['Homer in Silicon' is a biweekly GameSetWatch column by Emily Short. It looks at storytelling and narrative in games of all flavors, including the casual, indie, and obscurely hobbyist. This column looks at gameplay mechanics in PC casual exploration titles.]

Tradewinds Legends is part of the casual tycoon/empire-building genre of games: you have a trading fleet, which also dabbles in a bit of piracy (but always when attacked first, naturally), and you travel from city to city buying low and selling high. You can borrow money, or save some in the bank.

You can upgrade your fleet with bigger, stronger ships (and, eventually, flying ones). You can discover new locations on the map, and new commodities to trade. And you can perform a series of missions for the various governors and sultans in power.

So far it's very similar to the other installments in the Tradewinds series (though earlier editions take place in the Caribbean and allow only one ship at a time). It's a more distant cousin to the Chocolatier games, or to the classic Apple II title Taipan.

As story-telling, though, it's much stronger than Taipan (which didn't really make an effort) or Chocolatier (which made a perfunctory one, in which the missions are all pretty similar and the characters not very distinct).

Tradewinds Legends doesn't take its setting terribly seriously and has no trouble throwing in anachronistic jokes, jibes, and insults, but it does give some of the recurring characters a bit of distinct personality. It also has story arcs that consist of several missions apiece, and which grow longer and more significant as the game goes on.

In fact, as the game goes on, the repetitive procedural parts (buying goods, sailing around, selling goods, incrementally upgrading the fleet) fades more and more into the background, while the story becomes more significant.

That's a good thing, design-wise, because it ameliorates a balance problem Tradewinds Legends shares with other games of its general ilk: when the player is rich and powerful enough, the buying and selling ceases to be interesting. All the upgrades worth having have been bought. The player has a fleet so large, and an arsenal so efficient, that no enemy poses any significant threat.

The amount to be earned by trade is piffling compared to what the player already has in the bank, or earns in interest just by waiting a few weeks. I started to feel as though I was running around on a pleasure cruise, buying and selling things more out of habit and for amusement than because I cared any longer about profit. I didn't have to do much more than look at my enemies cross-eyed to send them all to the bottom of the sea, either.

Note that I'm not complaining about the fact that the player can become powerful. I always find it a bit frustrating when I play a game with really cool upgrades but it turns out that you can never get the best ones -- that in practice the game always ends before they become affordable. It's just that, given that this happens, it's a good thing the game offers something else to be interested in -- a set of threats and concerns that goes beyond pure buying and selling.

Legends adds a further bit of narrative diversity by offering different player characters with different personal histories. This affects not only your initial abilities (what kind of ship you have, how much money or debt) but also some of the missions you're assigned. A character has his or her own arc elements.

This ought to be great for replay value. It does not quite work. While a character comes with some specific missions, the majority of tasks is the same from game to game, which means that most of the humor is recycled and all of the suspense is lost.

Even so, Tradewinds Legends does a better-than-average job at narrative, given its chosen mode of interaction. (That sounds like a mixed compliment. It is. When ranked against the best narrative games -- against Portal and Miss Management, Anchorhead and Planescape: Torment -- well, compared to that company, Tradewinds Legends doesn't tell much of a story. But it does better than most of its genre, and it uses its narrative in good balance with the other elements of the gameplay, and that's worth noting.)

Some of that success is down to the writing. Some of it has to do with judicious foreshadowing. The same could yet be done even better. Legends relies heavily on its humor, but I'd be intrigued to try a game like it that actually took its setting somewhat seriously. Or one that gave the player more significant freedoms.

I'd be more than happy to skip the nominal replay value in exchange for that greater depth.

[Emily Short is an interactive fiction author and part of the team behind Inform 7, a language for IF creation. She also maintains a blog on interactive fiction and related topics. She can be reached at emshort AT mindspring DOT com.]