Or: In which I make 630 million dollars.
Some time ago, I tried Chocolatier, a game about running your own chocolate factory. Overall, I thought the game play fell short of what it wanted to be, but I had fun anyway because of the chocolatey goodness of it all. (See also Sushi Go Round.)
A few days ago, JayIsGames announced the existence of Chocolatier 2, and I downloaded the demo, figuring that I probably wouldn’t purchase the full version this time around. But in fact, they’d fixed quite a few of the things I thought were underwhelming about the original, and the second episode is considerably better rounded as a game; by the time I finished the demo hour, I was hooked. Again.
Chocolatier (to recap) combines a kind of empire-building sim (buy chocolate factories and shops, learn recipes and collect ingredients to create your own chocolate business) with a weak narrative (feuding family members around the globe beg you to do favors for them which always entail making and transporting chocolate goods) and a casual-arcade segment (in which you play an angular shooting game, a bit like Snood, in order to determine the efficiency of your factories).
To start with the bad news: the narrative aspect has not gotten any better than it was in the original: you meet a very large number of characters, they are having some kind of inexplicable internecine spat, you run around doing errands for the character who seems nicest; you are duly rewarded at the end. This is harmless but neither plausible nor interesting. If actually considered seriously, the missions you’re sent on (“spend some of your own money to procure these goods for me and then I’ll give you help with your company”) have all the markings of a Nigerian Scam. But even leaving that aside: the characters all pretty much talk alike, think alike, and act alike, and they all have a driving interest in sending each other chocolate pecan pralines by the case. At one point I did think I might be being offered an ethical choice (do I assist in an act of revenge or not?) but as far as I can tell, the narrative does not allow branching, and I was merely overreading the ethical significance of yet another standard mission.
Now the good news: the other parts of the game have gotten lots better. In the original version, I found the arcade segment boring and too easy. Chocolatier 2 changes this up quite a lot, with a bunch of different configurations of the firing range and opportunities for bonus combinations. This takes a rather dull and simplistic twitch game and adds elements of strategy; it is now fun enough to be worth playing with (well, for a little while) even after the rest is solved. The difficulty also ramps up very well. At no point did I feel as though the arcade challenges had gotten suddenly horribly harder, but there is unquestionably a significant gain in difficulty over the course of the whole game.
But what has improved most in Chocolatier is the empire-building portion. In the original, you wander around the world meeting people and doing tasks, and occasionally they reward you with new recipes which you can go cook up in one of your numerous factories. In the second episode, you are allowed to buy a tasting lab, and explore the world for new ingredients, which you then combine experimentally until you get valid recipes. (You also receive some of the recipes in the old way.)
This seemingly minor modification allows the player considerably more agency. Now you have some control over the rate at which you discover new recipes; there is less of a sense that you have to wait around for someone to approach you (if you’re feeling ready to assemble something new), and, conversely, it’s less likely that you’ll have a new recipe thrust on you while you’re still working on trying out a bunch of old ones. The process of recipe-trying is fun too. It’s a sort of guessing game, in which your chief food tester rejects some of the ingredients of a recipe and suggests in general terms how the recipe might be improved. This is no Mastermind, but there are simple ways to make the guesses play out faster; and quite often the game also rewards a bit of basic intuition about what foods might taste good together. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that it is to cooking as Guitar Hero is to playing music, but it does tap the creative impulses of a cook, at least a little. (Side note: the world needs a video game version of Iron Chef.)
That sense of agency makes it a little more tolerable that the game is basically really easy. I suppose it’s possible to make a mistake very early on, while cash-poor, but past a certain point one has such enormous reserves of wealth that it’s hard for minor decisions to affect outcomes very much. You want to spend $50,000,000 stocking up on rare wild pumpkins from Fiji? Go for it. If you wind up not using them all? No big deal. In the first version of the game, this combined with the linearity of the game’s progress, and the fact that people kept giving you recipes willy-nilly, decreased the sense of accomplishment associated with winning. I still wouldn’t say the game is hard, but at least the player gets to pace out its easy-ness for himself, and that makes it more fun.
I do have one observation, though: now that the arcade part of the game is more arcade-like and the simulation allows more strategic thinking, the whole of the game actually feels *less* well-synthesized than it did. I tend to slip into a different state of mind when I’m playing arcade games: one part of my brain is carefully aiming and shooting while the other part makes lesson plans or figures out what I’m cooking for dinner or contemplates the peculiarities of the American primary election system. This is the main reason I play arcade anything, to lull the fidgety, impatient part of my mind so that I can turn a particular kind of concentration to something I’m working on. The arcade portion of Chocolatier 2 activates this very effectively. The empire-building sim part of the game, though, requires a totally different kind of attention. So I kept feeling as though I was switching mental gears as I played.
It’s odd that improving the parts of the game should make the whole in any respect less immersive; but so it is. It’s an effect I’ve even noticed about IF, occasionally: that it’s possible to so polish several separate aspects of a game that they stop working together, even though they are individually better.