Experiment: Groceries

Experiment: Groceries Weaves a Scary Atmosphere With the Smallest Things

Experiment: Groceries plays around with those oddball fears that come into our heads when we’re doing ordinary things at night. It’s filled with that creepiness you feel when walking through your house in the dark. When you walk up the stairs with the lights out. In this case it’s a late-evening grocery run. You’re here to get some food, but something about this nighttime snack run just doesn’t feel right. You’ll eventually find out your fears are well-founded, sure. Just the same, the game builds toward it by preying on those normal, everyday fears of ordinary tasks done in the dark.

You have a fairly simple mission in this game. You have to head to the grocery store and get some eats. Nothing to it. As you pull up, you’ll notice it’s fairly dark. It’s so dark that the rest of the world has been swallowed in the gloom, only leaving you and the store itself. It creates an eerie sensation as you watch your car pull up. Are you way out in the country or something? There’s lights in the parking lot, but there’s nothing out there beyond the store. It feels like you’re cut off from the world. Kinda makes your taco shopping trip feel incredibly unnerving.

What’s interesting is that you’ve already been introduced to a well-lit version of the shop. The Experiment: Groceries title screen shows the store in the early evening. You can see a well-lit parking lot, with light so bright you can make out the green grass. The city skyline is just off in the distance. You can tell that it’s nighttime, but it’s still dark out. It just feels like your average grocery store in the evening. Yes, it’s dark, but there’s plenty of lights and the world seems right all around you. The game makes this place feel very ordinary and safe on the title screen, but then takes that feeling away when you switch to the murky darkness of the in-game store. You can tell that something has changed. But what?

Experiment: Groceries

The game is already trying to make things feel off with that deeper darkness. It preys upon that same sensation you might get while walking up a hall in pitch darkness. That nagging sense that something could be creeping up on you. I find when I have even the tiniest light source, that sensation goes away. If there’s a light on down the hall, I feel instantly safer. There’s something about the unsettling promise of deep, endless black that creates this sense of danger. This game already starts to play with this by showing you the safe, normally shop at nighttime before throwing you into this all-consuming night.

Experiment: Groceries also plays upon the way that fear hits when you’re alone. I can play off my fears if there’s someone to talk to, even in a pitch-black house. When I’m by myself, my imagination starts to toy with me. That feeling gets worse in places where there’s ordinarily a lot of people. Even when it’s well-lit, I don’t like walking through empty malls. Can’t stand an empty parking lot. You can really feel your solitude and vulnerability in those moments. You wonder if there’s some sinister reason why the place is empty.

So, when you step into the store and find yourself all alone save for the cashier, it feels weird. It’s uncomfortable. Again, you wonder about why the place has no one in it. You wonder if something’s wrong. It doesn’t help that the shelves are largely barren save for an item or two. Why are the shelves empty? Was there some sort of disaster? I know it’s likely a game design choice so it’s easier for the player to grab items. My imagination starts to wonder about the reason behind the empty shelves in the quiet store, though.

Experiment: Groceries continues to toy with your imagination. I can usually dismiss darkness and solitude. I tell myself I’m just being childish. Just my imagination. That’s harder to do when something looks or feels out of place, though. Maybe it’s an item sitting somewhere I don’t remember putting it. A sound I’m not expecting. All it takes is a small, weird detail to strengthen that fear and make it harder to control. And this game starts right in with those changes during the future trips you take to the grocery store. Although admittedly, seeing a broken front door to the store feels like a good reason to be concerned.

Broken doors happen, though. People break things by accident. Doesn’t mean something bad is happening. Still, that small change – that unexpected item – makes your fear feel a bit more validated. It might be just as innocent as everything else in the lonely darkness, but what if it’s not? In this game it’s certainly an indicator of frightening things to come, but it’s also a fairly ordinary thing. Even so, the imagination starts to run wild with it, doesn’t it?

Experiment: Groceries finds new ways to toy with those paranoid thoughts. There’s trash on the floor. The food court’s chairs get messed up. But then things get weirder. Whole shelves are knocked over. The cashier’s gaze follows you no matter where you stand in the store (and her head can turn a fair bit more than it should). More and more things keep happening, and even if they’re fairly ordinary, the more of them you see, the more unsettling things become.

When the horrors hit on your final trip to the store, you feel justified in all those fears you felt up until that point. Before then, though, there weren’t really many valid reasons to be scared, were there? A little trash and some messed-up seats aren’t necessarily a sign of unnatural events. Even so, I felt like something horrifying was coming. I had this feeling that I was in danger, and all from a deep darkness, loneliness, and a bit of trash lying around. All very simple things, but used to create a fantastic, fearful atmosphere.

I don’t want to take away from the creepy turn in Experiment: Groceries, but it prepares us for that monstrous final day through using our everyday fears. It toys with small things like darkness and solitude in order to get our fears going, slowly building up atmosphere through things that probably shouldn’t be that scary. You’re just shopping at a grocery store at night! Even so, the game does a fantastic job of getting the imagination working through some simple events, and in doing so has us deeply unsettled just in time for us to find out that we were completely right to be scared.