['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 Gamer Digital's PC casual time management game Making Mr Right.]

Making Mr Right [YouTube trailer] is a time management game in which your job is to coach a number of men into being the ideal mates for their partners.

To do this, you click-manage a studio (drag the men to the various stations where they can learn new skills, then move them on again before they get frustrated). There's also a building/community layout component borrowed from games like Build-A-Lot, and a gift shop where you can match-3 falling gifts in order to earn powerups for later.

I played this game in a haze of loathing. There is nothing about it that is well-conceived: each of the three types of gameplay represented is worse tuned and less interesting than equivalent games elsewhere. The story is horrendous.

The building portion is just bland. The goals here are usually to get a certain overall "attractiveness" rating for your community and to raise the attractiveness of specific houses high enough to get the people in them to commit. For some reason, ladies are more inspired to accept a proposal when they have two or three fountains in their back yard. This part of the game isn't especially challenging; mostly it's a matter of laying down.

The match-3 portion is supposed to let you earn powerups, such as patience enhancers and speed-ups for your male pupils, that you can apply during the time management level. You earn these by matching the special lightning, happy face, or other power-up blocks.

The problem is that the designers borrowed from some other match-3 games the additional quirk that some special blocks will blow out a wide area around them, or take out a whole line of elements -- including the power-ups you're trying to manipulate into position. Moreover, this functionality is not well-explained at any point, and the icon that signals the existence of this kind of explody block is easy to miss. So you can waste a lot of time trying to line up your happy faces, only to have the entire plan ruined by an explosion that you weren't anticipating.

The time management aspect is the most frustrating. You constantly need to buy new stations at which to train men, and there's an element of spatial puzzle-solving because these stations have different footprints and have to be arranged on the grid that is the studio floor.

Moreover, it's rare to have just one annoyed customer; if you have a problem with the flow state, it's usually because multiple people are backed up waiting for the same machine, all disgruntled alike.

The problem with these design features is that, when things start to go badly, they're almost guaranteed to be unrecoverable: you simply don't have the time and attention to stop and redesign your studio to squeeze in a new station while you've got a room full of impatient clients. The game does continue even if you fail to get many (or indeed any) men through their training regimen. But this means that you have to come back and train the leftovers later -- so there are also likely to be some very boring rounds where you have to train the two or three guys who failed last time.

All in all, the game manages to capture the start-and-stop, stress-and-boredom cycle of certain real jobs. It's the opposite of good time management flow state.

The story, though! Is there even any point in railing against the inanity of this? Possibly not, but I see various casual game sites happily giving this game the thumbs up. "Engaging storyline," lies GameZebo.

So, okay, let's look at this "engaging storyline."

The (wretched, insulting) premise is that men can be upgraded into relationship acceptability as long as they learn certain skills, buy plenty of gifts, and live in large houses.

The male characters in this scenario act like children: when they have trouble learning, they throw temper tantrums and wreck the stations where they are supposed to be practicing such woman-pleasing skills as how to book a cruise or how to play golf.

Maybe I move in the wrong circles, but I have yet to have any female friend confide to me that size of her boyfriend's golf handicap was a dealbreaker. Severe immaturity and anger management problems certainly would be, however.

This is the story told by the systemic aspect of Making Mr Right: relationships are simplistic, men are childish, and the best thing that can happen for all concerned is for the women in the relationship to take them in for an upgrade.

There is a framing narrative which seems at times as though it might counter this message. Our protagonist, "Dr. Love," is writing a new book and sending home pieces of it to her editor, Richard, for comment. After each level, we get new diary content from Dr. Love, which hints heavily and early on that Richard is interested in her.

Now, Richard could have turned out to be the one who changed her mind about what relationships mean, by failing her tests for men but still being the right guy anyway. Or their relationship could have soured, or gone in some surprising direction. But no: the narrative here also is all about how Richard gets himself a new look and some new skills and then is able to successfully woo Dr. Love. They live happily ever after, the end.

The thing is, there's potential here for a critique of self-help books and women's magazines. The "studio" where Dr. Love's pupils train up is reminiscent of a spa or salon or gym -- the sorts of places that women take themselves in sometimes reasonable, sometimes misguided attempts to improve their value on the dating market.

But the game doesn't have the cajones to commit to that concept and say anything even mildly interesting about it. Not "let's imagine a world dominated by the female gaze," not "let's critique the idea that relationships can be controlled by carefully devised Rules," not "let's explore what it really implies if we judge potential mates purely by checklist."

No, the fantasy it's unreflectively peddling to (heterosexual) women is the fantasy that men are accessories and that making them better (at providing status, at helping with chores, at buying presents) is not very much harder than getting highlights and a mani-pedi.

It's a power fantasy -- like the power fantasies in so many console games, but enacted with rings and perfume instead of a big-ass gun.

(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.]