Casual Games of Assembly

Originally this was going to be part of the same post as the one on Puzzles of Aesthetics: I started out talking about fashion games, in general. But I quickly realized that JoJo’s Fashion Show was one kind of game and all the other fashion games were something else entirely.

So this half of the post is about games like Vogue Tales, Dress Shop Hop, and — by extension — Cake Mania, Turbo Subs, Go Go Gourmet, and the astonishing Golden Hearts Juice Bar. (That’s not a good kind of astonishment.)

There’s not a lot of IF stuff in here at all, really, since the kind of challenge involved is almost entirely about speed, and wouldn’t translate well.

So a frequent variation on the Diner Dash theme is one in which you have to assemble some kind of custom product for your customers, involving multiple steps of preparation. The essential idea is the same throughout, whether the custom product is a two-layered chocolate-frosted star-shaped cake, or a purple silk ballgown with ermine cuffs; the challenge is to set up a sequence and go with it.

These games vary in quality on two important axes. One is style and production value. Dress Shop Hop and Vogue Tales are pretty much the same game: assign a fabric to a pattern, add possible accessories, and give to client. But compare the screenshots, and what a difference there is. Dress Shop Hop is set in some sort of utilitarian not-exactly-modern environment, where spider-like machines automatically knit the fabrics; this goes far enough to be implausible and not far enough to admit an element of steampunk style. Vogue Tales is much more attractively drawn, with a more distinctive flavor, and that makes a significant difference to how much fun it is to play. Not very well researched, though. The dress cuts cover a temporally unlikely range from Regency to Edwardian; more distressingly, when your character moves to Italy, there’s distinctly a Sta Maria del Fiore in the aerial view, but canals and gondoliers out the window from the inside view. This Frankensteinian Veneto-Florence is repeatedly referred to as “Milan”.

I did kind of enjoy watching the dock laborer customers walk out with ribbon-sashed bright yellow silk evening jackets, though. Randomization does funny things.

Along the same lines, Turbo Subs is brightly and consistently drawn, while Cake Mania seems oddly cobbled together from artistically disparate elements. What’s more, the cakes don’t look very appetizing. Unfrosted, they look like sponges, and when they are frosted, the frosting drips unevenly down the sides, in the fashion of Mother’s Day surprises but not of professional cake shops. I’m pretty sure I would have liked this game better if it had involved lustrous ganache and delicate buttercream piping.

But the one that really drove me nuts for premise/presentation reasons was Go Go Gourmet. The idea is, you’re a chef, and you have to collect ingredients for each recipe ordered. But the ingredients are scattered randomly around your kitchen, which means that this is partly a time-management game and partly a find-the-hidden-objects game. (Where did we leave the ground beef this time? And so on.) Leaving aside the fact that I hate finding hidden objects, I could not silence the incredulous voice in my head (vocals by Anthony Bourdain) asking why there isn’t an organized station, why the ingredients aren’t laid out properly, who runs a commercial kitchen like this, are you joking?!

Now if part of the game were about rearranging/redesigning the kitchen in order to optimize the layout of objects, and then you had to play with the new layout in place and see if it helped, that would be another thing entirely. (Puzzle of design?) But Go Go Gourmet doesn’t do that.

The other issue has to do with gameplay; specifically, with how well the games are able to support the kind of flow experience that Diner Dash does. The thing about these assembly games is that — mostly unlike Diner Dash — they require the player to do things in a precise order. So if you queue up a series of events and then task two of seven fails, your PC stands there looking around stupidly, unable to go on. And usually you’ve lost your mental place in the collection of things you need to do (have I started up a kiwi smoothie for that character yet? is the lasagna in the oven? have I remembered to put the old guy’s tuxedo jacket into the lace-cuffs-applier?).

In most of these games, I got stuck and frustrated more often than I ever did with Diner Dash; one serious screw-up losing my place could blow a whole play-through, making it inevitable I’d have to restart the level.

I was also hoping for more from Golden Hearts Juice Bar, since the blurb bills it as a romance as well as a time-management game. This seemed to promise a narrative arc of some kind. But there wasn’t anything significant, at least not by the point I got to in the demo. I know Miss Management is unusual in this respect, but GHJB really doesn’t seem to be trying at all; the narrative is delivered in the usual pseudo-comics between major level changes, and is perfunctory. Combine this with clunky interaction and a saccharine aesthetic, and you have some idea of why I wasn’t crazy about the game.

Speaking of which, I stopped playing Golden Hearts Juice Bar before my test hour was up because of a hideous bug rendering the game unwinnable. A kid came in and ordered a bottled milkshake, which I made; but whenever I tried to deliver it to her, the delivery failed. Result, I couldn’t get enough points to win the round. I tried playing that level a second time and the exact same thing happened. Lame.

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