['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 Nevosoft's PC casual title Farmcraft 2: Global Vegetable Crisis.]

Most time management/tycoon games work on the assumption the plucky entrepreneur was born for business. Flo and all her spiritual successors are just more patient, more thorough, and better at running off their feet than all the competition, and that is, of course, what matters. A strong work ethic leads simply and inevitably to business growth and material well-being.

Farmcraft 2: Global Vegetable Crisis goes a different way with this. From the beginning, its level design is less mechanical and more thoughtful: less about grinding and more about playing through a complex sequence of situations. The protagonist, Ginger, still isn't heavily characterized beyond her courage and willingness to work hard, but she's given a little more scope for development, with cartoon cut scenes framing every level.

Gamezebo comes down hard on the game for its inconsistent level design. Their reviewer is right, in the sense that Farmcraft 2's levels are not (and are not intended to be) of equal lengths.

This is a little annoying if you're trying to play the game during lunch breaks at work (as I was), because you never know whether the level you're about to start is going to take five minutes or ninety. I was willing to forgive, though, because this variety is in the cause of storytelling richness. (Warning: from here on, there are some spoilers.)

There's one especially effective passage late in the game, which is much like a regular level, but colored entirely sepia, representing a dream about Ginger's adolescence. Normal gameplay rules, by this time ingrained in the player's muscle memory by many hours of exercise, are suspended. Irrigating plants doesn't work, because the ground dries again instantly. Watering pots speak. Tomato seeds bring up weeds.

Elsewhere, even the ordinary mechanics of farming, hiring laborers, and setting up factories are rendered narratively more effective through changes of goal. More than once, some story event in the middle of a level wipes out an asset or requires Ginger to make a new plan of attack. Occasionally these interludes are frustrating, but for the most part I liked the effect: no two levels of Farmcraft 2 are alike.

The designers also had the kindness to give the player a real gameplay victory lap. The final farming level of the game is the most difficult but also vastly the most satisfying: instead of starting out with a farm partly preconfigured and already in progress, the player has a huge empty space to build up from nothing. It's a chance for the player to demonstrate mastery of all the different tools and techniques that have been taught up to that point, in the most sandboxy environment so far. But there is also a touch of bittersweetness about the process, because we know from the beginning of the level that this is Ginger's last stand: she is building up this farm to pass on to her successor.

Not all of the levels are even about farming: some of the shorter ones are more concerned with puzzles and exploration.

The most common mechanic other than farming and farm management has to do with lighting. Light and darkness are a recurring feature in the game: some levels include day/night cycles in which Ginger has to install generators and lighting in order to be able to see her own crops (and her hired workers won't harvest or tend any plants they can't see). In others, she has to sneak through the dark patches of a competitor's farm in order to collect secrets; find objects that are lost in large dark spaces; or meet up with conspirators who are hiding away.

Thematically, this works extremely well. Ginger's story is part mystery, part success story: some of the time she's working diligently against difficult odds to bolster the people who depend on her, and the rest of the time she's trying to figure out what is going on in the world's agricultural markets.

In the end, that means rejecting the lifestyle and game structure that has brought us this far. The bad guys sort of win -- that is, they get rich at the expense of others, and they also save the world from disaster (one which they engineered in the first place). Ginger gives up farming and joins a monastery in Tibet, where she spends the rest of her life looking for inner truth. This is the happy ending.

The search for better ways to grow carrots (which has been occupying us for most of the game, really) is recognized as meaningless or, at worst, actively damaging. The urge towards relentless business expansion has driven down prices to unsustainable levels and brought the world agriculture market to the verge of collapse.

This final transition away from farming and the whole capitalist rat race is framed in terms of the desire for enlightenment and discovery... with a side of mind-altering chemicals, as Ginger has to collect 12 mushrooms in order to gain insight into her life. When she overcomes the darkness, she understands what her life is truly about, and the path she's destined to follow.

From a narrative point of view, it's the light gameplay that wins out over the tycoon and management gameplay.

It's unfortunate, then, that I kind of hated the light-based levels. I've disliked light components in time management games ever since I ran into them in Diner Dash: Flo on the Go, where Flo is serving food on a cruise ship (or something like that) and the lights go out. The player is left sweeping the mouse cursor across the screen, aiming the "flashlight" and trying desperately to figure out where to click next. It's a miserable mechanic that completely disrupts the zen-like flow that time management games produce when they're working at their best.

They're still annoying in Farmcraft 2. Granted, not all of the light puzzles involve sweeping the flashlight across the screen while trying to meet urgent deadlines. Some of them instead involve sweeping the flashlight across the screen while trying to identify small objects that might be anywhere in a vast sea of black. A few involve figuring out where to place lamps for optimum effectiveness on your farm. Those last ones, I'm sort of willing to forgive. The others, however, are more irritation than game. They reward patience and thoroughness rather than planning and invention.

And that stacks up so badly against the farming levels, because the farming levels are by and large extremely good.

As the Gamezebo review notes, it's occasionally possible to get into a situation where you can just sit back and let your workers farm for you, if you've done well enough. But I could usually still find some useful things to do even when my farm was doing well; and up to that point, there were a variety of interesting choices to be made about layout, crop selection, choice of workers, and building upgrades.

So I respect Farmcraft 2 for being a little more sophisticated about the capitalist/work-hard-get-rich ideology presented so unproblematically in most of its genre. I liked the gameplay. I found the pacing occasionally a bit awkward, but for the most part, I liked the variety in the levels more than I disliked not knowing how long the next level was going to play. I think the light puzzles were probably a good choice for the themes they were introducing -- about looking more carefully at situations, about understanding the consequences of one's actions more completely.

All the same, I felt unsatisfied with where it all went. I was told, rather than convinced by the gameplay, that Ginger's farming practices were contributing to an unhealthy outcome for the world at large. I was also told, and not convinced by the gameplay, that a search for enlightenment was more satisfying to Ginger than further farming work ever could be.

Honestly, she didn't seem like the sort for a contemplative life, and I wasn't crazy about crawling back and forth through darkened fields looking for the Mystical Mushrooms of Enlightenment.

If it were left up to me, Ginger would still be picking carrots. I bet she could go organic.

(Disclosure: I played a copy of this work that I purchased at full price. I have had no commercial affiliations with the publisher at the time of writing.)

[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 also contracts for story and design work with game developers from time to time, and will disclose conflicts with story subjects if any exist. She can be reached at emshort AT mindspring DOT com.]