Transcript — Paradise Killer: A Late-Stage Dystopia
This is the transcript of a Youtube video, which can be viewed here: https://youtu.be/QYijbqLSqL8
Imagine an island, wistful and dreamlike. An island of chrome and moonlight passion and long hot summers and endless cocktails under the palm trees. Imagine a perfect sphere of ice slipping into your favourite glass, the one your old friend the bartender keeps just for you. Imagine whiskey that tastes like dark alley rendezvous and driving all night on hot tarmac. Imagine, scenic hills and giant obelisks and gold temples and [horrified scream to footage of a blood-soaked temple interior]
The society depicted in 2020’s Paradise Killer is one that long ago stepped over the edge of an abyss it’s no longer possible to climb back from. Somehow, humanity figured out how to open the cosmic door and a smorgasbord of Eldritch terrors were released into the world, and now ancient beings from beyond the stars toy with us and demonic possession is just something we all have to stay vigilant against, and you too can give your personal brand a make-over with a little help from a god or two who’ll be happy to mold you in their image. Welcome to Paradise Island 24, birthed from soul dust by the rich for the rich, where mortality doesn’t exist and a bright red skeleton is the least weird thing you’ll see during your stay here, in this lush abyss of crime and secrets where you’ll be interrogating suspects and solving a murder mystery against a backdrop of sea, sand, and the occult enchantments keeping the whole thing together.
To say there’s something terribly wrong lurking beneath the sun-drenched paradise of Island 24 seems banal. Other stories of troubled utopias usually leave that plot twist until a good way into the story. In Paradise Killer, the dark truth of the island is given to you in the opening titles — not a reveal so much as a light preamble. Yeah, the island on which you live is made possible by god-energy harvested through mass worship rituals forcibly extracted from kidnapped souls who basically live as slaves. Let’s continue-
There’s something refreshing about Paradise Killer’s acknowledgment that we’re long past the question of “what if we found out our way of life was predicated on the suffering of others” and well into “what if we all knew our way of life was predicated on the suffering of others, and we didn’t really care?” If late-stage capitalism is a fundamentally unsustainable system built on the indignities and absurdities of extreme wealth inequality powered by exploitation, I can’t think of a more grotesquely appropriate representation of this reality than Paradise Killer. Compared to Island 24, the fictional dystopias of the past look positively quaint. Soylent Green is people? Pfft, here, we use blood as currency to buy delicious cans of Tropical Demolition soda, and there’s no sinister elite cover-up to protect us from the knowledge of whose blood it is. We are the elite. We’re the goddamn Syndicate, and we know exactly what we’ve done.
With a clamor of bells that set the swallows soaring, the Festival of Summer came to the city Omelas, bright-towered by the sea. The ringing of the boats in harbor sparkled with flags. In the streets between houses with red roofs and painted walls, between old moss-grown gardens and under avenues of trees, past great parks and public buildings, processions moved.
One dystopian story, written in 1973, stands out as being especially prescient. Ursula Le Guin’s short story, The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas, opens with a scene of joy and festivity. And before I describe what comes next, the story is only four and a half pages long — it’s a super easy read and it’s available online, so I highly suggest pausing this video for a few minutes and experiencing it yourself first.
Where were we? Oh yes, a scene of joy and festivity. Trumpets blare, children dance, women pass out flowers, colourful flags twist and snap in the wind. But of course, that’s not all there is to Omelas.
In a basement under one of the beautiful public buildings of Omelas, or perhaps in the cellar of one of its spacious private homes, there is a room. It has one locked door, and no window.
In the room is a child, filthy, confused and malnourished. It does nothing but sit naked and miserable in its own excrement in the dark empty room, day after day after day. It lives on water and a half-bowl of corn meal, which is filled up hastily by people with disgusted eyes who are forbidden from talking to it.
Le Guin’s thought experiment can be read as an invitation to examine our own semi-invisible societal choices — our torture of animals to satiate our hunger for meat, the social and economic inequalities that allow some of us to flourish while others suffer terribly. But the twist that’s not really a twist is that the dark secret of Omelas isn’t really a secret.
They all know it is there, all the people of Omelas. Some of them have come to see it, others are content merely to know it is there. They all know that it has to be there…
They would like to do something for the child. But there is nothing they can do. If the child were brought up into the sunlight out of that vile place, if it were cleaned and fed and comforted, that would be a good thing, indeed; but if it were done, in that day and hour all the prosperity and beauty and delight of Omelas would wither and be destroyed. Those are the terms.
