Coconut-Queen_1.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. This week she looks at Coconut Queen, a tycoon game from iWin Games.]

This game was enraging.

To be fair, and I feel like I have to put this right up front, I am sure I didn't have the experience intended by the designers. Coconut Queen was extremely unstable on my Mac. It crashed, I estimate, more than twenty times during my play through. On several of those occasions, it destroyed progress through a fairly difficult level. Once it crashed right as the "Level Complete" message was coming up, forcing me to replay an entire level that I had won once.

Possibly I should have just given up on the game.

But it did have some good things going for it. The art is polished and attractive, and the style is a bit different from the standard in its genre. The characterization works pretty well, with your chief assistant popping up to give advice and simply to comment on events during the course of play.

The plot also has a fair amount of structure. The game is divided between several areas available for development, and each of these has its own small plot arc. Environmental events occur mid-level, such as earthquakes, monsoons, or the arrival of a film crew, that alter the landscape and set new priorities for play. That's a touch I've seen increasingly often in time management/tycoon games lately -- Farmcraft is also long on these -- and it adds a lot to the experience.

The fiction has a bit of a subversive coloration, too: the protagonist arrives at a tropical island, is greeted by an endless supply of attractive male servants (whose skills you can upgrade at "Hunk U"), and is invited to reign over them as Coconut Queen. But this objectification is played pretty tongue-in-cheek. This may be a fantasy island, but the fantasy is self-aware and even self-mocking.

This subversive aspect gets clearer as you progress to more difficult levels. Like many capitalist fantasy games, Coconut Queen rewards exhaustively using all the resources and space available -- but it also makes that problematic. The level spaces are beautiful, largely untouched island beaches when you first get your hands on them. The first few cabins or amenities you build may seem like an enhancement.

But as you go on, you will need to cut down parts of the jungle, leaving behind ugly tree stumps and bare land for development. Some of the island's guests will even comment on this: occasionally you have environmentalist visitors who want you to replant some of the jungle, and a late level features a "swamp ghost" who resents the larger buildings you build. Another has a sacred temple that you are supposed to respect, and this imposes restrictions on the gameplay, but diligent players will by the end have managed to obey those restrictions in name only.

The visual effects support the sense that you're taking development way too far. In the game's later locations, there's such a pressure for new land that you will find yourself tiling hotels and condominiums, garish restaurants and implausible water parks extremely close together. And what once seemed sort of attractive starts instead to look cluttered.

Coconut-Queen_1.jpgSo Coconut Queen seems to have an embedded narrative that questions the wisdom and rightness of what you're doing; and the final level of the game requires the player to dismantle a resort foolishly and unattractively built on the slopes of an active volcano. So far, so good.

The problem is, the narrative makes other promises that it doesn't fulfill.

As the game goes on, it becomes increasingly clear that in fact the island inhabitants are lying to the protagonist. Where are all the island's women? What is her chief assistant really up to? If there's a conspiracy on, then what is it, and why?

I was interested in finding out the answers to these questions. Curiosity kept me going even at points where I had grown really irritated with the constant crashes.

But -- though it lays down lots of bread-crumbs along the way -- Coconut Queen ends with a cliffhanger that doesn't address anything it has built up all this time, but leaves the player with more questions.

I've complained about games that don't have the guts to end properly before. Coconut Queen is a particularly egregious example, though, because the earlier portions of the game are so successful in building suspense, establishing a relationship with (but also doubts about) the protagonist's right-hand man Manu, and trailing new hints about the secret. In fact, almost the very first thing that happens in the first cut-scene is that the protagonist asks about how she became Coconut Queen and where the women of the island are. She's told that that will be answered later.

And it isn't.

I'm not alone in being annoyed about this. Jay Is Games' comment thread is full of people asking, "Where is the end of the story?"

This boggles me. There are so many tricky things about telling a good story in interactive forms, but realizing that you should tell us the ending is not one of them.

If you want to leave some kind of tantalizing hint for the future, that's fine. There can be a villain's companion who gets away, or a small clue that's unresolved. But don't leave the protagonist in a completely unresolved situation, with the mystery that's been hanging over us for the whole game simply unanswered. That makes your player feel cheated.

(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.]