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Opinion: Why Time-Management Games Ought To Be Great At Story-telling (And Why They Mostly Aren't)

In this opinion piece from game theorist and interactive fiction developer Emily Short, we look at the casual 'time management' genre, as typified by Diner Dash - and why it's actually strangely well-suited to meaningful story.

Emily Short, Blogger

May 28, 2008

5 Min Read

[In this opinion piece from game theorist and interactive fiction developer Emily Short, we look at the casual 'time management' genre, as typified by Diner Dash - and why it's actually strangely well-suited to meaningful story.] There is a line of argument I've seen in quite a few places, which goes like this. 1. Games would be better if they had better stories. 2. Stories are about characters. 3. Characters are hard because good interactive dialogue is hard. (Or: characters are impossible because good interactive dialogue is impossible.) 4. Rats. There are lots of approaches to solving this problem, ranging from Chris Crawford's attempts to render conversation in a computer-friendly pseudo-language to the extensive reliance on not-actually-human characters or characters who are present only in cut-scenes and journal entries. Don't get me wrong: this is a difficult problem, and it doesn't have an easy solution. All of these approaches assume, though, that the interaction has to happen at this micro level: that the game-play has to be about what the protagonist does and says from moment to moment, that it has to go by at the same general speed and granularity as real life. They assume that the plot is going to be made up of the big events, by arguments and interrogations and important confidences and love scenes. Life is like that occasionally, but a lot of the time the shape of a relationship develops more slowly. It's not as much about what the protagonists say on a given occasion as it is about the long-term allocation of resources -- time, attention, affection, and sometimes (depending on the nature of the relationship) material goods. A fight with a friend or significant other is sometimes about a clear, dramatic issue like a broken confidence or unfaithfulness, but it's much more often about a vaguer, more muddled sense that, over time, the other person has let us down. Someone is doing fewer chores, or putting work over time together, or ditching someone for other friends. It's the pattern that matters. While life goes by at a standard rate of one minute per minute, there are times when we are paying intense attention to a relationship and times when we're focused something else; the development of that relationship goes at different speeds, even though life itself doesn't. How to present this in games, though? Novels have passages that summarize weeks or months in a page or two; movies have montages; comic books have their own language for passing time. Blending long-term and short-term types of interaction is challenging, though. Players often find it jarring if the fundamental style of play is too fragmented. It's tempting to ask whether we need the summary passages at all. But it is the routine part of a relationship that gives us the emotional investment to care about big dramatic scenes. That's true in stories as well as in life. A plot made of nothing but crises isn't exciting. It's ridiculous. As it happens, there is a game genre that is precisely about allocating time and attention, and about giving priority to one thing over another. The time management genre so far has mostly been used to simulate a dizzyingly mundane selection of tasks, from waiting tables to grooming dogs. Some of them are highly polished, but the chief measure of quality is how smooth the mechanics are and whether it's possible to achieve a zen-like state of engagement while playing. Stylish art and music come next, story a distant last. Usually there's an extremely basic career-progress narrative pinned on, but it never branches, offers little in the way of interesting character action, and is often extremely perfunctory indeed. This would seem to be the opposite of promising, but the narrative and the interaction could be more happily married. mm3.jpgMy poster child is Gamelab's brilliant Miss Management. The player takes the role of office manager, and has to distribute tasks and treats in such a way that each day's work gets done. Unfortunately, the things that calm one character often annoy another, so it is constantly a challenge to keep everyone happy at once. The result is a casual game with surprisingly nuanced and interesting characters, with whom the player begins to feel she has a real relationship -- even though all the dialogue occurs in cut scenes which we have no ability to alter. It doesn't hurt that Miss Management features expressive art and vivacious writing, but what makes it a standout is the way characterization is directly reinforced through interaction. I gather that it was originally intended for the game story to branch, depending on which goals the player gives priority to. (Since each level has some optional goals as well as the required ones, and these often have to do with helping different characters, it's easy to see how this might have worked.) In practice, the game doesn't do that, because it proved to be too large an investment of work and time. But the potential is palpably there. Miss Management is an excellent piece of storytelling for a casual game -- and richer in characterization than many a more ambitious work -- but I would love to see what a similar game could do if it tried for a different shape, shorter and branchier, possibly with choices during the dialogue at the beginning and end of each level. At the same time, Miss Management has -- and I suggest future games following this road would need to retain -- a certain fundamental shape. Each major section of the game involves specific conflicts, with rising action and resolution. It's that shape that keeps it from being a sandbox game like the Sims, where many kinds of relationship are possible but where the plot rarely achieves the crispness and specificity of good narrative. [Emily Short is an interactive fiction author and part of the team behind Inform 7, a language for IF creation. She also maintains a blog on interactive fiction and related topics. She can be reached at emshort AT mindspring DOT com.]

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