[In a holiday-themed column, Emily Short looks at the narrative in Christmas-themed time management PC casual game Delicious: Emily's Holiday Season, a casual title replete with an unusual amount of story content.]
Ever since Miss Management, I've been hoping for another time management game with a decent narrative arc, memorable characters, and a connection between gameplay and story. Delicious: Emily's Holiday Season is the best I've yet seen in that line. (Disclaimer: I gather there are a number of previous Delicious games starring Emily. This is the first I've played through, though I did sample the demo of Emily's Taste of Fame.)
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Delicious: Emily's Holiday Season shares a number of features with Miss Management. It's briefer, but it has a similar structure: there are five major stages to the plot, each with its own mini-arc.
Many of the levels incorporate some small optional challenges, which knit the gameplay and the story together more tightly. There's a lot of dialogue, and Emily's Holiday Season skips having a single villain in favor of a number of sometimes-friendly NPCs who nonetheless impose on the protagonist in irritating ways.
In a couple of respects, Emily's Holiday Season is actually smoother than Miss Management. To my mind, the difficulty is better balanced; there were times playing Miss Management where I got stuck on a level and had to play over and over to get through, enough that it passed through "entertainingly difficult" into the territory of "enraging." Emily's Holiday Season is carefully calibrated so that -- played in Normal difficulty mode -- one just occasionally fails a level but usually succeeds on playing it through a second time. I particularly appreciated the way that customers seem to arrive in waves, rather than as a steady stream: this means that if you manage to get through a difficult period, there's a little rest time to regroup, restock parts of the restaurant, and work on optional problems.
Emily's Holiday Season also goes farther than Miss Management in offering the player some actual choices to make. There are a number of places, both in the cut scenes between levels and in little interludes embedded in the levels themselves, that allow for conversation with the other characters. Just about uniquely in time management games, Emily's Holiday Season lets the player choose what the responses will be some of the time. There are some important questions with yes/no answers; other places where the player can pick a conversational strategy (flirtatious or innocent); and even a couple where freeform typed answers are allowed.
As far as I can tell, these answers don't significantly affect the course of the story until the very end. (This isn't surprising: anything else would require a lot more implementation work.) Nonetheless, the option to control even the short-term interactions gives the player an investment in the character development that is missing from most other games of this genre. Likewise, succeeding or failing at the special optional challenges will sometimes produce small but amusing scenes with the other characters at the end of a level.
The story itself is not as good as Miss Management's, in part because it lacks the snappy writing -- the dialogue is just not at the same level, nor are the characters as entertaining and distinctive. Still, it's miles better than most others of its kind. As often in these columns, I am going to have to spoil the story elements and interaction heavily in order to discuss them; consider yourself warned.
The essential arc of the story looks initially like the stuff of romantic comedy. Emily is approached by two suitors, the aloof boss, Richard, and the clingy coworker, Paul. In the first part of the game, Richard behaves in a way of the game that made me think "sexual harrassment suit" -- asking that Emily kiss him in exchange for a piece of needed equipment (she refuses) and flirting with her aggressively. From a gameplay perspective, Richard is mostly troublesome at the outset, with lots of special requests that complicate her job.
In subsequent levels, Richard becomes a bit more sympathetic. He sometimes even serves as her busboy. Since the busboy makes the player's life significantly easier, by cleaning tables on Emily's behalf, this encourages some sort of positive feeling toward him. There's even one inspired level in which Emily hurts herself and Richard actually fills in for her for the whole level, so he's the character being controlled. Nonetheless, the balance of the relationship is all about his business and what he needs.
Paul is more attentive to Emily's feelings -- too much so. He serves as busboy more often than Richard -- appropriately, given their relative status in the restaurants -- but he's way too over-clingy and possessive. He asks Emily a host of personal questions, calculated to find out what she wants from life (and, as a secondary effect, to make the player think about how Emily should be characterized). In one level he litters the restaurant with roses for her to find: a romantic gesture in theory, but in practice an added annoyance, since the search is one more thing the player has to keep track of while serving guests. I am all in favor of having romantic prospects (in games) who are also a source of conflict -- but Paul is more of a source of nattery irritation than of passionate disagreement. There's no voice acting in the game, but I imagine Paul's utterances in a nasal whine.
