It's dark out, and it's raining quite a bit. I'm standing in the middle of the street, facing a shop with a large, bright sign saying 'Dépanneur'. There's no one else about but me, and just by being a bright spot in an otherwise empty and wet street, the shop already feels incredibly inviting.
I like it when the main thing you need to know about a game is in its title. "Pet The Pup At The Party", "A Short Hike" or, in this case, "Dépanneur Nocturne - a Dépanneur at night. A dépanneur, Google tells me, is the Canadian equivalent of a corner shop or a convenience store. You can get drinks and snacks, a few groceries, maybe a set of pens or a small sewing kit. Most of them are open all hours.
Dépanneur Nocturne is about the experience of shopping for a gift, but in that simple setup, it contains multitudes. Your partner has been working late and you just want to get them a little something to show your appreciation, which, quite frankly, is relationship goals right there. Normally, going to a corner shop for a gift would seem about as heartwarming as getting a last-minute birthday card from a petrol station, but everything about this dépanneur is a little bit special. It's not just the fact that it's a shop owned by a salamander, in a world of anthropomorphic animals who do jobs that fit the advantages of their individual physiology. I want to hear more about the bands and events depicted on the posters around the shop. I'm excited at the thought of a group of orchard gods, revered but also nonchalantly turned into capsule toys. There's a shop cat you can pet: does this mean there are animal people but also animals animals? I found so many little details that immediately tickled my imagination.
More importantly, between the bottles of wine and boxes of ice cream, I find a few truly special items. Scrabbling only for what stands out eventually leads the shopkeeper to invite me to a very special place, the place where the magic happens - the back of the shop! I don't want to spoil everything, but Dépanneur Nocturne is a magical, perfectly self-contained experience that can take you either half an hour or slightly longer, depending on how thorough you want to be. It's incredibly efficient not just with building a whole world with a few sentences, but also with creating a nice atmosphere with a limited colour palette and a few accents. If you've played developer KO-OP's previous game Gnog, you know they are specialists at picking colours and shapes to create a certain mood, and Dépanneur Nocturne is no exception.
I found myself thinking about it long afterwards, because it's the perfect example of a game depicting something I would love to do right now. We've all seen the articles about the ways people now use games in quarantine - to meet friends, take pictures in nature, or to go travelling. I'm happy for anyone who's soothed by games, particularly now, but to be honest, even before all this I didn't meet my friends to catch fish together or to let them touch my priceless imperial-style shelves. I've only been to Greece once, and the entire experience was completely bounty hunter-free as far as I recall.
But Dépanneur managed to recreate a particular shopping experience I miss a lot. Whenever I'm on holiday, I love finding hole-in-the-wall shops that sell seemingly unconnected items. Like the houseware store in Kyoto that sells rice cookers, earrings and postcards painted by local artists. A London bookshop that has books, maps and an assortment of international teas. A random shop in Berlin selling scented candles, wrapping paper, small gemstone animals and enamel pin badges. The souvenirs I bring back from such shops endear me to their owners, in that they seemingly just put everything they enjoy in one place. The dépanneur in the game is just like that. It recreated the experience of looking for that one special item with just a few sounds like the scraping of a clothes hanger on metal or bottles clinking on a shelf.
Of course playing the game didn't sate my desire to go out and tinker around among a selection of artisanal bath products and stationary - it absolutely made it worse. But I understand the actual point of the interactive replacement experience now, in that it gives you a newfound appreciation of the real thing. You always take things for granted until you don't have them, and just like how digital tourism can lead people to go somewhere they previously never thought of going, this made me look forward to the next time I get to take a shopping trip like this. There are games about basically anything, and I'm still surprised and delighted someone made a game about this very specific situation.
Dépanneur Nocturne also reaffirms an important point about small, local shops: they're essentially a labour of love. The dépanneur you visit in-game has been in the family for generations, and the owner is proud to tell you so. Shops like it don't make their owners rich, but they are an important part of our communities, corner shops especially. I've seen people support their favourite local bookshops and cafés in this crisis, and I hope they make it through, because they are the unique places that stand out and prevent the homogenisation of our neighbourhoods.
Here's a game that managed to capture the spirit of a neighbourhood shop - a shopkeeper ready to chat, always good for a gift recommendation. They're rare, these places, and it's the best feeling when you come out holding something you've always been looking for, or didn't even know you needed.