Don't turn off the lights

Sigh, so, I feel like every post from the past few months has contained some version of this statement, but… I’ve started writing a number of things lately, and just haven’t had the motivation or whatever to finish them. Some are daunting longer-format pieces that require research and/or illustration, others are smaller filler bits that just don’t ultimately seem worth following through with. I’m handling things pretty well during this pandemic, but… being creative and seeing even the smallest projects through to completion… it’s tough right now.

I have been consuming more media, which is good in its own way; I’ve actually been in the mood for feature length live action films, I’ve been able to do some deep dives into unfamiliar and historical animation, and I’ve had enough time to sink my teeth into extensive video games like Breath of the Wild. I could write about BotW, which I have sunk over 215 hours into so far, but that would exhaust me, bore you, and likely come across as contrarian bullshit. So I’d rather write about a spoopy lil half-hour long Ren’Py game called a pet shop after dark. I’ll drop a warning before any spoilers, but… it’s pay-what-you-want; just go drop npckc a couple of bucks and settle down in a dark room with this game that demands only three things of you: “water the plants, feed the pets, and DON’T turn off the lights.”

Two main things have made this game worthy of breaking my unintentional posting hiatus: creativity within a restricted development environment and the overall feel/experience that was imposed upon me. The latter is simple, but boring to explain pre-spoilers: despite existing in fewer rooms than fingers on one hand, there are a handful of gimmicks that are pulled off skillfully enough to make for a level of interactivity that is engaging in a subtly creepy way. The game describes itself as horror, which to me feels like a bit of a stretch, though I acknowledge everyone understands and defines genre differently. It does, however, present an almost psychological sort of creepiness very effectively through the use of clever mechanics.

This leads into the other aspect that I find not only interesting, but downright inspiring. While the primary mechanic is a thing that I have seen before, I haven’t seen it within the restrictions of the visual novel engine Ren’Py. While I maintain some semblance of a programmer and have set (and failed to make progress on) a goal to become more proficient with Lua and LÖVE in 2020, I’m personally more focused on using simple, restrictive systems to create little snippets of art right now. And while I have had fun taking a straightforward approach to this, I think the most clever moments come from subverting these systems. After yum yum you are a bread, I tried creating a game in Twine that would only allow you to advance once in a given day1. I never got around to fleshing it out, as it would have required heavy modification of Twine’s save system, but had it worked, that subversion of the system would have (hopefully, ideally) translated to an unexpected and memorable experience. I have tossed around the idea of doing something unconventional with Ren’Py, and a pet shop after dark has inspired me to revisit these thoughts.

Spoiler time!

Seriously, though, just go get the game.

I’m a sucker for time loops, which is… kind of what the game seems to be getting at? It’s not really explicitly about time, which helps the overall atmosphere, but it is about… being forced to reemerge and replay the same scenarios repeatedly. In a five-room, point-and-click setting, this sounds like it would get old quick. Yet it pulls it off well by not demanding much of the player in-game on any given ‘day’, subtly playing with shifts in dialog, and the major mechanic that I so dearly avoided spoiling above: file system manipulation. The primary earlier example of this that I can think of is OneShot, which I think has been out long enough that comparisons in this regard are hard to call spoilers. This mechanic was brilliant when OneShot pulled it off, but a pet shop after dark has demonstrated to me that there’s still room to play with the concept.

For starters, a pet shop after dark leans hard into the mechanic. Nearly as much activity is done in your file browser as in the game window. While the developers refer to the game as a visual novel, the visual presentation feels far more point-and-click adventure to me. The in-game interaction is rather static and straightforward as in a visual novel, but the game played in the file browser adds a genre-breaking element; it becomes inventory and puzzle surface. Whereas OneShot largely used this breach of the fourth wall to build atmosphere, a pet shop after dark essentially turns your file browser into a control surface.

That’s clever on its own, but it really elevates when combined with the environment it was developed in. Developing in a traditional environment, well of course you can read and write from the file system. And while this is certainly true of a visual novel as well, it isn’t intuitively so. The imposed restrictions of the medium and the tools used to work within the medium don’t feel like they should be used this way. I doubt a lot of players are consciously recognizing this, but on some level, I can’t imagine it’s as readily expected here as it is in a walkin’-around-talkin’-to-folks-and-pickin’-stuff-up game like OneShot. Which, again, not only makes for a compelling experience, it absolutely inspires the despondent creative bit of my brain.

So, to recap, over the past three months or so I’ve put about nine full days worth of time into what many seem to view as the crowning achievement of the Legend of Zelda series, a franchise that I adore. Yet the things that really blow me away and stick with me these days tend to be… small, carefully crafted, and designed to hit a unique part of my brain. In about a half hour, and for only a few bucks, a pet shop after dark succeeded at this in a way I absolutely was not expecting. If you’ve read all of this without playing it, well, I suppose the gimmick is spoiled for you, but not the puzzles themselves; go play the dang game. And who knows, maybe this will spark something in me to get me out of my creative rut. At the very least, I pulled a long-winded post out of it.

  1. The idea here was to have a branching system where you ‘play’ as a plant, growing and revealing more once per day. The only interaction would be to move forward; a choose-your-own-adventure without user choices. Ultimately this was the inspiration for you are a plant, my contribution to Sandy Pug Games’s Open Mic Aid zine. It’s almost certainly something I’ll visit again. ↩︎