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Column: Homer In Silicon

Column: Homer in Silicon: Have Him Bathed And Waiting In My Chambers

October 27, 2010 12:00 PM |

['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.

Column: 'Homer In Silicon': The Only Way to Win

September 29, 2010 12:00 AM |

NewWorld.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 common rhetorical moves that redefine the meaning of a game mid-playing.]

My first encounter with the rhetorical power of games came in the early 90s. We had gotten a copy of Avalon Hill's New World, one of those massive games where it takes hours to learn the rules and punch out the cardboard pieces, and hours more to finish a single playthrough. My family played it exactly once.

The idea is that each player represents a European power exploring the new world. Your goal is to send home resources; you want to exert some power over regions of the New World so that you can continue to send them.

There are all sorts of problems to contend with, such as the loss of cargo at sea, but over the course of a single game it quickly became obvious that the dominant strategy was to exterminate the native population wherever you went. Attempts to live side-by-side with them rarely worked.

At the time this was a revelatory experience; I'd not run into a game before that was capable of raising moral issues just through its rules. There was Diplomacy, of course, but there the ethical issues were not simulated in the rules, exactly. Whereas New World seemed to be saying that the problem wasn't merely the method of the explorers, but their goal itself, which drew them more and more into unacceptable behavior.

Column: 'Homer In Silicon': Golgi Bodies

September 17, 2010 12:00 AM |

['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 Cellcraft, an indie RTS developed to teach cellular biology to middle-school children.]

Cellcraft is a Flash-based RTS about cellular biology, from Super Energy Apocalypse author Lars Doucet.

Like his earlier work, it's a science-heavy look at a complex system, but where Super Energy Apocalypse is looking to model and persuade, Cellcraft is more about teaching: getting players familiar with how the organelles of a cell work, what they're for, and what might threaten their survival. Gameplay consists of gathering resources such as glucose and amino acids, ordering organelles to produce energy and defenses for the cell, and fighting off waves of viruses.

I thoroughly approve of this idea. To this day, my default picture of the organs in a human body is based on the Visible Man Kit my mother helped me paint when I was little, rather than any diagram in a textbook: the spatial manipulation was much more effective at getting the details into my brain.

Video game presentations can take that a step further, not only offering manipulable spatial treatments but also a demonstration of how something works systematically. A series of challenges based on understanding and manipulating a cellular system is far more effective for most students than a multiple-choice test asking for the definition of a lysosome.

Some of this has to do with learning styles, because some students remember visual representations better than textual ones, but a lot of the benefit comes from the active learning format.

Column: 'Homer In Silicon': Hidden Object Love

September 1, 2010 12:00 PM |

TigerEye_Logo2.png['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 Passionfruit Games' PC casual game Tiger Eye: Curse of the Riddle Box.]

Tiger Eye: Curse of the Riddle Box is a casual game adaptation of Marjorie M. Liu's novel. The script is all written by the original author, and this shows. It does feel like a romance novel.

The characters are implausibly self-aware and spend a long time dwelling on their own feelings, and they partake of a certain Mary-Sue perfection. The hero has infeasibly broad shoulders. The heroine is the favorite person of practically every non-evil person she meets. The things that are silly genre features of romance novels continue to be silly.

And did I mention that the hero is also a shapeshifting were-tiger who just happens not to be able to shapeshift right now because the villain stole his pelt?

On the other hand, revelations about the plot are reasonably paced throughout the game, and there's vastly more storytelling complexity than in most casual games. The story ends with a moderate cliff-hanger -- "Curse of the Riddle Box" is only part one of at least two -- but within that time we've already gotten several important personal revelations, multiple competing enemies on our trail, and a selection of ancient legends. It feels like someone thought about story pacing, not just level design.

Column: 'Homer In Silicon': Tiki Queen

August 11, 2010 12:00 PM |

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.

Column: 'Homer In Silicon': My Husband is a Little Blue Peg

August 4, 2010 12:00 AM |

['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 Big Fish's casual life sim Life Quest.]

Usually the creepier aspects of gameplay worldview have to do with means rather than ends. You're, say, protecting the Earth from invading monsters (good) but you have to slaughter a bunch of their human servants along the way (dubious). You're building a global restaurant business (neutralish), but in order to succeed you have to sell diseased meat and rape the environment (bad).

Then there's Life Quest.

Life Quest is a casual life sim game that offers about three hours of gameplay and treads some of the same territory as Kudos. It puts its supremely creepy elements right up front, in the explicit goals: your whole purpose in life is to show up old rivals before your high school reunion.

One by one, these rivals turn up and tell you what life dream they're trying to accomplish next, and you have to try to accomplish the same thing faster. This is the motivation for everything you do, from buying a new sofa to taking a yoga class to growing into a job that pays more than $20 a shift.

The framework -- beat first this rival, then that one -- provides perhaps useful new-player guidance during the early phases of the game. It is an unsurprising way to make casual gameplay out of a simulation that might otherwise be daunting: casual games often have an annoying way of telling the player not only what to do, but how to do it.

