For some time I’ve been arguing that the way forward for interactive storytelling is to heal the long-standing breach between narrative and puzzle, and make the interactive parts of a game reinforce and enhance the story. The player’s action should in some way help him better understand the characters, explore the constraints of the circumstance in which they find themselves, or intensify his feelings towards the participants and the outcome. (There are probably other possibilities too, but those are the obvious ones that present themselves.)
The casual game Miss Management accomplishes all that surprisingly well.
Miss Management belongs to the same general cast of games as Diner Dash, in which a scurrying player character runs around the screen seeing to assorted tasks and trying to make sure that everything gets finished on time. There are quite a few of these now, often centered on some form of traditionally female employment: be a nanny, a caterer, a baker, a waitress, a veterinarian; make sure everyone is looked after and all crises are averted. Most such games have a pretty thin framing story, though — usually the player character is just breaking into the business and needs to accomplish various levels of achievement in order to make a go of things.
Miss Management takes the narrative side seriously. It casts itself as a sitcom: multiple seasons of six episodes each, in which each season has a narrative arc and each episode has a smaller plotline. The sitcom theme even means that there’s a “live audience” track running while you play. Successes are greeted with cheers or laughter; setbacks with sympathetic awws.
The content of the sitcom is a nod to “The Office”, with references to “Office Space” as well. The PC is an office manager with the job of making sure that the day’s task work is completed, so instead of an endless cycle of customers, clients, or sick dogs, our avatar Denise has to deal with a cast of ongoing characters, her office-mates, all of whom have their own strengths and weaknesses, and who get on each other’s nerves in an endless variety of ways. Denise’s job is generally to keep the office running and tasks performed on time, while preventing any one employee (or herself) from becoming so stressed as to need to leave work. Each level of play has unique goals, and is prefaced (and sometimes concluded) by some framing dialogue which explains what’s going on in the office this time around. What’s more, the dialogue is actually good: it’s written with zest, the characters are well-delineated, and there are a number of genuinely funny lines.
The effect of the game-play is to add a certain amount of depth to all the banter, flirting, passive-aggression, and office politics of the frame story. I found as I played that I came to grudgingly respect and appreciate the character of Pearl, a condescending older lady who wants to run everything her way, because — though she’s a contemptible small-minded creature who actually derives relaxation from lecturing and stressing the other workers — she is also extremely competent and quick in finishing any work I throw at her. And having to work around the needs of the more high-strung characters made me resent them, even if they were otherwise likable. Through the interaction, I found I developed just the right sort of love-hate attitude toward the entire cast: there is no one who is entirely worthless or un-endearing, but they all have moments when they seem to exist purely for the sake of causing the player misery. The madness and farce of the interaction exactly fits the madness and farce of the frame story, too.
This is of course still not interactive Tolstoy, or Hamlet on the Holodeck, or anything of that nature. In some respects Miss Management has given itself an easy task: sitcoms tend to rely on stereotype, to be very episodic, to avoid heavy moral conundrum; what’s more, sitcoms are often about frustration, an emotion Grant Tavinor has argued is easy for video games to evoke. There’s plenty of frustration to be found in Miss Management, especially if you are most of the way to the end of the day, almost done with your tasks, and your player character stresses out before you can finish. Nor, to the best of my knowledge, can you change anything about the story outcome by the way you play the game.
All the same, what it does, it does well, and it represents the best melding of story and game I’ve yet seen come out of the casual game field.