connect, even if as ships in the night, in an isolating world. In Paratopic's labour-obsessed modernism, The Cashier also proves to be an unlikely hero, not only pointing us in the direction of the aliens and The Power Company, but also being the one person who talks to us about something other than work, goods, or murder. But the convenience store and its clerk also cause us to spend a lot of time in a place of commerce. What's more, our actions and dialogue here are exemplary of how Paratopic's interactions and places are all about passing through. In a world without destinations, they have to be, and when we only use a location as a rest stop on the trip to another location, we leave no lasting mark on them; they do not become anthropological.

It's this lack of destinations that also makes it difficult to order the scenes. If your narrative does not have a set endpoint, then you can't organise its events in relation to an endpoint. Instead of having a fixed chronology, it can be unclear what order the beats take place in or even if we can apply the concept of order to them. Else, events appear to loop. Things going in circles is a recurring motif in the game. The tapes are themselves loops and can be rewound and played over; the scene where we kill our boss keeps resetting. When we drive on the motorway, the same skyscrapers go past the window again and again like we're in an episode of The Powerpuff Girls.

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We also see loops in the form of the circles that make up the game's architecture and iconography. There's the circle around the aerial on the VHS container and the alien glyph, and there's the spinning barrel of the revolver. There's the circular shape of the underground bunker, the tunnels leading into it, and the circular hole in its roof. Finally, there's a hint that The Smuggler's life is looping over. We know at the start of the game that they were previously coerced by a neighbour to give away a tape and that on a past job they disobeyed their employer, thinking they would get away with it, but were caught. In this game, The Smuggler is pressed by a neighbour to steal them a cassette, and they disobey their employers thinking they'll get off scot-free. We could interpret these events as simultaneously happening before and after each other.

In his article, Wallowing in Paratopic's Inspired Mundanity, Liam Conlon likens the tape production to an ecological life cycle. Think about this natural loop: An animal eats a plant for nutrition, the animal later dies, and its nutrients return to the Earth. Plants use those nutrients to grow, animals eat them, and so on. In Paratopic, it may be the case that the cameras write footage to tapes, the tapes attract people to the production site where they're killed by the aliens, creating more cameras, which produce more tapes. Human meat also looks to be a byproduct of the operation, emphasising how consumptive it is. We see it wrapped around the camera pole that was The Hiker, the phone operator tells us these cameras are near "the concrete meatworks", and we find boxes full of the same matter in The Smuggler's home.

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In Paratopic's world, little of consequence happens outside of the labour the characters perform, and in the real-world, companies never have a planned endpoint unless something has gone catastrophically wrong. Organisations might have individual jobs they want finishing or goals for the future, but there's no point at which a sofa store decides it's sold enough sofas and its mission is done. There's no day on which a bank becomes content at the amount of money they've stored and lent, and will close up shop. Instead, the same tasks must be completed ad infinitum for their owners because industries plan to be forever. So when The Smuggler's life is nothing but turning the wheels of an industry, it's not surprising that there's no apparent destination in their life; all they have is the recursive drudgery of employment. The long, uneventful driving sections drive home how dull their existence is.

In a world where chronology is hard to grasp or may not exist, it makes sense that people are aching for the VHSs. Conventional media has linearity, with journies and destinations, clearly-defined beginnings and conclusions. If you're watching a film or programme on tape, you can physically pinpoint the start and end. It's everything Paratopic's characters lack. The cassettes aren't a solution to their ennui. We see evidence that they're rotting them away, but they seem to occupy the role many recreational drugs do, providing a fleeting escape into feelings the characters can't attain otherwise, even if they're illicit and dangerous.

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If there is a resolution to the plight of The Smuggler, and a way to cripple the aliens' distribution network, it has to come in the form of taking a pair of scissors to the loops that govern Paratopic's waking nightmare. Whether The Smuggler and The Hiker manage this is left ambiguous. What is evident is that the invaders wish to keep The Smuggler in the loop as a means of control. If you can convince someone to repeat the same set of actions, then they become predictable, and it's easy to exert your force over them. Paratopic observes that in a world where the evil powers are reliant on everyone sticking to the pattern, deviation from routine constitutes a constructive act, and that's the act The Smuggler performs. Despite the dehumanising nature of Paratopic's spaces, they recognise a little humanity in one of the victims of the tapes and make a call to end their production.

However, if you beat Paratopic then, given its impregnable plot, you probably started the game over to try and decrypt it. When you did, one of the first dialogues you will have had with was a man telling you that he knows you acted against his organisation's interests on your last job but that he's assigning you the same mission again. Because maybe the transgression that your boss references is not an event that strictly precedes any event in the game, maybe he's talking about your phone call to the police at the end of your last playthrough. And you know that just as when you rewind a tape, the film won't play any differently, resetting the game and taking another job isn't going to change the story; the events play back the same every time. Without destinations for your journies to end in, the closest you can get to a cogent reality is an eternal, absurdist cycle of actions with no resolution, purpose, or room for departure. We need journies and destinations; anything else is hell. Thanks for reading, friendo.

Further Reading

Dream on the Screen | Paratopic by Astrid Budgor.

Notes

1. Martin, B. (2006). Key Terms in Semiotics. A&C Black (p. 141).

2. The titles in Paratopic's soundtrack use the monikers "Birdwatcher" and "Assassin", but I wouldn't treat song names as canon, and I believe the names "The Hiker" and "The Smuggler" tell you more about their roles in the plot.

3. Augé, M. (1995). Non-Places: Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernism (Translator: Howe J.). Verso (p. 77-78).

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