The Park: An Unmitigated Exposition

I bought The Park expecting an evening’s diversion from my normal activities and was not disappointed. Over the course of three hours, I ambled languorously around the perimeter of an autumnal parking lot, stumbled my way through shadow-shrouded rides and attractions punctuated by ghost-eyed halogen lights, and descended into the bowels of a multi-tiered purgatory. Nearly three hundred screenshots sit in my repository as testament to my methodical, inquisitive exploration of Nathaniel Winter’s energy factory, also known as Atlantic Island Park.

Unfortunately, that assortment of screenshots and these spoiler-filled musings on the themes present in the game’s painstakingly crafted environments are the only sort of genuine replayability on offer. To do equitable justice to the experience is to write an abbreviated review as short as the game itself while employing stock phrases to describe the game’s mechanics rather than using one’s own words.

That’s the feeling I’m left with after having spectated the story, so it’s only fair. It does not innovate or introduce anything particularly novel with the horror elements it employs. The jump scares are predictable, the pacing and presentation are inconsistent, and the deadpannish monologues transition roughly into transcendental, prosaic philosophizing. It is, at best, an expensive visit to a museum of picture and sound, one which offers insights into the twisted history of the park, its lore tie-ins to parent game The Secret World, and a fascinating artistic representation of the stages of protagonist Lorraine Maillard’s personal and social disintegration.

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For those who are quite understandably unswayed by mixed sentiments, I would recommend The Park to you if you agree with one or more of the following statements:

  1. I enjoy Funcom’s games and want to support them financially.
  2. I want the top-end neck talisman and/or serial killer chipmunk costume awarded in The Secret World for purchasing the game.
  3. I have a fabulous disposable income and no qualms about tossing it to the wind in search of an ephemeral gaming high.

If none of these ring true, I would recommend watching one of the many recorded streams of other people playing the game, reading syndicated or personal reviews, or perhaps accompanying me on an exploration of the game’s particulars with an emphasis on Lorraine’s descent into psychological purgatory, which I personally consider to be the highlight-nadir of the journey.


The game begins in a parking lot with reddish-eyed mommy Lorraine sighing after a long day of child-rearing in the local amusement park. Son Callum asks from behind a car window where Mr. Bear is. With the collective millenia of parental world-weariness weighing on her shoulders, Lorraine monotones “I don’t know – I’ll go ask information” and walks off, leaving her darling treasure in their 1970s station wagon. This seemingly simple act foreshadows the theme of abandonment that is present throughout the game. As Lorraine talks to the Ken-doll desk manager about her son’s lost toy, Callum sprints past her into the park. Callum, the Scottish form of Latin Columba, means “dove” and represents peace and purity, an anchoring point for the inner turmoil and defilement that become familiar themes later on.

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Like any responsible parent would, I took the opportunity to explore the sparsely vegetated rocks and wind-rippled grass of the parking lot while my son ran unaccompanied in a closed-for-business entertainment complex inhabited by a known serial killer in a chipmunk costume. I first walked up the road away from chirping birds and the heady lights attached to loudspeaker-ringed lampposts to see how the game handles going where you’re not supposed to; waves of increasingly thick mist rolled toward me until my screen turned completely white. “No, I still have things I need to do in the park.” I unlocked a Steam achievement for my efforts.

After wandering around for a while on the lonesome pavement – with a barren flatness that on hot summer days has haunted me since my childhood – I clomped listlessly through puddles past a familiar, mud-tracked hatchback toward the commemorative plaque that welcomes visitors. (I found it somewhat distracting that the camera moves about subtly while standing still as if to simulate natural head movement.) The design is nearly identical to that of the dedicatory plaque found on Kingsmouth Town’s Langmore Bridge (previously known as “Hangman’s Span”) and features curiously deliberate phrasing:

ATLANTIC ISLAND PARK

“A tribute to the untamed heart of Solomon Island and the people who used their talents to bring the dream of Nathaniel Winter to life. May this park be a place where joy and laughter are gathered and used to infect all those who follow after.”

