This one’s …not a pun. I’m not making the pun. I have dignity.
It’s time for another Steam Sifter, the series where I comb through the low and mixed rated titles on Steam and divide the cream from the crap. For the past few titles, we’ve mostly seen mechanical focused games. This time, we’ll be looking at a narrative game simply called The Shopkeeper, which is described on its page as “a point-and-click narrative game set in a space between the Twilight Zone, classic Lucasarts adventures, and Antiques Roadshow.” That may be the least accurate description of anything I have ever read.
I was genuinely interested in what I saw of this game when I first came across it earlier this year, and was wildly confused by the massive negative reception surrounding it. Nothing about what was presented suggested the game was particularly bad, yet it was one of the lowest rated games on Steam. Now having had played it, I can see that this was a bit of a Bad Hotel situation, with the terrible marketing building up the game as something completely different to what it was. That description I shared above is utterly ridiculous, bringing to mind far more fantastical and wacky images than what’s actually in the game proper. The writer it sells itself on did text for pen and paper RPGs, while the one actor listed, with credits in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, doesn’t have much of particular note on his resume. Yet, these two are featured as something to be excited about, as names you should know. Baffling.
But if the game isn’t some hilarious sci-fi gamer comedy with unexpected twists and some old junk, what is it? Well, The Shopkeeper is a story about the owner of an antiques shop who tries to sell items to a customer who comes in. To do so, he attempts to tell a good story. That story, oddly, is presented as the events that will soon happen to the shopper in question, as he goes to his mother-in-law looking for more capital. You can play out the scenario differently every time, but the canon ending will only appear once you figure out a proper order of choices.
It’s a narrative game, full on. It doesn’t particularly care for what an “average” audience expects from a game and tries to be its own thing. Question is if it succeeds with that aim. I think it does, but it’s also very obtuse, mainly because it feels like it gains little from being a game. The major running theme here is cycles, that history repeats itself, and so does the game repeat itself with every failed story the shopkeeper (you) comes up with in the mother-in-law scenario. That’s the only thing interaction with the story adds, letting you change little details here and there to see what affects what.
Otherwise, the cycles theme could be easily repeated in any number of mediums. Hell, The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya did it in multiple mediums (and really should have probably not for the anime). Still, the concept is treated vaguely enough here that it can be read into in a lot of different ways, especially in the true ending. I also like that we don’t really understand who the shopkeeper is beyond being a shopkeeper, so the ending implications of his place in the story carry a lot more weight because we can only guess at what he wants in the end.
It’s not a particularly deep or complex story being told, but it’s an interesting one, and has some nice meta-text about what audiences enjoy most from these little stories. The simple art fits the piece, and the voice acting, despite being very stilted, works better than it should. The man playing the customer does the best job at emoting, while the inhuman speech of the shopkeeper really sticks out and grew on me. It could all certainly be done better, but for the three dollar asking price, it’s perfectly appropriate.
This is mostly just a neat little thing you can try with little loss to your pocket book. For what it’s worth, I found The Shopkeeper surprisingly interesting because of how little is outright told to the audience. Now, this wouldn’t be “good” under normal circumstances, but for this series, The Shopkeeper is a nice gem that doesn’t deserve the sheer volume of negative feedback it has.
The Finds So Far:
Like this series and want to see more? Consider supporting my Patreon so I have more funds to pick out stuff on Steam. Also, you can gift me mixed or negatively reviewed Steam games (my handle is JKDarkseid), just please don’t spend too much. I’ll try to give you a shout out if I play your gifted game.