By Ryan O'Connell Arts & Features Editor
A recent unnamed trend in the indie-horror game genre is defined by its low-poly, monster-focused design, and spearheaded by one publisher - Puppet Combo.
The publisher’s success with these popular retro themes has led to a diverse catalog from Puppet Combo. Of course, that’s assuming you consider the same search-and-escape style objectives with a different creature of the week chasing you diverse.
While Puppet Combo is undoubtedly fulfilling a niche in the market, their repetitive design philosophy has made horror genre games with PlayStation 2-style graphics something to flinch at.
Low-poly styles are now more synonymous with the amaetur game designer, the nostalgia-drunk hobbyist, or the mass-producing publisher rather than the respected developer. All thanks to Puppet Combo and a few other frankly uninspired games.
It is because of this learned bias that “Employee of the Month” left me very, very impressed.
Despite it appearing as an incredibly cliche recycle of what works - a scary monster, retro graphics, a grocery store - there’s something different about it.
Developed by Projeckt Skeleton and released September 2022, you play as an employee of The Month - a convenience store chain - who agreed to pick up the night shift. Although defined as an atmospheric survival-horror game on its store page, it’s really more of a horror comedy.
You’re thrown immediately into the high stakes action of attending to an empty store, and given a list of tasks to keep you busy: restock the DVDs and the toilet paper, and mop up a spill.
Players are quickly encouraged to familiarize themselves with a wide array of stocked items in the store, such as “Zebra Cigarettes + Filters,” a cigarette brand that will kill you in three puffs, or “Biccys,” fine biscuits farmed from Arbalanjialarotanda, New Mexico, Japan.
All of the items littering the store have a little slice of absurdist humor attached to them, encouraging players to give everything they encounter careful assessment in fear of missing a great joke.
Those great jokes are always dry and tongue-in-cheek, although somehow very refreshing.
They’re jokes that couldn’t be told anywhere but in your head - every delivery relying on your inner voice - and it starts before even getting to the title screen. On launching the game:
“WARNING: This game contains scenes.”
Not only is this curveball effectively timed, written, and communicated - it’s also an indicator of just what type of humor you’re getting into.
But it seems like anybody could write a good meta joke these days, right? Better get back to work.
After finishing your tasks, you’re called by the boss - he left another list he forgot to tell you about. Put some ice cubes in the sink, watch the employee training video, and deliver some milk to the endless void of static behind a false bottom in one of the coolers. Just like any other first job.
The power cuts as soon as you pick up the third list. Better go turn that back on.
Was that padlocked door always open?
Not only does the hilarious writing of “Employee of the Month” take the center stage, but it also does so while maintaining strong horror and adventure elements. This means that even the most horror-adverse players could still end up enjoying “Employee of the Month.”
There are legitimately startling moments, but by the first hour of playtime, it was hard not to be drawn in more by the personality of The Month than its monsters.
The story, while well-constructed, is clouded. It’s a struggle to collect all the pieces of in-game lore on the first playthrough, which detracted from the impact it had on me.
It’s hard to name something about this game I didn’t like - it’s of a good length, has competent audio design, a fine stylized look, and a functional story. Not only that, but it has great level design, puzzles, Easter eggs, and a heap of phenomenal writing.
Some might say the most important part of a game is how it looks, or even how it plays. I’d say the most important part is if it can make you feel something. And there’s no better feeling than laughing.
A: A genuine diamond in the rough