I'm not crazy about the framework, though, because it removes most of the interesting choices from the game. I find myself hoping the high school rivalry thing is Life Quest's tutorial. It isn't. That's the whole game.

A sense of narrative dissonance kicks in early. My rivals are making me do things that aren't what I or my character would prefer to do next. At first, though, it seems sort of harmless. Sure, I'll go to yoga class with my old frenemy. It'll be good self-motivation for exercise I should get anyway. People do do that kind of thing in real life.

The sense gets substantially stronger when my rival tells me that my next challenge was to give up my condo in the city and move out to the suburbs, where I'd be paying more money for a house with a longer commute time. That doesn't strike me as a great deal. It also isn't the sort of thing I think my character would be into. I've developed her as a fashion-loving, career-oriented urbanite. Moving out to cul-de-sac country doesn't fit her.

Clearly it is a mistake to think about this too hard, but I ask myself what kind of person would define herself so completely by other people's opinions that she'd buy a house she can't afford and doesn't want to maintain, in a part of town she doesn't like and doesn't want to live in.

I try ignoring the challenge, deliberately losing the competition so that I can focus on other tasks within the simulation. That doesn't work, though. Despite the sandbox-like promises in the marketing description, in reality Life Quest is brutally linear. If I don't do the tasks set out by my rivals, I can't unlock useful new locations in the game. I'm simply not allowed to break out and do my own thing. If I miss the deadline on a challenge, the game doggedly waits for me to accomplish my assigned tasks after the deadline. I get fewer points, but that's still the only way to level up.

This scheme progresses from unappealing to deeply creepy when my high school rivals challenge me to start a family.

Column: 'Homer In Silicon': More Carrots

July 14, 2010 12:00 AM |

['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.)

Column: 'Homer In Silicon': Observation

June 30, 2010 12:00 AM |

['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 Love and Death: Bitten, a hidden object game from Playfirst.]

According to some branches of non-Stoker lore, vampires have an obsession with tidiness: they can't pass by a knot without untying it, or a spill of dried peas without picking them up. A ball of twine and a bag of rice are almost as good against a vamp as a stake and holy water.

Some such rationale might half explain Love and Death: Bitten, a vampire love story/hidden object game. In between plot events (and sometimes even when gripped by the urgency of the hunt) the vampire protagonist will stop to collect, say, six match sticks, five plates, and a pair of stockings from a messy room. This doesn't explain why his human love interest does the same.

I am not a great fan of hidden object gameplay. I played Love and Death: Bitten for two reasons: it was getting strong reviews as a casual game with a lot of story content, and it also contains a number of other types of puzzle.

The reviews don't lie: if we set aside the essential implausibility that the protagonists stop at the most inopportune times to search for trinkets, this is a pretty decent story/gameplay mesh for a hidden object game.

Column: 'Homer In Silicon': The Missing Protagonist

May 21, 2010 12:00 PM |

digital-thumbnail.png['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 "Digital: A Love Story" by Christine Sarah Love.]

I am a great fan of games that tell stories about particular protagonists, or that encourage the player to help define the protagonist into a well-formed character. In general, I think the move away from protagonists who are purely stand-ins for the player is a move towards more specific, compelling stories.

But all such generalizations have exceptions: the freeware 'computer mystery/romance' Digital: A Love Story works entirely because it leaves "you" blank.

The story, set in an alternate version of the late 80s, begins with the protagonist receiving a modem and a dialer from his or her uncle. All game play consists of manipulating the virtual desktop, discovering the world of bulletin boards, sending messages and downloading applications and dialing more and more new numbers.

Almost at once, we find ourselves exchanging messages with *Emilia, a would-be poet who reads as an emo teenager, self-dramatizing yet maddeningly vague about her feelings and problems. An awkward semi-romance springs up, with *Emilia hinting with annoying coyness at her feelings for the protagonist.

Now, what is brilliant about this is that the game never shows us the protagonist's emails to *Emilia, only her responses -- which makes the whole business both more relatable and less saccharine. Indeed, the whole interface of the game removes as much as possible any sense of perceiving the story through a viewpoint character.

Column: 'Homer In Silicon': Character Creation And Fallout 3

May 4, 2010 12:00 AM |

fallout-3.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 Fallout 3.]

This January and February I estimate I spent somewhere between sixty and eighty hours with Fallout 3.

I must have liked it.

There were various flaws -- the sameyness of the setting after enough hours being a prominent one. Then there was the implausible world-building: after two hundred years, you're telling me there's still edible, unlooted food in the grocery stores?

But one forgives those things because one has to.

In any case, I couldn't help but be impressed by the degree to which my story in Fallout 3 felt like it was something unique, probably a lot different from someone else's story.

Some of that had to do with the way the player is allowed to control the features of storytelling -- pace, exposition, rate at which the backstory is uncovered. Some of it had to do with the direct control over the protagonist's choices.

Oddly, it was most often the former aspect that I found narratively meaningful, while intentional choices often let me down.