This language is an artifact of the endless word play, references, and layered meanings one comes to know on Solomon Island. The “untamed heart” may be a reference to the magic sealed under the mountain in Savage Coast by the Wabanaki; “where joy and laughter are gathered” reflects the somewhat more sinister function of the park, which is used by Mr. Winter to gather energy (anima) from the happiness of children much in the manner of Monsters, Inc. (as opposed to harvesting their fear which Winter’s colleagues wanted to do); and “infect” is a playful jab at the filth (animus) that will eventually subsume Solomon Island.

I then made my way to the information desk, where the impossibly perfect manager graciously offered to let me into the park to retrieve my darling son. As he returned to the newspaper on his desk, I looked past his seemingly half-dozing figure at the objects that populated his office: detailed maps, book-lined shelves, a waste basket, filing cabinets. I thought to myself that this was a respectable homage to Kubrickian scene-setting, fine details that had been added even though they might receive nothing more than a passing glance.

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There is an exchange that is thrust upon the onlooker. Terrain and mechanical exploration are eschewed in favor of visual, linear storytelling. Even the controls are nominal: jumping is not permitted, shift lets you run instead of walk, left click interacts with selected objects, and right click interacts with Callum. That is the extent of your agency. As I entered the park, I used right click for the first time: “Callum, wait for Mommy!” The response: “Come on, this way!”

As soon as one sets foot on the escalator, there is no turning back. Lorraine begins a flat monologue about how she always returns to the park. At the mid-point of the ascent, the world turns dark and an evil laugh is heard from somewhere unseen. From that point on, I generally had better luck with sound than sight. The promotional video for the game seems to use a gamma setting in which everything is visible; I opted for a literal interpretation of the lighting instructions during the game’s introductory sequence and ended up with a “fumbling about in the dark” experience.

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In a way, this made the soft warbling sounds coming from the park’s speakers somewhat more ambient. And by ambient, I mean creepy. I passed a handful of these speakers on my way to the swan boats, the first ride of several. My silent bird companion paddled softly through a watery cave in which I was treated to an overly long shadows-on-the-wall story about Hansel and Gretel. Their mother and father want to abandon them in the forest because they have no food to eat. Woodcutting father takes them out into the forest and leaves them there. The clever children leave a trail of breadcrumbs so they can find their way back. After they’ve eaten all the food and have no more breadcrumbs left, father does it again. This time, the children come across a hungry witch while trying to find their way out of the forest. The children trick the witch into the oven in which she intended to cook them and they, instead, cook her. And then eat her, because they are ravenous little monsters.

Chad the Chipmunk, a psychotic alcoholic employee who kills people, makes a brief appearance in Story Time Tunnel. This was my first introduction to Lorraine’s fear – the distorted sound of a heartbeat pulsing and heavy breathing. You have to look in the opposite direction to see him at all, and in a way, this characterizes his role in the narrative: he is an unattractive side show.

The octotron is a multi-tentacled light show whose speed can be adjusted from full stop to annoyingly loud. Bits of information are found scattered about including a picture of Lorraine and Callum in which both of them look terrified at the sight of something; it’s as if their co-existence is one of perpetual terror. As Lorraine leaves the ride, she begins an abruptly prosaic rant in which she objectifies her infant son as a writhing red ball and muses that this life is built on a “single traitorous thought.”

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One can be forgiven for thinking that Lorraine might be referring to sex or love. This is our introduction to her all-consuming self-loathing, one that drives her to chastise herself unforgivingly for thinking that she could ever be a mother, could ever be “normal.”

Her exploration of the inactive bumper cars unfolds a scene in which she is seemingly electrocuted on the bed of a hospital table. A haywire car then comes careening over the platform and plows through a fence that guards access to a set of stairs leading up the side of a rocky hill face. As she ascends, she recalls a time when she left Callum in the car as an infant to run a brief errand. She came back to a sheriff writing a citation with a look of judgement on his face. Lorraine becomes vehemently defensive. She would rather be shot than accept help. Help is a thousand volts of lightning. (Help is a clinical hospital bed. Helps means you are a failure and everyone will judge you for it.)

