One of my favorite genres is low-budget horror. That extends into gaming as well as film. I can’t wait to see what the next offer from Kitty Horrorshow or Connor Sherlock is, and collections of small team developers like DreadX or the yearly Haunted PS1 Demo Disc always contain gems. These are the short story collections to a AAA game’s novel. You’ll bounce off some, but others will be unique and enthralling experiences. When it comes to horror, a unique experience goes a long way, and these games usually only take an hour or two to complete. A developer founded by two Japanese brothers named Chilla’s Art is creating some of the most unique.
“The Convenience Store” is a $3 game on Steam that combines terror with the everyday, rote actions of working retail. Your character starts every night in their apartment, having to walk through an incredibly dark town to get to the shining light you can see out their window. It’s a glaringly lit convenience store. You’ll restock shelves and serve customers, but none of these take very long. Nonetheless, Chilla’s Art stacks these just enough to create the sensation of being rushed and understaffed.
Being rushed in horror is nothing new. Time constraints are a genre staple. That time constraint always has to do with survival. This evokes something escapist in nature. “The Convenience Store” goes for something more lowkey but intense: a creeping dread. Usually, that sense of dread is meant to be enjoyed more slowly. Here, it’s paired with something more identifiable than survival alone – the anxiety of rushing at work to meet too many goals. Paired with that dread, it makes for an exquisite commentary.
There’s a tension between wanting to leave because of the game’s severely creepy atmosphere vs. knowing you have to stay and work to figure out the next part of the game. It reflects the feeling of enduring a situation because it’s your job to do so, overcoming your fight-or-flight response in order to simply absorb the punishment.
Angry customers eventually give way to mysterious packages in the night and trying to chase off a ghost. There are so many core horror fundamentals that are done right. I know that every time I go in the office to peer at the security cameras, I’m exposing my unprotected back to the whole store. What’s stunning is the driving sensation that I shouldn’t run. To play the game, I have to do the job. Restocking the shelves is a frustration when a ghost keeps scattering them. Serving customers is hair-rending when you get locked in the cooler. Yet the overwhelming urge “The Convenience Store” evokes isn’t that I have to run, it’s that I have to overcome every reasonable urge to run in order to keep doing these mundane tasks.
Of course, my goal as a player is to see the game through, but it’s not to save the day or rescue anyone. That gameplay loop of progression is transformed into the experience I mentioned above: ignoring your fight-or-flight response so that you can absorb that punishment. You’re surviving to restock shelves. You’re risking your life to make sure everything’s crossed off on the manager’s checklist by the time your shift ends. Every walk through the dark town to the convenience store is filled with dread not just at the terror of the supernatural, but the idea that you’re risking your life for nothing.
“The Convenience Store” is rough in a lot of ways. With small development teams, you can often see them learning on the fly. Obtuse mechanics do aid the impression of working an inefficient retail job, but you’ll likely have seen each done more smoothly elsewhere. I often knew the solution to a puzzle, or simply what action needed to take place, but there were times when the game was less responsive or an action prompt was missing. This can create moments where you’re searching for the right angle to be able to get the game to accept an action. I did peek at a walkthrough once or twice, but I don’t feel it impacted what I came to Chilla’s Art for in the first place: atmosphere.
There are also inelegant development shortcuts. At one point, you need to get a customer five beers and a pack of cigarettes. This means going to the cooler section at the back of the store and selecting one beer – not from the cooler, but scattered on the floor in front of it. You bring them to the customer one at a time. You can pick up stacks of an items at other points, so why did I need to carry each beer one by one at this moment? Likely they didn’t have the model for more, and they didn’t have an animation for opening a cooler door.
It’s also easy to miss certain details, like a character dropping a small item. The store page on Steam says “The Convenience Store” takes about 40 minutes to play through. Mine took 100. I did go off-piste now and then, exploring extra corners and testing the game’s limits out of curiosity…but part of this was knowing a puzzle solution but needing to find the right angle to call up a prompt.
Given that the game has no save system, and if you exit out you’ll have to start over from the beginning, this means you’ll have to set aside an evening where you have a movie-length chunk of time to give it.
“The Convenience Store” is a product from a developer whose ambition outpaces their technical skill. Yet the artistic skill on show here is stellar. The mood is dark and foreboding. Every trek to the convenience store through that packed, cluttered, dark town was brimming with foreboding. I found myself regularly checking to the side and behind me, peering at the gloom to see if anything was coming out of it.
Yet the glowing oasis of the convenience store feels no safer. In the distance out your apartment window before you leave, and erupting with light the minute you cross the bridge out of your town and turn the corner, that store serves as an ebb and flow of relief and fright.
As low-budget horror movies sometimes ask us to be generous with our suspension of disbelief for choppy effects or questionable make-up, low-budget horror games can ask for us to volunteer greater patience with gameplay mechanics or a missing feature. When you’re spending $3 (closer to $2 on sale or bundled) and an hour or so to play, you’re not risking a whole lot.
I like games from lesser known developers, and those learning the ropes as they go, because these games often offer something that more established (and thus risk-averse) developers don’t. They try new ideas, or fuse disparate elements together in new ways. With fewer creative constrictions, they can find a way to bring an element of horror into another medium. They don’t know what they can’t do yet, and playing “The Convenience Store” there were moments where I thought, “They don’t know how to implement this”. It didn’t matter in the least because I was so successfully terrified in such a unique way that I can’t find anywhere else.
It’s rare that I actually get goosebumps playing a game, but this one drew me in expertly. You have to see what the next moment brings.
Chilla’s Art has 22 games on Steam and despite coming out in 2020, “The Convenience Store” is now one of their earlier entries. They’ve found modest success and you can see player reviews improving over time as they get better and more capable. I’m excited to try more, to see what it’s like when their technical abilities create more room for their considerable artistic talent. Hmm, “The Ghost Train” can’t be that scary…right?
You can buy “The Convenience Store” on Steam.
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