At an old job of mine, my coworkers and I spent a lot of time fantasizing about what we would rather be doing for a living. We had an elaborate plan drawn up in which we would build a commune somewhere out in the country, raise crops, and make nut butters to sell at the farmer’s market. After spending 14 hours a day debugging database queries and placating angry integration managers, selling peanut butter and tahini on a street corner didn’t just seem like an amusing fantasy; it seemed like the only sane course of action to take in response to the unremitting dreariness of life in the office.
This is the idea behind Diner Dash; not the nut butters, but the idea that there’s something out there beyond gray cubicles and navy blue suits. In the case of the game’s heroine, Flo, what’s out there is a dilapidated shell of a restaurant which she stumbles upon after fleeing a never-ending flood of spreadsheets and nagging coworkers. With stars in her eyes, she fixes up the building and opens a little diner.
Although Flo owns the restaurant, she doesn’t just sit back and count the money while others do the work. Her only employee a faceless cook, Flo is responsible for performing all the day-to-day tasks involved in running the diner. It is in the everyday operations of the restaurant that the game actually starts to take shape as a game, and not just an expression of white-collar escapist fantasies.
Running the restaurant involves performing a number of tasks: seating customers, taking orders, delivering food, accepting payment, and busing tables. Customers start out in good moods, but if you make them wait too long to be seated or to get their food, their moods dissipate; too much ill will, and they storm out of the restaurant in a huff. If you manage to keep your patrons happy, though, they not only leave with a smile, but a fat tip is left as your reward.
At first, the restaurant only has a few tables and customers trickle in slowly. After a few days, though, word has apparently gotten out about Flo’s diner, and the trickle turns into a flood. As you gain more customers, the diner expands to accommodate them, adding more tables, new decorations, drinks to serve with the food, a podium for you to act as maitre d’, and so on. Managing the growing restaurant and its ever-increasing flow of customers becomes a complex juggling act; tables need to be turned over efficiently to keep the line from growing too long, but some customers dawdle at their tables while others rush through their meals, making it difficult to maintain a steady rhythm. When you’re trying to keep eight or nine tables moving while the line stretches out the door, things can get hectic, to say the least.
It might seem a little odd that the game would focus so strongly on the action in the dining room while eliding over what happens in the kitchen and completely ignoring the business side of the restaurant. There are limits, though, to how much you can do in one game without getting muddled. Were Diner Dash to spend more time on setting prices and applying for small business loans, it might run the risk of sinking Flo (not to mention the player) into the same paper-pushing rut she started out in, which would probably take something away from the fantasy of an office-free lifestyle. At any rate, Flo seems content to allow the kitchen and the business to run themselves while she works the floor.
Diner Dash has two modes of play: Endless Shift and Flo’s Career. In Endless Shift, you simply keep serving customers until a certain number of them leave in anger. Earning enough money from tabs and tips allows you to purchase improvements for the restaurant. Adding tables expands the capacity of the restaurant, while other improvements help you to better wrangle the crowds: better shoes help Flo to move faster between tables; a stereo system keeps customers docile in their seats; a better maitre d’s podium allows Flo to placate those waiting in line; an improved oven cooks dishes more quickly. All these improvements are needed to keep up with the action, which gets faster and faster as the game goes on. Eventually, the diner starts to feel like a fast food joint, with customers wolfing down their meals and expecting to be served with inhuman alacrity.
In Flo’s Career, you’re given a bit more time to breathe: the game is split into workdays, with the restaurant’s doors closing at the end of each day to give you a chance to breathe. In this mode, the pressure doesn’t come so much from the Sisyphean task of working through a never-ending line of customers, but from the need to make a certain amount of money every day to keep the restaurant open. Missing your goals for the day brings Flo a little closer to financial ruin, but meeting them brings improvements to the diner. If successful enough, you actually graduate from the diner to a second restaurant, a kitschy, tiki-themed joint. From there, you progress through various culinary trends, eventually opening five different restaurants, each with their own theme and twists on the basic formula of play.
Success and growth don’t allow Flo to rest on her laurels, though. As you open trendier restaurants, your customers become more and more demanding: they’re less patient in line, insist upon free breadsticks, and are more likely to walk out without paying if you turn your back on them for a second — the ingrates. On top of this, larger restaurants mean more work juggling the seating arrangements, as well as higher earnings goals. A day at work in these higher-end restaurants is as demanding as any twitch shooter, as you fly through the dining room in a whirlwind of menus, dishes, and checks; what started out as an escape from work has become yet another manic, high-stress job.
Perhaps that’s the effect that developers gameLab were going for. After all, it’s one thing to fantasize about ditching your cubicle to chase your dreams, but as anyone who’s actually done it will tell you, a dream job is still a job, and is often harder work than that which you left behind. Those peanuts aren’t going to turn themselves into peanut butter, so someone’s going to have to crush them; those customers aren’t going to pick up their own food, so someone’s going to have to serve them. It’s kind of a downer to realize all this as you madly scramble through another day at the diner, but it’s also a huge rush to get to the end of your shift, clear the last dishes from the table, and realize that you’ve earned enough to get that new coffee maker.
A coffee maker. It seems like a laughably pedestrian goal to reach for in a video game. The fantasies we play out in games are supposed to be more along the lines of saving the world or winning the World Series. Diner Dash, on the other hand, indulges more grown-up fantasies, fulfilling wishes in a way that not only gives you a momentary escape from your dreary nine-to-five, but makes you take an honest look at your daydreams, at what it takes to make them come true. In a gaming landscape where tags like “mature” and “adult” are typically code for “boobs, guns, and blood”, it’s more than a little heartening to see that once in a while, someone can make a game that engages ideas that adults might actually be able to relate to.