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The slow rise of the Ferris wheel over mist-shrouded pine trees provides the backdrop for the tale of how she met Callum’s father. He was the only man who came into the diner that didn’t flirt with her or try to cop a feel. They went on a magical walk and made Callum that night. Three months later, he was working atop the wheel at the park when his safety strap failed and he fell to his death. “Fairy tale fucking over.”

Lorraine becomes bitter as she approaches the roller coaster. Babies steal your life. She hates people who talk about their kids like they are angels and how they are their entire world. Fuck those people – you spend nine months of your life pregnant just so you can clean up vomit and wipe asses. Callum owes her everything and it would serve the little fuck right if she were to leave him here. This marks the sharp objectification of what has thus far been a largely subjective experience; Lorraine’s mental deterioration derives in part from losing her connection to context as she is deprived of a normal life by the passing of Callum’s father.

As we ride the roller coaster, the fourth wall is shattered with all the tact of the Kool-Aid Man in his prime. The disembodied voice from the escalator talks to us directly in clichés: “You and your boy are everything the park doesn’t want. You are the antithesis of what we stand for. The witch has him now. You’re a fool and always have been.” As the ride gains speed, the narrative hand-holding is dropped and we are subjected to brief flashes from a movie’s “being rushed to the delivery room of a hospital” scene. The doors have been painted with phrases: “NOT SAFE” and “I CAN TASTE YOUR DREAMS.” Callum’s birth introduces a painful mix of emotional ups and downs whose effects are still resonating; our antagonist hijacks these emotions and bends them to his will.

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Sideshow Alley begins the transition from neurotic to psychotic. It is Lorraine’s prescription pills that are the devil, their effects a bitter admission of defeat. She encounters them in the middle of a ring of quiet attractions. “Yeah, these are mine.” The world becomes a wavy, vibrant red; bizarre messages are scrawled all over the walls. A newspaper clipping is written using dictionary words and grammatically correct sentences that make little sense. Abstract prose describes Beaumont and Cassandra, two Secret World figures. Right-click: “Callum, I’m sorry” in a distorted, ethereal tone. “Don’t touch me!” is the angry response.

Callum has bruises and marks on his body, Lorraine says. He looks at her at odd moments, tosses and turns in his sleep, muttering things in languages she does not speak. She tries to ask him what is going on but he does not answer. There will be pain, she says, but in the end, Callum will understand. (My depression medication will make things worse before it makes them better.)

A corpse lies behind the cotton candy stand under the pale watch of a nightmare fuel clown face. We turn around to see Chad the Chipmunk briefly before he fades out with all the elegance of Final Fantasy 14’s texture mesh. Lorraine’s medication wears off and she returns to the pain of reality. The House of Horrors remains the only unexplored un-attraction. “The witch awaits.”

The ground floor of the House is largely forgettable. Diligent use of a discovered flashlight allows one to pierce the shroud of darkness and admire, in some places, the deft arrangement of background scenery. Gas mask-wearing vampire cut-outs toting sub-machine guns pop up from the floor limply. They are a pale foreshadowing of the crescendo of interaction that awaits us as we make our way through a place that is significantly less horrifying than the inside of Lorraine’s head. The mirrors in this place twist her image just as her illness twists her mind: they make her look like a monster, a dark and jagged reflection of the young woman we saw in the parking lot.

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Her antagonist is presumably Nathaniel Winter, the park’s owner, in the form of The Presenter from The Secret World’s yearly Samhain event. He has retreated to the House of Horrors after the park was closed down by an inspector due to the unusually large number of accidents as attested to by his personal journal entries, an internal accident report, and an official police report. He curses the dark magic that the locals believe is bound to this place – it is interfering with his plans to extract energy from children. His grand plans foiled, he latches onto Lorraine’s son and draws her ever downward as he warbles in the background incoherently or sings along sadistically to otherwise innocent childrens’ songs. “Mommy Duck said quack, quack, quack, quack…and NO LITTLE DUCKS CAME BACK.”