The complete and total suffering of one human being, in exchange for the happiness of thousands. It might not be as extreme as the terms of paradise on Island 24: the hard labour and blood sacrifice of the many for the luxury of a few. But as Le Guin’s narrator notes in the story of Omelas, even the most extreme and horrific evil can be rendered banal, and perhaps the most impressive achievement of Paradise Killer is that it somehow succeeds in making even this magnitude of evil seem quotidian. Another day, another slaughter ritual. That’s life, baby. Those are the terms.
It helps that, like in Omelas, Island 24 successfully keeps its underclass of citizens out of sight and mind. Eventually you’ll sneak into the Dead Zone, where a demonic event left an entire apartment block decimated and covered in…matter…but this has since been concreted over and branded a forbidden place. Here in paradise, we don’t ever have to see what we’ve really created, but we know it’s there.
At the same time that the story of Omelas asserts that there can be no paradise for some without suffering for someone else, it uses its corrupt fictional society to pose a question — what do we do when we find out about it? In Omelas, there are two types of people — those who stay and choose to pay the cost of utopia, and those who refuse.
At times one of the adolescent girls or boys who go see the child does not go home to weep or rage, does not, in fact, go home at all. Sometimes also a man or a woman much older falls silent for a day or two, then leaves home. These people go out into the street, and walk down the street alone. They keep walking, and walk straight out of the city of Omelas, through the beautiful gates.
On first read, this option seems to be the clearly morally correct one — for some reason — but it’s not exactly what you’d call a good one — even if you walk away, the child continues to suffer. There’s no dramatic trial at the end of this story where you point to the culprit and justice is done — the name of the town itself was inspired by another series of trials which famously failed to deliver justice. The story of Omelas withholds an easy solution because it acknowledges there is no easy solution to the question of how to cope with the curse of living in this troubled paradise we’ve made for ourselves.
A question Paradise Killer, on the other hand, is completely uninterested in answering, or even seriously asking. Let’s get one thing straight — there’s only one way you’re ever leaving this paradise. Once you’re in the Syndicate, you’re in the Syndicate. Your two closest friends on the island got involved in a murder plot just so they could be free, and at the end of the game you can lay out the evidence and blow them away for it with what may as well be a wink and a grin. You, Lady Love Dies, are not a good person, and you’re certainly not here to deliver justice or reform. You’re a willing and active participant in a society so heinous, you have to be reminded so by a literal demon, the trickster character that’s as close to a conscience as you’ll get in this game. At most, you can tut tut to Shinji about how messed up it all is before you get back to reconnecting with old flames — see you on the next island, Doctor — and hunting down whoever it is you’re going to murde— sorry, deliver sweet sweet justice to.
But the game doesn’t conclude when the trial does. Instead, as the survivors go their separate ways, the judge casually gives you the option to freely execute any additional people you happen to decide deserve it. You can walk right up to your former and future lover and blow him away too, if you feel like it. At this point, it’s hard not to conclude that the game is giving you options just to hammer home how equally fucked they all are.
Like the unsatisfying dénouement of The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas, Paradise Killer too ends in an exodus, one that won’t be delivering any change. The Syndicate aren’t turning their backs on the system, oh no — they’re just leaving for a new paradise, where everything will repeat, again, on the next and final island, the one they’re calling Perfect 25.
In the same year Le Guin published her dystopian short story, a researcher by the name of John B. Calhoun published his report on his Mortality-Inhibiting Environment for Mice: a utopia he designed and built in the laboratory. He’d built a paradise with abundant food, water and nesting material, not to mention space — a one-hundred square inch tank with hand-built mesh tunnels and corridors linking a total of 265 nesting boxes. As a final touch, he populated it with an elite group of healthy rodents from the National Institutes of Health’s breeding colony. No illness, no hunger, no cold, no predators. Heaven. Calhoun had been running these experiments with a variety of different habitats for years, but this one was his crowning glory. He called it Universe 25.
He started with four breeding mouse pairs, which settled in and got to business until the population was exploding, doubling every fifty-five days. After half a year or so, things started to get crowded, and then packed. Soon, prosocial behaviours diminished and all but disappeared, along with the ability of the mice to defend their territory. Senseless violence broke out, nursing females attacked their own young, and mortality soared. But even after population levels reduced to manageable numbers, the mice did not return to procreating. They were already too socially and emotionally damaged — something Calhoun called “the first death”: the spiritual death, which he made clear was the precipitating and irreversible cause of “the second death”, the death of the body, and eventually of civilisation itself. Ironically, perfection had led to social downfall.
