The White Diner by HawkSandwich is yet another in a long list of games made for jams for which the developer has neither the time nor resources to make anything particularly elaborate. The best of these games tend to be the result of focused vision on one or two particularly strong elements, the devs working under constraints to craft short but rich and memorable experiences. I would consider The White Diner among the best of these games.
Made for “The City” jam hosted by developer Cosmo D (Off-Peak, The Norwood Suite) in February 2019, The White Diner is a psychedelic little horror game that can, obviously, be played in a matter of minutes. How the game relates to the theme of the jam is not immediately obvious, but a couple of playthroughs and a little bit of reflection should help the player achieve at least some clarity.
The White Diner begins in a black, textureless hallway. There’s an ornate rug on the ground pointing toward a doorway in the distance, the only source of light. Next to it there’s a wooden footstool, and hanging out in space in the middle of the screen are the control instructions in red lettering (WASD or arrow keys to move, space bar to perform an action.) Walk past the red letters to see the title of the game in white on the black floor, right in front of the open door. Above it is a red neon sign that reads, simply, “Diner”, which could possibly make things anymore obvious.
Once inside, you will notice certain things. The place is small but empty and sparsely decorated, making it seem more spacious. On the wall behind you there is a large astrological tapestry covering the distance between two doors—the one you just entered from and another, to your left, which is currently closed. The walls are covered with art spanning styles and eras, and faintly visible messages, like “MONEY survives all hardships.”
Slow, bluesy country guitar twangs ominously while, in front of you, at the very back of the diner, an angular man in a polka dotted stovepipe hat, black suit and ascot smiles silently. He never takes his eyes off you. He has no eyebrows, his eyes are two large orbs in his skull trained completely on you. He stands behind a bar with wooden stools in front of it where you are prompted to sit down. On the bar there is a pair of sunglasses and a cigar, as well as a large stack of pancakes, which you are then prompted to eat. Then, you are prompted to stand.
The more you stare at the decor of the diner—the scrawled words, the pastiche of art prints, the windows that look out at darkness, and the still smirking man (whose portrait is also on the wall in inverted colours)—the more uneasy the game feels. You realize now that that other door, the one between the two Mannerist scenes, is open.
There is nothing to do but walk through the door. The music changes now from a gentle twang to an aggressive whirring, like being caught up in the gears of a machine. You walk through a narrow hallway, and at this point you can only move forward. As you move through the corridor, all the suggested pastiche, the convergence of aesthetic and historical threads into one long rope, becomes even more explicit. It overwhelms the senses and becomes difficult to describe.
The hallway begins by making expressionist twists and turns. A table protrudes out from the wall. Pretty pedestrian stuff. Soon you see three of the men, large, and constantly gazing at you as you pass by. Their heads turn to face you, their mouths fixed in the same sinister grin. Further ahead, a glass floor reveals a car moving through constantly-turning clockwork. To your left there may be Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs, while to your right a bus sinks in a desert punctuated by pyramids. Brutalist architecture. The Virgin Mary. The man appears again, his head melded into the walls, the floor. You walk over Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam, which covers the inclined floor that ends in a sudden descent, and a blinding white light.
The screen becomes a white void for several minutes, until eventually you are dropped back into the diner. The pancakes are gone. The man is no longer behind the bar. All that’s left is a trail of blood leading from the bar to the ornate rugs that cover the corridor of the void where the game began. Ah, the exit is open again. There, at the very back of the black room, the man stands, stares and smirks. Here, the game instructs you on how to exit.
The White Diner is too brief for the imagery and themes it introduces. The inclusion of “city”-related elements, like the buses, seem largely incidental and a little ironic, considering the game appears to be set in a rural diner in the middle of literally nowhere. Then again, its strange, densely-packed, incongruent motley of things perfectly captures the feeling of moving through an urban environment, especially one that’s unfamiliar. That compression can be both beautiful and surprising, but it can also be oppressive and frightening.
The game seems to suggest that something violent has occurred, but whatever that thing is has mostly been abstracted by an onslaught of symbolic and religious symbolism. I use the word “surreal” a lot, to the point that I think it can lose meaning, but I think that videogames are a particularly post-modern form in their ability to induce a dislocating sense of surreality by messing with our conceptions of time, space and relation to other people. This is a powerful ability that can easily be weaponized, but it can also be useful for helping us to express the peculiar sensations of modern life that can be difficult to put into direct language. The violence we may experience as part of this reality may be cold, brutal and material, but its processes are often obscured and the effects it has on us may be complicated, full of contradictions, and difficult to parse according to normative understanding.
It may not be that deep, but The White Diner succeeds at being a deeply creepy, deeply surreal, charming yet menacing game. It overwhelms, but in all the right ways that eat at you well after you’ve finished playing it two, three, four times, to try to unpack its beauty and its horrors. This is the kind of game that leaves me wishing it was longer, a full game full of Lynchian psychological torments and more than just the suggestion of violence. I’m excited for what HawkSandwich can do as an artist, and wish the world to them in terms of having the resources to do more. For now, The White Diner can be purchased from itch.io for a buck, or you can name your own price.