The real House of Horrors is a dim meander through an artistic depiction of Lorraine’s house as a reflection of her mind. We descend through the same rooms repeatedly as her condition becomes increasingly worse. Each scene holds several interactive objects; examining all of them allows us to understand what’s going on in her world. When he was still alive, Callum’s father, Donald, suggested the name Emma for a baby girl. Another Secret World reference – there, Emma is the embodiment of anima (life) essence; here, perhaps a reference to unbound happiness and joy, things that the park stands for. Things that fate has conspired to wrest away from Lorraine.

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On the first level of Lorraine’s reconstituted living space, we read a letter from her physician advising her that she is of sound mental health and no longer requires her medication. Callum has drawn her a crayon picture containing a heart and the words “I LOVE YOU.” A hard-bound science fiction novel features a breathy blurb on the rear of the dust jacket. A non-fiction novel tells the tale of starvation among migrants in the Old West. Random letters have been penned on the sticker faces of an unsolved Rubik’s cube with a marker. The static screen of a television buzzes with quiet white noise. A kitchen faucet drips softly. A shopping list features fruits, milk, and Lorraine’s prescription. The refrigerator contains food and a wine bottle. The power company has sent a form letter disconnect notice. Lorraine has been having financial troubles since Donald’s passing.

We descend.

A hand-written note from her mother rejects contact: her (alcoholic) father was a horrible man and she regrets the years she wasted with him. A form letter from Dunwich Emergency Services documents her intake for early pregnancy depression and her rapid recovery in response to electro-convulsion therapy treatment (help is 10,000 volts of electricity) combined with a prescription for medication. A letter from an attorney, Ed Stapleton, informs Lorraine that the beneficiaries of Donald’s estate are his parents. They are not receptive to Mr. Stapleton’s overtures and without legal proof of a biological relationship, they consider Lorraine to be ineligible to receive any of the moneys from Donald’s estate.

They were not married. A child out of wedlock. A single traitorous thought.

The books begin to speak to Lorraine. The slow breaking of her mind reveals new truths to her. Witness:

THE PARK IT WAS A WAIT, WAIT, WAITIN’
ON A CHILD FOR TAKE, TAKE, TAKIN’
USING JOY FOR BAIT, BAIT, BAITIN’
WHILE THEIR MOTHER’S MIND IS BREAKIN’
ANALGESIA WIN!

Medication dulls her depression and, in doing so, blunts her emotional bond with her son. Her father’s alcoholism was an uninvited companion on their journey away from her mother. The wedge that came crashing down between Lorraine and her parents as Callum grows older has proven to be his inheritance.

We descend.

A letter from Donald in which he tells her of not “being in his right mind” because he’s so far from home (the city) and working so hard. His mind is like a spring wound ever tighter, loosening a bit when he goes for drinks with the guys after work. He doesn’t want to come home to her until he’s in his right mind. Lorraine can be forgiven for not wanting another boozing father in her life – but Callum needs a father. His drawings on the walls of the room reflect this absence. He writes in crayon on a letter: “THANK YOU FOR THE WATCH WILLIAM. YOU HAVE MADE ME VERY HAPPY. CARROT.”

Descend.

The tale of starving migrants has been updated:

A long time ago, in a forest in the woods, there lived a woodcutter, his wife and his two children – a boy named Hansel and a girl named Gretel.

They were very poor and had very little to bite or sup. This story has been doctored to hide the truth from the unsuspecting public. Now, our panel of fairytale experts have uncovered compelling evidence that Hansel and Gretel were in fact eaten alive.

In this never before seen exposé read about how their parents inexpertly tried to cover it up by telling stories about a witch and a house made of candy.

All here in the pages of this SHOCKING FAKE STORY!

And then –

“I didn’t run away. Dad took me.”

Lorraine wears the Woodcutter’s Lament around her neck. It symbolizes the despair felt by Father Woodcutter in not being able to provide for his children. Lorraine is now mother and father; she has not been able to provide and has been judged for this. Her sentence: medication.

Her pills lie faithfully on the living room table every time she enters. While other objects throughout the rooms undergo subtle transformations, the instructions on the bottle never change. They are a prescription for dependency on substances, a dependency that touches everything in her life.

Descend again.

