Wax Heads, the record-shop video game that channels High Fidelity

Every time I go through a breakup, I’m compelled to rewatch the noughties classic High Fidelity, in which OG softboi John Cusack mournfully chronicles a “top 10 list” of his all-time worst breakups, soundtracked by the albums that accompanied them.

Rather than his parade of enthralling exes, including a wonderfully vapid Catherine Zeta-Jones, it’s Cusack’s record shop, Championship Vinyl, that’s the film’s star. A sanctuary for a hurting Cusack, this battered boutique becomes a refuge for Chicago’s other lost souls, giving its perennially hungover proprietor and a gaggle of local music nerds a place to lick their wounds.

It’s this kind of DIY community spirit that spills out of the screen as I dive into Wax Heads, a narrative game about managing a struggling record shop. A self-described “cosy-punk life sim”, this colourful comic-book-esque caper channels everything great about High Fidelity, as the player learns the ropes during a chaotic first shift at the fictional Repeater Records.

A sanctuary for nerds … John Cusack, Jack Black, Todd Louiso and Tim Robbins in High Fidelity. Photograph: Getty Images

Much to my delight, Wax Heads isn’t a business sim at all. It’s unconcerned with the logistics of running a shop, and all about slinging discs to the obsessives who covet them. As I design posters for a local punk gig between slacking off on a legally distinct knock-off of a Tamagotchi, it’s clear that Wax Heads sees the local vinyl shop as a musical mecca, a place where you spin tunes and befriend its weird and wonderful customers.

“Wax Heads is the idea of the record store as a conduit,” says the game’s co-creator, Murray Somerwolff. “It’s a slice of life game about community, music and people, where you’re constantly meeting interesting characters, flipping sleeves, recommending records and hanging out.”

As someone who whiles away hours riffling through dusty vinyl stores in each city I visit, there’s an intoxicating authenticity to Wax Heads. Left with little guidance from your boss – Morgan Macintyre, a jaded former rock star who set up the shop after a dramatic, Fleetwood Mac-worthy band breakup – it’s up to players to play tastemaker for the litany of lovable oddballs that swing by. Recalling the point and click classics of yesteryear, Wax Head casts you in the role of retail worker-cum-musical detective, leveraging the clues around you to deduce the perfect album recommendation. With clients ranging from screeching tween pop fans to insufferably smug shirtless hipsters, you score points based on how much they enjoy the records you pick out. At last, my very own John Cusack simulator.

It is unusual to play a music game that’s not about being a musician. “I really love music, and I wanted to scratch that itch of sitting in the cultural space of music as opposed to just making a rhythm game.” says Somerwolff. “That’s already been done to death, and done far better than I could ever do! I also really like the idea of, well, why does this person want this record? Who is this person and what is it that makes them into that particular genre?”

Crate digging … Wax Heads. Photograph: Patattie Games

What I’m playing is the result of just six months of work, a proof of concept collaboration between Somerwolff and his coding partner, Rocío Tomé. With lawyers swooping in to shut down the shop by demo’s end, Wax Heads’ story is littered with a slew of messages about the steady decline of the music industry and the death knell of the high street, a playable tribute to the in-shop experience that we’re losing to the likes of Amazon.

“The thing I keep drawing from is that idea of empathy and community, of capturing that excitement and euphoria you get from attending a good gig.” says Somerwolff. “I’m not interested in Wax Heads being just a business sim. By focusing on that completely, you simply get gamified capitalism. This is a game about our collective connection to music.”

Each new workday begins with a snippet of music blaring through the shop’s sound system, and every song you hear in Wax Heads has a personal connection to Somerwolff. “My wife is singing on one track,” he reveals, “my sister in-law on another … my friend’s band is there, too … I even have an old song from one of my ancient bands, because, fuck it, why not?”

Wax Heads feels pretty authentic to me, a nostalgic disc-collector – but how does Murray’s game compare to running a real life record shop in 2024?

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“I know this guy!” says Adam Taylor-Foster, co-owner of Hasting’s beloved seafront coffee and vinyl emporium, Dark Circles. A customer in Wax Heads has just strolled in and demanded a bargain. “I think what this game gets is that a record store is all about developing trust, and building those relationships.” Taylor adds. “Places like [vinyl shops] have traditionally felt a bit imposing, intimidating … our store and local shops like in this game are the antithesis of that.”

‘The game gets that a record store is all about developing trust, and building relationships’ Adam and Kim Taylor-Foster, owners of Dark Circles record shop in Hastings. Photograph: Monkeychops

“I think the biggest surprise for me about opening a record shop is the breadth of the demographic that comes in.” says Dark Circles’ other owner and Adam’s wife, Kim Taylor-Foster. “We have a couple that come in every single day, mothers with children – this is part of their routine now. My experience of going around record shops in London with Adam, albeit probably about five years ago, was that it was all middle-aged men.”

High Fidelity’s Cusack and Jack Black scoff and belittle the tastes of their customers, but Somerwolff sees his fictionalised musical emporium as the polar opposite. “I’m really against the idea of elitism. To me a record is a gateway to connection for people,” he says. In Wax Heads, “correct” recommendations earn you a perfect score, and the trust of each happy customer – and this is the kind of bonding and discovery that Taylor sees in his real-life record shop every day.

“We’ve had 13-year-olds coming in with their dad and suddenly you’ve got this relationship blossoming in front of you, where dad and child have discovered De La Soul together,” Taylor says. “That’s really lovely, and I can see it [in the game].”

It’s the feeling of the local record shop as town hall, church and musical meeting point that always struck a chord in High Fidelity, and it’s the same in Wax Heads. The game is a love letter to music retail, a digital creation that feels decidedly analogue. It’s still early days for Wax Heads; it has yet to find a publisher. Yet as the world grows increasingly weary of streaming services and the appreciation and demand for vinyl continues to soar, it’s heartwarming to see a game that highlights the joy of musical discovery that’s waiting in your local record store.

The Guardian

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