The other day, in search of something to do while I was feeling under the weather, I downloaded Chocolatier on a recommendation from Jay Is Games. Despite not thinking it was that brilliant a game, I wound up buying the full version; and thinking about why I did that has led me to some other thoughts about the appealing aspects of IF.
The game-play is not fantastic. It’s not terrible either — you’re the owner of a chocolate empire, and you travel the globe collecting ingredients, acquiring factories to produce a variety of candies, and selling crates of produced goods. Occasionally you’ll meet up with characters who send you on specific missions, to deliver objects across the globe or to produce some number of crates of a specific product. There’s a small arcade component in that setting up a new recipe at a factory requires that you play a vaguely Snood-like angular shooting game; but this is not what you’ll spend the majority of your time on, which is fine, because as arcade-style games go, it’s uninspired.
The real interest in the game is in acquiring the ingredients for the candies, keeping all your factories running, selling at a reasonable price, and so on. The problem is, this process is way too easy and requires little strategy. Opportunities to buy upgrades (like new shops and factories, or improvements to factory equipment) generally come when you have so much money that it’s no trouble to afford them; there’s no need to save up or choose between multiple upgrade paths. Missions offered by in-game characters are almost always things you should accept and are easy to carry out when they’re offered. There are some ways to optimize your input and output, but the margins are so generous that even mediocre management of your resources will still soon make you a multi-millionaire with your own globe-crossing airship and a commercial empire stretching from Trinidad to Hong Kong. My game play strategy mostly amounted to “buy sugar and cocoa in bulk whenever you find them for cheap, and sell your candy at stores you own for maximum profit”.
There’s a loose framing story that goes with all this — something to do with a feuding family of chocolatiers who, implausibly, live scattered across the face of the earth — but since the character interaction is all in the form of making crates of chocolates and delivering them to various places, the narrative aspect doesn’t amount to much. I wasn’t seduced by the way the game looked or felt, either, really: the artwork is pleasant but not beautiful, and ditto the music. I’ve been blown away by the look of some games in the recent past (the clean, crisp packaging of Electrocity comes to mind; so does the elegant cartoonish interface of What Makes You Tick?). Chocolatier is nice but not in that league.
Some of these deficiencies weren’t obvious after the first hour of demo play; after all, the demo section of a game may be expected to be easy, and I did think that things might get a little more challenging later on. But still, I could see even then that this was not a game I needed to finish. So why was I enjoying it enough to buy it anyway?
It comes down to the chocolate. You start out making quite ordinary chocolate bars, but acquire recipes and work your way up to the point where you’re producing dark chocolate infusions with cherry ganache, or truffles made with a blend of single source cacao; and each of these recipes (of which there are some dozens) is not only depicted but lyrically described.
Evoking pleasure through description is not, perhaps, the highest possible goal of art. But it’s not a bad one, either — think of all those lush cookbooks and travel narratives, or 17th-century still-lifes. And this is something for which IF is really well suited and for which we do have the techniques pretty well worked out, unlike (say) character development, which is considerably harder at a technical level.
I’m reminded of one of my favorite passages from Andrew Plotkin’s The Dreamhold. Critics have complained of the vagueness of its backing story and the relative lack of a foreground plot and characterization; I can’t disagree, but I enjoyed it immensely anyway, for bits such as this one:
In the center of the bower, a single dense bush squats, sullen and dark. Its branches knot heavily around each other, then spread into sprays of delicate, blue-green needles. Strangely, a chill fog seems to spread out from under the bush; it rolls across the ground and spills from the edges of the promontory.
The bush is broad and squat. Its blue-tinged needle-like leaves grow profusely, hiding heavy branches and small clusters of translucent white berries.
Clusters of berries hang amid the bush’s foliage. They are white and glossy, pale — indeed, nearly translucent.
You reach for a berry… ow!
You snatch back your hand, rubbing frost from your finger. The cold was intense enough to blanch your skin.
There’s quite a bit more to do with the berries, playing on multiple senses; the passage is a kind of interactive still-life in its own right. There is a fair amount of IF that is thoroughly-implemented in the sense of having every description dutifully filled in; there’s much less that takes such delight in those descriptions. (Though see also Ivan Cockrum’s Sunset Over Savannah, a classic that doesn’t get recommended to new IF players nearly as often as it should.)