The shopping list mentions Lorraine’s prescription on every other line. Remember: more pills, tickets to Atlantic Island Park. Callum’s masterpieces bear inky handprints; rips and tears appear in the form letters. The attorney’s response has become the backdrop for a crayon drawing of Callum’s abductor: a bogeyman and his top hat, suit, and cane. The taglines on the backs of the fiction books form the ABCs of clinical, psychological victory: analgesia, basal ganglia, cerebral cortex win!

(Lorraine feels nothing when she takes her pills. The townsfolk are immobile as Chad the Chipmunk murders. The bogeyman denies his own existence and Lorraine believes it.)

The dolls lose their eyes and their clothing. Their skin becomes shiny. The lore rain beats a steady, arrhythmic drip from a kitchen faucet, threatening to madden the listener.

“The witch always wins. The woodcutter is dead. (Repeat.) All here in the pages of this BROKEN STORY!”

Descend, Lorraine.

Science fiction becomes science reality, warning of the apocalypse and global domination. (Answer us, Lorraine!)

Picture: my two best friends, Don and Laura. (Did he leave me for another woman because I was losing my mind?)  The shopping list is her prescription repeated eight, ten, twelve times. (Is that why he wouldn’t marry me?) Remember: you are alone. Nobody loves you. Callum is not who he once was. (Abused and neglected.)

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Dolls lie in the oven and hang from the ceiling. Callum’s I LOVE YOU drawings burn to ashes.

DESCEND, LORRAINE.

Form letter: “Miss Maillard, As we agreed in our meeting today, we consider you to be batshit fucking insane…” Science fiction novel: “Chad the Chipmunk – Steve Gardener – was locked away for what he did to those kids. Nathaniel Winter hasn’t been seen in years but is nowhere near Atlantic Island Park. We’ve established this. You know this!”

Blood stains walls and fragments of letters. Two corpses hang from the ceiling. A fire burns in the oven. The Rubik’s cube has solved itself and bears a grim message:

See her try. See him die. See her lie. Why?

Shopping list: “Forget: Don, Dad, Ca…not him.”

Move closer. The hanging bodies are Lorraine in sandals and a young woman in a black frock, facing opposite directions. (The witch?)

A shredded letter: “YOU WILL WATCH ME ROT.”

Doors that rattle for attention and slam shut when approached. Right click: “STOP!” Callum closes a half-open door behind him and whimpers, “don’t.”

Descend one last time.

Books, a fan, a fire, documents, candles. Nathaniel Winter’s last journal entry:

…kids broke in today.
it has been so long since I heard laughter. So very long.
I took one of them.
I couldn’t help myself.
it was fast, the others didn’t notice. I liked hearing him laugh, this boy from the academy.
I put him on a slab.
I tickled him until he couldn’t breathe.
My machines came to life, whirring in time to his gasps and shrieks.
I think this is delightful.
The change wrought in me by the machines is not yet complete.
There must be other children I can lay on my slab.

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Eyes without Sparkle, the last novel in a library of psychological abuse. Winter preys upon her fears and insecurities and uses them to convince her that what must happen next is natural and fitting. (I’m a failure as a mother. Things are better this way.)

Like the Red Sargassum Dream, like the dreams anyone has ever had about being in other places, other times, other worlds, the hum of humanity is still present somewhere down here in the multi-hued glow of these dimly lit spaces. Half-imagined sounds and fragments of consciousness build a world in which one could live in muted peace if one simply accepted being alone with eternity as the natural way of things.

Callum, wait for mommy. 

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Asleep, on the slab. (What am I doing?) Her hands are guided by the bogeyman behind her. (There will be pain, but in the end, Callum will understand.)

Good night, Callum.

It’s a story that’s told time and time again: a boy wanders off into the forest and into the mouth of a witch. In the oldest version of the story, the mother and the witch are the same person.

In this fairy tale, a boy wandered alone into an amusement park and never came back.

Fade out. Fade in. A reassuring hand rests on Lorraine’s shoulder as her head rests in hers. She looks up. The information manager sits down behind a desk. “Where did you last see Callum?” (In my heart and in my mind, I always come back to Atlantic Island Park.)

Which parts of this fairy tale were true, sweetling?