Road to the IGF: Arbitrary Metric's Paratopic

Paratopic is an experience in shifting narrative and sound -- a tale filled with looming dread and mistrust in reality as the player explores three threads that connect in a nightmare world. 

This interview is part of our Road to the IGF series. You can find the rest by clicking here.

Paratopic is an experience in shifting narrative and sound -- a tale filled with looming dread and mistrust in reality as the player explores three threads that connect in a nightmare world. 

developers of the Nuovo Award and Excellence in Audio-nominated title, to

Paratopic developers Jessica Harvey, Chris Brown, and Doc of Arbitrary Metric talk about creating that broken sense of trust in reality through sound and story, how they figured out which pieces of shattered narrative to show the player, and creating an emotional journey through games. Paratopic is nominated for the Nuovo Award and Excellence in Audio categories.

Shifting storytellers

Harvey: I’m Jessica Harvey. My main roles were programming and putting together everything the player sees - characters, environments, visuals, etc.

I've been working for a very long time on a game called Tangiers. I've had some rough personal circumstances of late, and to keep going with game development, I needed Paratopic as an evening project that would keep me putting food on the table.

Brown: I’m Chris Brown, or Lazarus Audio, or BeauChaotica. I’m responsible for everything which comes out of the headphones, so the sound design and soundtrack, dialogue, ambience. We all pitched in for aspects of the design and story, too.

I worked on this little title called Paratopic last year, which was received better than I expected. That was cool. This is the first release for all of us, but I’ve been dabbling on something else with Doc for a long while, which is how I ended up on this one. My music and sound design experience prior to games was in installations for Halloween and bits of theatre, company jingles & misc contracts, live engineering, and studio stuff.

Doc: I’m Doc. I created the game world, put the team together, did design work, and wrote most of the dialogue.

I used to mod flight simulators all the time with new planes and mechanics. Eventually, I got a job doing freelance mechanical deep dives for various publications. This caught the eye of a consulting firm that hired me to work freelance for them. In my spare time, I’m working on an indie shooter with some friends, hoping to get it funded. Jess (Harvey) and I decided to make Paratopic ‘cause we needed rent.

A walking sim for walking sim haters

Doc: I’d been finding myself thinking about walking sims, and how there was such a strong negative response to a lot of them, and I thought it would be interesting to make a walking sim for people who hated walking sims. I had been wanting to polish up my skills in 3D Modeling and mapping, so I thought it would be cool to make a little walking sim as an exercise for that. I started laying out a series of vignettes that do nonviolent things with first-person mechanics. Then I tweeted about it and pinged Jess (Harvey) to see what she thought.

Harvey: I've had a whole load of ideas and concepts in the back of my head around what I'd do with both a small scale experimental game, and with the retro 3D aesthetic. Doc had some game ideas of his own, and it made sense to imbue the two of us with one another.

At the heart of it, for me, was creating a game that married low key crowd pleaser moments with periods of almost confrontational design.

On the tools used to create Paratopic

Harvey: The no money special: Unity, Visual Studio, Gimp & Blender.

Brown: Audio was produced between Reason, Audacity for formatting and quick edits, bits of hardware synth, and the default Unity audio tools.

Doc: We used some plugins too. I worked out a lot of story stuff in Twine, which we imported into Unity through something called VIDE.

Keeping the player from getting lost in a fragmented narrative

Doc: When we first started out, Jess and I sat back and discussed a lot of themes and the overall vibe of the narrative. Over time, and once we’d brought Chris (Brown) on and had moved past working out the levels on their mechanical terms, we worked out a timeline, so we knew how the events of the narrative had transpired. Then we started placing the beats together in a way that felt right to us. We were moving scenes around right up until we locked the game, really.

Harvey: While I can't speak for the others, my approach was very rhythmic. How do the beats fit together, how do we create a cogent continuity through pacing and imagery - engaging at a very non-verbal level?

This was then further tied together with repetition of form. Ensuring that there is a recurrence of color patterns, items, and shapes throughout the game.

Brown: Just following on from what Jess said, it’s about drawing those common threads through the experience as a whole, because you’ve got to walk that line between cutting around too drastically and losing consistency of tone (especially important given the short playtime) and just hitting the same beats over and over. Buffer zones are important too, IE the gas station, or the first scene in the forest by the roadside, which is a personal favorite.

Doc will tell ya all the information is there in the game for a player to piece together, and he’s right. A couple of people have basically nailed down the plot beyond a level of accuracy I thought would be possible, to be honest.

Creating emotional effect from reordering events

Doc: I don’t think a story can be successful unless the author understands what’s going on. For instance, we had a long discussion about the dome on the horizon in the forest, how to make it stand out a bit more, stuff like that. If we return to the world, the dome will be very important. That detail doesn’t play into the events of Paratopic right now, but our awareness of how everything fits together - the fact that it’s coherent on our end -allows us to be very intentional with our scene placement.

