The past few years have granted me valuable perspective on the cities I live in. You live in a place long enough and all your interactions with these physical surroundings become coloured by context. That cinema isn’t just a round dome encircled by a parking lot. It’s where you’ve wasted countless hours with your friends. This apartment complex isn’t just another squat monolith. This is where you’ve slept over a few nights every month, watching shitty B-movies with friends, drinking lethal amounts of cheap Crown whisky, and eating obscene amounts of pizza.
When I came to the city, it was a terrifying place. I try to remember why that was and why that terror faded. I think roadkill might have something to do with this. I had never seen roadkill before I came to Canada, and the sight of that liquefied squirrel (it may have just as well been a rat, a raccoon, or a small dog) crept all over and inside me. I could taste its splattered brains on asphalt, feel the blood on my skin, and smell the charred fur. It was a scene of spectacular and unspeakable violence that burrowed deep under my skin. It was the first time I had encountered such brutality. I was utterly enthralled, frozen watching that squirrel (or rat/raccoon/small dog) pummeled more and more into an unrecognizable, pulpy mess of red, white and pink. There was a contradiction there that I could not place, but the image has remained with me. It is what Toronto meant to me in those early months, before I developed a relationship with the city. In those months, all I had was observation without context. This is a different city from the one I have come to know many years later and it is one I had forgotten about near completely. In the past few years, owing to a set of circumstances I doubt I need to explain, I have come to rediscover it.
This is the city that I find myself entranced by, one that was robbed of its context. That’s not a restaurant, that’s not a barbershop, that’s not a cinema, and that’s not a house. People make them these things and I could not see the people. As a child, unfamiliarity with my surroundings robbed them of context. As an adult in 2020, the scarcity of people had done the same. It was so much quieter. Could I see something true with all that noise snuffed out? Why was I so terrified of Toronto anyway? It wasn’t the people. People are the same everywhere, but cities are all different. By the time I had arrived in Toronto, I had lived in three others all over the world. Toronto alone terrified me.
When I was in middle school, and had long outgrown that fear, I witnessed another contradiction. When I first started attending, I would steal various opportunities to traipse around, and inside, the nearby high school. It was a different place full of these grown-ups (relatively speaking) and carried a certain air of mystery because it was a place I had no business being. Of course, now I understand I was severely overrating the place. Nonetheless, I would stumble onto something mystifying one evening. By this point, I had seen most of the school except for the auditorium. Granted, I didn’t know even know if this school had an auditorium, but it would have been strange if it did not. After a few minutes of absent-mindedly stumbling around the deserted premises, I found it. The massive room was dark save for lights on the stage, pointed towards the seats, entrance and me. The effect was somewhat blinding, but I could make it to the stage easily enough and step around the lights planted on the stage. Stepping behind the curtains, I could hear an odd, rhythmic squelching sound. Back here, it was completely dark and my eyes had not yet adjusted. I walked around, trying to find the source of the sound, clumsily feeling my way through the dark.
Then the sound stops. I start hearing whispers. A rectangle of blue light comes alive barely a meter from me and stares me right in the face. Then a boy’s shout and a girl’s yelp, followed by hurried footsteps darting right past me. The light coming from the curtains parting behind me is caught on metal affixed to something snakelike on the ground. It’s a belt. I had rudely and foolishly intruded upon some kind of auditorium tryst.
This kind of thing is why I walk around the city at night, and it’s what I began to see more of when its streets were deserted. These places and structures have their explicit functions that dictate our relationships with them. But at night, these are just buildings. They can be whatever I want and serve whatever purpose anyone pleases. Cities like Toronto are exercises in control and delusion, a means of managing, regulating and transforming both the natural environment and the lives in it. Their artificiality is the point, land and people honed for purpose and function. The whole thing is a dream and what I wonder now is if it was fear I felt all those years ago instead of a distinct feeling of unreality. I had stepped into a powerful, ordered fantasy constituting clean streets, shopping malls, and parking lots. But it’s not a flawless construction, and, every now and then, that subdued reality makes itself known. Blood on asphalt and afterschool indiscretions snap you awake to the real, uncontrollable natures that surround you and expose the sanitized sterility of your day-to-day for the fakery it is. You see these things at night, either because people act differently when they think they’re alone, or because you can simply notice them now, ascertain them in the absence of noise.
