kate1.jpg['Homer in Silicon' is a biweekly GameSetWatch-exclusive column by Emily Short. It looks at storytelling and narrative in games of all flavors, including the casual, indie, and obscurely hobbyist.]

"Kate's Fix-It-Up Adventure" is a PC casual time-management/tycoon game developed by Polish team World-Loom (here's a neat interview with them) in which the protagonist, Kate, is apparently a genius for car repair.

It's a balanced and entertaining piece of work in its genre, which is more strategic and less speed-based than pure time-management games like the "Diner Dash" series and closer to building/real-estate games such as "Build-a-Lot" and "Be Rich." And I'm on record here often enough complaining that these games could be narratively interesting but just, in general, aren't.

In the interstices between levels, "Fix-it-up" offers a story told in comic book style, another mainstay in the time-management genre. But this one was better than average: instead of following a perfectly upward trend line of career advancement and social success, Kate encounters some problems.

She has family members who help her, but some of them are not actually that nice and are really using her for their own benefit. She has to deal with egocentric jerks, and with friends who make poor choices. By the end, she is divided between the claims of her buddy/romantic interest Steve and the career-oriented claims of her Hollywood business partner.

The story ends with an argument between the two men, and Kate tells them not to fight over her because she gets to choose for herself what happens next -- but the game does not record her preference. We get the credits where the final scene ought to go. The story has a hole in it, and it's interactive strictly in the sense that you get to imagine for yourself what fits in the hole. It's the Lady-or-the-Tiger approach to interactive storytelling.

Trained on interactive fiction as I am, I would have preferred to be allowed to pick an outcome in-game, either through a choice at that point or (even better) via strategies I pursued in the final level of game-play. "Fix-it-up" doesn't try anything on that order, even though some of the framing of the later letters almost suggested that it might.

Notably, on several occasions, Steve and the business partner give Kate different recommendations about what she should do next. It seems like the perfect set-up for letting her/the player choose which goals to fulfill in that level, thus choosing a narrative path. But no, we don't get anything quite that genre-bending.

There are, however, three ways that the story leveraged the interaction to its advantage.

kate1.jpg1. The gameplay suggests a certain personality for the protagonist, and the story uses that.

Kate is sketched — lightly, but it's there — as someone who is a bit manipulable, a bit too giving to the people around her. She sometimes grumbles about the things people say to her, and the demands they make on her, but she goes on helping them and bailing them out even when she's conscious of being used.

That character trait is sort of implicit in the personalities of many time-management game protagonists, since many such games provide the player with increasingly absurd goals and dictates from customers, bosses, and other affiliates. All these challenges have to come from somewhere, right?

But most games never bother to acknowledge what sort of person the protagonist would have to be in order to put up with such treatment. (The exception here is "Miss Management", which does at one point have a side character point out that Denise is a little too desperate to keep everyone around her happy. But otherwise, most time-management games don't come near that level of human insight.)

2. The narrative uses the player's frustration.

Kate's Hollywood partner gets her some good connections and helps her set up, but he's also manipulative and keeps finding ways to take money or goods out of her business as well.

That makes him responsible for a few gains, but also for the setbacks that set up each new level. Because, at each level of play, Kate has to get her business up and thriving, it wouldn't do for her to be able to keep all of her money and cars over from the previous level: we need some reason for some of her resources to go away.

The clever part is tying that into the characterization of the partner, giving the player an active reason to resent him.

3. The narrative uses the player's enjoyment of gameplay.

The story avoids the most obvious possibilities: it is not about a romantic triangle in the classic sense. Steve's real rival is the protagonist's business, and, what's more, that rivalry has some punch to it; it's not the stuff of a romantic comedy where the business is merely a distraction until the hero or heroine realizes that Love Is What Matters Most. In some of the dialogue Steve almost comes off as a bit of a slacker -- though we also know that Kate misses him when he's not around.

The most telling moment comes quite late in the game, when Steve is trying to persuade Kate to come away and do something else. He asks whether she even really likes running her business, with the clear implication that she is supposed to say no.

I don't know whether I'm unique in this, but my reaction was to think, "Well, yes, actually!" From a gameplay perspective, Kate's life is about her business. I never get to play her doing anything else, after all! And, what's more, I've enjoyed helping Kate to be pretty good at what she does.

So though Kate is written to be attracted to Steve, and though I felt (with her) a strong annoyance at the manipulative false friends she had to work with, I also felt (on her behalf) a sharp slap of resentment that Steve chose to belittle her work-- especially after she has repeatedly helped him with business and money up to this point.

As a result of all that, what I really wanted was to disengage my business from the irritating, manipulative partner, but not to quit and run away with Steve either -- to tell him that I liked my work, and that I was open to dating him but not to giving up my career. So I guess I do know what goes in the space before the credits.

I would still have liked that outcome to be officially part of the story, though.

[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.]