It can be difficult to find time to finish a video game, especially if you only have a few hours a week to play. In our biweekly column Short Play we suggest video games that can be started and finished in a weekend.
There is a certain type of low-budget film that manages to tell a story in an unexpected way. It seems to come up most often with horror movies, where because of budget or time restraints, filmmakers are often forced to make choices they normally wouldn’t. Like how in Clerks they could only shoot in the store after it closed and had to come up with an explanation for why the shutter was always down, or how the zombie movie Pontypool is set entirely in a small town radio station where they’re trying to piece together what’s going on outside. Playing The Shadows That Run Alongside Our Car feels a lot like that.
The game, developed by a three-person team called Lox Rain, is a short visual novel about two people alone in a car months after the start of a zombie apocalypse. Their default names are Shelby and Dustin, though you are prompted early on to type in whatever names you want to use for each. The first choice you make in the game is whose perspective you want to see the story from. Whoever you pick is the only one whose thoughts you are privy to, and who you make dialogue choices for.
This initial decision turns out to possibly be the most important one in the game. Although the story hits the same beats regardless of your choice, the insight you get into Shelby’s and Dustin’s thoughts provides a much different view of what is going on. The characters also often provide you with more information about them than they are willing to say to the other person.
Their interactions are sometimes sad and sometimes charming, but you quickly learn that these two people don’t know each other at all, despite having already spent a few days together. What follows is the pair trying to connect and learn about each other while they drive through a barren world and struggle to keep themselves from falling apart. They don’t know how long the car’s gas supply will last, or how long the road will remain quiet and empty. This respite feels like the first moment in a long time where they can pretend everything is normal.
It’s this very character-focused story, as well as the framing of the game, that evoked the same tone as a low-budget film for me. For most of the game, you’re looking at the two leads through the front windshield of their car. It’s an interesting and clever framing choice, and not just because it’s the kind of shot you might see in a movie or TV show. It also keeps with the design conventions of a visual novel, where characters in a scene aren’t animated in a traditional sense, but instead shift between different facial expressions and poses.
The Shadows That Run Alongside Our Car may look and feel a bit like a film, but ultimately it offers a very different experience. The key is how the game gives a great sense of authorship to the player. It starts with being able to name the characters, but this control largely comes down to how the game is written. So much of what happens in the game is internalized; when you make a choice it doesn’t just lead to a line of dialogue, but also the character’s rationalizing your choice as their own.
It seems like a small thing, but it’s a powerful one. In The Shadows That Run Alongside Our Car, your decisions aren’t just something you want the character to say or do — they feel like choices the character wants to make themselves.
The Shadows That Run Alongside Our Car was created by Lox Rain. You can get it on Itch.io for pay what you want (Windows, Mac OS, and Linux.) It takes about 30 minutes to finish.