The past few years have made this reality much more commonplace. Indeed, much of my immediate world has seen an erosion of context and I find myself becoming inured to much of it. Robbed of their meaning and function as they are, the project of the city, and its fantasy, starts to crumble. We see them in ways we had never imagined. Seeing them like this, I cannot escape the sense that these cities are mausoleums in which we had grown too comfortable.
I’ve carried much of what I described above for much of my life in Canada, but only recently have I begun to understand what I might have been experiencing. In some small way, I think I can owe this understanding to Kaizen Game Works’ debut title, Paradise Killer. This is a game about a place, an abandoned and vacated city standing pristine even as its population numbers in the single digits. Kaizen’s approach to depicting non-player characters renders them as 2D sprites. Indeed, what colours every inch of Paradise Killer is an implacable stillness. This is technically an apocalypse scenario but this does not look like a ruin. I can identify apartments, convenience stores, museums, sewers, vending machines and barracks. The city is standing in perfect condition. It’s just not much of a city anymore. It’s not a place where people live (was it ever?), or do much of anything. Your own interactions with these environments are undoubtedly coloured by your status as the player character. Not some lowly NPC trudging to your cubicle or shuffling back to a cold bed, for you office buildings harbor secrets and intrigue, apartment complexes vantage points and launch pads from which to further explore your surroundings. Many games have made the player part of an elevated class that can interface with surroundings in ways no one else can, but these are often highly contextual. Nier and its sequel have you platforming and exploring standard urban environments, interfacing with common places in unusual ways that makes the normal surreal. However, Nier also takes place in a very visible post-apocalypse. You are exploring places that, while once familiar, now lie in ruin. They have been transformed to suit their present apocalyptic context. They’re just things, little more than stuff and matter. Paradise Killer presents a city that is immediately recognizable for what it was, but it’s not that anymore.
You begin Paradise Killer seeing the setting as a city, that is exactly what it looks like. But its structures and places are also just stuff. Lacking their assigned context, the player gives them new meaning. There are mysteries to be solved here and stories to be uncovered about the lives these people lived. I learn about the eccentricities and aberrations that peopled this place. Murder and mystery abound in paradise, accompanied by no small amount of everything real and true about what it means to be a living creature. This artificial paradise could not subdue those messy realities, even as it stood in an exercise designed to do exactly that. Post-apocalyptic settings such as Nier use their ruins to hint at the lives these people must have lived. Ruined playgrounds and amusement parks imply a kind of idyllic existence that may or may not have been the case. Paradise Killer is unique in presenting its immaculate ruins in an attempt to overwrite the realities of the people that inhabited them. Looking at this city will not give you any answers. It’s beautiful but too perfect and without feeling, almost monolithic in its adherence to a unified aesthetic. To find signs of life, you have to go investigating. Beneath the gaudy pastel and clear skies lies a municipal system that seeks to carefully harness and subsume all human proclivities into the perfectly regulated, rhythmic functioning of this paradise. But it’s fragile, and relies on everyone doing their part. Which is why this is the 24th iteration of the exact same experimental utopia which has failed 23 times prior. Falling out of step with the whole shatters the dream. In this fictional universe, it results in demonic incursions that necessitate the entire city be erased from existence before giving it another go. Your job as investigator is to find why paradise went bad this time around, find the culprits, and dispose of them before they can infect the 25th paradise with their idiosyncrasies or “criminal power”. Predictably, finding the culprit(s) does little to ensure that the so-called Perfect 25 will fare any better. It’s an ill-conceived dream existing in violation of nature. When it falls apart and the streets are deserted, you find evidence of the lives lived, each one contributing in its own way to killing this paradise. As you cotton on to how game-ified and plastic this city is, and how shallow its charms run, you stop looking at it entirely. As a player, both in and out of the fictional universe, you have little reason to care about the crime, the victims or the success of Perfect 25. You may build a case against any one of the suspects, or every single one of them. If you want guilt, you will find it. The real mystery to solve is how anyone can be an authentic human being and live to support this grotesque fantasy. If this 24th paradise is anything to go by, this is not possible. Which is why 24 fell, and why Perfect 25, and all others must. An apocalypse here is perfectly welcome. It vindicates that inescapable sensation that this city and its mechanization of life and nature is an affront. No matter how many times they try and how repugnant this vision of normalcy gets, it will always eat itself from the inside out.