First published on GameSpot.
Amusement parks are interesting places. Constructed for the sole purpose of amassing hordes of people there to experience excitement and joy, a park devoid of its attendees seems withered and without purpose. And yet the sad shell of an empty amusement park serves as the setting of The Park, a horror game which follows the plight of a single mother as she searches for her missing son.
It is apparent that this amusement park is unusual, with a shady past dotted by construction problems, fatal accidents, and murder. Into this creepy environment steps Lorraine, a young widow who has labeled herself a failed mother and exhibits strong feelings of self-doubt. She vocalises these via monologues that gradually reveal more of her inner conflicts as you walk around and search for her son, Callum. Your insight into Lorraine's plight deepens over time as you learn about her struggles as a mother, a process which strengthens your connection to her character. As much as she's Callum's mother, Lorraine is an individual with her own problems and insecurities. It's a different take on the complexities of parenthood and the tumultuous and sometimes contrasting emotions that develop between loved ones.
Without giving away too much, the game touches upon interesting themes on the darker side of parenting in exploring her history and motivations. The park in question originated in Funcom's The Secret World, so it may look familiar to players who have ventured into the MMORPG. As you search the park's contraptions and shadowy corners for Callum, you find evidence of an otherworldly presence. However, there is no fighting to be done and there are no puzzles to be solved here; The Park relies on the hook of its narrative and thrill of its scares to beckon you forward.
Lorraine's shouts for Callum--a key gameplay mechanic--become increasingly distressed as the search continues. Shouting highlights visual clues and sounds back with Callum's own cryptic replies, serving as the game's hint system. It's a rudimentary mechanic, and at some points the visual guidance can be inaccurate and lead to running in circles, with some highlighted clues leading to nothing. Lorraine's escalating panic comes across strongly in her cries for her Callum, selling her emotions well, but it can sometimes conflict with moments where she expresses anger and frustration. The juxtaposition of an angry and bitter monologue with her concerned cries muddles the impact of the story's tone and Lorraine's emotions.
That's not to say that The Park's story does not shine at its finest moments. The game builds anticipation effectively through the use of newspaper clippings and other writings strewn throughout. Progression is often gated by the necessity of examining these, which might seem annoying, but the benefit is that reading these materials thoroughly creates some of the game's most tense experiences. The Park's setting is creepy to begin with, but learning about its tragic backstory and seeing hints at the sinister inhabitants Lorraine is yet to encounter heighten the tension--especially so when they play with your expectations. Suddenly, the gaze of the amusement park's cute mascot seems a lot more malevolent, and I really did not want to venture behind the cotton candy stand after learning of its dark history. These discoveries also contain occasional nods to characters and events of The Secret World; a nice touch for those who have spent time with the area in Funcom's MMO.
The game's audio design is particularly effective in creating tension, with sounds ranging from the simple rustle of wind in the trees to strangely distorted carnival music befitting the dark setting. These effects and music work well with The Park's layout and environmental design, resulting in a believable replica of a real world amusement park.
Which brings us to the rides: for what is an amusement park without its rides? Each attraction brings a new experience to the table, with some being necessary to interact with to trigger story progression. However, they aren’t scream-inducing thrill rides, nor should they be--some of the game's best hair-on-end instances come in the form of its subtle moments. Misdirection from audio cues, strange figures lurking in the shadows, these moments are where The Park excels.
For a game that puts so much stock in its story, The Park's narrative is plagued by pacing issues in its second half. At one point Lorraine's mood shifts suddenly and without warning as events escalate--a marked contrast to the game's earlier pace. It's a shame, as The Park's atmosphere is as unnerving as the dilapidated attractions that populate it. The escalation feels out of place; a little too much like a quick way to tie the ends of the game together.
The Park ends in an area riddled with its loudest scares that feel cheap, which is disappointing given how atmospheric the first part of the game is. Despite its lacking final moments, The Park makes the experience of searching a haunting, abandoned amusement park feel genuinely tense. This, rather than a specific plot point, is what sticks with you after you turn off the game and return to your normal, less disturbing reality.