Saturday, December 13, 2014

Last Chance Supermarket: Control and Capitalism

Sebastian Lague’s game Last Chance Supermarket is a goofy little satire on consumption during the holiday season. It’s Christmas Eve and to make your family happy, you have to go out to purchase inexplicable numbers of printers, orange juice, cooking books, et al. But this pedestrian act of shopping quickly becomes a deadly race between shoppers to grab items before they fly off the shelves. You’re put into the high-strung perspective of an avatar who can’t stop--can’t even slow down--until every last item on his list is somehow stuffed into his cart and he’s made it to the checkout. The game raises the stakes by limiting the your control to only the direction of the shopper’s movements and limiting your spatial awareness to the first-person perspective. The speed of the character and the high probability of another shopper ramming into you around the corner creates a frenetic tension that clashes with the game’s simple but cute aesthetic, much like seeing my frenzied mother in the kitchen on Christmas Eve listening to “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” or in the mailroom scene in Ron Howard’s live-action How the Grinch Stole Christmas. Last Chance Supermarket deals with capitalistic Christmas angst much more cynically than my mother or the (super weird) adaptation of Dr. Seuss’s children’s story. For Last Chance Supermarket, the holidays end in the loss of control, the erasure of identity, and the illusion of happiness.

You steer the shopping cart with the mouse in order to get as close as possible to the items on the shelves before pressing the space bar to add them to the cart. But the avatar runs through the store indefinitely, so there’s a ridiculously small time window for you to grab anything. This means that you must mash the space bar as you run parallel to the aisle, picking up extraneous items in order to make sure you gets the one on your list. Glancing at your list for more than a second likely causes you to crash into another shopper or a shelf, which instantly kills you, ruining Christmas for your family. No, this game doesn’t represent how people shop in the real world, but that’s obviously not the point.

Zolani Stewart’s piece on Expressionism and Sonic Adventure 2 applies analysis of expressionist art to games, particularly Sonic Adventure 2, in which spaces use “abstraction [to communicate] larger ideas and perspectives about [their] settings.” I know very little about art criticism or history, but if I understand correctly from Stewart’s post, expressionism distances depicted objects from reality through exaggeration to comment on what’s beneath the surface of realistic representations. Last Chance Supermarket follows this principle. While Sonic Adventure 2 uses “structural impossibilities” in its level design of Mission Street and Radical Highway to emphasize the decay of structures caused by militarism, Last Chance Supermarket puts unrealistic restrictions on the player in a bizarrely set-up supermarket to comment on the pressures of delivering a good Christmas through spending.

The absurdity of the game’s premise that coincides with the absurdity of the conception that a good Christmas requires consumer products runs through both the gameplay and the aesthetics. The avatar’s endless sprinting through the store suggests a blind sense of urgency that not only doesn’t stop to shop more precisely but also doesn’t stop to consider the dehumanization of the practice. You run over dead bodies with cubic, faceless heads in the aisle without a care as you fling 4 mini Christmas trees and 6 muffins trays into your cart. All of the shoppers look just like one another, and you’re just another eager body ready to shell out while risking death. The blocky facsimiles are robotic representations of people who are so enraptured by the need to fulfill a standard for holiday “joy” that they don’t realize that the other shoppers are in the same boat and will happily snatch up items they don’t need in order to ensure that shallow ideal of a perfect Christmas. After you fall dead, a message pops on screen reading, “You died in a shopping cart accident. You family was mortified, and Christmas was  a flop.” The importance is placed on the failure of Christmas rather than your death, with “flop” connotating disappointment due to missed potential rather than a family tragedy. In this surreal world, your family cares more about products and purchased happiness than human life.

No, Last Chance Supermarket is not subtle (see big sign in the store reading “You’ve only got ONE chance before the year’s end to prove just how much your family means to you. SO DON’T SKIMP ON THE EXPENSIVE STUFF”). It’s also not particularly nuanced. I even worried for a while about whether or not the game contributes to the culture of shaming low-income shoppers who can only afford holiday deals for luxury items. The shoppers in this game are dehumanized as I already mentioned, and their deaths are portrayed as funny in their absurdity. But I think the game is at least a bit sensitive to the cause of the frantic, dangerous shopping scene even though it focuses on depicting an exaggerated effect on the shopper instead. The reminders in the store about the pressure to please your family (while overbearing) indicate a surface-level critique of the promises of consumer spending. And the deaths in the store are always caused by accident instead of volitional violence, suggesting the shoppers are more victimized by the system and cultural messages rather than each other as “materialistic savages.” Still, I think it’d be more interesting for a game to examine where those cultural messages come from and why people believe them, especially since everyone already knows that the holidays are hectic and stressful. Regardless of what Last Chance Supermarket doesn’t do, it’s a simultaneously fun and unsettling little game with a simple message about the commodification of holiday joy. 

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