You could say that Paratopic has a story that follows a specific emotional arc - the scenes take you on a very specific journey. If they were in the order the game’s events take place in, you would have a very different emotional effect. We’re not just jumbling up scenes for the sake of things. We’re very delicately assembling our ideas to create a very natural buildup and release of tension. A big part of that is found through contrasting different scenes and characters.

On choosing the scenes that would tell Paratopic's story

Doc: I started out with verbs. Just sat down and made a list of verbs. “What are interesting things you can do in first person besides shooting?” Driving, shaving, eating, talking, photography, that sort of thing. Some of those made it in. Others didn’t. Then, I came up with a big list of vignettes, tweeted about the one that appealed to me most - starting out as a peaceful, nonviolent protagonist who is taking pictures in a forest and gets murdered - and asked Jess (Harvey) if she’d be interested in making it with me.

Harvey: We started with vignettes. A big Trello board of scene and sequence ideas alongside a skeleton of where the narrative would go. We squabbled over what scenes would serve the narrative, have appropriate impact, and were viable with the resources to hand.

Then, in response to that, we butchered the narrative skeleton to fit what sequences we had to hand.

Brown: I think the squabbles Jess (Harvey) talks about lead to some good outcomes in the end, where there remains creative tension on the meaning and execution of some key moments between ourselves, but yeah, my experience was basically just feeling it out as we went through. Most of the locations were built when I arrived, though.

Doc: As unfortunate as it was that we got Chris on the project late, I’m really glad he did, because he gives so many of the scenes impact.

A big part of the game is just brainstorming, right? Like, at one point, I suggested a bunch of scenes that sounded interesting to me, a ton of really cool things I’d love to revisit some day, but I had this single little line about “What if you were smuggling something that seemed mundane, like video tapes?” Jess really seemed to like that one, so I started thinking more about it, what it might be, and I started thinking about “first person being interrogated,” which led to the line “don’t watch the tapes,” which meant the tapes had to have some kind of effect on the viewer, which led to the TV head scene.

Eventually, it started becoming clear what the game’s timeline was, then it became an issue of balancing out what we could build, what scenes were beneficial, and how to create the most emotional impact through the placement of those scenes.

Taking the player on an emotional journey

Doc: So, waaaay back in film school, I suggested doing a long take, because we’d been learning about long takes, and the idea sounded fun. Our director loved the idea, and I, as the DP, would have to film it. Once I got to the set, I realized the proposed shot wouldn’t work; it would be super boring to watch, because it required us to film someone, handheld, walking up two flights of stairs. There’s nothing there to make that interesting. Our director insisted we do it, then locked the editor out of the editing bay to keep it in the short. We ended up coming in last place because it was incredibly boring.

I found myself thinking about what’s actually necessary in a game; do we really need to spend all our time walking from A to B just because we need to fill some time? We need the driving, because we’re trying to create that sense of restlessness and boredom that comes from a long night drive, and we need to wait for the elevator, to get across the sense of “waiting for an elevator,” but the important thing is to do design every scene with purpose.

If your scene doesn’t lead to a specific player emotion, and that isn’t organic within the flow of the overall narrative, then you shouldn’t include that scene. Too many games do stuff like “repeat this objective 3X” or “we have a boss fight because it makes sense to have a boss fight here.” Humans know stories. We’ve been perfecting this art since ancient times. We’re all attuned to good storytelling; designing a game so that each level takes the player on that specific emotional journey is the way you make a game great.

It’s not about specific cinematic techniques or anything, it’s about understanding that the bedrock of good filmmaking is the same thing as the bedrock of good game making; the player is going on an emotional journey. Doesn’t matter if it’s pure mechanics, like Tetris, or all narrative, like Paratopic. The player’s still gonna feel stuff when they click start and when they reach the game over screen.

The effects and feelings of old tech

Harvey: On a practical level, old technology never quite worked or felt right, at least from today's standards. Looking back at it, it was always slightly off-kilter.

On a spiritual level, we're left hearing echoes of the past and feeling an intuitive sense of Things That Could Have Been. A line between what was there and what we have now, of realizing the futures that have been lost. We might not verbalize that on an explicit level, but the intuition permeates us.

We've tried to tap into this. I wanted to dredge up that connection, whether experienced first hand, passively or through seeing old magazine scans and screenshots shared about on Twitter or whatever.

Brown: Looking back at the past is often hazy, and it’s hard to get a grasp on what it felt like to be there. At the time, everything is just contemporary. We got rid of some slim-line telephone recently and having not seen it in years, it was crazy seeing this object after like fifteen years and it seeming so dated, despite just being “modern” or generic the last time I laid eyes on it.

