What does a Indian Chieftan, a mischievous spirit, and fast food have in common? —Involvement in the horror game, Joe’s Diner.
In Joe’s Diner, the player is given the task of cleaning up and tending to a small-town, old-fashioned restaurant during the night-shift. As one might expect, such responsibilities include: washing the dishes, clearing the tables of trash, and switching off machines that have been suddenly triggered on by a playful invisible ghost in hopes to quiet the building and quell the potential wrath of the spirit of an old Indian chief… Typical night job.
Upon entering the game, a voice-over calmly and spookily fills us in on the background of this quaint diner as if telling stories over a campfire. Then the player is dropped into the quiet interior free to explore the backrooms, examine the counter-top trinkets, and peer out the back windows at an eerie moonlit desert — as long as your chores have been completed. With the story of the Indian chief fresh in mind and the silence of the vacant town brimming over, every step in the lonely diner seems to titillate the lurking horror. And once a machine is first switched on, and the knowledge sets in that something else is with you… the mind runs wild with the frightening possibilities that lay ahead.
But the player will very, very quickly come to understand that is where the fear ends. After the first night-shift is complete, the true nature of the game is irrevocably revealed.
Joe’s Diner is all about repetitive tasks: find the leftover food and dishes and take them back to the kitchen; locate the noise-making machine the ghost has turned on and turn it off; walk, don’t run when things get too noisy; be careful not to step on the noise-making junk on the floor; and always be anticipating the hustle to the next item. Perform your duties well enough the whole night, and you are rewarded by moving on to the next night — a slightly more difficult night-shift. Perform your duties well enough 30 nights straight, and congratulations, you’ve beaten the game.
The game is very comparable to the Five Nights at Freddy’s series in which a night-time security guard must control different mechanics at a Chuck-E-Cheese-like party center to keep the stuffed bear character, “Freddy”, from approaching him. The guard must keep himself safe for five nights as Freddy becomes increasingly tenacious. The Freddy’s series became a pretty unique and overall successful new rendition of the horror genre. The mechanics of Freddy’s are very simple, similar to Joe’s. But Freddy’s has something Joe’s does not, which ended up being the most critical aspect. Five Nights at Freddy’s, though centered around repetitive tasks, is able to retain its creepiness and tension throughout the length of the night. It does this in several ways including scary imagery, well-placed sounds, and darkness; but most importantly, the fear the player experiences during the game is based on the threat of what will happen if there is a failure. In the event of a failure in Freddy’s, the player is punished with a scare where the creatures pop out with a blood-curdling roar. This keeps every moment prior to the would-be scare full of suspense because the player is forced to become vulnerable to these scares in order to make actions to prevent them. And despite how much we replicate and duplicate these actions, there’s never a strong confidence that a certain action will produce a certain result, due to the mechanics being kind of confusing, which keeps the player very on-edge. It’s really quite genius. But Joe’s Diner has no sense of tension, because not only is it fairly easy to understand and complete the tasks, there is no kind of punishment that we sincerely hope to avoid. If the player fails to keep the noise down, or fails to clean up the tables in time, it merely results in a message informing of failure and an option to repeat the night.
If you ever thought about it, you would notice that the knowledge of ghosts being in an environment is not enough to be scary. There has to be a palpable threat of some kind. Thinking that there are ghosts near you right at this very second… is only scary because of the idea that they may try to grab you or scare you with an image of themselves. But if they never were to do anything other than flip your light switch on every once in a while, they would no longer be scary, but more of an annoyance — which is a perfect way to describe Joe’s Diner. Without any truly scary aspect, it’s just an annoying selection of tasks. The backstory of an Indian burial and some extremely cruddy-looking wallpaper is not enough to make the game scary.
My rating for 2015’s Joe’s Diner for PC is…
It’s really pointless to call this horror game when it’s really just a horror-decorated version of Minesweeper.