After my recent good times with Chocolatier 2 (and, I have to confess, a string of stressful working days that left me too brain-dead to want to work on IF in the evening), I decided to try some demos for other games being sold by Big Fish and PlayFirst. Sadly, none of them were nearly as cool as Chocolatier 2, though not all were quite as maddening as Mystery in London, either. The run-down, for people who enjoy reviews no matter of what:
Wedding Dash: Yet another installment in the ferociously popular Diner Dash series, only this time you’re serving appetizers, main courses, and desserts at a series of wedding banquets. There are a few clever touches, in that you want to seat certain people together and certain others apart, but it is in every essential exactly the same game. I played for the full hour but would not pay money for another edition of this game, having played the original Diner Dash to satiety. Similarly:
Diner Dash Hometown Hero. Here Flo is going around to various venues around her home town to help them make money. It is Diner Dash all over again, only with variations that are more annoying than clever. I particularly dislike the innovation, brought in somewhat earlier in the series, whereby some diner customers are very noisy and annoy the people around them. I get the sense that the Diner Dash people are interested in making very conservative changes to what’s obviously a winning game formula, which is fine; but I’ve sort of used up the formula and don’t need to own more very-slightly-tweaked versions of the same.
Home Sweet Home. Here’s a game that doesn’t really know what it wants to be, I think. You’re an “interior designer” charged with picking out furniture that fits a client’s requirements; then you have to manage the work crew that builds the fireplaces, windows, new sofas, and lamp shades selected. Neither phase of the game is particularly satisfying to play. The client’s requirements are often described in what the game calls “riddle” form: for instance, one client is evidently so coy that she needs to express her liking for candles by calling them “Halloween smiles”. If you’re not sure what the client wants, you can play a guessing game by moving furniture in and out of your planned room, noticing which choices make the client give a thumbs-up sign. For the most obscure “riddles”, this becomes a tedious unoptimizable guessing game involving dozens of options.
Then phase two: you have three little builders whom you can assign to work on various parts of the house. Some builders are better at some tasks than others, but these relations are arbitrary. Over the course of multiple days the builders get tired, but you can re-energize them by pouring coffee on their heads. Sometimes builders also need tools, and when this happens, you need to drag and drop the tool from the toolbox in order to get the builder to keep working. For instance, one of my builders found that he needed a power drill in order to finish assembling those candles (sorry, “Halloween smiles”), while another needed a level to place a rug. In other words, the game mechanics are so lightly and oddly connected to their fictional explanation that any illusion of fictional point breaks down.
I guess maybe this shouldn’t matter that much — after all, I’m playing a game here that is fundamentally about satisfying totally arbitrary requirements, and I’m doing it because I’m tired and want to wind down a little before bed. And it’s pretty implausible that in Chocolatier 2’s universe you should have to configure a factory by playing some kind of weird shooting game, too — but there, at least, if you accept that the minigame abstractly or metaphorically represents a different, slower and more cerebral task of factory layout, it fits into the rest of the game well enough. Similarly I never really had objections to Puzzle Pirates‘ using multiple casual games to represent various sailing tasks — if anything I thought they were quite ingenious about how they tied the abstractions back into the chores they were supposed to represent.
Finally, though all of these games except maybe Azada are about traditionally female tasks — cooking, cleaning, catering banquets or waiting tables (often with explicitly female player avatars) — this is the only game where I consciously felt odd about the gender-directedness of it all; and that’s because, again, it wasn’t very good as a game. I thought, as I was dutifully assigning kitsch artworks to the walls: “This isn’t fun. The designers also didn’t think it was fun. But maybe they figured that women like decorating stuff, so they’d enjoy this.”
This is blatantly an unfair analysis; after all, it is hard to work to completion on any game that you don’t like at least a little, so maybe the designers were pretty into it after all. And for that matter lots and lots of people like buying furniture for their Sims. So perhaps this urge to furnish simulated houses is widely felt across the land, by both genders, and just skipped over me personally.
Still, I really felt that neither half of the game — decorating or building — knew what it wanted to be; they both felt like knock-offs of more successful game ideas without any kind of overall vision. Lame.
Hot Dish: Of the games I tried, this was by far my favorite, but it still had some serious design issues that made me draw back from buying the full version.
