The rise of the narrative adventure presents fresh challenges for both developers and reviewers alike. The reliable old mechanical barometers of quality become less important when your only interaction with the game world is to walk through and occasionally pick things up - features that are now pre-baked into every middleware game engine, and thus nearly impossible to get wrong.
In the post Dear Esther adventure genre, the emphasis is therefore skewed heavily towards the writing of the characters, the ability to tell a coherent story through fragmented scraps and the overall visual design of the world. The Park, a stroll through a sinister theme park from The Secret World developer Funcom, is only ever partially successful.
You play as Lorraine, a young widowed mother who has brought her son, Callum, to Atlantic Island Park, the New England attraction that she used to visit as a child. The park is closed when the game begins, but Callum has lost his teddy bear and while you have a conversation with the guy in the ticket office, Callum runs back into the park to find his toy. You, of course, must now follow him and that's when the weird s*** starts to go down.
You can call out to Callum, and use his distant responses to help keep you moving in the right direction, but this is not a park you'll get lost in. It's basically a large circle and provided you keep following it round in the order the game wants, you'll find and see pretty much everything the game has to offer. And that, sadly, isn't much.
The first thing you come to is one of those swan boat rides based on Hansel and Gretel. The story chosen isn't an accident - this is a game unafraid of bashing you over the head with its themes - but the way it's portrayed is emblematic of The Park's storytelling issues.
This is barely a few minutes into the game, and you find yourself glued in place, moving painfully slowly through a lengthy voiceover retelling of an old fairy tale, brought to life through static silhouettes on the wall. There's one successfully creepy moment in here, but it's a bizarrely lifeless way to start any game - even one as non-action oriented as this.
From there, you encounter several more rides as you follow the trail and can go on them if you want. It's not really a choice though, since why play a game about a creepy theme park if you're not going to go on the rides? There's a ferris wheel, a rollercoaster, some bumper cars and one of those undulating plane rides that go round and round, up and down. Each one triggers a canned animation, accompanied by distractingly ornate narration from Lorraine.
"Treachery hides in thoughts. Treachery that lashes like a whip and scars our insides," she muses at one point. "Stories are told again and again and from their shape we build our understanding of the world" goes another mealy-mouthed example. These aren't the private thoughts of a mother desperately searching for her son, but the words of writers trying to impress, and it kills any chance of actually identifying with, or understanding, the character. It's only after getting on the ferris wheel, for example, that we learn Lorraine's husband died while working on that very same ride - yet she climbs aboard anyway, at night, alone, without hesitation or comment.
As the game progresses - a process that will take you between an hour and ninety minutes depending on your use of the run button - we start to learn that Lorraine's mental state isn't entirely stable, but she remains a frustrating cypher. Since the game literally jumps into her story right at the moment things get spooky, there's no chance to establish a baseline for her life or personality, and so rather than "getting into character" for this first-person experience, you feel constantly removed from the body you're supposed to inhabit. You're always a player, looking for the next thing to do while the developers use their unreliable narrator to dole out story chunks in thick globs.
Nor does The Park make much of an effort in terms of presentation. The environmental art is nicely done, but the location feels inert. Objects are locked in place, and the only things that move are the handful of things that need to move. Mirrors cast no reflection. You pick up a torch but it's barely used. There are no puzzles, unless you count pulling a lever a few times to stop a ride. When you do get on a ride, the game fades to black then fades back in with you in your seat, the trouble of animating this movement in first-person apparently too much to handle. Such corner cutting doesn't just make the game feel cheap, it completely breaks what little immersion the game's piecemeal story has built up. You're reminded every time that you are just a camera floating through a map.
There are a few mild jump scares along the way, but they're inconsistent, both in terms of form and function. There are notes describing a worker who turned serial killer while wearing his mascot costume. There are notes hinting at demonic intentions for the park, and supernatural significance to its location. None of this comes to anything, and much is simply easter egg lore, there for the amusement of players of The Secret World, Funcom's MMO in which Atlantic Island Park is a location. If you're not a player of that game, much of the narrative background here is superfluous.
The Park struggles as a story then, but it's also not particularly frightening. It has a creepy atmosphere, but even Scooby Doo understood that abandoned theme parks are an easy short cut to the eerie and weird. Some of the jolts are so hokey as to be laughable, and an occasionally glimpsed spectre - with his top hat and spindly limbs - looks more like he belongs in A Nightmare Before Christmas than anything genuinely disturbing.
It's only towards the end that The Park starts to become interesting, but even then it's largely because it openly rips off Kojima and Del Toro's infamous P.T. demo for Silent Hills. Summoned to the House of Horrors for the finale (where else?) you loop through the same sequence of rooms, around and down, around and down, each cycle echoing Lorraine's mental state as it spirals downwards. This is by far the most effective part of the game, borrowed though it is, and if only Lorraine had been more compellingly written and the game had allowed you to feel more of a connection with her, it could have been very powerful.
The ending itself is a massive letdown, told entirely in a cutscene that takes control from the player and wrenches you out of your first-person view. If you've studiously read every note then the resolution makes a jumbled and vague sort of sense, but it's delivered so clumsily that it's hard to feel any sense of closure. If you've just been ploughing ahead looking for scary bits, the ending will make no sense at all.
And therein lies the problem with this sort of game. You need an incredibly assured hand on the narrative wheel in order to allow the player to find and compile all the info needed, and The Park just doesn't have that confident construction. With nothing else to fall back on, you're left with a short and largely uneventful wander through disjointed moments, leaning too heavily on a predictably spooky location to do all the heavy lifting.