Ultra-Indie Spotlight Sundays – The Convenience Store | 夜勤事件
Welcome back, you wayward waifs and beautiful banshees! Thanks for tuning in to another episode of Ultra-Indie Spotlight Sundays. This week, I’m going to be breaking from the shelves of itch.io all the way to the Steam storefront. I ponied up another $3 this week to try out The Convenience Store | 夜勤事件 (I’m just calling it The Convenience Store from now on). Was it worth a half a Subway footlong (prices and participation may vary)? Let’s find out!
It’s important to view an indie dev’s work as part of a continuum. This can be hard, as we rarely regard developers in the way we do musicians or filmmakers. Most indie “devs” are actually teams, making it difficult to keep track of who did what. The contributions of one developer is obscured behind layers of labels and licensing. Even if a single person stands out as the team’s rockstar, over time teams can grow, shrink, rebrand, or vanish altogether. Is the Mojang of now even the same thing as the Mojang that Notch created? So when we do have the chance to see an individual (or in Chilla’s Art’s case two individuals) consistently deliver content, we should recognize it as the rare opportunity that it is.
Chilla’s Art is a studio composed of just two brothers from Japan (I’m assuming the Unity Asset Store is a sizeable silent partner). The duo is best known for releasing microbudget horror games at an absurd rate. They’ve delivered 10 titles to Steam in the last two years. The Convenience Store is their second game of 2020 (it’s February). Most of their games are under $5. They’ve only broken this model twice with Saphaera (not horror) and Blame Him ($15). Despite releasing 10 games in the time it would take most studios to finish 1, there has been a noticeable improvement in the quality of Chilla’s Art’s games. Say what you will about their tendency to reuse assets. What’s important is how those assets are used. Maybe the reason it’s so easy to see the improvement is that you don’t have to think back far to remember their earlier works. But I’d say that Chilla’s Art serves as a fine example of what can be accomplished when you have fanatical dedication to your dream.
Non-Wanky Game Recap:
When I tell you that The Convenience Store is a $3 Unity horror game, you should already have a pretty clear picture in your mind palace: recycled assets, a grainy visual filter, ghostly voices sobbing in the background, and a lot of slow walking. While all of these things are certainly part of The Convenience Store, it’s not like the game is without stuff to do. You play as a nameless young college girl who takes a job working the night shift at a local convenience store. Taking place over four nights, you’ll start each level by grabbing your flashlight and hoofing it across town to work. Once you get there, you’ll find your manager has left you some kind of menial task. One night you’ll take out the garbage. The next you’ll kill some rats by the dumpster. You’ll also help out a few customers as part of your normal duties. Meanwhile, the store is getting slowly more and more haunted.
It takes a minute for The Convenience Store to go full ghostly. You’ll spend most of the game bracing for scares that don’t come. I kept expecting to be chased by a ghostly figure through the streets and have to maze my way to work. Or to turn around while taking out the garbage and see a spirit right behind me. But The Convenience Store restrains itself for about 90% of the game. Even when it does go full spooky, it doesn’t devolve into a series of jumpscares.
The most common tactic in modern horror games is to throw as many scares at you as possible and hope that one of them sticks. Indie games are especially guilty of this. They only have 30-90 minutes to scare you, so they just shove in as much spooky as possible. With The Convenience Store, Chilla’s Art made the bold decision to let their game actually build tension. I never thought I’d say this, but the menial tasks of taking out the garbage and stocking the shelves made the game far scarier. By juxtaposing the real-world chores with the ghosts, it never normalizes the supernatural. A spirit is only terrifying until you figure out where it’s going to be. A monster can only chase you for so long until you’re just frustrated. Repetitive scares just become chores. Despite the fact that The Convenience Store gave me literal chores, playing the game never felt like one.
Aside from that, The Convenience Store has some pretty great audio. It’s nothing groundbreaking, but any good horror creator should be able to take the mundane and turn it spooky. By the end of The Convenience Store, you’ll be warry of the innocuous beeping of an automatic door or the whir of an automatic toilet lid (apparently that’s a thing in Japan). This also might be unintentional, but the characters’ faces are insanely unsettling. More horror games need to go for this uncanny style of slapping a photo onto a texture without care for getting it accurate.
What Doesn’t Work:
Is there some kind of automated prompt when making a Unity horror game that asks if you’d like to use a 90s VHS filter? Was there a blowout sale at Grainy Visuals R’ Us? I get it. A filter that obscures your visuals adds an extra layer of uncertainty. You’re never quite sure if what you see in the dark corners is a ghost or just a blurry bag of crispy squid. It was novel the first few times. It’s now officially overdone. I will accept it as a facet of found footage games. Outside of that, it just makes me feel like the character has really bad cataracts. At one point The Convenience Store even implements a “camera glitch” effect mid-scare, which makes no sense when I’m supposed to have just regular human eyeballs.
I’m not sure if this is also due to the filter, but at one point the outside segment became way too dark. I could generally see about 10 paces in front of me (the Unity horror equivalent of clear skies), but one of the nights I couldn’t even tell what I was touching. It wasn’t the night that was raining, either. It’s like for just one level they dropped the brightness down as low as the engine would allow them without making the screen vantablack.
How to Fix It:
I wouldn’t actually recommend Chilla’s Art goes back and changes The Convenience Store. The whole game has been designed around this visual style. They already have an option to turn it off, and it’s clear the visuals leave something to be desired. With the rate at which the duo pumps out games, they might as well just focus on the next one. If you’re going to insist on hiding your design limitations behind a filter, at least work the filter into the game’s story.
Other than that, be sure to do a bit more playtesting to make sure all of your segments are baseline playable. I almost quit when I couldn’t see in front of me. Perhaps it was just my monitor, but it’s something that could be ironed out.
It’s a rough business selling $3 indie games. You’d think that the almost nonexistent price tag would draw legions of potential buyers. Unfortunately, it often has the opposite effects. While no one bats an eye at dropping $3 on a new game, there’s also the expectation that the game will be crap. Like the bargain bin at the local mega-mart, most people just filter it out as background noise. Most people are going to scroll over The Convenience Store without ever giving it a second thought. Most people that do buy it will likely forget they own it, like an impulse purchase of gum that eventually gets melted to the bottom of your cupholder. It’s an unfitting fate for The Convenience Store. It raises the bar of a $3 Unity horror game about as high as it can go.
Perhaps it’s time for Chilla’s Art to reconsider a price bump. Just a few bucks. The $5 league. They aren’t ready for the $10-20 bracket yet (realistically the $3 bracket during a Steam sale). It might seem like faint praise, but consider how far they’ve come. Two years ago, they couldn’t even hit “mixed” reviews on their $3 Evie. With The Convenience Store, I’d happily pay twice the asking price. You two should be proud. I’m looking forward to watching you continue to grow.