Paradise Killer is not a tale of a fallen utopia. It’s a tale of 24. You can traipse across the island collecting grim postcards of these fallen universes and their tragicomic demises. Island 2 was destroyed by demons. Island 20 died when its mountain collapsed in on itself. Island 8 was simply…removed from history. Here, as with Calhoun’s mouse universes, every experiment in artificial abundance has, so far, come to the same conclusion: collapse is inevitable. Heaven will always become hell.
Such was the same conclusion arrived at by a run of dystopian fiction likely inspired by Calhoun’s research findings. The comparison isn’t perfect — Calhoun’s experiments, as well as the dystopian books and films that followed, were primarily tapping into fears of overpopulation, not social inequality — although in any case, the implied outcome is moral decay.
But if there’s a clear parallel to Paradise Killer, it’s this: the delusion that we can have it all, with no boundaries or constraints, will destroy us every time. Paradise is fundamentally unstable and unsustainable, and utopia cannot come without a cost. To be willing to pay that price — or to force someone else pay it for you — is to sacrifice your own humanity, die the first death, after which the second is all but inevitable. The collapse of civilisation, as society crumbles under the weight of its own contradictory nature. The paradise killer isn’t a kid with a knife, or a demon from the netherworld. It’s our own hubris in thinking we could build paradise in the first place.
Paradise Killer recognises this and yet offers us no way out of these realities, no option to pack our bags and walk away. After all, it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism, and evidently it’s easier to imagine the end of 24 worlds than the end of luxury fuelled by exploitation. And if blood rituals and demonic possession all seem a little too ridiculous to be an appropriate metaphor for the dystopia we live in, just remind yourself that hundreds of millions of us currently live in a bloodthirsty socioeconomic machine in which elderly people were recently asked to be willing to commit mass suicide by dying from a preventable disease in order to stop the economy from slowing down. Wonder what that’s gonna look like on a postcard!
I wish I could tell you there’s a secret ending which lets you smash the system, free the slaves and send this cursed paradise to the hell-void from which it came, but Paradise Killer’s most diabolical trick is that it’s not about changing the system — it’s about being part of the system. And so, its ending is as sentimental as it is uncomfortable, as hopeful as it is doomed. The trial comes to a close, everything can return to normal again, Paradise 25 awaits, see you on the next island, roll credits. As I watched the names scroll past, I thought of that ominous phrase — “back to normal” — and what it’s come to mean these last few years: a yearning for a functional and just society that never really existed, the desire to erect a wall around the gaping rifts that have swallowed so many and go back to pretending they weren’t there. A desire the true horror of which Paradise Killer takes to a blindingly obvious extreme — if this is normal, why the hell are we so desperate to return to it?
I was originally going to end the video here, on a tone of moral superiority, but that felt disingenuous. It feels important to say that Paradise Killer isn’t just berserk and comically monstrous. It’s also profoundly charming. Weeks after finishing the game and saying my goodbyes, I still can’t stop thinking about this island of whimsical whiskeys and flamboyant characters and music that makes me picture smoky red neon and headlights on the beach.
Paradise Killer is masterful in the art of seduction, of fleeting impressions and hazy recollections found in everything from a lost postcard memory, to a suggestive item description, to a tantalising snatch of synth in the distance. Its defining aesthetic is vaporwave after all, a style that, despite its obnoxious sentimentality and ironic hyper-nostalgia, has a tendency to ensnare you in spite of yourself, to make you long for an ideal past that you know never was. The game is well conscious of this. “This image reminds you of a wonderful family holiday on a beach you had. You frolicked in the sea with your siblings. You have never been to a beach.” This fantasy isn’t real, it’s fake, it’s a mirage — but be honest: do you really care?
Paradise Killer doesn’t just disgust you with the excesses of abuse and torture; it lulls you with the sights and sounds of paradise, the bittersweet heartache of nostalgia and the allure of a fantasy that promises you your better days aren’t behind you. And while I know some people refused to unsee the ugliness behind the rosy façade, and even put the game down completely — the ones who walked away from Island 24 — I wasn’t one of them. I chose to stay, a decision I’m left struggling with. I see the cracks in paradise; I yearn for paradise nonetheless. And I can’t shake the feeling that, despite everything, I will be returning to Island 24 quite soon. Maybe it’s not so easy to walk away from paradise after all. Especially not one that sounds like this.