The premise is that you’re an assistant chef at a restaurant, and you must assemble the dishes to feed the customers. This is a time management game in which you have to arrange the steps of action carefully in order to ensure that you’re done with all the dishes at the same time and that the various clicks and mouse-gestures that mean chopping, stirring, baking, boiling, etc., are all performed when the clock demands it.
On the whole, that’s all reasonably clever, and I like time-management games for some reason. In particular, I like that Hot Dish does capture what it’s like to juggle having several dishes in progress at the same time — the peculiar choreography you develop in your head in order to keep everything moving forward at a proper rate. This is an interesting inverse of what we tend to think of as simulation in the IF world. Instead of being about modeling the process accurately (this is not a particularly exact model of cooking), it’s about inducing in the player a mental process similar to the one he has to go through when he performs that task in real life. This would be even better if it combined the time-management with the ability to creatively combine ingredients after the fashion of Chocolatier 2. But even so, not bad.
The problems? Several. First: in between levels of this fun and comparatively novel time management game, there is a match-3 game called “health inspection”. I am weary of match-3 games in all their forms. Second, that there’s no way to know what all the steps of a recipe are until the first time you set out to make it, which means that it is difficult to make sure all recipes including new ones come out at the same time. Third, some of the mouse gestures, like the clockwise rotation required for stirring, are awkward to do well, even if you’ve timed everything right. Fourth, along the same lines, it is easy to accidentally double-click or hold a click too long when activating a timed step like “boil” or “bake”; in this case the computer assumes you mean “start the bake but then end it again right away before the bread has had a chance to even come close to being ready”. There is no way to take back such mishaps.
I was also faintly weirded out by the ethnic stereotyping. After your work in a kitchen with an Italian matron, you get to move on to work for an Asian chef; the matron drops references to the old country and scolds and cajoles you in a predictable way, while the Asian chef offers vaguely Zen pronouncements. I don’t think any of this is meant as insulting; it just felt as though the game’s window dressing relied a lot on seriously oversimplified version of the relevant cultures, and I found that uncomfortable. YMMV. It’s not as though this part of the game mechanic offered scope for subtle characterizations.
Azada: in a strange, Myst-like room, we are forced to solve easy and tedious puzzles in order to free a guy trapped in a book. These puzzles are on the order of: nine-piece jigsaw puzzles; fifteen puzzles; connect-three puzzles; pixel hunt in this picture of a room puzzles; and many more non-puzzle puzzles of the kind that one might rightfully find in a travel activity book aimed at children ages 4-8. There is also a match-3 game.
The production values are good, or good-ish, which is to say that there is lots of competence hanging out with not enough vision. The is a soundtrack is forcibly reminiscent of the Harry Potter themes, but doesn’t manage to make its imagined world seem nearly as fun as Hogwarts Castle. I lasted roughly half an hour of the available demo time before giving up in sheer tedium. I guess that someone liked it, as it received an award for best puzzle game of 2007 (though the website does not say from whom).
Virtual Villagers: good heavens, this is dumb, with a side helping of mildly offensive. The premise is that you’re supposed to oversee the fates of a small clique of villagers who have been forced by volcanic eruption to leave their own peaceful home and go somewhere else. (The writing explaining this calamity is dully matter of fact, as though having your home obliterated in a sudden river of fire would be no big deal.)
Overseeing the villagers means picking them up in the pinch of your godlike fingers and moving them to various areas of the map, where they will begin work on assorted projects. Pinch and drop a villager on a bush and he’ll start trying to gather berries. Drop him on a half-completed hut and he’ll start building. Drop him on a pert lady villager and they will adjourn to the privacy of a hut, emerging thirty seconds later with infant in tow. (Worst sex ever.)
Most distressingly, after the tutorial period passes, it’s unclear what you’re supposed to do in order to make anything go forward in any interesting way. The villagers go around collecting berries, inefficiently starting huts, and tending their insta-infants, but there’s not really a lot to do; they are very very slowly accumulating training and experience (I think), and the one guy I turned into a proto-scientist is sitting at a table in the center of the village Researching, which very slowly builds technology points. I’m not sure what he is researching or how; it would not surprise me to learn that he is banging two coconuts together. The technology points can be used to buy new abilities, like farming, but I couldn’t imagine wanting to play long enough to earn this boon.
There didn’t really seem to be much to do with all this. I lasted 18 minutes with the demo before succumbing to the boredom. One event of note did occur — the villagers spontaneously found a drum which, when played, apparently evoked rain — but as far as I can tell this was not the result of anything I did. Agency, zero.