Graveyard Shift at the Riverview Motel

by Seb Pines

2022

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Spring Thing 2022: Graveyard Shift at the Riverview Motel, May 14, 2022

There’s a lot made of liminal spaces recently, with widely shared images of spaces that were once public, filled with life, which now wait desolate. This feeling of abandonment in a place which should not, we feel intrinsically, be, has expanded into a myriad of vibes, from vaporwave’s various grandchildren to a new meme mythos like the Backrooms. Our architecture is often built with a pompous sense of permanence; their empty rooms like empty veins.

It's precisely that transitory, permeable space of inhabitance that builds the uncanny liminal borderworld of Graveyard Shift at the Riverview Motel, a “motel that used to view the river but now its scenic views looks out on 6 lanes of frequently congested highway traffic.” A place which once meant something drowned beneath the inexorable progress of The Highway, a gutter where old names that cannot match the moment collect and stagnate. The motel, a makeshift home for those far from home, heaves with the exhausted of the world, and in this terror of quasipresence, each stillness threatens hollowness: “He stares forward without blinking, unmoving, only the slow rise and fall of his chest sway the antlers coming from his head that cast long jagged lines of shadow that reach towards the ceiling and every surface. / The more I watch him the more a pit in my stomach grows until I feel like I’m going to cry, I break away from the wall and finally breathe. I steady myself against the wall to stop shaking.”

Nausea of disappearance plays out in the liminality of the motel as a satirical exaggeration of the emptiness and transitory elements of our own normalness, how our own lives are built on presumptions of permanence that are just as vulnerable. At its best, the game haunts in this unsettling calmness, showing a world in which everyone is so quickly slipping away from you and themselves, as in this delicate scene of people being swallowed by the screen: “Peering through the hole in the wall, the room is draped in pitch. The only thing I can make out in the darkness is a slender body on its knees haloed in the hazy glow from the television set as it blares white noise throughout the room. Body twisted so a single ear is pressed to the glass of the screen, hot breath occasionally fogging up the glass. I notice her lips moving but can’t hear the whispers over the sound of the static, her voice blending in with noise and only adding another layer to the dissonance. / The static grows harsher as an electrical tone begins to drone out of the television and fill the room. The figure stops her muttering and her eyes widen, she nods slowly as if each mechanical movement of her head was to convey the seriousness of her understanding. She sits back from the tv onto her knees, arms slack at her sides as the television static blooms in a fisheye distortion. / Orbs of cascading visual noise ripple out from a single pixel of light in the centre of the screen. She watches intently as the ripples move with an increased speed and intensity, tunnelling out from the centre of the screen. It is only until the ripples slow and still on the screen that I see the glass warping, undulating in pace with the ripples. My eye strains to see through the narrow dim hole what could be causing that effect when a limply held hand juts up from the floor and disappears wrist deep into the screen. The other hand comes up and caresses the writhing ridges of the screen before fingertips disappear within it. Hands and then arms move sinuously into the screen as the woman brings her face up to the screen cheek first, dragging it slowly across the rippling static until she pushes her face, lips first, into the noise. The light all but goes out in the room as the remainder of her body contorts and writhes to fit itself into the hollows of the screen, the light returning to the room dazzling my vision as one last pale foot slides into the television. The screen is quickly gripped by blackness as it's pulled in like corners from the corners of the screen, the static quickly winking out in one final sharp white line, before all that is left is the soft glow from the screen and a single white dot still weakly emitting light from the centre.” By using the amplified setting of the motel to render each metaphor starkly literal, someone being swallowed by the screen becomes baroque, and in that ornamented sinuousness finds an empathy that distills the conceptual nod into a resinous gleam. In particular, the oscillation between noisy horror pangs and quietly human details lends the scene’s startling denotation a slightly misty, mutedly forlorn gentleness that perturbs the conceptual simplicity to an uncanny nuance; it’s easy to write dismissively of someone getting swallowed by the person behind the screen, but it’s altogether more deft to write longingly of it, as if we might be a little jealous of the purity of the tragedy. Woven into the man with this screen disappearance, the man with the elk hat, the vampiric woman, even the strangely overscrupulous older gentleman, is the abandonment that has led them here, to a motel forgotten, a transience we keep living until we cannot.

That delicate horror is unfortunately undermined by our narrator’s acidic ennui, whose rampant animus conforms to the base expectation of normality into uncanniness that drives a lot of horror (it’s just an ordinary shift on an ordinary night oh wait oh nooo it’s not aaaa), but frequently exceeds its remit in ways that detract from the story. Variations of “shit” besmirch most of our narrator’s comments, almost a default reaction to any stimulus: “What a huge fucking creep I hate working here, but maybe if shit is weird tonight a little bit of spying might come in handy. Who knows, weirder shit has happened here.” In particular, the narrator’s spite for their colleague Gus is so incessant that the character becomes angry about an issue from every possible angle, despite their contradictions. When Gus complains about the narrator’s penchant for being late, which is understandable, who wants to be stuck at the desk waiting to be relieved when they could go home to their family, the narrator swipes it aside: “I truly don’t understand how some people assume being in the building but not at the desk the instant a shift starts counts as being late but whatever.” But this annoyance at Gus’ annoyance then switchbacks: “Fuck me for not being here the instant my shift starts but can’t ask this man to stay a second past when his shift ends.” If you’ve ever known someone who is just default annoyed, this inconsistency rings true: the stimulus is entirely arbitrary, the annoyance is built in. Indeed we find ourselves annoyed, especially since this trait doesn’t cohere or nuance the more sensitive and subtle elements: it grates with the game.

I much prefer the muted “ambivalently bored” tedium that the game sulks into when exhausted of ire, which gives a more congenial normality that better interplays with the horror. The viscous drainage of hours passing on the night shift fits well with the humbug doldrums stretched out with Knausgaardian detail: “Mixing it quickly I pop a spoonful in my mouth and instantly burn the roof of my mouth. Holding the soup in my mouth, not ready to swallow, I open my lips and try to vent the heat out of my mouth until it's a safer temperature to eat.” The way each action just balloons out of its importance does a great job of showing time passing quietly, too quietly, not quickly enough. You can almost hear the lights buzzing and flickering.

With the semirandom fluctuation of multiple unrelated plots, there’s enough going oozing around in here to reward multiple playthroughs. The game runs on a real time basis which is kind of wonky, for instance there’s a bug where once you trigger the LeAnn ending, all other playthroughs in the same session trigger the LeAnn ending as soon as the shift starts. But as you tap tap your fingers while things go bump bump in the night, you’ll feel that liminal apotheosis, a loneliness which isn’t alone.