Public relations is still a relatively young industry despite its dominance in everyday life. At the hands of this new medium, the world is reduced to a cacophony, and no matter where you look you find a million ads vying for your endlessly divided attention. With companies caught in a forever war with their competitors for the true currency of hungry eyeballs, marketing continues to race ahead in innovation that bears the fruit of research often difficult to distinguish from quack fringe science papers on brainwashing. How can we get people to eat more junk food? How can we get them to drink more soda? How can we convince everyone to consume more luxury goods in excess? How can we commodify more of our daily lives?
The newest entry into the Scythe Dev Team‘s game universe, Happy’s Humble Burger Barn, has found some disturbing answers. Brace yourself, Dear Reader, for you may find that Happy Cows do not necessarily produce better milk.
You open your eyes breathing heavily, a new and exciting moment of crushing anxiety set off by the prospect of yet another late night shift. After regaining your composure, you turn on the engine and start driving down the road to your destination: The Titular Burger Barn. What awaits you after a quick smoke break is a rather mundane list of busywork- switching on the lights, checking the stock, and ensuring the lobby is ready for the next batch of mindless customers.
Burger Barn is a loving re-creation of Dreamcast era aesthetics, complete with truly authentic clunky car phsyics, and it’s these initial moments that immediately set the tone for the rest of the game. The store itself has a degraded raspy graphical quality straight out of any PuppetCombo release, decorated with a sprinkling of items that all food service workers will recognize: Someone’s guitar in the back room to kill time on break, a grungy disconcerting cow mascot, generic band posters, and an alarming quantity of pests underfoot.
After you start the radio to serenade the lobby in muzak and finish your routine, you finally switch the open sign on and await your first order. You groan as the first few stream in and you get accustomed to your workflow. Burger on the grill, buns on the board, trimmings on the buns, “here’s your fries..” rinse and repeat. Aside from the occasional demand for salmon nuggets or a shake, you settle into a comfortable pace as you dish out hottish red meat on bread full of artificial ingredients, topped with what you presume to be sesame seeds.
Just as the mundane miasma begins to bore you to sleep, it’s time again to take out the trash, or rather, to have an excuse for a quick smoke break and a chance to get off the floor for a few precious minutes. After you toss the needlessly heavy and disgustingly leaky trash bags into the dumpster, you hear a noise shoot out from the Burger Barn. You dart back to the door, grumbling to yourself, only to find the rear exit locked and the lights inexplicably off. More antics courtesy of the nearby resident teens, you guess, and sprint around the front to flip everything back on, but you can’t switch off the menacing feeling in the back of your head that something isn’t quite right here. And it isn’t the bafflingly high demand for salmon nuggets.
[Key Plot spoilers ahead]
The decadent facade of the lobby’s interior, the uncomfortable grimace of the mascot, the omnipresent oppressive atmosphere of sub-par restaurant branding, hell, even the music is tacky. It continues to grate on your psyche and make the shift drag on endlessly. You just want to go home.
After several increasingly disturbing intervals which we will refrain from spoiling here, you wind up discovering that there is no Burger Barn at all- merely a staged simulation pulled right from the pages of Westworld. After finding a way to escape into the backstage, you begin to wander into the underbelly of a massive research facility drenched in menacingly expository pamphlets.
Something particularly fascinating about Burger Barn is that at this moment, Scythe Team pulls back the curtains on both the story and the graphical motifs. Washed out flat polygons with wiggly edges now find themselves defined with gritty oblique concrete edges and circa-2006 specular shader throwbacks that would make Monolith Studios blush. The world comes into focus both in metaphor and visual presentation just as you begin to call the whole experience into question, a technique that is quite possibly the new contender for a video game analog to the infamous dolly-zoom used in so many famous thriller films throughout cinematic history.
As you sit in the ruins of Paragon, in front of a taped video diary left behind by a reluctant researcher, you begin reflecting on your circumstances. You find the whole affair rather amusing really. After serving up so many burgers, you never stopped to think that you might be the cattle on its way to the slaughterhouse.
Emily Rose is an indie developer who writes for rebind.io and resides in the pacific northwest. She’s often seen in the local VR arcade and developer community participating in pushing the medium’s horizons. You can find her on twitter @caravanmalice