Emily is also supported by a friend, Francois, who reads as gay: the game never quite spells this out, but it gives him a European mustache, a pink shirt, and a yen for interior decorating, at which point we have all the necessary cues to guess why he's never considered a romantic prospect for Emily in his own right. I'm not sure it's a great blow for gay rights that so many movies and books aimed at women -- and, apparently, the occasional game -- now feature an Obligatory Gay Friend: the best of these characters are observantly and affectionately drawn, to be sure, but in its core form the stereotype seems to suggest that these men belong permanently in a supporting role in other people's lives. I should be fair, though: Francois, I know from the beginning of Emily's Taste of Fame, is a recurring character in the series, so perhaps there is more to his personality than this installment lets on.
At first the game seems to be about choosing between Paul and Richard, but neither of these is a very compelling prospect: Paul is needy and possessive, Richard rude and self-centered, and their relationships to Emily are not based on much of substance. Francois is her most consistent and least demanding ally, there for her when one of her suitors lets her down, often filling in with serving help; and if he very occasionally makes things more difficult by having an accident that needs to be cleaned up -- he's a bit of a klutz -- nonetheless that's forgivable compared with the antics of the other two.
What I found as I played was that I did not want either Paul or Richard, and that the gameplay heavily encourages that decision. Various relatives show up with conflicting advice, and Emily's mother, herself a rather one-dimensional type, is keen to have her daughter dating at all costs. But Emily herself seems vaguely exasperated by both Paul and Richard most of the time.
The choices offered by the game play into this sense of exasperation. The third section (of five) opens with Richard and Emily having dinner together. The player can choose to make Emily flirtatious or innocent, but even the most innocent behavior leads to Richard kissing her at the end of the evening -- and the sequence in which he does makes him seem a bit insensitive to the signals he's been sent. It is not, as far as I can tell, possible for the player to completely avoid getting into a brief, ill-fated relationship with Richard at this point, but the interaction is such as to put the player a little on guard about him.
The conversation choices the player can make when interacting with Paul go in a different direction. Paul asks a lot of questions about marriage and commitment (which he favors) and the need for freedom (which might drive Emily away from him). These encourage the player to think more about the central problem in deciding between Paul and Richard: would you rather be smothered with support, or not given enough of it?
Paul is also responsible for all of the freeform questions the player may answer by typing -- things like "what's your favorite flower?" and "where would you go on your ideal date?" The game does nothing at all with the responses to the freeform questions, but they give the player a chance to think about the character for a moment. Meanwhile, the fact that Paul asks about such personal preferences might seem endearing, but he presents them as part of a mandatory on-the-job interview, which tips the sequence over into "creepy" territory instead.
By the time, therefore, that the player reaches the game's final choice, she may not be surprised to find that there are three options: returning to a relationship with either Paul or Richard (each of whom she has briefly dated at this point), or remaining a close friend of Francois with no romantic commitment. I picked Francois, of course. The credits give the statistics on how beta-testers answered the questions in the game, and reveal that 70% of those testers also chose Francois over either of the romantic rivals. The remaining players split evenly, 15%/15%, mirroring my sense that Paul and Richard are equally obnoxious.
So here is an interesting thing: a casual game with a much larger narrative component than most, which gives the player a choice to make about the protagonist's destiny, but whose content still heavily influences most players toward a particular outcome. And yet the story has a much different feel than the same story told with no choices in it. It is in part Paul and Richard's shared failure to take account of what Emily tells them -- how she acts towards them, the selections the player makes -- that demonstrate their romantic unsuitability. Both, at the end, repent and apologize for their earlier behavior, but it's too little, too late. Neither is able to negotiate the terms of a relationship effectively -- and that is driven home by having the player, throughout the midgame, make conversation choices that do not change anything.
What I can't quite tell is whether this structure was the result of accident or deliberate choice. I did come back and play the ending where the protagonist picks Richard. It's cute, and not written with any obvious intention of being an inferior ending. I could believe the designers intended to write a more balanced game and saw the romantic leads as viable options (with the player's own relationship preferences determining which she liked better).
All the same, I prefer to read Emily's Holiday Season as a kind of anti-romance, a gentle comedy on the virtues of not settling. Even if your mom keeps warning you that you'll die alone with your cats.
(Disclosure: I played a copy of this work that I purchased at full price. I have had no commercial affiliations with the publisher at the time of writing.)
[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.]