['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 Playfirst's DinerTown Tycoon.]

The Diner Dash series has established itself as a source of steady income for PlayFirst, but one with predictably cloned gameplay and minimal storylines. So I was curious to see what would become of DinerTown Tycoon: DinerTown Tycoonbills itself as a casual tycoon game, which puts it in company with some of my favorite casual works, the Chocolatier and Tradewinds series.

Unfortunately, the gameplay of DinerTown Tycoon is still fairly unadventurous; it is merely borrowing from a different genre than Diner Dash. There is little in the play of DinerTown Tycoon that one can't find in the deeply bland and profoundly unexceptional Cinema Tycoon, Cinema Tycoon 2, Cinema Tycoon Gold, and for all I know Cinema Tycoon Platinum Studded with Diamonds XXVII.

That is to say, instead of clicking on endless chains of customers and foodstuffs as in the traditional time management game, the player controls the restaurant business at a higher level: choosing menus for several different stores, maintaining inventory, researching customer preferences, investing in ad campaigns, and upgrading the physical premises. More is always better and you always want to wind up with all the possible upgrades sooner or later, so it's just a question of picking which items on a non-diverging upgrade path you want to buy first.

Then, each day, the player gets to watch the tiny inhabitants of DinerTown select their restaurants and go away happy and fed or disgruntled and hungry.

The watching phase is so dull that there is an option to run it in fast-forward, but even that had me drumming my fingers. The designers try to introduce a little energy into these segments by allowing the player to click on happy customers to receive additional tips, but this only encourages the player to click frenetically in the general vicinity of the restaurant outflow. In no way does it introduce any enjoyable gameplay to the watching stages. Moreover, the tips are such small change that they become entirely insignificant by the higher levels of play.

So there's nothing of substance to the gameplay other than picking ingredients and recipes and exploring the upgrade path.

In practice, this is much less interesting than it could be.

One of the flaws of the design is that failure can occur only after long intervals. On each level, the player has a set amount of time to succeed against the evil opponent, the vile Grub Burger. It's possible to buy a little extra time through judicious play, but in practice, one invests an hour or two of gameplay in each attempt to win a level.

This means that it's annoying to lose a level because so much must be redone (something I found out on the final level of the sequence). It also means that the player has little feedback along the way about whether he's doing well or badly, and thus little opportunity to refine a strategy.

Perhaps to avoid driving away players with too many major, irritating losses, the designers made the play too easy. It is rare to make actually wrong choices. Different kinds of customers have different food preferences, to be sure, but in practice this is schematized so that some of the customers will like the cheap recipes served at the beginning of a level, and then some of them will prefer the esoteric and expensive recipes that the player can't afford until the end. Thus a consistent arc of play is more or less guaranteed.

The chief strategic advice I have to offer another player, after having won the whole game, is this: don't branch out too much too early in a level, because early cash poverty can have very unfortunate consequences. I'm sure that a much more subtle strategy is possible, mind you; it's just that DinerTown Tycoon is so easy and feedback so badly managed that I had no opportunity to form and test any deeper hypotheses about how the game works.

It may sound as though I entirely despised the game, but I didn't; I played the whole thing through and I wasn't hating it while I did so. The whole Diner Dash series is designed, tested, and manufactured by people who know what they are doing. It's just that what they're doing is not always what I would call "game design."

The resulting experience is smooth, well-tested, unobjectionable in every respect. It's not exactly fun. It's something else that lives next door to fun, something that looks a bit like fun when you haven't had any real fun for a while and you've forgotten what fun is actually like. It's... pleasantly boring.

The best part of DinerTown Tycoon is its fictive layer, the wrapping it puts on the gameplay.

DinerTown Tycoon caters to the same foodie impulses behind Chocolatier (and also behind Hot Dish, Cooking Academy, and the somewhat uninspiring Cooking Dash, already set in the DinerTown 'verse). Recipes for the menus are described with care. Various cooking styles are gently celebrated or mocked. The cheap seafood at the beginning sounds thoroughly appalling. The gentle insistence on organic produce and "cruelty-free veal" might be taken either as a sincere expression of the designers' preferences or a bit of a mild satire.

But I most enjoyed the send-up of molecular gastronomy in the final level, with the playful and pretentious space-age food titles, the liquid nitrogen preparations, the reliance on such abstruse ingredients as agar, lecythin, and gold dust. This, at least, is not a cliché or a stereotype (yet). Someone somewhere in the making of this game had actually to observe this trend. And for all that people complain of a lack of imagination or invention in game writing, what is often really missing is observation.

The odd thing is, the fictive aspect of the game -- the enjoyable window-dressing that makes DinerTown Tycoon remotely interesting from moment to moment -- clashes badly with the narrative aspect, and the story (such as it is) comes off the worse in the encounter.

The ostensible situation is that Grub Burgers is taking over the town (or trying to) one zoning block at a time, luring in customers with the mysterious Ingredient X and turning them all into obedient zombies. The mayor has been seduced by their special green sauce too. But in what universe is a cheap-and-nasty burger joint competition for a French high cuisine establishment that charges $70 a plate for its perigord-truffle-dressed duck? Has anyone in the history of the world ever been planning to go to one and then changed his mind to the other?

I know, I know: it's a genre convention that the more difficult levels of a casual game reflect ever-greater levels of "luxury"; just as it's a convention that the story should be told in comic-book snippets at the beginning of each level, and that (at least in the Dash games) there should be some competitor-villain whose motives are unquestionably contemptible.

It's just that DinerTown Tycoon, by breaking a little out of the rigid mold established for such games, exposes the artificiality and dullness of the conventions.

Its central image -- of people dully eating garbage because no one has fed them a good meal lately, because they've forgotten what a good meal is even like -- just reinforces the point. In the metaphor of French restaurant vs. Grub Burgers, the Dash games are definitely the addictive, suspect franchise material. I'd be more bothered by that fact if PlayFirst's profitability weren't also funding things like Emerald City Confidential.

[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.]