Sunday, March 6, 2016

Travelling through Twine #2: "Your Name is Now Excuse Me"

No one working retail has a story. They have ten stories. They have twenty. For all the mundane tasks it requires, high stress it imparts, and low pay it offers, retail labor exposes you to the myriad faces of the subjects of late capitalism. A spot behind the cash register is the place for surreal encounters with strangers, exchanges with both the frustrated and the friendly. I can only think of a thousand stories between myself and my retail-working friends. There are some common experiences. Couples simultaneously shoving credit cards in your face, their competing expressions of love inevitably leading to an argument with you in the middle. The blood-curling screams of children whose parents can’t afford the stuffed koala. The bardic customers sharing their life stories while you nod politely and anxiously eye your growing queue. Favorite regulars who actually know you by name. Tears and gossip in the break room. And that’s not even scratching the surface.

Your Name Is Now Excuse Me” is a Twine by Jacob Gooch, based on his and his friends’ experiences in retail, submitted in My First Game Jam earlier this year. It’s a game that explicitly sets out, in “empathy game” rhetoric, to show how retail workers are often mistreated and dehumanized by customers and a system that requires them to act (and react) in specific ways. But instead of simply portraying negative experiences between customers and workers, the game portrays a range of interactions, including helping grateful customers, comforting or arguing with co-workers, and getting reprimanded by a supervisor.

You start the game by entering your name, which, in accordance with the title, the game denies before rechristening you “Excuse Me.” The sequence is unfortunately too obvious and heavy-handed, as your new “retail name” is explicitly mandated by an abstract narrator. Since we easily get the joke from the title itself, the game shouldn’t have to explain it to us. The game could have retained its ironic power by jumping right into scenarios of customers addressing you as “Excuse Me” right after entering your name. But I do like that your co-workers address you by the name you entered in the beginning. A lot of times fellow co-workers seem like the only people who’ll treat you like a human being at retail jobs, shared experience helping with the empathy.

“Your Name is Now Excuse Me” doesn’t have much in the way of in-depth characterization but instead structures itself through simplistic vignettes of the different kinds of interactions one might face working for a department store chain. The game features a diverse group of people regarding race, gender, and religion both working and shopping in the store, even depicting the specific struggles certain marginalized people might face there. For instance, a woman worker is poked in the chest by an irate customer, and a Muslim worker is insulted by customer who speaks in Urdu about her dress.

The game offers choices regarding how to behave to customers and co-workers, and though these choices don’t present particularly difficult moral dilemmas, you’ll want to see the different repercussions. A customer might be angry regardless of how sincerely you try to help her. You might get in trouble with your boss for comforting a downtrodden co-worker in the break room when you’re supposed to be back on the clock. None of the choices have consequence beyond the isolated incidents within the game, and you can’t get fired. The game does a good job of portraying the stress of specific moments in retail but misses an opportunity to show how anxiety about dismissal hangs over your head after multiple infractions.

The best thing about “Your Name is Now Excuse Me” is how it balances out the poor experiences working retail with a few heartwarming interactions. The game ends with a mother buying Star Wars merchandise for her daughter, who, if you ask, will tell you how Rey is her favorite and that she’s so excited to dress up as her. It’s in these rare occasions when customers open up some part of their humanity to you that retail work can be rewarding in its small way. Growing up with social anxiety, finding myself able to help people at my first job gave me a lot more confidence in interacting with strangers. Certainly, “Your Name is Now Excuse Me” could have included many more kinds of horrible situations, but it could have some more pleasant ones too.

“Your Name is Now Excuse Me” is admirably earnest but to a fault, leaning too hard into “empathy game” rhetoric in a needless epilogue. The plain expression of its vignettes should be able to speak for itself, evoking empathy because it’s a game not because it’s framed to do so. But for its simplicity and its faults, “Your Name is Now Excuse Me” is pretty impressive for a first Twine game that succinctly captures the turbulent world of retail.

For further reading about retail labor, I highly recommend J Bearhat’s zine "Corporate Interiors."  

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