That shifting perspective can be really hard to pin down, which..I’m just spitballing, but I think that vagueness is a big deal, a very personal psychological thing for everyone which is thrown into sharp relief by how quickly the adoption->obsolescence cycle is for tech. The whole postmodern feeling which has been around, particularly online, since ~2010 has seen a big rise in nostalgic and old-tech-centric art. I think that’s what it’s about at base - looking back at the context your whole personality was washed and formed in, and realizing just how far removed it now seems. It’s quite a specific feeling. I guess it’s not new, but this is the phase of that cycle for us at the moment.

Doc: Digital technology either works or it doesn’t. Analog technology gets distorted. Changed. We lost something when we moved to technology. There’s something special in the tactility of tweaking the knob on a radio or needing to rewind a tape before returning it to the Blockbuster. For me, I wanted the game to feel analog. I wanted to deal with things that warped and changed, stuff that could decay. Binary is less interesting, too clean.

I think old visuals are unsettling because they let you fill in the gaps with your imagination. They’re impressionistic; there’s wiggle room for your creativity to go. Absolute realism grounds a game, makes it harder for the mind to wander.

Creating a fearful atmosphere in Paratopic

Harvey: You need to make things feel familiar, yet also wrong. The familiarity is crucial - it contextualizes and grounds everything. It grants us relatability and authenticity. Without it, you will almost certainly end up with just a rollercoaster of sights and sounds.

Brown: That dissonance is certainly important for Paratopic. It does depend on your goals, though. Something like Amnesia thrives on the physicality of the player within the space, the intent being to make the player feel extremely vulnerable. This comes through in their movement and interaction systems, the voice-overs and just excellent ambient audio all round which is naturally a big part of Frictional’s immersion. For us, we wanted that slightly different effect where it’s more about feeling unsettled, a bit lost, and like you’re perpetually waiting for the other shoe to drop. Anxiety, in a word. So this atmosphere was more about feeding the player contradictory information, in visuals, script, and audio.

Doc: One of the very first things I brought up in our discussions was the Raymond Chandler quote about how audiences care about the mundane. I remember a friend telling me that he felt The Exorcist was scary because it felt so grounded. Stylized horror films are always awesome - I love Eiko Ishioka’s costume design in Coppola’s Dracula, for instance - but if you really want to unsettle someone, you need to start mundane, and move from there. Mundane gives people things to know; it lets them make fundamental assumptions about how the world works. Paratopic’s photography uses familiar FPS verbs and the driving is super intuitive, so we establish a baseline and sense of understanding. Then we start introducing elements that get uncanny.

Giving players the revolver and having them load bullets, one by one, was super critical. It makes the gun feel like more than just your average video game gun. Jess and I talked about how in a game, guns are often disposable, but in a film, a single gun being introduced to a scene can cause tension; we wanted our one gun to be a course of that tension. The assassination had to feel super brutal and uncomfortable to the player. Establish comfort, then start stripping that away.

Questioning reality through music

Brown: It’s worth noting that sound design and music are two different disciplines, right? It’s important because one of the major pillars of the audio in Paratopic overall is that those two facets are deliberately blended where typically the player (or audience in other media) is privy to the delineation marked by the fourth wall. Diegetic sound happens within the dramatic space, soundtracks and accompanying themes happen outside, with the crowd.

Paratopic is a dreamlike space, and a liminal one, where bizarre and unsettling things happen with its themes. So, you’ve got this sense we’re trying to engender where the player is supposed to be unsure whether what they’re experiencing is literally happening or not. There’s a few key examples of that diegetic blending:

1 - Music blending spatially & with sound design

2 - Dialogue audio production (language, including the car radio)

3 - Ambient techniques in music

With (1), the forest scenes where birds and wind ambience are processed in the same session as the music, meaning there are overlaps in places where they have an interplay. Wind rises momentarily, so the music does as well. This is true for the Gas Station too. We also adjust the music & mix as the player moves. The Bunker shares a bassline with the overworld, but has a radically different aspect in its mood.

(2) ended up being probably the most remarked-upon aspect of the audio, which makes sense: it’s the part of the audio the player engages with most directly. I’ve written about the dialogue production in detail in a thread, but its purpose was again to confuse the brain by giving it enough to grasp hold of - pseudo-English syllables and half-words - but not enough to fully comprehend what’s being said. In Paratopic, that reinforces the feeling of a walking fever-dream, and distances the player from the weird characters they happen to meet.

(3) is me playing to my wheelhouse. I like wide-soundstage, atmospheric music which isn’t theory-complex, but with a focus on evolving sounds and chords. When Jess said “the Apartment building is in an industrial district”, I started off by creating that impression with metallic and stretched, warped ambience before laying a musical theme on top. It helps me to find a tonal bullseye for the area as well.

I also just use some common threads in music (Bunker and Assassin’s Theme share modes), and bass drones because massive low-frequency vibrations in the ground in nature are usually bad news.

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