a mall near you

A Mall Near You and the Haunting Demise of Brick and Mortar Shops

The year is young, yet I have seen death in it already.

On the first weekend of January, I took the kids to a part of town with shopping arcades (mini-malls to you, I suppose). They had Christmas money to spend, and a change of scenery from the usual retail district we go to for everything felt necessary after the relentless returns of the festive period. This particular part of town has a bad rap because there are lots of grotty houses, questionable residents, and an almost eerie ability to look dull and grey on even the sunniest of days. 

For me, it was the place I used to go shopping with my Mum, where my Dad used to work, and basically the nearest place within walking distance that had decent places to go for a teenager. Yes, the grottiness was there then too, but the rows of shops along that road where the shopping arcades are were always brimming with a variety of businesses big and small. Where I lived then had a smattering of small shops, and the town center was a hilly madness that felt overwhelming by comparison. 

This place with the shopping arcades, though? It was a place where I spent a lot of time growing up. I bought cassettes and CDs by bands who would become lifetime favorites. My love of John Carpenter was grown by the DVD of The Thing I bought there. The club next door would later be the scene of many fun nights out and the resting place of several chipped-off parts of my teeth. But perhaps best of all, it had a small gaming shop once where the owner got the latest PS2 titles cheap and earlier than the big stores, so I had the exquisite joy of playing GTA 3, MGS2, Devil May Cry, Resident Evil Code Veronica X, and more days ahead of the official release.

I rarely go back there now because I live further away, and the last time I went properly was about four years ago. I know how bad the High Street can look in a world shifting deeper and deeper into the online, but it was a stark sight to see just how bad things had got.

One of the literal brighter spots

The rows of shops were pockmarked with boarded-up businesses and old haunts converted into ramshackle stores selling truckloads of tat that you just know would be gone in weeks once the majority of their stock of novelty bongs and Breaking Bad pencil toppers had sufficiently run down. The arcade was worse somehow. Several big stores had departed to be replaced by stores full of unrelated knick-knacks. Suddenly, the rose-tinted glasses of my youth were shattered as this little pocket of life I had so many memories of was now the set of Condemned 3: The Desolation (working title).

Later that day I played a short indie horror game by Diesel Rave Studios called A Mall Near You. It’s a Holiday game about a child being sent out to return gifts to a dying mall and finding some new, more appropriate gifts for the family that are the exact kind of weirdo knockoff junk that I had seen plenty of earlier that day.

It was a fine bit of happenstance that I’d picked the game for discussion in the weekly horror gaming podcast I co-host (Safe Room, if you were wondering) just after getting that reality check about my youth. Here was a game that didn’t take itself seriously, but conveyed more about the sorrowful state of brick-and-mortar stores in today’s world than I would ever have expected. It’s not an especially scary game as it tends to lean toward being silly above all else. Yet it captures a sense of how I felt going back to a place of such deep personal connection and seeing it had effectively rotted.

 In A Mall Near You, there are just a few stores left in the otherwise gargantuan Northern Hills Mall, and you can almost hear the depressing echo of what this place once was. I like to think of this as the yang to Puppet Combo’s opening to Murder House. Both deal in the corrupted, dying soul of a shopping mall, but this is less about bloody murder and more about the melancholy of seeing something once great reduced to a pile of tacky crumbs. 

The remaining workers are as ragtag as the shops they inhabit. Colorful two-dimensional cartoons in a desolate lo-fi 3D world. The only place with what looks like a healthy stock is wall-to-wall Funk Pops. Another sells Tony Soprano-branded goods, and there’s a cardboard cutout of a beloved actor you might pick up on a whim. A slim buffet of tacky nonsense.

As I went to leave, the final scene kicked in. Suddenly I’m in a dark corridor of concrete and nothing much else. My brain was trained for a scare here, and when a store clerk shows up, it seems even more likely. A mad dash for an exit ensues and upon hitting the bar of the emergency exit door, I’m greeted by the blinding grey light of the outside world, with a glimpse of the child’s parent’s car coming into view as the picture fades. A charming scene greeted me after this where all the presents I picked up were shown in a festive display. The terror of the supposed escape is now forgotten.

Nothing and nobody is actually chasing you in that final section. Instead, it’s almost as if the mall itself was trying to keep an increasingly rare customer within its concrete guts, but its attempt was futile as it had no strength to lure anyone in now. The gaudy displays, bright lights, bustling food courts, and off-brand pop hits playing over speakers are long gone. It’s a place with a death rattle. It is waiting for the inevitable end.

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