['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. This week she looks at Super Energy Apocalypse Recycled.]

Super Energy Apocalypse Recycled is part persuasive game, part resource management toy, part tower defense sequence, and part zombie survival horror story. By day, you can build farms, factories, power plants, recycling centers -- and gun emplacements; by night, waves of zombies sweep the land. Your defenses work only as long as you have sufficient energy to power them. To make matters worse, zombies feed and gain power from eating trash and breathing smog.

Lars Doucet wrote Super Energy Apocalypse for a Jay Is Games contest, and then -- with the support and assistance of the Houston Advanced Research Center -- revised it to incorporate the best available real-world figures about the environmental concerns represented in the game. It is thus in the unusual position of having been optimized once from the perspective of player entertainment and once from the perspective of education about energy issues.

The result is mixed but curiously compelling. If you are anything like me, when you encounter a game with both campaign and sandbox modes, you start with the campaign -- which seems to be the intention and the right choice here. The story is present in part to explain the otherwise rather odd background of the simulation. The narrative structure is constrained and straightforward but well-written, with a few chilling reversals of fortune and some sinister dialogue that reminded me of GlaDOS. (This was probably intentional, and is only reinforced by the Portal-esque song at the end of the game.)

In fact, for the duration of the campaign, I felt that the story had rather the upper hand over gameplay: not only are level goals and constraints dictated by the needs of the narrative, but there are times when the player is confronted by overwhelming odds -- or unexpectedly easy battles -- simply because the story demands it.

On the whole, I found that approach refreshing. The story combines a number of cliches of survival horror, but it still manages to surprise from time to time, and I enjoyed playing through it. I think the campaign could have been better balanced in a few places to allow the gameplay better to reinforce the emotional weight of the story, but overall it works.

But the story is really only the beginning of the experience, and this is where SEAR diverges from many of the story-oriented games I have looked at here in the past. Its ten levels pass quickly, and are fairly easy to defeat (though they have their heart-pounding moments when the zombies mass over the horizon). The really challenging decisions come when you start in on sandbox mode and try to meet various challenges.

This is where the game's educational aspect comes to the fore, as well. During the campaign, it's easy to be too focused on the level goals to have time to study the tradeoffs in going with one form of energy over another. In sandbox mode, there's more opportunity to compare and contrast the values of different energy cycles. The result is somewhat instructive, though at times the interface made it a little unclear how much energy different options consume (and how often), or how much pollution they produce how often; so it was not always easy to know what to make of this process.

Because of the subject matter, SEAR invites comparison on the one hand with Electrocity and on the other with Oiligarchy.

Electrocity is a serene, placid exploration of energy resource options that at least tries to be unbiased (though such claims should always be regarded with healthy cynicism); Oiligarchy a morbidly funny tale about how oil companies are destroying the world, with only a thin veneer of procedural gameplay over the top.

Electrocity performs its educational function a bit more clearly -- I found it easier to assess pros and cons of different power sources using it -- but at the same time it dodges some problematic issues; for instance, it doesn't deal with some of the negative implications of nuclear waste management. SEAR deals with this a bit more directly, by making nuclear plants produce a special kind of waste that needs to be stored separately and then guarded against zombie incursion, because it is extra-effective at making the zombies large and mean. In my playthroughs I quickly found that the nuclear waste was more trouble than I wanted to deal with, and tended to go for geothermal plants wherever possible instead. Like Electrocity, though, SEAR makes it clear that some energy options depend on local geology, so not all maps feature the vents required to build a geothermal plant.

SEAR.pngOiligarchy takes on a few problems that SEAR does not, such as the fact that oil wells eventually dry up and give out, but on the whole its approach is so polemical that it is difficult to take seriously, and the procedural aspects make it extremely hard for the player to avoid one cataclysmic outcome or another. As I've argued elsewhere, Oiligarchy is not really fair about the way it lays its arguments out.

It is more interested in telling a story of greed and corruption than in allowing the player the freedom to explore the ramifications of a simulation (even a rigged one). SEAR avoids such overt propaganda, and, like Electrocity, allows the player to draw his own conclusions about what power sources are likely to be most successful in the long term.

There is another portion of the environmentalism debate that none of these three games really deals with directly. Namely, granting that pollution is undesirable, what exactly are the long term effects of different kinds and quantities? Are nuclear waste barrels (stored as securely as we can manage) more of a problem than tons and tons of CO2 emissions? How serious are the risks of nuclear meltdown, and how do we factor that in? Is ethanol production worth giving up food-producing land? How resilient is the planetary weather system, anyway, and are there tipping points that will push us all towards irremediable disaster?

We can guess the answers to some of these questions, but only to some of them, which makes it hard to build a plausible simulation. Electrocity mostly dodges the question by making all pollution categorically a bad thing that lowers one's popularity with the citizens (and the use of nuclear power makes them especially irate, which I suppose is its way of handling the question of radioactive waste). Oiligarchy simulates a peak oil effect but doesn't look into the pollution side of things much at all, except in the form of narrated effects imposed from outside the procedural realm.

SEAR... well, SEAR takes this whole bundle of dire outcomes and labels it "zombies". If you make too much nuclear waste, the zombies will eat it, then kill you. If you produce too much smog, the zombies will breathe it, then kill you. Zombies stand in for the combined destructive power of famine, flood, disease, hurricane, forest fires, the absence of clean water, carcinogens, and radiation poisoning, not to mention human warfare in response to scarcity -- anything and everything that might result from too profligate a treatment of our natural resources.

This is very silly, but I also found it refreshingly honest at a psychological level. It seemed to me that the game was saying: we know something about what produces pollution, and about the pros and cons of various energy solutions. That part, we can optimize. We know a lot less about what happens once that pollution is released into the environment, especially when it comes to the long term effects and our ability to mitigate the worst repercussions. Instead of certainty, we have apprehensions and fears.

In trying to do so many different things at once, SEAR falls short of doing any of them perfectly. Its campaign narrative is fun and engaging, but could in spots be better integrated with game play. The weapon placement aspect of play lacks the sophistication of most dedicated tower-defense scenarios. The resource-management is occasionally a little hard to follow from the interface.

And yet it's oddly compelling. It's neither pure pedagogy nor pure propaganda. The blend of fiction and simulation, goofy fantasy and grounded research somehow convey the muddled ways we talk and think about climate change. We want science to provide a solution -- ideally one that doesn't require too great a lifestyle sacrifice -- but we respond to dire threat with our lizard brains.

That's a switch I found myself making over and over during the day/night cycle of SEAR: I started each day laying out resources with the best planning I could, but as the sunlight waned, I stopped building research labs and started placing guns.

[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.]