The Park is unlike most survival horror games you’re likely to come across in 2016. It is a very short, contained experience that ramps up quickly and never takes the time to allow for subtlety or possible misinterpretation. It is, simply, a haunted house ride which rewards neither exploration nor reflection — a straightforward experience everyone will experience in the exact same way. In the grand scheme of things, these factors make it much less a video game than a slightly interactive horror movie with a 70 minute run-time.
Here’s the line in: you play a mother who has lost her child. You haven’t lost him to death; he just ran into an amusement park after dark and you’re chasing after him. You have a button dedicated to shouting after your awful kid.
That button is a detail I could see turning off newcomers to horror games. Who wants to be yelling needy nonsense at a character who won’t respond? The child, at most, yells “Catch me Mommy!” in response, but you can go the entire game without pressing the “yell” button and it would affect nothing. What winds up happening, as with many other design choices in this game, is that you’re driven to madness by the game’s simple functionality.
The Park delivers the horror of playing a somewhat broken-feeling game with a cinematic helplessness. You’re really just a passive viewer with the option to yell, if you want. Weirdly enough, I’d say it’s an experience worth having.
Your son boards five different amusement park rides and you follow him, as horror logic would dictate. Each ride becomes an on-rails experience where your control of your character is limited to head movements. Some of these, including a swan ride which last upwards of five minutes, feel designed to pad the game’s run time. The game also removes the ability to sprint whenever it needs to slow you down — you can’t actually catch your kid. It subjects you to internal voiceover about how evil children can be, and the diatribes will drive you insane.
The game’s world takes control away from you at important junctures in order to force an emotional pace. Imagine a slasher film where each time Jamie Lee Curtis became frightened, she could no longer move faster than a light jog. Even if The Park as a story didn’t mess me up, I’m pretty sure The Park as an interactive experience fucking hates me.
There are a number of weird homages and nods to other horror properties, especially the universe of H.P. Lovecraft; your son is literally wearing a Cthulhu t-shirt as he skips away from you. Within the park itself there’s a boogeyman character with a hook-arm, a haunted chipmunk mascot that may or may not just be a drunk park employee, and a number of notes featuring the rantings of the park’s creator and his (pretty intriguing) plan for using the park to harness the energy of the living and make himself immortal.
On top of all that, your character goes from expressing her love for her child into ranting about the energy children suck from your soul. Pair this with some visual tricks and a grab bag of jump scares (including one that got a legit “Holy Christ!” out of me) and there’s an impressive amount of horror and intrigue packed into this budget, hour-long experience.
There are also controller destroying moments, like stumbling upon a flashlight that is shining on an axe, only to discover that the game will let you pick up the flashlight and not the axe, because evidently this game haaaaaaates its player and you’ll either need to accept that relationship or forever flee The Park.
The final product is a quick, occasionally brutal horror experience that taps into a hundred tropes and a dozen kinda-horrific but rarely earned moments. Every few minutes I thought I’d run out of patience, and then just enough flourish of originality breaks through and you realize you need to see how this ends.
I’m on the treadmill and there’s a carrot on a string tricking me to run forward; except the treadmill is an unforgiving interactive experience and the carrot is phantasmagoria. I’ve played bad horror games, and this isn’t one of them. It feels broken and short and it may not be quite a game in the traditional sense, but I won’t soon forget it either, so who says games need to “fun”?