The Park

FBT has all the fun at the fair

In the carpark of a fun fair, single mom Lorraine realises her darling child, Callum, has left his prized teddy somewhere in the park. As she begs the attendant to let her back in, Callum dashes into the park for one more go on the rides. Lorraine follows, only to find the park now abandoned, overgrown and in disrepair. And at night....

The Park is short – two hours if you don’t rush it. But why would you? Who rushes through an empty funfair? All the rides and no lines, no annoying kids – other than the missing one – and I’ve got the place all to myself. Or do I?

The Park doesn’t feature any combat or interaction beyond clicking on events or clues, it's a walking sim, essentially in an interactive story exploring Lorraine’s single mom struggles and the park’s backstory, but the setting and the reveals are like someone constantly running icy fingers up your spine. I’m headed for literal and figurative dark places.

There is something scary about fairgrounds once it’s dark and you’re alone - all the happy, colourful images take on a creepy horror-film tone, and although it’s a popular setting for games for that reason, The Park manages to make it seem all the more unnerving because we’re a single, unprepared woman lost and alone in this place; I'm not armed, and the only thing you can do is call out to your son, which acts like a hint system, listening to his responses for direction clues, and also gives you an idea of Lorraine’s state of mind. Which isn’t good – and may not have been for a while.

The park’s backstory is revealed through fragments of newspapers and notes we find, along with safety reports on the rides and those who suffered accidents there. Eventually the park was closed after multiple deaths and the guy who played the park’s mascot, ‘Chad the Chipmunk’ refused to remove his costume and started stabbing kids instead of hugging them. Wallyworld this ain’t. It’s eerie, and we occasionally see Chad around the park, causing you to jump at cut-outs of the mascot. Or is it a cut-out? It’s also implied the funfair has a supernatural ability which it’s owner – last seen retreating into the park after it’s closure like a goth Willy Wonka - might have been trying to harness for his own nefarious ends. So, which ride we going on first!?

The first is one of those Tunnel of Love rides. I’m nervous about getting into the Swan boat; when it goes dark who am I gonna be kissing? Chad? Once on a ride you can’t escape, skip or do anything but be subjected to whatever the park has in store, but as the first experience, the Tunnel of Love is all foreplay and no, you know. We’re subjected to the story of Hansel and Gretel, and we understand the theme and impact within the first minute, but the whole ride takes five and really drains the tension, even when we see Chad in the Tunnels. But thankfully, the Tunnel of Love is just the warm up.

As Lorraine searches the dark park, her thoughts on her life, her son and her struggles start to become troubling. Lorraine’s increasingly disturbed inner monologue (understandable), is an exceptional exploration of the realities of parenthood, the frustrations, the loss of self, the judging by others at her single-mom status; Callum’s father was killed while working on the park, something Lorraine unnerving chose to recall while riding the Ferris Wheel that killed him. She’s clearly struggling and as we pass the control office, we suddenly meet some terrifying ringmaster, like a cross between a Tim Burton character and the Babadook, who claims ‘The Witch’ from Hansel and Gretel took Callum. I hope that was in her head...

We start to see the Ringmaster in every ride we take, while things that couldn’t possibly be in the park appear, as well as flashes of Lorraine’s life, scenes of the accidents and deaths play out, while the park itself seems to be pushing Lorraine toward the Haunted House. As we progress, we start to question Lorraine herself – we find pills, references to her mental health, and her monologues begin to imply something sinister – or not. It’s never clear, and we’re way too busy being on edge to take it all in. Or busy playing on the rides; on the roller-coaster I glanced down and realised I wasn't alone on there. Scared the goddamn hell out of me. It’s supposed to be a *fun*fair!?

There’s also a few cheap jump-scares, one of which triggered me to play FEAR again, but for the most part what gets you is the slow creeping sense that even if this is all in Lorraine’s mind, the reality is much worse. And if this is reality, who is the Witch, does the old owner have Callum, what are the park’s magical forces? If the Ringmaster is real, Lorraine isn’t really capable of stopping him. Either way, this isn’t going to end well and Lorraine seems to know it too, becoming increasingly fraught and blaming herself. It’s intense.

The Park does have a sudden switch mid-way through (as in, about 45 minutes in) where, having finally gained entrance to the haunted house we’re forced to live through Lorraine’s worsening mental condition which builds to an almost unbearable level of tension and fear; we repeatedly enter their apartment, which with each iteration becomes more squalid and eventually bloody; seeing Callum’s cap on the bed, then on the floor with blood, letters that describe her increasingly desperate position and agitated mental state, it’s all almost too much to bear and then –

- it ends. WTF? Turns out The Park is part of Funcom’s Secret World Legends MMO, which explains some of the random references I didn’t get. Worse, the ending is only explored in SWL, which pissed me off no end. I was so into Lorraine and her struggles, her journey and the Park’s backstory. But just like everyone else, I’m not buying SWL. I did say it wasn’t going to end well, but I wasn’t expecting this.

Still, the sudden ending and super-short length aside, The Park is a wicked scary experience; even when I knew not to follow the blood trail behind the Feejee Mermaid sign, I did it anyway. The story, setting and sense of dread are exceptional and worth buying for. Like all good funfairs, I was dragged out of it kicking and screaming.