A Mundane Nightmare
Anyone that has worked retail likely has some horror stories. Work in any store long enough, especially a major chain of some sort, and you’re bound to have an experience that is not only bad, but one that will live on as a memory that forever alters your outlook on retail work as a whole. It’s a day-in, day-out grind with low wages and even lower appreciation for the amount of work done.
Someone’s got to stock those shelves, ring up those items, and help those customers though, and so retail workers run forth as the vanguard of the service industry. Their war drums are pleasant, accessible music, and their battle cries often a variation of “how can I help you?” to the beleaguered who shop within their walls.
But in Night of the Consumers there is no reprieve, no slow days where you can relax and cut loose a little. Shelves need stocking, customers need help, and if you can’t get everything done, then you have to face your boss.
And you really don’t want to face your boss.
By utilizing a unique, off-putting aesthetic, frantic gameplay, familiar zombie tropes, and the knowable frustrations of being a retail worker the game crafts a unique, unsettling experience that while at times anxiety inducing is ultimately, of all things, relatable.
Stocking Shelves in Hell
With a very specific goal in mind developer GERMFOOD, along with some help by Breogan Hackett and MrKravin, have set about distilling all the worst parts of the retail experience into one game. Annoying customers, an overbearing boss, the jarring shock of uncomfortable and immediate social experiences, all of these things are built with deliberate purpose within Night of the Consumers. Let’s take a look at how they all serve that throughline.
A Pleasant Song for Anarchy
Most stores will have some sort of inoffensive song playing to help fill the ambience of shuffling feet, conversations, and squeaking wheels of people in big stores shopping. Here it’s no different, but with the noises customers make, and the persistent threat of their interrupting your work, the game has a tense atmosphere based on sounds alone.
When you are interrupted and forced to help them the music takes on a frantic, increasing pace that signals their growing frustration, and your impending demise, er, firing. When you get them to where they need to go though, the music jumps back to that pleasant, yet awful elevator music-like tune as though nothing was at stake.
The rest of the game thunks, crunches, and clanks with great satisfaction, with the whole game mixed to a level that even with the audio turned down, seem distressingly loud at points. Though it never reached speaker shattering levels, it creates a sense of sensory overload that communicates its anxieties with a startling efficiency.
Lofi Graphics, Hifi Fear
As another entry into the PS1 style horror genre, Night of the Consumers has suitably low poly counts, jerky animations, and pixelated, stuttering textures. But it uses these limitations to stunning effect.
Starting with your character, the game is set in a first person perspective. You only ever see your two arms which can hold and throw boxes in most situations. The character moves at a nice clip with a satisfying bob, and a sprint function that takes you to near Doom levels of ultra speed. When you are stocking shelves, a mysterious third arm appears to toss items on to shelves when you’re not avoiding customers.
Oh god, the customers. No horror anything is complete without a memorable villain, and this game has plenty. The customers of Night of the Consumers confront you right at the title screen, as shadowed, silhouetted figures banging on the glass windows of the store you work in.
For those that made their way into the building, their lurching animations evoke images of zombies, arms outstretched, tracking you down with a frantic, feral fervor. There is also something about the faces, and their low-poly models in general that barely register as human in a way that makes them all the more terrifying if you fully immerse yourself in the game’s experience.
What is worse, and more unsettling than that though, are their mouths. Most if not all of the customers have opened mouthed expressions that are at once dead-eyed and aggressive. Their heads seem perpetually tilted or modeled in a way to keep those mouths in your face as well, so that while they have your attention you can never escape them. Something about it, or just perhaps my own experiences in retail, make it so you can practically smell their breath as their text boxes yammer on and bark at you. It’s awful.
Even before you interact with them, they are unnerving and annoying, the kind of people that you wish would go away.
But they won’t.
The Impossible Mundane
Your daily task in the beginning of the game is simple: Shelves need stocking, you gotta stock them before the end of the day. However, you also have to keep your customers happy and your manager lets you know that if you put his reputation at stake, you’re getting the boot.
This ominous introduction is immediately followed by a coworker rushing into the back room after being chased by several people wanting his help, and vomiting on the floor right next to a convenient sign about sanitization. He rants about the job conditions, the mess, the customers and says that he has had enough. Hen hands you a list of tips and a map, leaves, and then you are alone. One worker, with one simple task.
Stock those shelves before closing.
It’s no surprise then to say that it won’t be that easy. After stocking your first shelf, customers begin filling the store and prowling the aisles. If they see you, they’ll hunt you down doggedly to interrupt whatever you’re doing and demand you help them. And help you must, for if you don’t they’ll report you to The Manager, which if not already obvious, is very bad for you.
While a simple loop, this game is insidious in it’s skillful execution of that premise. That fast paced sprint you have? You’ll need it to weave between aisles. Your two arms can throw boxes to distract customers, and while stocking shelves you can look left and right to make sure no unwanted attention is coming your way. One part stealth, one part action, the game builds a tension that winds itself tight and only releases a little with each completed task.
This becomes the nightmare the whole game is built upon. The never ending work, the endless stream of banal requests and inane demands customers make. The ranks of human wrecks that need everything right now and make mistakes that are now your fault. There is very little positive feedback in the game and it is clearly intentional. Once you get a rhythm down though, the game becomes an engaging, thrilling game of cat and mouse as more and more cats continue to pile in
Distilling an Experience
Much of the time, Night of the Consumers is not expressly fun to play. Though its mechanics are tight and responsive, its humor dark and witty, and its scares deeply relatable, the game grinds home its central theme: Retail work can be a hellish nightmare.
It is almost too good at its job.
But that seems to be the point. Your job isn’t supposed to feel good in Night of the Consumers. It’s exhausting, draining, and repetitive. Each encounter with a customer feels like a jump scare, and a new wrinkle as each banal request means time lost on your clock. The game is self described as “a fast paced first-person anxiety-inducing thrill ride” and it rides that description from beginning to end.
Though not for the faint of heart, Night of the Consumers is sure to delight in those seeking to spike their heart rates while trying to survive the mundane.