dinerdashScreen1.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.]

I play a fair number of casual games, and I'm interested in story-telling, so I was intrigued by Mathew Kumar's recent Gamasutra article about the state of the casual games industry, particularly this bit, from John Welch at Playfirst:

"At PlayFirst we introduced character and narrative to our games -- we obsessed on meta-structural devices such as story development and even simple-sounding aspects like map screens and expert levels, all in service of answering the player's question, 'Why am I doing this?' which wasn't being answered by abstract match-3 games."

"Our consumers could say, 'Oh, I'm solving this level to help Flo fix up her restaurant and become a successful entrepreneur.' The ability to nurture our consumers' connection to the characters and provide them with a clear sense of objective through storylines has proven very powerful," he continued.

This made my eyelids twitch.

I would love it if casual games took more seriously the kinds of stories they can tell, and the ways in which casual-game types of interaction might be narratively interesting. To do that, though, they need not to kid themselves about what constitutes a narrative.

The plot arc of almost all the Dash games -- and the majority of time management games of all brands -- is essentially the same: an entrepreneur in the burgeoning field of (waitressing/dog grooming/wedding planning/dairy farming) gets a break-through opportunity at a (restaurant/pet salon/catering business/farm). Through hard work and perseverance, the entrepreneur does well enough to expand the business over and upgrade her own talents and equipment, until she (it's always a she) reaches some zenith of business acumen. Then the game ends.

(One caveat: as so often, the original in this field is considerably better than most of the follow-ons, and the first Diner Dash does have a more interesting ending than average. The developers of the sequels also seem to have conveniently ignored the surprise outcome of the original because it's somewhat difficult to build on.)

Now technically, on some definitions of narrative, the following would qualify:

Flo works at someone else's restaurant until she can open her own.
Flo works at her restaurant until she has a chance to open another.
Flo works at the new restaurant until it is successful.

But I think we can agree that it's not a very interesting one. There are no reversals, no twists, no surprises; there is no character growth and no significant relationships are involved; the setting reveals nothing interesting about the conditions of human existence; no theme or idea is explored.

There is rarely any suspense about what might happen later in the story. I say "rarely" because a handful of games do throw in some kind of minor mystery hook -- "Vogue Tales" and "The Great Chocolate Chase" both describe incidental events that set up curiosity and are subsequently resolved -- but this is uncommon.

Moreover, the player has no ability to affect the story other than in the sense of persevering through it. There are no narratively significant choices available. All choices the player makes are purely on the level of gameplay tactics (do I seat this party now, or should I first take that party's order?). From the perspective of gameplay, that not-very-compelling narrative boils down to an even-less-compelling one:

Flo carries plates.
Flo carries plates.
Flo carries plates.
Flo learns to walk faster.
Flo carries plates.
Flo carries plates.
Flo carries plates.
Flo has a bad day in which she doesn't carry enough plates fast enough.
Flo carries plates.
Flo is successful.

In his book on videogame theory Half-real (I know I risk losing half my readers at this moment, but hang in there), Jesper Juul makes a useful distinction between narrative (a structured sequence of events, which not all games have) and fiction (any elements attached to a game which are not part of the ruleset but are there to give it color or thematic significance, and which are thus much more common).

In those terms, the Dash games certainly do have a fiction, and part of that fiction is the local color applied to the game's leveling-up mechanism.

But let's not deceive ourselves: the maps which track our progress through a time management game, ticking off the levels we've finished and putting gold stars on the levels we've finished really well, do not correspond to narrative.

They gratify the same impulse that gold star charts have always gratified since kindergarten: the impulse to finish tasks and take pride in their completion, no matter how arbitrary the tasks themselves might be. The "stories" attached to such charts, in fact, cannot be very interesting, because a system of steady progress and reward contains no suspense and no opportunities for choice, surprise, or setback.

I don't deny the value of this mechanism in getting people to play. Having something about a game that I can finish (even if the game continues to be available in free play mode afterwards) is a strong incentive for me to spend time on it. Part of the reason is that I like to see all the gameplay variations the developers have put into a work, and if I play through all the levels, I can be pretty sure that I've one that; it would be less satisfying to play if I didn't have some idea at what point I would have tried everything out.

But Welch goes on:

"I believe that the next step... is to create a similar metastructure to answer the question, 'Why did I do that last night?' We need to help the player get something or somewhere more tangible, maybe to another level of status, or fill out a collection, or help a friend, or in some other manner to achieve something worth talking about. But keep it simple, or it won't be relevant to the masses."

I realize that my take on this isn't as statistically significant as whatever market research Playfirst and similar companies may be doing. But I can't help thinking that narrative -- real narrative, in which interesting and varied things happen, and the ending isn't just another predictable apotheosis when your character has carried her 20,000th plate -- does answer the "why did I do that?" question. It gives the player something of value to take away from the experience, something to remember and think about, which is of far more value than any arbitrary form of status a casual game could confer.

To do that, the solution isn't necessarily to add more modes and structural features to the format. That bloats the system, and I can understand why it might put off new casual players. It's also, fortunately, not required. Here's what I think does work:

A) create gameplay in which multiple strategies of play are possible and valid (with different strategies becoming relevant at different levels); then

B) create a narrative in which the choice of gameplay strategy affects or is affected by the story events;

or

B') create a deep fiction/setting which continues to be interesting to explore for the duration of the game; have the choice of gameplay strategy affect or be affected by the features of the setting.

"The Great Chocolate Chase" does some of (A): it adds quests to certain levels, in which the aim is to accomplish something beyond merely earning money. This makes the gameplay more interesting than it would be otherwise, though it is, I think, hobbled as a technique because the player usually also has to be meeting the same monetary quotas as ever; it would have to be tuned slightly differently for strongly distinct strategies to emerge on different levels.

The "Dash" games tend (to varying degrees) to accomplish some of (A), inasmuch as levels bring different combinations of character types into play. But for the most part, the trick involves recognizing how the different characters (patient seniors, fussy businesswomen) can best be prioritized in accordance with a (consistent) strategy of sequencing more urgent events first.

"Flo on the Go" goes a bit further, since it introduces such gimmicks as the scenes one has to play "in the dark", and not being able to see all of the screen at once does mandate some slightly different approaches; on the other hand, I found that specific gimmick a bit frustrating, and the gimmicks are only loosely tied to the storyline.

"Miss Management" does both (A) and (B): it relies on quests to make the central mechanic interesting, and ties the quests to your relationship to the other characters. It's also just about my gold standard among time management games -- and almost alone in its success.

Deepening the fictional setting is a little more common. Cooking variants on the time management theme, such as "Hot Dish", create strategic variation by requiring the player to assemble a range of different recipes, and since the recipes are somewhat related to real food preparation methods, that allows the player at least to engage with the nominal setting of the restaurant more completely: there's still no plot to speak of, but the game's fiction has more depth and content than the average "Dash" spinoff, and one comes away with the (possibly spurious) sense of having learned something.

Either way, more structural elements aren't necessary. If anything, a good match between interaction style and narrative/fictional content can mean a simpler presentation: there's less need for elaborate framing if the player is experiencing a good portion of the content directly via the gameplay.

[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.]