The real living wage was the friends we made along the way
Most career-based games set out to either emulate a job to a T or build upon their most interesting tasks. For instance, American Truck Simulator sets out to simulate a delivery truck driver’s experience as accurately as possible. Game Dev Tycoonstreamlines and abstracts the game development process to focus on the industry’s unique management challenges, such as striking a balance between art design and technology.
Unfortunately, retail work is notoriously monotonous and offers little (if any) that is intrinsically interesting. We have several games about running an entire storefront, but I’ve never seen one from the perspective of a minimum wage employee. For many in such work, it feels like the only way to shake off existential dread is to get into a mindless groove through their daily routine. Keeping that groove is the best defense those retail workers have against insanity, but so many unpredictable factors regularly throw that groove off.
The more I think about it, the more I think that retail is like a rhythm game, except the gameplay is as dull as a shopping cart that spent the entire holiday season at the bottom of a frozen lake. I want some daring developer to correct that by creating the most fun retail rhythm game to ever exist. Or at least the only one. Also, someone needs to get that cart out of the lake already.
The retail world is already chock-full of background music, at least in malls and supermarkets with regularly running indoor speakers. In larger parking lots, even cars will blast radio music so loudly that I shudder to imagine how expensive their drivers’ hearing aids will be in the future. These songs can get tiring in a real retail job — don’t get me started on holiday music — but when spliced into song-long play sessions and spiced up with a larger selection, they become much catchier. That, and admittedly it’s hard to say I ever got tired of hearing “Bohemian Rhapsody” (the song, not the movie) even while cleaning doors. If you can either license a bunch of hits of that caliber or create your own in similar styles, you’ve got an authentic and fun retail soundtrack.
I don’t picture this hypothetical musical slave simulator to be a traditional arcade rhythm game such as Dance Dance Revolution, Project DIVA, or so on. I would absolutely be down for that, as Final Fantasy Theatrhythm is my favorite 3DS game these days! But my experiences in retail usually have me bouncing across an entire storefront and repeating monotonous tasks in different areas rather than enacting a single, continuous performance like most rhythm games.
This experience reminds me more of Diner Dash-style management gameplay. It’s a bit of a stretch, but that style of management gameplay could still work in a hybrid rhythm game with Crypt of the Necrodancermovement controls(And yes, a retail-themedDiner Dashclone without rhythm elements would also work, but I have more fun with weirder ideas). For a more creative twist, perhaps instead of keeping a steady rhythm like in Necrodancer,you would have to sync steps with individual song notes likeDDR.That could fit the unsteady yet repetitive flow of retail work.
Beyond the rhythm dictating basic movement, I would expect every retail chore to offer slightly different control schemes. For example, mopping a floor would require back-and-forth directional inputs, scanning a load of items may require rapid button presses, and answering customer questions could involve simple multiple-choice dialogue. This could possibly get repetitive even for a rhythm game.But don’t worry… the retail life is full of random hazards like inexplicable messes,getting called to drop what you were doing only to be told to do exactly what you previously were doing, and more!
To draw some examples from my first couple of years in retail, I found myself easily flustered by unruly customers, and I would sometimes spill mop buckets for no fault but my own clumsiness. These things disrupted my figurative rhythm. That could translate to an interesting game mechanic by, say, temporarily speeding up or slowing down a song’s literal rhythm.
Of course, typical rewards like new song unlocks are out of the question. That would imply that minimum wage actually gives hard-working Americans disposable income or that dead-end jobs are rewarding. Instead, you’d earn opportunities to chat up with co-workers during breaks between shifts, like the Persona dancing games. Because waifus make every unlock system more mass-marketable.
Video games squarely about retail are few and far between, even though it’s a job so many of us are familiar with. Retail workers have a lot of stories to tell in between financial woes, discarded dreams, weird happenstances, and the rare wholesome encounter with an empathetic customer. This setting has a lot of potential as a backdrop for both slice-of-life antics and down-to-earth reality checks.
As much as I would like to see these theoretical game ideas, they may also be too complicated to help people unwind from stressful work. CJ and I tossed around a couple of additional thoughts on this subject, and he proposed a simplerRhythm Heaven-style game, which also fits extremely well! Rhythm Heaven revolves around performing dozens of simple and repetitive, yet extremely catchy tasks through minigames and minigame medleys. A single retail task would work excellently as a minigame, and a whole shift would be great as a medley.
I don’t regret ever starting a retail job, but I’m glad I’m moving onto something else soon because retail careers are usually stagnant by nature. After a couple of years, retail workers want something more stimulating, more engaging, more challenging, and less exhausting. We’ve all done something to try and accomplish that within the confines of retail itself, often something as simple as humming a random tune. Any kind of retail-themed rhythm game could effectively relate to such experiences and give them an actually fun outlet. Fun game design has a good track record for punching boring realism in the face.