ciaobella_billboard_1.jpg['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 latest column analyzes the story and message behind casual title Ciao Bella.]

PC casual game Ciao Bella is a time-management game, of sorts: not the kind where you race from place to place assembling hamburgers or grooming pets, but a game about scheduling events into the densely-packed life of a young woman named Elena. There are only so many hours in the day, and too many things to get done, so you have to choose for her -- what do you want to give priority, and what can you afford to let slide?

I've argued before that this is actually quite a good mechanic for interactive storytelling about relationships, because it allows the player to articulate priorities and preferences in much the same way that we in fact do in our lives. Only part of our interpersonal interaction is about what exactly we say to one another when we're actually together; the rest is about how much time and attention we mark off for the people in our lives, and which responsibilities we allow to override which others.

And Ciao Bella bases its mechanic on that.

It has some hiccups in the design, though, which undermine what it's trying to do. One of the most serious flaws, I think, is the fact that the second level -- one that the player is likely to encounter during the hour of unpaid demo play -- seems very very hard.

I found the experience so frustrating that I almost didn't come back and buy the full version. In the end I got the game mostly because I am so interested in this mechanic of scheduling that it seemed worth persisting with an apparently flawed design.

In retrospect, part of what made that second level so difficult was that I was expecting too much of myself. Like many games, Ciao Bella offers the player several missions to complete in a given level. Unlike, say, Miss Management, which clearly indicates which tasks are optional and which are mandatory, Ciao Bella has no such obvious distinction. So I was making the level hard for myself by persisting at a very challenging task -- helping out a family member who needed a host of special errands done -- at the expense of my character's other goals for herself.

I also discovered on looking at walkthroughs that I happened to be very unlucky in trying to make use of randomized benefits that could have come my way: there's a church to pray in, and sometimes beseeching God produces sums of money to help with your problems. I gather that you can also raise your chances by assisting with renovations in the church. (Analyzing this quid pro quo view of religion is beyond the scope of the present review.)

In any case, when playing through the demo version, I just happened not to luck into divine favor much. So I was stuck trying and trying to optimize a puzzle that turns out to be extremely hard -- maybe even impossible -- unless the luck breaks your way.

ciaobella_billboard_3.jpg Now, the weird thing is that this frustrating cycle also produced the most memorable storytelling/character-development aspect of the game. It took me many playthroughs of the level (including several after I'd broken down and bought the full version of the game) to think: what happens if I don't do what I've been asked to do?

What if I put my own goals above those of my family? Can I still win the level? And, of course, I could -- a discovery that felt like a personal breakthrough, one in which I-as-Elena realized that it was possible to reject the more ludicrous pressures on her and live her own life.

I think it might have been a good design idea to postpone that cycle of frustration until a little later in the game, though, and let the player get a bit more invested before turning up the difficulty. Or, perhaps, to have some more indication within the game that goals could be optional.

Once I was past that hard discovery, the game rolled along considerably more smoothly. I didn't always accomplish everything that everyone wanted me to, but I had learned that it was possible to do a sort of balancing act: that I could help out my friends and family -- and should -- but that that shouldn't come completely at the expense of my own goals for each level.

The basic message here is, I think, a reasonably healthy one -- that the protagonist has things to do for her family and within her community, but that she also needs to be responsible for setting her boundaries and making time for herself. That includes activities that increase her sense of "harmony", from reading to yoga to going to the movies. I mostly disagree with the criticism that Ciao Bella is deeply regressive, that it forces the female protagonist into a set of subservient and unrespected roles. Elena needs to eat right and exercise in order to get through the game, but this is presented mostly as a matter of health, rather than weight maintenance to fit into some specific look.

She's allowed to work as a waitress or an accountant (and will need to do both at various points in the game), but there's no particular indication that the waitressing job is meant to be the total of her abilities -- it's just that her family owns this cafe, and sometimes it's useful for her to help out.

There are indeed some points at which stereotypes of gender and ethnicity come into play -- though these stereotypes are delineated with more nuance than the ones that provide so many casual games with, say, the characteristics of the Italian vs. the Asian-themed restaurants. In many games, a cultural context is just wallpaper to make one level look less like another. In Ciao Bella, there's a sense of a definite time, place, and community. The participants' attitudes may occasionally be uncomfortable, but that's presented as part of their character.

All that said, I think Ciao Bella stops short of being as interesting a story as it could have been, or using its interactivity for greatest emotional effect, and the reasons do have to do with ideology.

Overall, Ciao Bella felt to me like a game version of those women's novels with hot pink or lime green covers, on which a stylishly-drawn cartoon protagonist is seen with shopping bags in each hand. These books tend to be less socially conservative than the average romance category novel: they don't always end with a wedding, and the heroine is usually concerned with her career as well as, or instead of, obsessing about future children.

The heroine's family is slightly dysfunctional; her friends outspoken; her boss second cousin to Lucifer. She worries and worries over her relationship to one or more men, and ends up, ultimately, with things more or less sorted out. They don't exactly present a repressive patriarchal view -- women are allowed and encouraged to have their own views, ambitions, and plans, and if they're often shown liking to shop, they're usually given plenty of other less stereotypical interests as well.

But very often, in these novels, the romantic problem is framed as an extension of the heroine's more general difficulty making her life chic, efficient, and glamorous. If only she buys the right shoes, keeps the right diet, laughs at the right jokes, then the man of her dreams will be at her feet. It's a take on life that's half The Rules, half home shopping channel.

A happy existence is something constructed through a combination of consumerism (to make yourself appear enticing and successful to others) and ruthless self-discipline (to make sure you nonetheless excel at your job, diet, and social obligations, and never, ever expose your vulnerabilities to a man).

And that's the ideology Ciao Bella reinforces. One spends the levels interacting with Elena's friends and family, solving their problems and sometimes receiving help from them, while also maintaining one's sanity and health. This takes hard work, daily gym visits, and extensive use of the options available at the mall. Dates with Elio, the hero, are doled out as rewards only: if you've done well enough, you get a romantic evening with him. If not... well, too bad! But you don't interact with him during the week, except occasionally to receive additional phone calls giving you things to do. He never becomes an ally or confidant in any functional sense.

As a result, the game's romance, which is supposed to be its main point, its arc story around which all the episodes are based, is its least interesting aspect. I was far more emotionally involved with the parents, sister, brother-in-law, uncle -- because my exasperation with them, and gratitude to them, was driven by the interaction rather than by the cut scenes.

Elio, on the other hand, came to seem like a dictatorial nuisance who, each week, announced when, where, and under what circumstances he wanted to see me a week later -- and then left me to live up to his expectations. In game mechanics this is an effective way of establishing level goals. But from a story-telling perspective, it's a terrible way to set up a romantic hero.

[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.]