Let’s just put our cards on the table: The Park is not the single-player offering that The Secret World fans have been clamoring for since more or less the dawn of the game. But I think that’s honestly a good thing. In fact, I’ll say that the connection to The Secret World is probably the least positive aspect of The Park.
I don’t say that as someone who dislikes The Secret World; quite the opposite. I’m not an active player in any of Funcom‘s games, but I’d still consider myself a fan insofar as the company does put together interesting projects with lots of nifty bits around the edges that I can appreciate. There was never a setting in which I was not going to buy a copy of The Park because I want it to do well. But the bits of horror surrounding Atlantic Island park, those nods to the greater overarching plot of the MMO – those are diversions from the central horror, which is wholly self-contained and far more open-ended.
Because it’s a story about loss. And about the lies we tell ourselves as adults.
The high-concept gloss of the story is that central protagonist Lorraine has lost her son Callum and is searching for him on the grounds of the abandoned amusement park (pre-abandonment, naturally), but that concept gets torn to shreds within a matter of moments. You’re searching for Callum, yes, but there are obviously other forces at play here, helped not one whit by the fact that even the most cursory reading tells you that you’re dealing with an entirely unreliable narrator. It’s never made clear how much of what’s going on is genuine, how much of it is tied in with the grimy awfulness of the park itself, and how much is simply… Lorraine.
See, the player hears Lorraine’s monologue all the way through. And it’s there that the game becomes disturbing and also brilliant because Lorraine’s overwhelming narrative is of a woman stuck in a deeply uncomfortable place while thinking thoughts that any given parent will have felt, even if said parent would never act on them.
In truth, much of the game’s horror is derived simply from this. In Lorraine’s internal monologue, we hear every little bit of scathing anger that you expect from a single mother in a horrid situation. It’s about the fear and pressure of being alone, isolated, hurting, and scared, and simultaneously knowing it’s not the child’s fault whilst hating that child for it. Then you press the button to call out for Lorraine’s son, and her speaking voice is fraught with terror, trembling, almost begging for her son to return to her arms. That disconnection between words and thoughts is a powerful one, and as Lorraine’s own instabilities become clearer, you start to ask yourself where the disconnection starts and where it ends, whether or not there are truths which Lorraine herself would prefer not to admit.
And then you go deeper.
That’s not to say that the game is devoid of jump scares; while not liberally used in the game, they sprinkle the landscape hither and yon, enough to make me jump a bit in my seat even though I knew full well that the game itself is not one in which you outrun or avoid anything. But it’s a matter of atmosphere, a slow build where you fully expect for each turned corner to hold some new horror. One scare early on had me expecting, even predicting a later jump that never actually came. It was simple, it was effective, and it managed to be disturbing without being gratuitous. It lingered.
Players of The Secret World will be happy to learn a bit more of the lore behind the park leading up to its eventual closure, complete with several ominous notes that hint at the fundamentally macabre nature of the island. Whether or not Lorraine brushes up against it in any real capacity is very intentionally left open to interpretation. There’s the temptation to spoil, but for me to do so would rob the game of some of its horrors. Not twists, precisely, but calculated revelations that leave you shaken.
When I say that the connection to the existing setting is probably its weakest component, though, that’s what I mean. Those who have never played The Secret World will not be lost; those who have will get a little extra out of The Park‘s various lore tidbits. But they’re not really working on the same wavelength. It’s a bit like declaring that Cowboy Bebop takes place in the same basic universe as Firefly: You can connect the dots, but it doesn’t actually affect the individual stories much. They don’t really intersect.
And that’s fine, but as I’m reading up various bits of lore about the disasters that plagued Atlantic Island Park, I found myself almost entirely annoyed because I wanted to get back to Lorraine’s story and the fragmented bits she shows. Fryda Wolff, who plays Lorraine, is almost entirely running a one-woman show, and it’s captivating, horrifying, and riveting all the way through.
I’ve not yet seen all there is to see in the game, but part of that is because of the constraints of time to write about it. It’s a short little wisp of a thing, perhaps an hour or so if you’re focused on blowing through it, a bit longer if you really want to unpack it. And much longer if you want to play back through and pick the game down to the bones, for without spoiling anything it seems like the sort of piece I’d like to go back to, re-analyze, and really figure out. There is a vagueness there by design, and I want to see the bits I missed out on, check out the bits and bobs that are illuminated by further revelations.
Aside from its narrative issues here and there, The Park‘s main failing for some will be that it is only a game in the barest sense of the word: Most of the play is simply walking through the experience and considering. Walk around and be scared, in other words. There are no choices to be made and no real puzzles to be solved, and while there were times when the next way to go isn’t entirely clear, you can decipher it easily enough.
If you’re hoping for a game with deep and involved mechanics, you’ll be disappointed. If you’re hoping for something scary, you’ll be satisfied, especially if you fancy the idea of dealing with adult fears such as losing your child and simmering parental resentment. If you want to get some gewgaws for The Secret World and pick up a bit of lore along the way, well, you are definitely the target audience.
And if you like the idea behind it and Funcom as a studio, I’d recommend picking it up. Whatever failings The Park has don’t change the fact that it’s an experiment that I would like to see repeated, a quick horror experience that stays exactly as long as it wants to and managed to disturb me in ways that I hadn’t expected. I had feared cheap jumps and gore, but the disturbing ideas in the game and the questions raised without answers will linger long beyond the few surprise appearances of the game.
Play it in the dark with headphones, as it recommends. And don’t assume you know what’s next until the end.