Graveyard Shift at the Riverview Motel

by Seb Pines

2022

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Number of Reviews: 5
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It was a graveyard smash, June 8, 2022
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: Spring Thing 2022

It’s fitting that my randomization gave me Graveyard Shift at the Riverview Motel right after The Hole Man, since they’re alike in a lot of ways: they’re both choice-based games that work something like funhouses, letting the player wander an environment that’s densely packed with characters enacted their own stories, with the protagonist choosing which to get swept up in. And yet, what a difference a genre makes – this approach is charming when you’re ambling around a lightly-philosophical fantasyland, but can feel pretty silly when the operative tropes are those of horror fiction. The eponymous motel packs in more monsters per square inch than Call of Cthulhu’s worst Mythos Hoedown, leaving me wondering what goes on the other 364 nights of the year and questioning the protagonist’s grip on reality even before she starts running across any sanity-blasting horrors. Despite this, the various storylines boast some creativity, but less-compelling writing and some implementation awkwardness mean I probably won’t be coming back for a return stay.

The setup here as you as the late-night desk-clerk for an absolutely cursed motel; after clocking into your shift, gameplay consist of either sitting in the lobby waiting for guests to arrive or depart (in more than one sense of the term) or for the phone to ring, checking text messages from your friends, or poking around the motel, including making use of the voyeur-holes hidden behind paintings in six of the motel’s rooms. There’s something uncanny going on in each, from vampiric bloodsucking to Exorcist reenactors to whatever’s going on with the guy with the deer pelt. Add in something nasty lurking below the surface of the pool, and you’ve got more macabre happenings than you could possibly plumb in a single playthrough.

This is especially the case because the monsters will, unsurprisingly, kill you real dead. This is all fair enough – they’re monsters, duh – but I found the way these sequences played out hurt my engagement with the game, since they punish saying yes to stuff. Want to follow the obviously-bad-news femme fatale out into the parking lot? That’s not going to end well. Want to figure out why there’s all that slime by the swimming pool? Likewise (all the more so since doing this got me stuck in a loop where an object kept falling into the pool, leaning me to go check it out, at which point a strange noise or vibration made me retch, at which point something fell in the pool… finally after five go-rounds something with tentacles put me out of my misery). I did manage to survive the night on my third try, largely by sitting on my hands in the lobby, which counts as a win but wasn’t that satisfying.

Throughout, the writing is sometimes creepy but also ungainly. This could be a David Lynch style attempt to unnerve through awkwardness, but for me at least it doesn’t land:

"The nervous guy who came in earlier walks with a strange swagger into the lobby yet he is tightly clutching a leather bag to his side. As he walks by me he gives me a wink and how quickly the smile from his face falls tells me I grimaced in response involuntarily."

Added to this, the implementation sometimes left me unsure where I stood – beyond the shenanigans at the pool, many other random events also seemed to repeat over and over again, but I’m not sure whether that’s because time also didn’t seem to advance every time I clicked to wait at the lobby desk. Were these bugs, the randomizer not being tuned to avoid repetitiveness, or was there some hidden mechanic about what actions moved the clock forward? I’m not sure, and while uncertainty is fine in a horror game, I like it to be deployed to clearer thematic ends.

I suspect there’s an intended way of engaging with the game where the player is more active, zipping around the motel’s locations, spying on each of its residents and dipping in and out of each of their storylines, with replays enlivened by different permutations of the ways each can play out. And as I mentioned there’s some fun creativity here, with even the fairly standard vampire vignette boasting one or two novel images – and my subconscious will be trying to figure out that deer guy for a few days to come. But the fiddly implementation and too-common deaths mean I wasn’t able to find that intended experience, which means I unfortunately didn’t get out of Graveyard Shift everything the author put into it.