The Park looks like a classic first-person horror game that happens to take place in a creepy, dilapidated, deadly amusement park. It has all the horror bells and whistles, from rides that suddenly start on their own to a skeletal, shadowy figure known simply as "the boogey man." But, just like a placid lake in a haunted campground, something more lies beneath The Park's surface. Its narrative is inspired by something life-altering and terrifying.
The Park is a game about parenting.
"There are dark days when you're a parent," says Joel Bylos, The Park's creative director and father to two young girls. "There are dark things that come up sometimes. You're not prepared to deal with some of these things sometimes because people haven't even told you about them, so you're not waiting for them and they hit you like a truck. When these things happen, it's tough. Very tough. I can imagine ... if you're a single mother especially that it gets very hard."
This is where The Park's story takes off. The game stars Lorraine, a single mother who's lost her young son, Callum, after closing time at an amusement park. As Bylos explains after a 15-minute demo, The Park features simple mechanics: Lorraine can call out to Callum and pick up things like flyers, accident reports and, eventually, a flashlight. Plus, she can climb aboard every terrifying ride the park has to offer -- at her own risk, of course. But the goal is always to find Callum; as the game progresses, Lorraine's voice gets more frenzied as she becomes more worried for her son's safety.
There's more to Lorraine than her role as a fretful mother. As she searches the park, she comments on the joys of ignoring reality for a while and offers her thoughts on life, her own upbringing and the passage of time. She gives players a glimpse of a deeper, imperfect person.
"Powerful characters are appealing to gamers, but flawed characters are the most interesting ones," Bylos says. "And I think Lorraine is very interesting. She has a lot of flaws in her personality and I think there's a sympathy for her."
In one scene, Lorraine talks about the moment when she first held Callum, directly after giving birth. She remembers looking down at the bundle in her arms and thinking, "That's it?" Bylos says that line in particular resonated with other parents in his office.
"All you've been hearing your entire life is, 'the miracle of birth,' 'the wonderful moment,' 'the best thing that's ever happened,' and you feel guilty if you don't think that, in the moment, in amongst all the pain and screaming of giving birth -- it's a very messy process," he adds.
Bylos thinks about these things a lot. His wife is a psychologist who works with children and they have two girls together, ages 2 and 5. In some ways, The Park is the digital form of conversations he's had with his wife over the years -- but it's not a sermon. The Park is still a horror game at its core and some players will be able to happily ignore the nuances of its narrative. It's not a particularly gory horror experience and it's light on sudden scares, Bylos says. One attraction in the amusement park, the House of Horrors, features a few jump-scare moments as giant cardboard cutouts of rodents in gas masks pop up suddenly while Lorraine searches the dark hallways. These moments are designed to feel cheesy, not scary, Bylos says.
"I've always been a bit more Lovecraftian," he says. "This building sense that something is very, very wrong with the world or that we're insignificant. And I don't know if we've succeeded with this game; I don't know if horror fans are going to play it and be like, 'That was tripe.'"
Bylos is nervous about the way horror fans will respond to The Park because it isn't filled with jump-scares or a lineup of traditional tropes, and it doesn't feature a big, M. Night Shyamalan-style twist. It was initially an in-house tech demo built by just three people at his studio, Funcom, as the team made the switch to Unreal Engine 4. But, in August, his managers played it and asked if it could become a commercial product. Now, that small, in-house game has garnered the attention of horror fans on Twitter and established studios like Fullbright, the creators of Gone Home.
it is weird and cool. And I will play their spooky Halloween amusement park game. Fascinating seeing more studios explore this design space
— Vampire Steve Gaynor (@fullbright) October 14, 2015
The Park hits Steam on October 27th, just in time for Halloween, so Bylos will know whether his fears are founded soon enough. As for the trials that come with being a father, he'll have to live through those, just like every other parent.
"Everybody's had that dream where they fall," Bylos says. "Most people have had that nightmare where they wake up because they fell from a height -- I want that feeling from people, especially as you go through the House of Horrors, the sense that the bottom is rushing up and you just can't stop it. It's inevitable."